This is FWiL’s first profile of a so-called “phantom team”. While it’s not unusual for minor league sports teams to shut down after a single campaign (see our One Year Wonders tag for an ever-growing list), there are considerably fewer instances of clubs that assemble a team only to fold before playing a single match. This is the story of one such phantom club, the Phoenix Fire of the American Soccer League.
Leonard E. Lesser formed Phoenix Professional Sports, Inc. for the purpose of attracting professional soccer to Arizona for the 1980 season. The insurance executive set his sights on the top level of the game in the United States at the time – the North American Soccer League. Lesser’s group found a motivated seller in Harry Mangurian, owner of the NBA’s Boston Celtics and principal investor in the NASL’s struggling Memphis Rogues, a losing club that drew poorly at Memphis’ cavernous Liberty Bowl.
Phoenix Professional Sports announced an agreement in principle to purchase the Rogues for $2.6 million on June 28th, 1979. Lesser indicated that Phoenix Professional Sports would seek to relocate the team to Arizona for the 1980 season, playing either at the 21,000-seat football stadium at Phoenix Union High School or the 70,000-seat Sun Devil Stadium on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe. The announcement effectively made the Rogues lame ducks in Memphis, with six weeks remaining in the 1979 NASL regular season.
Mangurian called off the sale a little more than a week later on July 7th, 1979, alluding to unspecified terms that Lesser’s group had failed to meet, but providing no elaboration to the press. Denied the Rogues, Lesser turned his attention to the American Soccer League, an unruly second division league with clubs spread from Albany to Sacramento. ASL clubs operated on much smaller budgets than NASL clubs. Where NASL clubs primarily shared multi-purpose NFL and Major League Baseball stadiums, ASL teams played in a hodge podge of modest venues, ranging from minor league baseball stadiums to small college football stadiums.
On September 25th, 1979 the American Soccer League awarded a 1980 expansion franchise to Phoenix Professional Sports. Lesser immediately introduced 39-year old Scotsman Jimmy Gabriel as Head Coach. Gabriel was a long-time Everton and Southampton midfielder who arrived in the United States in 1974 to play for the NASL’s Seattle Sounders. Gabriel took over head coaching duties for the Sounders in 1977 and led the team to the NASL Soccer Bowl, where they lost to the New York Cosmos. Gabriel resigned his position with the Sounders in August 1979 after a losing campaign. Lesser began talks with Phoenix College to use their Hoy Stadium for home matches.
The Phoenix Fire assembled in Arizona in late February 1980 for pre-season training. The roster included 1978 ASL Most Valuable Player Jimmy Rolland as well as English midfielder Harry Redknapp, a former teammate of Gabriel’s at the Seattle Sounders. The club played several exhibition matches in preparation for their ASL opener on March 22nd, 1980 against the Golden Gate Gales, another ASL expansion club.
The Fire players received paychecks on March 1st, 1980, but Phoenix Professional Sports missed the next payroll. On March 19th The Arizona Republic reported that the team was on the brink of folding, a charge denied by Lesser. Gabriel, meanwhile, scrambled to help his players find new teams for the 1980 season.
The ASL postponed the Fire-Gales opener on March 22nd and gave the franchise one week to put its finances in order. With their ASL debut cancelled, the Fire played a fundraising match for its unpaid players against an Arizona amateur team on March 22nd instead. The club officially folded on Thursday, March 27th, 1980 after failing to meet the ASL’s deadline to find new investors.
In January 1981, a grand jury indicted Lesser on 14 charges related to the Fire, including conducting a fraud, securities fraud, theft and falsification of corporate records. Prosecutors alleged that Lesser misrepresented the financial resources of the team to attract investors, diverted corporate funds for his own use, and then falsified the team’s balance sheets and check books to prevent his investors from learning the true state of the team’s finances. One investor claimed losses of $70,000 to Lesser, while another claimed a loss of $44,000. Investigators pegged the total scale of the fraud to be approximately $250,000. In December 1981, Lesser was sentenced to serve one-year in the Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix.