North American Soccer League (1975-1977)
Born: 1974 – NASL expansion franchise.
Died: September 1977 – The Bicentennials relocate to Oakland, CA.
Owner: Robert Darling
The North American Soccer League (NASL) awarded an expansion franchise to Hartford, Connecticut in late 1974 to begin play in the spring of 1975. During the same expansion round, the NASL created the Chicago Sting, Portland Timbers and Tampa Bay Rowdies franchises, which all became iconic teams in the early history of American pro soccer, fondly recalled by many middle-aged soccer fans today. The Hartford Bicentennials did not join them in that club.
The Bi’s ramped up for the 1975 campaign by raiding the roster and front office of the minor league Rhode Island Oceaneers, defending champions of the lower division American Soccer League (ASL). Hartford signed the Oceaneer’s star 21-year old American goalkeeper Arnie Mausser and also lured away Head Coach Manny Schellscheidt and General Manager Mike Bosson.
Meanwhile the Bicentennials faced local competition from an ASL franchise in their own city - the Connecticut Yankees who already played in Dillon Stadium. When the ASL and NASL released their schedules in early 1975, there were five dates when the rival clubs had both scheduled home games at Dillon. The resulting glut of pro soccer helped to depress attendance in one of the NASL’s smallest markets. The Bi’s averaged only 3,720 fans for eleven home matches. The team’s minor league approach also left the team uncompetitive on the field. Hartford finished the 1975 season with a 6-16 record, tied for worst in the 20-team NASL.
In 1976, Connecticut Yankees owner Bob Kratzer moved his ASL club to West Haven, alleviating the scheduling logjam at Dillon Stadium. The 1976 Bicentennials were also improved on the pitch, fielding a reasonably competitive .500 team (12-12). But after two seasons in Hartford the Bicentennials soured on Dillon Stadium, where the club had averaged fewer than 4,000 fans per game. By comparison, the NASL’s top draws in cities such as Minneapolis, Portland and Seattle all claimed average crowds in excess of 20,000 during the 1976 season.
In 1977, Bi”s owner Robert Darling moved his club 45 miles down Interstate 91 to New Haven’s 70,000-seat Yale Bowl. The club dropped “Hartford” from their name and went by the “Connecticut Bicentennials” for the 1977 campaign.
Unsurprisingly, the Bi’s drew their best gate of the 1977 season when the Brazilian superstar Pele and his New York Cosmos came to town for the home opener at the Yale Bowl on May 8th. The teams treated the club record crowd of 17,302 to a dramatic finish, as the Bi’s rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the final eight minutes to tie the match, only to lose when Keith Eddy of the Cosmos beat Bi’s keeper Gene DuChateau on a penalty kick with less than two minutes remaining.
After the novelty of Pele’s appearance wore off, Bi’s attendance returned to Hartford-esque levels. Among other factors, owner Robert Darling cited the lack of professional grade lighting at the Yale Bowl, which limited the Bi’s to afternoon and early evening start times. The team’s lackluster talent couldn’t have helped – the Bi’s regressed to a league-worst 7-19 record. Dave Litterer’s American Soccer History Archives website puts Bi’s average attendance at the Yale Bowl at just 3,848 for 13 home matches in 1977, also worst in the 18-team NASL.
In September 1977, Bi’s owner Bob Darling sold the team to Milan Mandaric, owner of the NASL’s San Jose Earthquakes, for an undisclosed amount. As part of the transaction, Mandaric divested himself of the Earthquakes and established his new club - renamed the Oakland Stompers – just across the Bay at the Oakland Coliseum.
After one season at the Oakland Coliseum, Mandaric decided he had made a mistake in attempting to start a second Bay Area club in the NASL. He sold the team to Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, who moved the franchise to Edmonton where it played four more seasons as the Edmonton Drillers before folding in 1982.
==Bicentennials Matches on Fun While It Lasted==
|1975||6/4/1975||@ New York Cosmos||L 2-1||Program|
|1976||7/18/1976||@ Chicago Sting||L 7-1||Program|
Bicentennials owner Robert E. Darling passed away in October 2009 at the age of 72.