North American Soccer League (1975-1977)
Born: 1974 – NASL expansion franchise.
Moved: September 1977 (Oakland Stompers)
Team Colors: Red, White & Blue
Owner: Robert Darling
Soccer Bowl Championships: None
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 Oceaneers’ star 21-year old American goalkeeper Arnie Mausser and also lured away Head Coach Manny Schellscheidt and General Manager Mike Bosson.
Rudi Schiffer – Bicentennials General Manager
The Bicentennials were owned by Bob Darling who I knew from Simsbury. Our kids played soccer together. Darling was a nice guy, but kind of naïve. He was very wealthy and he wanted to own a soccer team.
Darling picked that Bicentennials name in 1975 because 1976 was going to be the American bicentennial, right? I said: ‘What about after 1976? What are we gonna be then? The 19-seventy-seven-tennials?’
It was a terrible name. Not much meaning to it and too long to fit in the headlines. So we became known as the ‘Bi’s’ in the papers, which I didn’t care for because it sounded like the team was bi-sexual.
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 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, the Bi’s moved 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.
We used to cut the grass so high in the Yale Bowl that the other teams had trouble playing. It was like two or three inches high.
One time we were playing the Los Angeles Aztecs in New Haven and they had a bunch of foreign stars including Georgie Best. They came into town early in the week and were staying in a motel about ten miles away. Our Head Coach Malcolm Musgrove says ‘Rudi, go over there and see what they’re doing.’ I went over and sat next to the pool for most of the week and they were just drinking themselves to death and sneaking out every night, you know?
I came back and told Musgrove ‘Coach, we’ll kill these guys! They won’t be able to make the second half. They’re all drunk.’ They beat us 5-3. Musgrove said ‘You should have found out what kind of whiskey they were drinking.’
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 sold the team to Edmonton Oilers hockey team owner Peter Pocklington, who moved the franchise to Alberta where it played four more seasons as the Edmonton Drillers before folding in 1982.
==Bicentennials Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
|1975||6/4/1975||@ New York Cosmos||L 2-1||Program|
|1976||5/19/1976||@ Tampa Bay Rowdies||L 5-2||Program|
|1976||7/18/1976||@ Chicago Sting||L 7-1||Program|
|1977||6/3/1977||@ Portland Timbers||L 3-1||Program|
|1977||6/12/1977||vs. Fort Lauderdale Strikers||L 2-0||Program|
Bicentennials owner Robert E. Darling passed away in October 2009 at the age of 72.