North American Soccer League (1981-1983)
Born: October 1980 – The Philadelphia Fury relocate to Montreal.
Died: November 1983 – The Manic cease operations.
Stadium: Olympic Stadium (58,693)
Arena: The Montreal Forum
Owner: Molson Breweries
Let’s start with the name. The Montreal Manic – or Le Manic de Montreal for its Francophone supporters – was not named after a mental health disorder characterized by mood swings, unpredictability and frenzied activity. That would be a sensible assumption – this was, after all, the franchise formerly known as the Philadelphia Fury. But in fact the Montreal Manic soccer club took its name from something far stranger…the Manic-1 hyrdoelectric dam at the mouth of Quebec’s Manicouagan River.
The Manic formed in October/November 1980 when Molson Breweries – owners of the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens – bought into the struggling North American Soccer League for a reported price of just over $2 million dollars. For their two million bucks, Molson got arguably the worst franchise in the league – the three-year old Philadelphia Fury. The Fury were coming off a 10-22 last place finish in 1980 and their paltry average attendance of 4,465 was the worst in the league. (The famed New York Cosmos, by comparison, averaged 42,754 in 1980).
Molson’s investment was a godsend for the shrinking NASL, which was entering into a painful correction after a period of reckless expansion in the late 1970’s. The league peaked at 24 teams in 1980, but just one day before Molson officials announced the team’s arrival in Montreal, the NASL’s Houston, Rochester and Washington clubs folded. The loss of the Washington Diplomats was particularly galling – the Dips had rich owners, a world superstar in Johan Cruyff of Holland, and had just hosted Soccer Bowl ’80 at RFK Stadium before nearly 50,000 fans. Dips attendance rose by nearly 60% in 1980, but it wasn’t good enough for Sonny Werblin and his Madison Square Garden Corporation, who lost an estimated $5 million on the team over two seasons. ABC was also unhappy with its puny TV ratings for the NASL and announced it would not broadcast any games in the final year of its contract in 1981 except for the Soccer Bowl championship.
The Manic retained Fury Head Coach Eddie Firmani, the winningest coach in league history despite 1980’s last place finish. Firmani was the only coach to lead two different clubs to the Soccer Bowl title, winning with the Tampa Bay Rowdies (1975) and twice with the Cosmos (1977 and 1978). Other Fury holdovers included the American goalkeeper Bob Rigby (who would start all 32 games for Montreal in 1981), defenders Andy Lynch and Bob Vosmaer, and midfielder Fran O’Brien and Andy Parkinson.
The Manic added rookie scoring star Thompson Usiyan through the college draft and picked up English striker Gordon Hill who led the club with 16 goals and 12 assists in 1981. The club would also acquire long-time NASL scoring star Alan Willey in a mid-season trade with the Minnesota Kicks.
The Manic debuted at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium on April 18th, 1981. A crowd of 27,060 watched Andy Parkinson score two goals to lead the Manic to a 2-1 victory over the Toronto Blizzard. Enthusiasm for the team built throughout the summer. 38,667 turned out to see the NASL’s biggest draw – the Cosmos – on June 2nd. A crowd of 40,000+ showed up for the Cosmos’ return visit in late July and the Manic drew a season-high of 50,755 to the regular season finale on August 18th.
The Manic eeked into the 1981 NASL playoffs with a 15-17 record and the crowds got even stronger. 46,682 came out to cheer the Manic in a 1st round match against the Los Angeles Aztecs on August 24th. The Manic drew a club record 58,542 for the opening game of the quarterfinals against the Chicago Sting on September 2, 1981 and rewarded the hometown fans with a 3-2 victory. But the Sting would win the next two games in Chicago to eliminate the Manic. For the season, the club drew 379,263 fans for 16 home dates for an average of 23,703 per game, second only to the Cosmos in the 21-team league.
A 1981 profile in Sports Illustrated, which featured a comic scene of ex-pat Italian waiters fawning over a table of Manic players in a Montreal restaurant, captured the melting pot appeal of the Manic during the team’s early days. Nevertheless, the Manic front office’s attitude towards non-French speaking fans was shockingly dismissive, particularly for a cosmopolitan city that hosted the Olympics just five years earlier:
“We haven’t spent a cent on the ethnics,” a team spokesman told SI. “They can yap and yell that they know the sport from back in Italy or Romania, but we want to build something special for us Quebecois.”
From November 1981 to February 1982 the Manic played in the NASL’s wintertime indoor soccer league, making their home at the Montreal Forum. The indoor game proved popular in Montreal as well, with peak attendance coming on January 29th, 1982 when 13,125 fans turned out at the Forum to watch the Manic defeat the Cosmos 11-6.
The Manic returned outdoors in April 1982 and embarked on what would be the best season of their short history. Star English striker Gordon Hill was vocally unhappy with Canada’s tax system and demanded a trade during the indoor season. The Manic accomodated him shortly into the outdoor campaign, trading him to the Chicago Sting for defender Frantz Mathieu, who would go onto to make the NASL All-Star Team for Montreal. Alan Willey picked up the scoring slack, netting 15 goals. Victor Nogueira took over the bulk of the goalkeeping duties from Bob Rigby. The Manic finished 19-13, but fell to the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers in the first round of the playoffs.
1982 attendance dipped imperceptibly to an average of 21,438, second best to the Cosmos for the second straight year.
The turning point for the Manic franchise came in February 1983. NASL President Howard Samuels championed the creation of an expansion team in Washington, D.C. for the 1983 season known as Team America. The concept was that Team America would be a club version of the U.S. National Team, featuring all of the best young American players from around the NASL. Playing as a club side in the NASL would help the U.S. team develop with a goal of qualifying for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Seizing on the idea, Samuels, Molson Chairman Morgan McCammon and the Canadian Soccer Association announced that the Manic would transform itself into Team Canada by the 1984 season, gradually trading away its foreign players and replacing them with top Canadians from around the NASL.
The concept went horribly awry for both teams. Many of the NASL’s top Americans refused to leave their existing clubs to join an expansion team with uncertain prospects. (Team America ended up finishing last in the NASL in 1983 and folding.). Montreal was in a much tougher situation – a winning, established club with a passionate fan base being publicly instructed by the league’s President to dismantle itself.
Unsurprisingly, the Montreal fan base revolted. Season ticket sales for the 1983 season dropped by more than 50% from 1982 levels. Overall attendance collapsed to 9,910 per game, tenth out of the NASL twelve clubs in 1983, after two seasons of trailing only the New York Cosmos. Win or lose, the Manic were a lame duck team and local fans saw no reason to support them.
The Manic earned a playoff berth on the final day of the 1983 season, despite a 12-18 record and a last place finish in the NASL’s Eastern Division. The team then proceeded to shock the 22-8 New York Cosmos, sweeping a best-of-three series. The Manic’s upset victory snapped a string of four consecutive Soccer Bowl appearances for the Cosmos. The decisive Game Two drew 20,726 to Olympic Stadium. It was the less than the 1982 average, but nevertheless marked the largest crowd of the season in Montreal. The Manic bowed in the semi-final round to the eventual champion Tulsa Roughnecks.
To the surprise of no one, Molson pulled the plug on the Manic during the first week of November 1983. The brewery cited losses of $10 million over three seasons and admitted the Team Canada concept had been a disaster which obliterated the Manic fan base.
==Manic Matches on Fun While It Lasted==
|1981||6/2/1981||vs. New York Cosmos||L 2-1 (OT)||Program||Game Notes|
|1981||6/27/1981||@ Seattle Sounders||L 2-1 (SO)||Program|
|1981||7/22/1981||@ New York Cosmos||L 5-4 (SO)||Program||Game Notes|
|1981||8/16/1981||@ New York Cosmos||L 2-1||Program||Game Notes|
|1982||2/12/1982||@ Chicago Sting||??||Program|
|1982||4/18/1982||vs. Edmonton Drillers||W 2-0||Program|
|1982||6/18/1982||vs. New York Cosmos||W 3-2||Program||Game Notes|
|1982||6/26/1982||@ Chicago Sting||W 3-2||Program|
|1982||8/20/1982||vs. New York Cosmos||W 3-1||Program||Game Notes|
|1983||6/15/1983||@ Chicago Sting||L 3-2 (OT)||Program|
|1983||8/14/1983||@ New York Cosmos||L 3-0||Program||Game Notes|