American Soccer League Programs
1982 home opener program for the Detroit Express (1978-1983) of the American Soccer League (1933-1983), taking on the Oklahoma City Slickers at the Pontiac Silverdome. The Express began life as an expansion team in the North American Soccer League in 1978 and gained some national (and international) attention for acquiring English soccer star Trevor Francis on loan from Birmingham City in 1978. Francis was a prolific scorer and the first footballer to earn 1 million pounds sterling per season in England.
Francis played for the Express in 1978 and 1979, during an era when NASL owners lured numerous aging European stars to America with eye-popping paychecks. (Francis was an exception to this NASL retirement plan. He was only 25 years old and at the peak of his powers during his Express seasons). Francis was a prominent attraction for the Express, but one of the club’s general partners, Harold “Sonny” Van Arnem, eventually soured on this imported superstar approach.
In a 2012 self-published memoir, Van Arnem compared the NASL to “a league full of Harlem Globetrotters, except they player soccer. Now, a lot of people enjoy watching the Globetrotters play, but only about once a year. We need people to come out a dozen times a year, and this all-star approach isn’t working.”
Van Arnem’s solution was Americanization. Grass roots pro soccer, relevant to the American fan because the American player was the norm rather than the exception. This was just as well because the rest of the Express ownership gave up on Detroit in February 1981 and moved the NASL franchise to Washington, DC. Van Arnem retained control of the Detroit Express name though and immediately relaunched a new version of the club in the ramshackle 2nd division American Soccer League in the spring of 1981. The “New” Detroit Express would play in the ASL from 1981 to 1983.
This 1982 season was the high water mark for the New Express. The club posted a league best 19-5-4 record. Both the Express and their opening day opponents from Oklahoma City fielded starting line-ups full of young Americans, but the impact players were still foreign. Detroit’s pair of English forwards, Brian Tinnion and Andy Chapman, finished 1-2 in the ASL in scoring in 1982, with teammate Billy Boljevic (Yugoslavia) 4th. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City’s English striker Jeff Bourne scored 20 goals and fellow Brit Phil Parkes was outstanding in goal, posting a 19-6-3 record.
The Express and the Slickers turned out to be the two best clubs in the NASL and they would meet again in September in the best-of-three 1982 American Soccer League championship series. After splitting the first two matches, the teams returned to the Pontiac Silverdome on September 22, 1982 for the deciding game. Sonny Van Arnem, faced with only a few days to promote and sell the game after advancing from the semi-finals, gave away over 70,000 tickets to local Dodge dealers, who offered them for free to anyone who showed up at a dealership. The result: an astonishing crowd of 33,762 that showed up at an NFL stadium to watch what amounted to a minor league soccer game. The Express won the game 4-1 and with it the league title. The Express played one final season in the summer of 1983 before going out of business along with the rest of the American Soccer League.
Two British stars from the ASL-era Express, Andy Chapman and Brian Tinnion, remain fixtures on the Michigan soccer scene. Both were involved in professional indoor soccer in Detroit in the 1990’s with the now-defunct Detroit Rockers, and both are still active in club soccer and soccer facilities in the region.
Download former Express owner Sonny Van Arnem’s memoir Memoirs of an Unconventional Entrepreneur at harold-sonny-vanarnem.com