North American Soccer League (1979-1981)
Born: August 1978 – The Caribous of Colorado relocate to Atlanta, GA.
Folded: September 27, 1981.
Stadium: Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium (52,522)
Arena: The Omni (15,155)
Team Colors: Red, White & Blue
Soccer Bowl Championships: None
A rare misfire for sports & media mogul Ted Turner. This 1979-1981 edition of the Atlanta Chiefs pro soccer team was actually a resurrection of an earlier club, also known as the Atlanta Chiefs, that played in the city from 1967 to 1972. Both editions of the Chiefs were tied into the Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves through common ownership (hence the Native American-themed identity).
Braves ownership was in different hands by the time the 1979 edition of the Chiefs came into being. (Turner bought the Braves in 1976). The common thread and spiritual leader of both Chiefs teams was a man named Dick Cecil. Cecil was a Vice President of the Braves when the World Cup was broadcast in the United States for the first time in 1966 and took an interest in the sport. Cecil was instrumental in forming the National Professional Soccer League in 1967 and in the worldwide search for player talent for the early Chiefs teams of the 1960’s. One of Cecil’s key early hires was South African Phil Woosnam as Head Coach & General Manager. Woosnam led the Chiefs to the first championship of the North American Soccer League in 1968.
The original Chiefs changed hands in 1973, sold to the owners of the Atlanta Hawks, who renamed the team the Apollos. The Apollos folded after one year and Atlanta was without pro soccer for five seasons. No one seemed to object. But by 1978 the NASL was on an upsurge, fueled by the excitement around the New York Cosmos and their stable of international superstars and an expansion surge that would see the league swell to 24 clubs by 1980. Cecil formed a group with Braves investors Al Thornwell and Ted Turner to purchase the NASL failing Colorado Caribous franchise and move it to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for the 1979 season.
The “new” Chiefs were a box office flop in Atlanta. The team fared poorly in 1979 under Head Coach Dan Wood, a holdover from the Caribous days, finishing at 12-18. Average attendance of 7,350 ranked 20th among the NASL’s 24 clubs. A bright spot was English striker Jeff Bourne, who finished 4th in the NASL in scoring in 1979 with 18 goals and 15 assists.
The 1980 season was even worse. Wood was fired midway through the season. The Chiefs finished with the league’s worst record (7-25), limpest offense (34 goals in 32 matches) and lowest attendance (4,884 per match at 52,000-seat Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium).
Georgians clearly weren’t interested in the NASL brand of soccer – at least not the outdoor version. But like the Memphis Rogues, another struggling club in the Deep South, it was an entirely different story when the team moved indoors for the winter. In the winter of 1979-80, faced with competition from the upstart Major Indoor Soccer League, the NASL launched a winter-time indoor soccer season for the first time. It was basically a short test season and only 10 of the 24 NASL clubs chose to take part. The Chiefs were one and they set up shop at the Omni arena downtown. Surprisingly, the Chiefs had the best record in the league (10-2) and their attendance of 5,069 for six indoor matches was better than the league average.
The 1980-81 indoor season was even better. 19 clubs participated in an expanded indoor season. Under new Head Coach David Chadwick the Chiefs tied with the Chicago Sting for the best record in the league at 13-5. Amazingly, the Chiefs led the entire league in indoor attendance at 10,287 fans per match. It was more than double the crowds that the Chiefs pulled outdoors the previous summer. The Chiefs’ indoor run ended in the semi-finals at the hands of the eventual champion Sting.
The Chiefs indoor success in the winter of 1980-81 carried over to the 1981 outdoor season. The Chiefs nearly doubled their goal scoring output from 1980’s last place campaign, thanks in large part toEnglish striker Brian Kidd, on loan from Bolton Wanderers. Kidd finished 3rd in the NASL with 22 goals in 1981. The entire Chiefs team scored just 34 the year before. The Chiefs won the Southern Division with a 17-15 record and earned their first outdoor playoff appearance. They were eliminated by the Jacksonville Tea Men in the opening round.
The crowds didn’t follow the Chiefs outdoor from the Omni though. The team drew only 6,189 per match in 1981, which ranked 19th among the shrinking league’s 21 clubs. On August 21, 1981, three days after the playoff loss to Jacksonville, the Chiefs announced they were closing their doors after 3 seasons and estimated losses of $5.5M to $7.0M. The Chiefs formally shut down one month later, the day after Soccer Bowl ’81. They were one of seven clubs to fold after the NASL’s disastrous 1981 season. The league itself would follow three years later, shutting down after the 1984 campaign.
Atlanta Chiefs Memorabilia
1980 TBS Broadcast of the Chiefs against the Los Angeles Aztecs at the Rose Bowl:
1981 Atlanta Chiefs U.S. Army commercial
Chiefs at Tampa Bay Rowdies. August 12, 1981