Sacramento Spirits vs. Los Angeles Skyhawks
June 8, 1977
Sacramento State Stadium
American Soccer League Programs
During pro soccer’s 1970’s boom years (or bubble years, as it turned out) the city of Sacramento, California hosted 2nd division professional soccer for five seasons. The Sacramento Spirits/Gold appeared in three American Soccer League championship games between 1976 and 1980. Oddly, during the two seasons the Sacramentans did not play for the championship, they finished dead last.
The American Soccer League dated all the way back to 1933 and spent most of its existence confined to industrial cities of the Northeast, where teams were often defined by their ethnic affiliation. Through the postwar years clubs such as the New York Hakoah-Americans, Newark Portuguese and the Philadelphia Ukrainians competed under the ASL auspices. In the early 1970’s, the league began to professionalize, banishing the ethnic names and branching out beyond the Philadelphia-New York corridor.
In 1974, the ASL hired former NBA star Bob Cousy – who professed to know nothing whatsoever about soccer – as its Commissioner to attract national credibility. A full-fledged West Coast expansion occurred in the summer of 1976, which included the debut of the Sacramento Spirits. The Spirits played out of Sacramento State Stadium and finished in the cellar that first year with a 4-14-3 record.
The Spirits returned in 1977 and engineered a remarkable turnaround under Head Coach Bob Ridley. The Spirits won the West Division with an 18-4-4 record and flew east on to face the New Jersey Americans for the ASL Championship on September 4th, 1977. The Americans triumped 3-0. Ridley was named Coach-of-the-Year and Spirits leading scorer Mal Roche earned Rookie-of-the-Year honors.
After the 1977 season, a California cabinet manufacturer named John Andreotti bought the Sacramento franchise and re-branded it as the Sacramento Gold for 1978. The 1978 campaign was anything but golden as the club regressed to a 7-15-2 last place finish.
The Gold rebuilt again in 1979, importing English brothers Ian and Malcolm Filby and South African striker Neill Roberts among others. Mal Filby was expected to be the team’s key threat but suffered a season-ending injury in the home opener. Brother Ian stepped up in his stead and led the ASL in scoring with 14 goals and 17 assists. From a front office standpoint though, the best signing had to be Roberts. Midway through the season, the Gold sold Roberts’ contract to the Atlanta Chiefs of the first division North American Soccer League for $25,000, reportedly a record transfer fee between the two American leagues. (Roberts was more than worth it, scoring 14 goals in 19 matches for the Chiefs in 1979).
That $25,000 undoubtedly helped the Gold bottom line. According to Dave Litterer’s terrific American Soccer History Archives site, typical annual operating budgets for ASL franchises in the late 1970’s averaged $300,000 to $350,000 per year. By 1979, the Gold had moved to 23,000-seat Hughes Stadium on the campus of Sacramento City College. During the 1979 season, the Gold drew 57,073 to Hughes for 14 matches and led the low-budget ASL with average announced attendance of 4,077 per match.
On September 17th, 1979 the Gold travelled to Ohio to face the Columbus Magic in the American Soccer League championship game. The match took place at Franklin County Stadium, a re-lined minor league baseball park. As he had all season, Ian Filby came through for the Gold and broke a scoreless tie in the 84th minute. The 1-0 margin held up to give the Gold the 1979 ASL championship.
The Gold returned for a third ASL season in 1980 (fifth if you count the Spirits years), but quickly ran out of money. In early July 1980, the Gold chose to forfeit a road match at the Miami Americans rather than pay for airfare to Florida. By late July, with the team still unwilling or unable to travel, the ASL terminated the franchise. A group of Sacramento-area boosters raised $35,000 – $40,000 and turned it over to the league office to run the team through the end of the season. “Sacramento” (the Gold moniker was dropped) finished out the season as a ward of the league and, improbably, made a return visit to the ASL championship game. Sacramento lost the title match to the Pennsylvania Stoners 2-1 in Allentown, PA on September 18th, 1980.
After the season, Sacramento folded along with the rest of the ASL’s remaining West Coast franchises.
The ASL played three more seasons from 1981 to 1983. After 1980, it never again fielded a team west of Oklahoma City. The league folded in late 1983 or early 1984.
The Gold’s young General Manager Greg “Dutch” Van Dusen became a leading figure in the successful effort to lure the NBA’s Kansas City Kings franchise to Sacramento in 1985. He also negotiated the naming rights to the city’s ARCO Arena and worked as an executive for the Kings throughout the 1980’s.
Professional soccer – of the indoor variety – returned to Sacramento in the summer of 1993 with the Knights of the Continental Indoor Soccer League. The Knights played at ARCO Arena in a succession of leagues for nine summers between 1993 and 2001.