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1981-1983 Carolina Lightnin’

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L to R: Andy Papoulias, Scott Manning, Rodney Marsh, Mal Roche & Don Tobin

American Soccer League (1981-1983)

Born: December 1979 – ASL expansion franchise
Folded: Postseason 1983

Stadium: American Legion Memorial Stadium

Team Colors: Blue & Yellow

Owner: Robert Benson


The Carolina Lightnin’ were a popular 2nd division soccer club that played three seasons in Charlotte during the early 1980’s.  They were the first pro soccer franchise ever established in the Carolinas.

Founded as an American Soccer League expansion club in December 1979, the club debuted a year-and-a-half later in April 1981.  In the interim, the Lightnin’ made a key acquisition, signing recently retired English soccer star Rodney Marsh as Head Coach in September 1980.  Marsh, a long-time star for Queens Park Rangers and Manchester City, came to the United States in 1976 to play for the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League.  The Rowdies were a big draw at the time and Marsh’s shaggy hair and magnetic personality made him a media star, by the modest standards of American pro soccer at the time.  Marsh even had his own Miller Lite TV spot in 1980:

Marsh retired as a player in September 1979 following the Rowdies loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps in Soccer Bowl ’79.  He decided to stay in the States and become a coach, hooking on with New York United of the American Soccer League in 1980.  United were attempting an ambitious move in to Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets, that summer.  It was an odd venue for an anonymous minor league soccer team and United played to acres of empty grandstands.  Marsh separated from the team at mid-season, but latched on with Carolina a few months later and found a much happier circumstance.

The Lightnin’ took advantage of the American Soccer League’s annual disarray and financial distress to pilfer other clubs for many of the 2nd division’s top players.  Carolina landed Mal Roche, the league’s top scorer in 1980 whose previous club had disbanded.  Playmaking midfielder Don Tobin was a league All-Star but, like Roche, he was available when his former club folded.  Goalkeeper Scott Manning was the best netminder in the ASL in 1980, but Carolina snatched him away from the Pennsylvania Stoners franchise nonetheless.

The club’s most remarkable find was Tony Suarez, a Cuban who moved to Charlotte at age 16.  Suarez came to the team on a tryout with no previous pro experience.  He failed to make the team but as a consolation was offered a job as the team’s bus driver and gofer.  Injuries eventually open a roster spot for Suarez, who promptly scored 9 goals in his first 12 pro matches.  He ultimately led the Lightnin’ in scoring in 1981 (and finished 5th in the league) with 15 goals and 4 assists.  He was named the ASL’s 1981 Rookie-of-the-Year.

The Lightnin’ won their division with a 16-9-3 record and made it through the playoffs to earn a date with Marsh’s former team, New York United, in the 1981 ASL Championship Game.  United should have hosted by virtue of having the league’s best record at 19-5-4.  But their attendance continued to be dismal in New York, while expansion Carolina led the ASL with average crowds over 4,000 per match and a couple of late season gates in excess of 8,000.  The league voted to move the September 18, 1981 championship match to Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium.

A strong crowd was expected, but Carolina shocked the American soccer scene when a league record 20,163 fans packed the stadium for the match.  The game was deadlocked until the 64th minute when United’s Solomon Hilton beat Manning to give the visitors a 1-0 advantage.  But Don Tobin tied the match on a header in the 69th minute to rally Carolina and send the game into overtime.  Hugh O’Neill scored the game winner for Carolina in the second overtime period and Carolina had the league title.

In 1982, the Lightnin’ loaded up to defend their title.  The club added 34-year Derek Smethurst, a deadly striker who scored 57 goals for Tampa Bay in the NASL, mostly while paired up top with Rodney Marsh.  Smethurst’s skills were in decline at age 34 though and he only stuck around Carolina for a handful of games.  The other big acquisition was English striker Paul Child.  Like Smethurst, Child was one of the NASL’s all-time leading scorers, but was without an employer as America’s top pro league began a severe contraction at the beginning of the 1980’s.

One player who was missing was 1981 hero Tony Suarez.  Suarez injured his leg playing indoor soccer with Cleveland Force and missed the entire 1982 outdoor season.  His career never recovered and he was finished playing by 1984.  Suarez died young at age 51 in 2007.

In 1982, the Lightnin’ could recapture the magic of their debut season.  They finished 11-13-4 and their season ended with a semi-final series defeat at the hands of the Oklahoma City Slickers.

In 1983 the Lightnin’ hired 42-year old Bobby Moore, the captain of England’s 1966 World Cup championship side, as an assistant coach.  He later ended up appearing in some games as a player as well.  Houston Dynamo and ESPN broadcaster Glenn Davis was a rookie that summer with the ASL’s Pennsylvania Stoners and recalled his shock at finding Moore in the American Soccer League in a 2012 FWIL interview:

“<Carolina> had so many injuries they activated Bobby Moore to play that night against us.  Bobby was probably 43 years old and he obviously can’t move.  He’s kicking everything and everybody that he can get close to.  And we’re just going “Oh my God – it’s Bobby Moore.”

I remember we had a 2-0 lead and we absolutely crumbled in the final ten minutes with their fans going nuts.  They had probably about 7,000 or 8,000 fans in this cool little stadium in Charlotte.  I think it was called the Memorial Stadium.  We totally collapsed as a team and lost 3-2.  I remember our owner on the bus back to the hotel and screaming at one of our players.  I think a lot of us were just still in shock that Bobby Moore was playing that night.”

The Lightnin’ posted a losing record again in 1983.  In early 1984, the entire American Soccer League folded after more than fifty years of operation and Robert Benson withdrew his support for the team.  Several ASL teams formed a new league called the United Soccer League and Charlotte did get a get a USL franchise, under new ownership and with a new name – the Charlotte Gold – for the 1984 season.  Many former staff members and players from the Lightnin’ continued on with the Gold, who played one season and then went out of business in late 1984.




==Carolina Lightnin’ Programs on Fun While It Lasted==

Date Opponent Score Program Other


5/15/1981 vs. Pennsylvania Stoners ?? Program
8/9/1981 @ Detroit Express ?? Program


6/5/1982 vs. Nashville Diamonds ?? Program
6/12/1982 vs. Nashville Diamonds ?? Program
8/14/1982 vs. Detroit Express ?? Program



October 15, 2011 Carolina Lightnin’ Day Proclamation in honor of 30th anniversary of the 1981 Championship Team



Carolina Lightnin’ Alumni & Friends Facebook Page

American Soccer League Media Guides

American Soccer League Programs


1974-1975 Charlotte Hornets

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Charlotte Hornets WFLWorld Football League (1974-1975)

Born: September 25, 1974 – New York Stars relocate to Charlotte.
Folded: October 22, 1975.

Stadium: American Legion Memorial Stadium (25,433)

Team Colors: Hornet Yellow, Black & White

Owner: Upton Bell, et al.


The Charlotte Hornets played parts of two seasons in the doomed World Football League (1974-1975) of the 1970’s.  The Hornets started out the WFL’s 1974 debut season as the New York Stars, but the team was saddled with a decrepit stadium in New York City and team owner Robert Schmerz, who also owned the NBA’s Boston Celtics and World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers, was unable to stomach the team’s mounting debts.

As the Stars dimmed in New York, former New England Patriots General Manager Upton  Bell made the rounds with city officials and potential investors in Charlotte, North Carolina looking for support to acquire and relocate the team.  Bell, the son of former NFL Commissioner Bert Bell, managed to lure in pro golfer Arnold Palmer, but he still lacked a fully funded investment group when the Stars exhausted their resources in New York in late September 1974.  Bell officially took possession of the Stars on September 25, 1974 and announced the team’s immediate relocation to Charlotte.  The club was 8-5 with seven games remaining in the 1974 season.  Bell’s financing was still a work in progress.

The move occurred so quickly that the team had no name at first.  The team went on the road to Illinois under the temporary name “Charlotte Stars” while Bell and his partners formulated a new team identity back in Charlotte.  To distinguish the team from the old New York Stars, the team’s equipment manager slapped helmet decals of the Chicago Bears “C” onto the old New York helmets for their game against the Chicago Fire at Soldier Field.  The “Charlotte Stars” lasted just that one game, a 41-35 win over the Fire that boosted the team’s record to 9-5.  When the team finally arrived in North Carolina in the first week of October 1974, there was a new identity waiting for them – the Charlotte Hornets.

Charlotte fans welcomed the Hornets with enthusiasm, even if the financial backers the team needed were still taking a wait-and-see attitude.  The Hornets made their home debut on October 9th, 1974 against the league’s best team, the 12-2 Memphis Southmen, who were riding a 9-game winning streak.  A sellout crowd of 25,133 packed American Legion Memorial Stadium for the game.  The Hornets made it interesting before Memphis’ offense overwhelmed them in the second.  The Southmen’s quarterback was a rookie out of Arizona State named Danny White, who would later go on to quarterback the Dallas Cowboys for most of the 1980’s.  White hit Memphis’ Ed Marshall with two second half scores to seal the victory for Memphis.

Charlotte Hornets WFLA 27-0 shutout of the Chicago Fire the following week drew another strong crowd of 20,000+ in Charlotte and boosted the Hornets record to 10-6.  The game was sloppy, full of dropped passes from both clubs.

“It’s lousy football, but it’s good entertainment,” one fan in attendance told Richard Sowers of The Gastonia Gazette, neatly capturing Charlotte’s receptiveness to the fledgling WFL brand.

The last month of the 1974 season was a reality check for the Hornets.  The team dropped its final four games to finish at 10-10.  The investor search slogged along with a solution, while Bell relied on gate receipts to fund operations.  Following a November road loss in Shreveport, Louisiana, sheriff’s deputies showed up in the locker room to impound the Hornets’ uniforms and equipment to settle creditor lawsuits from New York.  Although the team’s 10-10 record was good enough to qualify for the WFL playoffs in mid-November, the sinking league re-shuffled the playoff format at the last moment.  Bell realized he didn’t have the money to keep playing and elected to pull the Hornets out of postseason competition.

The World Football League staggered to the end of its first season on December 5, 1974 when the Birmingham Americans defeated the Florida Blazers in the first (and only) World Bowl.  Both teams were insolvent.  After the game, sheriff’s deputies impounded the Americans uniforms for unpaid debts, similar to the experience the Charlotte Hornets the previous month.  Several teams were already out of business.  Others were on the road to bankruptcy court.  Hundreds of players and employees remained unpaid.  More than one WFL owner faced prison time for tax or financial fraud.

Chris Hemmeter, an owner of The Hawaiians franchise, stepped forward to lead a re-organization of the league.  Hemmeter’s plan called for all franchises to prove solvency by placing a substantial portion of their operating capital into escrow prior to the 1975 season.  It was thought that this would stave off the mid-season meltdown of under-capitalized franchises that plagued the league’s debut season.  Originally, all teams were to have their funds in place by January 1975.  Bell was invited to re-organize for the 1975 season, based on Charlotte’s box office success during the final two months of 1974.  The Hornets averaged near 80% capacity for their four home games in Charlotte.

Bell got to work but investors remained deeply reluctant to get involved with the WFL.  The January deadline came and went, as did extensions in February, March and April.  Bell was eventually able to raise about three-quarters of a million dollars, which was well short of the league’s goal.  But the WFL voted to re-admit the Hornets anyway in the spring of 1975.

Many of the top players from the 1974 team agreed to return, including quarterback Tom Sherman, top rusher Don Highsmith and defensive back Larry Shears.  Bob Gibson replaced the departed Babe Parilli as Head Coach for the 1975 season.

After an 0-2 start on the road to begin the 1975 season, the Hornets returned to American League Memorial Stadium on August 16, 1975 to begin their first full season in Charlotte.  But gone were the big crowds of the previous autumn.  Only 8,447 showed up to watch Tom Sherman lead the Hornets to a 4th quarter come back victory over the previously unbeaten San Antonio Wings.

Despite Hemmeter’s great efforts to carefully vet league investors and ensure fiscal discipline, the World Football League’s 1975 season was plagued by the same problems as the year before.  In early September, the Chicago Winds franchise was kicked out of the league for financial insolvency.  Portland and San Antonio didn’t have enough money to finish the season either.  Philadelphia couldn’t draw flies to their games.  After 12 weeks of play, the remaining league owners voted to shut the league down in mid-season on October 22, 1975.  For the second year in a row, the Hornets played only a partial season in Charlotte.  Their final record for 1975 was 6-5.



==Charlotte Hornets Programs on Fun While It Lasted==

Year Date Opponent Score Program Other


1974 10/23/1974 vs. Florida Blazers L 15-11 Program
1974 11/6/1974 @ Shreveport Steamer L 19-14 Program


1975 8/16/1975 vs. San Antonio Wings W 27-20 Program
1975 8/30/1975 @ Jacksonville Express W 33-14 Program
1975 9/14/1975 @ Southern California Sun W 30-22 Program Roster
1975 9/21/1975 @ Birmingham Vulcans L 22-16 Program
1975 10/5/1975 @ Shreveport Steamer W 39-14 Program Roster
1975 10/12/1975 vs. Jacksonville Express W 22-15 Program
1975 10/18/1975 @ Philadelphia Bell L 18-10 Program



1975 WFL Standard Player Contract



World Football League Media Guides

World Football League Game Programs


Written by andycrossley

February 26th, 2013 at 2:47 pm