The Chicago Mustangs soccer club was a charter member of the United Soccer Association, a mid-1960’s effort to launch a first division professional league here in the States. There were 12 member franchises representing 10 U.S. cities, plus Toronto and Vancouver. Most of the clubs were backed by heavy-hitter investors from Major League Baseball, the NFL and the National Hockey League. The owner of the Mustangs was Chicago White Sox boss Arthur Allyn Jr. and the soccer club played in Allyn’s South Side baseball stadium, Comiskey Park.
The founders of the United Soccer Association intended to begin play in 1968, but they felt compelled to bump their plans up a year when a rival circuit, the National Professional Soccer League, signed a TV contract with CBS and decided to start play in 1967. With the accelerated timetable, the USA decided to import entire foreign clubs from Europe and South America to represent the league’s 12 cities in 1967. The Chicago Mustangs were actually Cagliari Calcio, from the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. Cagliari was enjoying a run of success in the Italian Serie A at the time – they would win their only Scudetto in 1970. However, the Italians did not bring all of their stars to Chicago. Gigi Riva, the greatest player in club history and the all-time leading scorer for the Italian National Team, stayed home.
The Mustangs/Cagliari struggled through their only season in the United Soccer Association. The club finished out of the postseason hunt with a 3-7-2 record. Attendance was dismal too, with an announced match average of just 4,207 at Comiskey. A bright spot was 23-year old striker Roberto Boninsegna, who led the circuit in scoring with 10 goals in 9 appearances. Boninsegna would go on to score Italy’s only goal in the 1970 World Cup final against Brazil.
After the 1967 season concluded in financial ruin for both the USA and the NPSL, the former rivals merged to form the North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1968. That meant the contraction of one franchise in Chicago, as both leagues fielded a Windy City franchise in 1967. The NPSL’s Chicago Spurs, based out of Soldier Field, moved to Kansas City, so the Mustangs continued on for a second season in 1968. Cagliari and the other foreign ringer clubs would not return. In 1968, all of the NASL clubs built their own rosters.
The all-new, multi-ethnic Mustangs were much improved in 1968. Polish émigré Janusz Michalik led the NASL with 30 goals and 9 assists and won league MVP honors. The club improved to 13-10-9, but this wasn’t quite good enough for playoff spot. Attendance continued to be terrible though, dipping to under 2,500 fans per game at 45,000-seat Comiskey Park.
The NASL nearly folded after the 1968 season. Membership shrunk for 17 clubs in 1968 to just 5 survivors for 1969. The Mustangs were one of the casualties, withdrawing from the league in late 1968. A semi-pro version of the Mustangs reportedly continued to play into the 1970’s.
Sharp match program here from the final season of the North American Soccer League. I’ve posted a bunch of programs on Fun While It Lasted from the NASL’s terrific rivalry between the Chicago Sting and the New York Cosmos. Although the Cosmos are the proto-Super Club that everybody remembers today, the Sting typically got the better of the New Yorkers. Especially in big games, including their only championship match meeting in Soccer Bowl ’81.
This was an exception. Coming off a humiliating 5-0 home defeat to the Sting 13 days earlier at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, the Cosmos rebounded with a 2-1 victory on the road at Comiskey Park. Stan Terlecki and Chico Borja scored for New York. Pato Margetic potted the lone goal for the Sting.
That’s the Cosmos’ Roberto Cabanas on the cover of the day’s KICK Magazine program. The lanky Paraguayan ran away with the NASL scoring title (25 goals, 16 assists) in 1983 and was named Most Valuable Player of the league. But his production dropped off a cliff in 1984 and the Cosmos’ floundered along with him. Perhaps the retirement of Giorgio Chinaglia following the 1983 season allowed opposing defenses to key their attention on Cabanas. Indoor star Terlecki struggled to be a factor paired with Cabanas up top. The Cabanas/Chinaglia tandem struck for 43 goals in 1983. But Cabanas and Terlecki produced just 12 goals in 1984.
The Cosmos’ NASL era would end in three months later on September 15, 1984 with yet another huge match against the Sting. Back in Chicago and needing a win on the season’s final day to make the playoffs – an utterly alien scenario for the Cosmos – the Sting broke them yet again with a 1-0 victory. The Sting went on to win the NASL’s final title two weeks later.
A little more than a decade earlier, back in August 1974, the Miami Toros and the Los Angeles Aztecs met in the NASL championship game. The Toros won the right to host the match at the Orange Bowl, but the uncertainty of who would advance through the playoffs to host the final left promoters scrambling to sell tickets. The Toros were never a strong draw to begin with and organizers pinned their hopes on a massive discount coupon effort which papered the city of Miami with hundreds of thousands of ticket vouchers. August in Miami isn’t a great time to be outdoors at 3:30 in the afternoon and the resulting crowd of 15,507 was considered a major disappointment.
NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam decided that the league needed a neutral site championship game, modeled on the NFL’s Super Bowl. With a host city selected months in advance there would be plenty of time to promote ticket sales. Thus the Soccer Bowl concept was born in 1975, with San Jose’s Spartan Stadium hosting the league title match between the Portland Timbers and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. By the late 1970’s, the Soccer Bowl was consistently drawing over 50,000 fans to first class venues such as Giants Stadium and RFK Stadium.
Then came 1982. The NASL was in major trouble, having shrunk from 24 active clubs to just 14 in two years with more departures on the horizon. Midway through the 1982 season, exasperated league owners effectively replaced Woosnam by hiring former industrialist and government official Howard J. Samuels as the new President and CEO of the League. One of Samuels first impressions of the NASL was the misfire of Soccer Bowl ’82, hosted by the San Diego Sockers organization at Jack Murphy Stadium. For the first time in three years, the Soccer Bowl was not carried on network television. And the live attendance was an embarrassment – only 22,634 showed up for the game, despite the fact that the hometown Sockers had advanced as far as the semi-final round which should (in theory) have goosed advance sales. It was by far the smallest Soccer Bowl crowd since the concept debuted in 1975.
Samuels drew the exact opposite conclusion as Woosnam had eight years earlier. Neutral site championships were a “disaster” for the league in 1981 and 1982, Samuels told The New York Times. Samuels envisioned a best-of-three series between the finalists, with matches in their respective home cities, drawing 50,000 fans per match. It would be two years before Samuels could implement the idea – Vancouver would get to host the 1983 Soccer Bowl before Samuels could toss the neutral site model onto the trash heap once and for all. (Naturally, Vancouver drew 53,000 for the 1983 match – 2nd highest in Soccer Bowl history – despite the fact that the local Whitecaps failed to reach the final).
Howard Samuels finally got his desired format in 1984. The Chicago Sting and the Toronto Blizzard met in a best-of-three championship, now re-branded as the “Soccer Bowl Series ’84”. Fan turnout was far below even the “disaster” levels of the 1981 and 1982 Soccer Bowls. Only 8,352 fans turned up at Chicago’s Comiskey Park for Game One. Strangely, the crowd was even smaller than Chicago’s modest regular season average of 8,376.
The game itself was exciting and somewhat strange. Blizzard defender Bruce Wilson opened the scoring in the 16th minute with an outlandish goal. Wilson collected the ball about 40 yards out from the Sting goal and chipped a high lob back into the penalty area. No one was in the vicinity except for Sting goalkeeper Victor Nogueira who waited calmly in front of the descending ball…and then shocked the Comiskey faithful by allowing it to nutmeg him and roll unmolested into the Sting net. Nogueira writhed on the ground in abject humiliation. But the Sting keeper dusted himself off and shutdown the dangerous Toronto trio of David Byrne,Roberto Bettega and Ace Ntsoelengoe for the rest of the evening.
The Blizzard carried the 1-0 lead into the locker room at halftime. But the second half was all Chicago. Pato Margetic even the game in the 51st minute, the first of three goals for the young Argentinean striker in the 1984 Soccer Bowl Series. Chilean midfielder Manny Rojas, a midseason acquisition who scored only one regular season goal for the Sting, notched the game winner in the 85th minute.
Two nights later, the Sting travelled to Toronto and put the series away with a 3-2 victory. That proved to be the last game the NASL ever played. The league folded in early 1985.
NASL President & CEO Howard Samuels didn’t live to see the bitter end. He died suddenly of a heart attack on October 26, 1984, three weeks after his preferred Soccer Bowl format got its first and only showing.
1st half of the 1984 Soccer Bowl Series Game One between the Sting and the Blizzard at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.
The Chicago Sting were an accomplished pro soccer club that enjoyed success both outdoors and indoors during a thirteen-year run from 1975 through 1988. The Sting were formed on Halloween day 1974 as an expansion franchise in the North American Soccer League.
During the Sting’s early seasons under the direction of former Manchester United defender Bill Foulkes (1975-1977), the roster had a dominant British presence. The Sting were not a factor in the NASL championship hunt during this era (despite a division title in 1976) and drew very poorly as the team shuffled games between Comiskey Park, Soldier Field and Wrigley Field each summer. As late as 1978, the Sting had the worst attendance in the entire 24-team NASL, pulling just 4,188 fans per game.
It’s somewhat remarkable that Sting owner Lee Stern, a Chicago commodities broker, hung in during such a long stretch of lean years. In fact, Stern would prove to be one of the most steadfast owners in American soccer, backing the money-losing club for its entire 13-year existence. And as the 1980’s approached, the Sting’s fortunes began to improve.
The 1978 season started disastrously. Under new Head Coach Malcolm Musgrove (another British import), the Sting set a league record losing their first ten games of the season. Musgrove would be fired without ever registering a win for the Sting. But the English-heavy complexion of the club had already begun to shift under Musgrove. 1978 marked the arrival of West German striker Karl-Heinz Granitza, who would become the club’s greatest star, along with fellow German Arno Steffenhagen, another key contributor, and Danish winger Jorgen Kristensen. German assistant coach Willy Roy took over the coaching reigns from Musgrove and improbably led the 0-10 Sting into the 1978 playoffs (thanks to the NASL’s very generous playoff system).
In 1980 the Sting won a division title with the 3rd best record in the league (21-11). Granitza established himself as one of the NASL’s mostly consistently productive scorers. In 1981, the Sting were even better – division champs again with a 23-9 record, tied for the best mark in the league with the defending champion New York Cosmos. Pato Margetic, a dynamic 21-year old Argentinean arrived to team with Granitza up top and spark the most potent offense in the NASL. Margetic became an immediate fan favorite. Sting crowds had tripled since the low water mark of 1978, up to nearly 13,000 per match in 1981.
The team’s growing popularity in Chicago was due in part to the Sting’s rivalry with and uncanny mastery of the New York Cosmos. The Cosmos were an international super club before such a concept really existed, featuring a collection of world all-stars such as Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia. By 1981, the New Yorkers had won three of the past four NASL championships. And the Sting absolutely owned them. Cosmos derbies became a big draw in Chicago. A June 1981 regular season match against New York drew a franchise record 30,501 to Wrigley field for a thrilling 6-5 Sting victory. (The Cosmos PR department later produced a short highlight reel of this match calledThe Greatest Game in NASL History.)
In September 1981, a new record crowd of 39,623 came out to Comiskey Park on a cold Monday night to watch the Sting eliminate the San Diego Sockers in Game Three of the playoff semi-finals to earn a trip to Soccer Bowl ’81, the NASL’s championship match. They would play their arch rivals, the Cosmos, at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium on September 26, 1981. Improbably, the NASL’s two highest scoring teams played a scoreless regulation and overtime period. That sent the game into the NASL’s unusual “shootout” format to determine a league champion…
The Sting’s victory in Soccer Bowl ’81 gave the Windy City its first major professional sports since the Bears won the NFL championship in 1963. And if you think calling the Sting and the NASL “major” seems like a stretch, consider this: nearly 10,000 fans greeted the Sting at O’Hare Airport on their return home from Toronto and over 100,000 more lined LaSalle Avenue for a ticker tape parade a few days later.
As the Sting were developing into one of the NASL’s best outdoor clubs at the dawn of the 1980’s, the league also began to experiment with indoor soccer. The Sting played their first indoor season in the winter of 1980-81 at the old Chicago Stadium downtown. They reached the indoor finals that first season, losing in a two-game sweep at the hands of the Edmonton Drillers.
The Sting quickly became a box office hit indoors. Their league-leading average indoor crowd of 13,322 at Chicago Stadium for the 1981-82 season was better than the average for any outdoor season the Sting ever played. The team’s popularity was due in part to their near invincibility at home. Going into the 1981-82 indoor playoffs, the Sting had an incredible 18-game winning streak at Chicago Stadium. On Valentine’s Day 1982, the Sting beat the Tampa Bay Rowdies 10-9 in an overtime thriller at Chicago Stadium. The standing room crowd of 19,398 was the largest ever to see an indoor soccer game in the United States at the time. As the NASL began to wither – shrinking from 24 clubs in 1980 to just 9 by the beginning of the 1984 season, many began to assert that the Sting were better off simply playing indoors.
By 1984, the NASL was on its last legs. The Sting defeated the Toronto Blizzard to win the NASL’s final championship in October of that year, but the buzz around Chicago was nothing like when the Sting won the Soccer Bowl in 1981. There would be no massive parade with 100,000 fans lining the streets of downtown Chicago. The Cubs were in the playoffs with a chance to win the pennant for the first time in decades, for one thing. For another, Sting owner Lee Stern had already formally pulled his club out of the dying NASL by the time the final whistle blew on the team’s championship victory. The Sting were accepted into the Major Indoor Soccer League in August of 1984. The club’s future was now exclusively as an indoor team.
By the time the Sting moved permanently indoors in the fall of 1984, the club’s moment was already in eclipse. The team finished with a strong 28-20 record and averaged over 10,000 fans for the final time. But a pair of 1st round home playoff losses to the Cleveland Force drew small crowds. The following season the Sting finished with a losing record and the team fired Willy Roy after eight years and two championships. Attendance crashed by 30%. After the 1985-86 season, the Sting left Chicago Stadium for the suburban Rosemont Horizon, citing the deteriorating neighborhood around the Stadium and their belief that the team’s core audience lived in the suburbs. Attendance dropped a further 20% during the Sting’s first season at the Horizon in 1986-87. Karl-Heinz Granitza was suspended for insubordination in early 1987, ending his nine-year run with the Sting.
The Sting mounted one last big counter offensive against the indifference swallowing the club in the summer of 1987. Lee Stern brought on advertising executive Lou Weisbach as an investment partner and hired Chicago Bulls VP of Marketing David Rosenberg to re-energize the fan base. Weisbach and Rosenberg boosted the front office staff to an all-time high of 21 employees and created a marketing campaign around “The New Chicago Sting”. The center piece of the campaign was a reported $1 million investment in post-game concerts for two-thirds of the Sting’s home dates at the Rosemont Horizon. In July 1987, Rosenberg unveiled the line-up of schlocky soft rock and oldies acts and cornball comedians, including the likes of Marie Osmond, Buddy Hackett, Fabian, Susan Anton and Jeffrey Osborne.
Whether the marriage of indoor soccer and live pop music was doomed from inception or whether it was the desperately unhip line-up of acts that the Sting procured, the campaign was a flop. One month into the season, attendance was flat at under 6,000 per game and the Sting began lopping the concerts of the schedule. A Granitza-less last place club under the direction of Roy’s successor Erich Geyer didn’t help matters.
By the end of the season, the Sting were done in Chicago. A possible sale and relocation to Denver was explored and abandoned. The Sting officially folded on July 8, 1988.
A huge Monday night crowd of 39,623 braved chilly September weather at Comiskey Park to cheer on the Chicago Sting in the decisive Game Three of the 1981 NASL playoff semi-finals. It was the largest home crowd in the Sting’s seven-year history. The New York Cosmos were already through to the final in the other bracket. They awaited the winner to decide Soccer Bowl ’81 at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium five nights later.
The match had a good storyline The San Diego Sockers never quite could find their way into the Soccer Bowl. The past two seasons they’d lost in this same semi-final round. The Sting couldn’t quite solve the Sockers, who’d eliminated Chicago in the playoffs during those same two seasons. San Diego took Game One of the series 2-1 at Jack Murphy Stadium and held a 1-0 lead in Game Two at Comiskey, but allowed the Sting to rally with a 2-1 victory of their own and force this rubber match.
The game was scoreless through regulation and two sudden overtime periods, but a thriller nonetheless. Goalkeepers Dieter Ferner of Chicago and Volkmar Gross of San Diego were brilliant. Sting fans were elated during the second sudden death period when referee Toros Kibritjian awarded Chicago a penalty kick, but Gross made a diving save on Derek Spalding to keep the Sockers’ season alive.
At the end of the second overtime, the match came down to a Shootout, the NASL’s novel method of settling ties. One-by-one, six shooters from each side dribbled toward the goal from 35 yards out. They had five seconds to get a shot off. The Sockers went first and Juli Veee slotted a ball past Ferner for a 1-0 advantage. Pato Margetic evened it at 1-1 on the next kick. Polish star Kaz Deyna put the Sockers up 2-1 in the second round before the next four shooters failed to convert. Dave Huson tied it at 2-2 at the end of the fourth round. Neither team could score in the fifth.
The match game down to the sixth and final round of the shootout. Martin Donnelly toed the line for the Sockers and then bore down on Ferner. He missed. The crowd erupted…and then groaned when field officials ruled that Ferner left his line too early. Donnelly got a second chance. And missed again. Sting Head Coach Willy Roy sent out Frantz Mathieu to take the sixth kick. Mathieu had never participated in a shootout before. For the season, Mathieu had one goal in 31 matches. The Haitian sweeper charged in one Volkmar Gross, juked one way and cut back the other and put the red, white & blue NASL ball in the back of the net, touching off a wild celebration at Comiskey. The famed exploding scoreboard installed by the great Bill Veeck exploded. Fans rushed the field. Sting officials hustled champagne into the locker room. Sting owner Lee Stern was among the revelers:
“Anyone who tells Lee Stern 0-0 soccer is dull is going to get a punch in the nose from me,” Stern proclaimed amidst the locker room celebration, according to Tribune scribe Mike Conklin.
Five nights later, the Sting traveled to Toronto and felled the mighty Cosmos for the third time that season to win Soccer Bowl ’81. The Sting would win that match, once again, in the Shootout.