North American Soccer League (1978)
Stadium: Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (50,900)
Team Colors: Blue, Burgundy & Gold
Soccer Bowl Championships: None
The Oakland Stompers were a One-Year Wonder in the North American Soccer League during the a spring and summer of 1978. Club founder Milan Mandaric previously started up the NASL’s other Bay Area franchise, the popular San Jose Earthquakes, in 1974. In late 1977 he divested himself of the Earthquakes and bought the league’s struggling Connecticut Bicentennials club and moved it across the country to the Oakland Coliseum. It was bold move considering that many at the time wondered if the Bay Area could even support its two Major League Baseball franchises. But the NASL was riding at a peak of investor enthusiasm in 1978 amidst the belief that pro soccer would be the Sport of the 80’s.
The Stompers identity derived from Northern California’s burgeoning wine industry. The club’s cheerleading squad was called the “Corkpoppers”. And the team distributed a free match day supplement called Grapevine to supplement the NASL’s KICK Magazine game programs.
The Stompers, who were ultimately unsuccessful in competition, were best known for signing iconoclast goalkeeper Shep Messing to a $100,000 contract for the 1978 season, which was then the largest contract ever offered to an American-born soccer player.
Messing was the primary goalkeeper on the New York Cosmos’ Soccer Bowl championship team in 1977. The Harvard-educated goalkeeper was an aggressive self-promoter – he infamously posed nude for Viva magazine in 1974 – but in New York he was overshadowed by the Cosmos’ menagerie of international superstars. Messing was also a laggard in training and seemed to view leadership as synonymous with antagonizing his head coaches early in his career. By his own later admission, Messing struggled with technical aspects of the outdoor game, such as dealing with crosses into the box, despite his tremendous reflexes and athleticism. The Cosmos were willing to let him go (and indeed would repeat as league champions without him in 1978).
In Oakland, finally, Messing was the face of the franchise and the subject of most of the club’s national media attention. This included a lengthy profile by J.D. Reed in the July 10th, 1978 issue of Sports Illustrated. But Stompers’ General Manager Dick Berg ripped Messing in the article, noting that his star’s appetite for publicity rare extended to team functions.
“Shep is only interested in his own promotion,” Berg told Reed. “Every time we have a ticket-selling banquet or a shopping-center promotion set up for him, he threatens to put himself on the injured list. Chewing tobacco on network television doesn’t put fans in the seats.”
The Stompers made their debut at Oakland Coliseum on April 2, 1978 to an impressive crowd of 32,104. Messing reportedly rejected Berg’s request to enter the stadium riding atop an elephant. The big crowd was somewhat misleading as the Stompers were playing their Bay Area rivals, the San Jose Earthquakes. The Associated Press noted that half of the big crowd appeared to be rooting for San Jose. The club would never see a home crowd anywhere near that size again. Eight of the Stompers remaining fourteen home matches at the Coliseum drew fewer than 10,000 fans.
Messing was fantastic in the Stompers’ debut. Late in the match he stopped a penalty kick from the ‘Quakes Ilija Mitic, the NASL’s all-time leading scorer at the time, to preserve a 0-0 tie. The NASL didn’t have ties in 1978 though, so after an uneventful 15-minute overtime period, the game was decided by the “Shootout”, which featured five players from each club attempting to score during a timed, undefended breakaway. Messing turned away four of five shooters from the Quakes. Rookie Andy Atuegbu, a college standout from the University of San Francisco, and Polish import Franz Smuda found the net for the Stompers in the Shootout to give the hosts a 1-0 opening day triumph.
After a 9-9 start the Stompers wilted through the back end of the 1978 campaign, finishing 12-18 and out of playoff contention. In late March 1979, on the eve of what would have been the Stompers’ sophomore season, owner Milan Mandaric sold the team to Peter Pocklington, the owner of the Edmonton Oilers hockey team. Pocklington moved the club to Edmonton and renamed it the Edmonton Drillers. The Drillers played four seasons before folding in 1982. The NASL went out of business after the 1984 season.
Mandaric owned several other unsuccessful American soccer clubs in the 1980s’ and 1990’s, mostly in the indoor leagues. In the 2000’s, he turned his attention to Europe, where he enjoyed much greater success in ownership stints with Portsmouth, Leicester City and Sheffield Wednesday in England.
Former Stompers defender Franz Smuda later became manager of the Polish National Team from 2009 to 2012.
Oakland Stompers Memorabilia
Oakland Stompers Video
Shep Messing pimps Skoal Tobacco circa 1978:
“Support Your Local Keeper!” J.D. Reed, Sports Illustrated, July 10, 1978