NASL: The Fort Lauderdale Strikers

When football supporters harken back to the fast and free days of the North American Soccer League (NASL) they think of the New York Cosmos, Pele, George Best, Johan Cruyff, and the Cascadia Clubs. The 70s and early 80s saw a lot of stars in the twilight of their careers in a new land that was willing to pay them for the first time.

NASL Ft. Lauderdale Strikers Rosters

To kickstart the league, the organizers decided to staff most of the clubs and the league office with people from the United Kingdom. Alongside the influx of British administrators came players from across the country. The Fort Lauderdale Strikers followed suit by bringing in Ron Newman, a former winger for Gillingham. Ron came over in 1967 to play with the Atlanta Chiefs for a new challenge in football. Two years later when his career was finished, Ron took over the NASL club Dallas Tornado. The Tornado gave Newman his first taste of championship gold with indoor and outdoor championships in 1971.

Eventually, he made his way to an intriguing challenge in Fort Lauderdale in 1977 after a brief sojourn with the Los Angeles Skyhawks of the American Soccer League (ASL). The project started when Joe and his wife Elisabeth Robbie moved the Miami Toros in the spring of 1977 north to Broward County’s Fort Lauderdale. The first match 6000 fans ventured to Lockhart Stadium for the first match over the St. Louis 2-1, Following the explosion of football in the area, Lockhart Stadium had to be expanded by four thousand seats to 15,000 a year later.

In the inaugural season, Ron had to teach the people of Fort Lauderdale football, so he would hold spontaneous camps in local parks. Those camps turned citizens into supporters showing up to matches, thus the beginning of the official supporters group the Striker Likers. To fill out his first roster, Ron followed the trend that the rest of the league was employing by bringing players over from England.

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The biggest name of the arrivals was goalkeeping legend Gordon Banks, who was looking to continue his career after the car accident that left him blind in one eye. Banks signed for the club in a dual role, one as the face of the organization on the pitch, and one to serve on the coaching staff. Other ex-English league players were Newcastle midfielder Ray Hudson, David Irving, Maurice Whittle, and David Chadwick.

Fort Lauderdale struck up very heated rivalries with the darlings of the league the New York Cosmos and instate Tampa Bay Rowdies. With this English spine, the Strikers finished by winning the Eastern Division of the American Conference over the aforementioned Cosmos and Rowdies. The Rowdies had former Manchester City forward Rodney Marsh.

American sports determined the champions of their top divisions via a playoff. The winners of each division get a first-round bye into the Division Championship matches. There they met the buzzsaw that was the Cosmos. This was one of their most well-known sides containing Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer, and Carlos Alberto. This side had the look of the Galacticos of Real Madrid twenty years later, collecting talent, regardless of the role they played. As a result, the Cosmos outgrew their stadium on Randall’s Island on the campus of Hofstra University. Their next move was to Giants Stadium in Newark, New Jersey. Giants Stadium housed the New York Jets and New York Giants of the National Football League.

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The Division and Conference Finals were two-legged affairs, the league final was not. Two big-time sides came into the August 14, 1977 match in Giants stadium looking to continue their trek towards the league final. Neither club saw what happened on and in the stadium would impact the sport in the country for the rest of the sport’s existence. A crowd of 77,691 showed up making it the largest crowd to ever attend a match in the U.S. The record still stands for

regular season and playoff matches deep into the 21st century. This wasn’t the first time the two clubs had played, in fact during the season, the clubs met twice. On May 15, the Cosmos blanked the Strikers 3-0 in Giants Stadium, the same score was recorded for the Cosmos in the return match in Lockhart Stadium on June 15.

All the hype surrounding this two-legged tie, it was clear from the get-go that the Cosmos came with their shooting boots on. In the first fifteen minutes of the match, the Cosmos put three goals past Banks. Ex Aston Villa striker Stephen Hunt on a pass from Giorgio Chinagila in the first minute of play and buried it in the bottom of the net. Not to be undone Franz Beckenbauer got in on the target practice on Banks, putting a ball past the goalkeeper off a pass from Hunt and ex Sheffield United winger Tony Field ten minutes later. Giorgio, one never to share the spotlight got in on the scoring by putting the ball in the back of the net off a pass from Beckenbauer five minutes later.

That would crush most if not all clubs, but at seventeen minutes Strikers fullback Maurice Whittle finally put the Florida side on the board for the first of his two goals in the game. However, that didn’t stop the Cosmos from putting more balls past Banks. Hunt scored another one in the first half to bring the score up to 4-1. That would be a great ending of a match, but there were forty more minutes left. After the break, Tony Field would get on the board at the 55-minute mark, and Giorgio would complete his hat trick with two goals, first one off a pass from Carlos Alberto a minute later, then a couple of minutes later off a pass from Field run the score up to 7-1.

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Norman Piper helped ease the pain for the Strikers by scoring a goal in the sixty-third minute, before Gary Etherington, a rare American playing for the Cosmos completed the rout at 8-3. The NASL had three American quota for each club, to promote American soccer development. Generally, the Americans were put in the back at fullback, center half, and goalkeeper. Warner Roth a defender and Shep Messing a goalkeeper were the most well known Americans to turn out for the Cosmos.

Whittle put the last ball in the back of the net. The second leg of the Division finals was all but a forgone conclusion three days later in Fort Lauderdale as the Cosmos won 3-2. This was a great display for the flagship club of the NASL, showing great players worldwide. This was in the era of soccer on television in the states. The Cosmos went on to win the Soccer Bowl 2-1 over the Seattle Sounders in Pele’s last match.

Soccer on television in America was minimal. In the mid-1960s the sport exploded in the States because we were able to see the 1966 World Cup Finals nationwide. 1968 the league was shown on the Columbia Broadcasting Service (CBS). The commentary was done by ex-North Ireland international Danny Blanchflower who was very vocal in his disdain for the level of play in the States. After the 1968 season, the television contract went away for a while.

While the Cosmos had the big stars the games were covered on CBS, but they could never really pull in the numbers to justify the one day a week spot on CBS. Most of the stadiums shown on television were empty. By the time Pele retired at the end of the 1977 season the television contract was on its last legs. The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) stopped showing live games. And the 1978, and 1979 Soccer Bowls were on replay.

By the 80s the games weren’t even tape-delayed. 1985 the league shut its doors. A couple of clubs survived. The Cosmos stayed around as a club for a year, and then became soccer camps in the New York City Metro Era. The Fort Lauderdale Strikers moved to Minnesota in 1984 and stuck around in the indoor leagues for a bit. The San Diego Sockers also went indoors and became a power in the indoor game to this day. The Sockers of today are a different incarnation of the same name.

This piece was kindly written for @TFHBs by Stephen Brandt - follow him on Twitter @StephenCBrandt

The Football History Boys, 2020


Anonymous said…
Great telling of my league as I grew up watching the NASL and Soccer made in Germany.

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