ON A COOL June night at opposite ends of the New Jersey Turnpike two professional soccer games were played. In the Meadowlands the Cosmos squared off with the Argentine National Team with more than 70,000 fans watching. It was the fifth crowd of more than 70,000 in less than two seasons for the Cosmos.
At the same time, in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium the Philadelphia Fury and Tampa Bay Rowdies were in action in front of 5,500 fans - about 1,000 more than the Fury's season average.
The two games and the two crowds are symbolic of the North American Soccer League's struggle to gain acceptance as a major league.
Although the Cosmos are a force on the international scene and teams like the Minnesota Kicks, Tampa Bay Rowdies and Seattle Sounders consistently draw well, there are still teams like Philadelphia, Memphis and New England that are drawing fans by the handful and losing money in bundles.
In between are teams like the Washington Diplomats, the Dllas Tornado and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers who are a step above failure but a long way from Cosmos-like success.
In all, there are 24 soccer cities from Vancouver to Tampa Bay in North America, all shooting for the elusive sell-out crowd and the Soccer Bowl Championship. More of them are closer to Philadelphia's level than that of the Cosmos, the 1977 and 1978 Soccer Bowl Champions.
Starting with the glamorous Cosmos and finishing with the down-trodden Fury, here is a list of the NASL franchises and where they stand.
THE COSMOS - The league's king-of-the-mountain, the New York area club has gone from playing before 2,000 fans a game in Hofstra Stadium five years ago to 50,000 a game in Giants Stadium today.
This club transcends the NASL. It is an international power and is the star the other 23 teams in the league shoot for.
STRENGTHS - Just about everything. The personnel is superb, led by superstars Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and Carlos Alerto. The Cosmos' marketing efforts have not only brought out the kids who play the game, but also the so-called "beautiful" people and politicians from the New York area to their superb facility, Giants Stadium.
WEAKNESSES - The front office is in a constant state of turmoil with brothers Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, team president and board chairman, respectively, insistent on running everything. Dissension in the locker room is frequent, with big names and big egos abounding. Finally, the artificial playing surface in Giants Stadium does not make it an ideal place to showcase international soccer matches.
SUMMARY - The Cosmos have made it big.
TAMPA BAY ROWDIES - From its bright, striped green and yellow uniforms to its catchy nicknames and slogans (Soccer Is a Kickinthegrass), Tampa Bay is one of the more successful franchises in the league. The 5-year-old club plays entertaining, winning soccer - five trips to the play-offs in five seasons with one Soccer Bowl title ('75) and a runner-up trophy ('78) - and the fans love it.
STRENGTHS - The club is on solid ground financially and the area is perfectly suited for any and all types of marketing efforts. Gordon Jago is a fine, know ledgeable coach and Rodney Marsh and Steve Wegerle lead a fine cast of players. Tampa Stadium, also the home of the Buccaneers, is excellent. The Rowdies have always drawn well and this year is no different with an average attendance of just over 25,000.
WEAKNESSES - The nationwide exposure is limited because of the small market. A few rifts between players (mainly Marsh) and management have caused minor problems.
SUMMARY - Tampa Bay has made it.
MINNESOTA KICKS - If there is a franchise in the league the Washington Diplomats would like to emulate, this is it.
In four years in the league, the Kicks have been to the Soccer Bowl once and won two division titles. The past two seasons they have averaged close to 30,000 fans per game.
STRENGTHS - The marketing effort here has worked. The Kicks have gone into the suburbs and gotten the soccer community to come to the games. They have also produced a consistently excellent product on the field including a winning record this season, although they share Metropolitan Stadium with the baseball Twins, making for a less than ideal playing surface. Pregame cookouts outdoors are extremely popular. Team President Fred Goodwin has been the key man in the organization.
WEAKNESSES - The above-mentioned playing surface and a close-but-no-cigar syndrome in three years in the playoffs. The Kicks got to the Soccer Bowl in 1976 and lost to Toronto, 3-0, and last year just lost to the Cosmos in a shootout in the National Conference semifinals.
SUMMARY - The Kicks have made it.
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS - Another of the league's class organizations. This team started slowly but has combined a winning record (24-6 a year ago) with a team made up almost entirely of Canadians to bring the crowds out at a 20,00-per-game clip.
STRENGTHS - General Manager John Best and Coach Tony Walters, who took over in midseason 1977 when the team was foundering on the field and at the gate, rebuilt the team almost from scratch with players from the Canadian national team. The players have produced, (most notably Phil Parkes, the league's best goalie) and the fans are coming out. Empire Stadium is acceptable, although the team would prefer a bigger facility.
WEAKNESSES - Because of the team's location, it has not received the national recognition it merits. The Caps had the same record a year ago as the Cosmos but no one noticed. There is also some feeling that while towns like Minnesota and Tampa Bay would support any team, the finicky Vancouver fans want a winner or they won't keep coming.
SUMMARY - The Whitecaps have made it.
FORT LAUDERDALE STRIKERS - The 3-year-old Strikers (formerly the Miami Toros) have one of classiest organizations in the NASL. Owned by Elizabeth Robbie, the Strikers have made it their business to be a solid team. With the expert guidance of GM/Vice President Beau Rogers and Ron Newman, the dean of the league's coaches, Fort Lauderdale captured a division title in 1977.
STRENGTHS - Rogers and Newman have turned the Strikers into a tough, competitive club. A fine cast of players, led by George Best, Gerd Mueller and Teofilo Cubillas, have brought crowds to both the Strikers' tiny Lockhart Stadium and playing fields in other cities. Marketing efforts have been good to excellent.
WEAKNESSES - In spite of all the success and public relations work in the community, Striker fans have not responded the way the club would like. Lockhart Stadium, a good place for soccer (19,600), has been filled only twice this year. In a three-year period, the club is barely averaging 10,000 per game.
SUMMARY - The Strikers are making it.
SEATTLE SOUNDERS - This is one of the original soccer boom towns. When the Sounders first appeared on the scene in Seattle five years ago they were the only game in town, except for the then-struggling Sonics, and the fans started coming and have never stopped.
STRENGTHS - The club has always done well on the field, barely losing Soccer Bowl '77 to the Cosmos, 2-1, in the NASL's most exciting championship game. Last year they struggled but made the playoffs with a late season rush. American players, like 1977 rookie of the year Jim McAlister, have done well. They have one of the best facilities in sports in the Kingdome. Jim Gabriel is one of the league's better coaches.
WEAKNESSES - The team has gone downhill slightly the last two years and so has attendance, although it is still good. Star players have often been traded after fighting with management over money.
SUMMARY - The Sounders are making it but must be consistent on the field to remain consistent at the gate.
WASHINGTON DIPLOMATS - In their five-year history the Dips have moved from a high school stadium and crowds of 1,000 to RFK Stadium and crowds of 12,000 in the rain - progress but not success. The club has never won a playoff game and in fact has never played one at home. The latter string should end this year.
STRENGTHS - The club's new ownership, Madison Square Garden, has big dollars and has spent them on a major marketing effort which is slowly showing results. Gordon Bradley, in his second year as coach, has built from a 10-16 record to a solid contender. RFK Stadium has one of the best playing surfaces in the league and the Dips have started three Americans much of this season.
WEAKNESSES - The crowds have improved slowly but the Dips have had only one 30,000 crowd in history (1976 to see the Cosmos and Pele) and aren't drawing enough to make the new owners happy. What's more, the club rarely practices in RFK because of restrictions in its contract with the Armory. The Dips still have no big names to put the people in the stands.
SUMMARY - The Dips are closing in on making it but need patience from the new owners.
DALLAS TORNADO - One of the league's original franchises, the Tornado have won one title (1971) in 13 years and have survived some horrendous years at the gate. Attendance is still less than sensational, but the organization is solid and the team is improving.
TULSA ROUGHNECKS - The league's most transient franchise, this club came into existence in 1975 in San Antonio, then played one year in Hawaii in 1977 before settling into Tulsa in 1978. After a slow start the club has begun to catch on, averaging nearly 15,000 fans for most home games this season.
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES - Another of the league's class organizations. The Quakes have been one of the most consistent teams at the gate since entering the league in 1974. The front office has been successful in its marketing operations and community involvement. The club, which now plays at Spartan Stadium (17,500), is adding about 13,000 seats.
PORTLAND TIMBERS - One of the league's roller coaster franchises, the Timbers reached the Soccer Bowl their first year, dropped to 10-16 two season later but rebounded to 20-10 in 1978. Now they are in last place in the Western Division of the National Conference, and they're losing a bit at the gate.
SAN DIEGO SOCKERS - Having failed as the Jaws in 1976 and the Las Vegas Quicksilvers in 1977, the team returned to San Diego again last year with mixed success. The team, behind the coaching of Hubert Vogelsinger, won the American Conference's Western Division with an 18-12 mark and advanced to the second round of the playoffs before being ousted. The team is again atop its division, the weakest in the league, but as was the problem in the past, the franchise is having problems at the gate.
LOS ANGELES AZTECS - This was a disaster area until this year. The Aztecs, even with an excellent team featuring George Best in 1977, couldn't draw fleas either to the Rose Bowl or the Coliseum. This year, Coach Rinus Michaels has made the organization solid again and the arrival of Johan Cruyff is making a difference.
CHICAGO STING - The Sting boasts one of the more capable front offices in the NASL. Chairman of the Board Lee Stern and President Clive Toye, who built the Cosmos into the power it is today, are competent, inventive and well-versed in the sport. They are the main reasons Chicago still has a soccer team. The 5-year-old club has logged but an overall 49-53 record before this season and has never won a title.
Chicago has the potential to make it but it'll take a few more victories and patience.
DETROIT EXPRESS - After a 10-year absence, soccer returned to the Motor City last season. Good marketing efforts, a dynamic year by English superstar Trevor Francis and so-so years by the other sports teams in Detroit put the Express in the limelight. The team finished 20-10 and won the Central Division title behind Coach Ken Furphy, and marched into the NASL playoffs with high hopes. The team fell short but Furphy and the Detroit area have every reason to look for more of the same in the seasons to come.
CALIFORNIA SURF - By all first-year club standards (the team was formerly located in St. Louis), the Surf was a huge success last year. They had a record of 13-17, gained a berth in the playoffs and most importantly, finished in the top 10 in attendance with an average of 11,489. Anaheim, which is one of the fastest-growing youth soccer cities on the West Coast, is beginning to follow the team.
TORONTO BLIZZARD - Then known as the Toronto Metros-Croatia this club won the Soccer Bowl in 1976. Few people in Toronto cared then and only a few more care now.
NEW ENGLAND TEA MEN - This team took the town by storm, earning a playoff berth in its first year in the league. Backed by Lipton Tea's $600 million corporation, it has no problem advertising or paying for the players it wants. Mike Flanagan, the league's most valuable player last year, and goalie Kevin Keelan each merit three pages in the Club's 104-page press guide. But Flanagan will not play this year. He decided to stay in England.
The team home games were switched from comfortable-but-out-of-the-way Schaefer Stadium in Foxboro to Boston University's Nickerson Field because of legal problems. The players, the fans and the front office hate the field, which is bumpy, hard and poorly lit. The players have openly said they would rather play on the road.
HOUSTON HURRICANE - The Hurricane is the Cinderella team of the year. The second-year franchise collected its share of bumps and bruises last year (10-20) but this season has already surpassed its number of '78 victories and points. It currently leads the Central Division and has the Texas folk talking soccer.
Still the team has a long way to go.
ATLANTA CHIEFS - Only 2 years old, the Chiefs failed in Denver and moved to Atlanta in 1979. Too early to tell if the move will work, but the club, despite a poor showing on the field, has been respectable at the gate.
ROCHESTER LANCERS - This is the club's 10th year in the league and no one can quite figure out why the Lancers are still around. Champions their first year in 1970, the team has always been respectable but never has drawn well, even when winning.
MEMPHIS ROGUES - The second-year franchise has big ideas but no one capable of implementing them. The team finished 10-20, not a total disaster by NASL standards, but averaged 9,581 fans. Both figures were bad enough to drive owner Henry Mangurian to sell the team recently. The new owners haven't decided whether to keep the team here or move to Phoenix. Coach Eddie McCreedie was fired midway through the season and the club has been on the skids ever since.
EDMONTON DRILLERS - The first year franchise (formerly the Oakland Stompers) is going through the pains and headaches most new clubs encounter. Unfortunately, the Drillers have done very little right, either in the front office, in the marketing department or on the field. The team has a list of no-names wearing its uniforms, which doesn't help box office receipts.
PHILADELPHIA FURY - The city of Brotherly Love has had no place in its heart for soccer. Three franchises, including the 2-year old Fury, have been treated like strangers. Management problems along with a poor overall performance on the field has kept the people away. CAPTION: Picture, A sparse crowd watches Ivan Lukacevic (21) of host Toronto land on back of Atlanta's Colin Waldron.