Six months have passed since the Vancouver Whitcaps left Giant Stadium with the 1980 Soccer Bowl trophy and, as always, the offseason has been as busy as the season itself for the North American Soccer League.
The Washington Diplomats revamped their front office and purchased Johan Cruyff, the biggest name in the game.
The Cosmos lost a few stars and picked up a couple, bu most significant they found a coach who may bring the stability they need to recapture the Soccer Bowl crown.
The Whitecaps, refusing to bow to star goalkeeper Phil Parkes' salary demands, sold him to the Chicago Sting. Last year, the Sting had the offensive to be a contender. Now, it may have the defense.
The Toronto Blizzard put themselves in the hands of Clive Toye, who left Chicago in frustration after two struggling years as president. The man who brought Jomo Sono -- once billed as the next Pele while with the Cosmos -- to Toronto, buying him from Atlanta. He also brought Jim McAlister, the NSAL rookie of the year in 1977 but a benched malcontent in Seattle last season, to the Blizzard.
The Edmonton Drillers, who set a league record by losing 15 straight games last season, decided that if Timo Liekowski could find a way to go 22-8 in Houston, he could do the same for them. So, they lured the NASL 1979 coach of the year north.
The Memphis Rogues, a horrible team in 1979, with a few quality players, purchased two of the league's bad boys. Paul Cannell from Washington and Paul Child from San Jose, each a gifted scorer with a knack for finding trouble. Cannell found it immediately, breaking a leg in an indoor game. He was last seen hobbling around Georgetown.
But perhaps the most improtant happening in this offseason was a nonhappening: not one of the NASL's 24 franchises folded or moved. As the league starts its 14th season this weekend, one of two conclusions might be reached: either the NASL has finally acquired some stability, or several struggling francises have one more season to get their act together. Several such back-to-the-wall teams come to mind immediately: Philadelphia, Chicago, New England, Rochester, Memphis and Edmonton.
All have shown potential, though. Memphis and Edmonton have drawn well occasionally despite poor teams. Rochester has survived 14 years in a horrid stadium and New England will be back in Schaefer Stadium where it drew reasonably well two years ago before being banished to Boston University last season. Chicago and Philadelphia have potential but have not lived up to it.
But Parkes in goal Chicago has an excellent shot at the division crown in the American Conference Central. That might bring the crowds.And with Eddie Firmani coaching in Philadelphia, the Fury should be competitive -- Firmani has won three Soccer Bowls in four full seasons as an NASL coach.
When they finally get around to playing the Soccer Bowl at RFK Stadium Sept. 21 the host city's team, the Diplomats, could well be in uniform. With the acquisition of Cruyff, fellow Dutchman Wim Jansen and Spanish star Juan-Jose Lozano, the Dips, 19-11 a year ago, should challenge the Cosmos both in the National Conference East and for the conference title in the playoffs.
In the American Conference, Tampa Bay, conference champion the last two years and winner of the league's first indoor season (10 teams took part) is the favorite. But Fort Lauderdale and Chicago will be competitive
The alignment of the NASA's six divisions is identical to last season's. Sixteen of the 24 teams will make the playoffs, which will be played under the same system as last year: the first three rounds will be home-and-home with as 30 minute "minigame" deciding the series if the games are split. The Soccer Bowl is a one-shot affair. NATIONAL CONFERENCE
EAST: This is probably the strongest division in the league, with the Cosmos and Diplomats perhaps the two strongest NASL teams.
The Cosmos, in spite of internal problems that made the Yankees look like the Bobsey Twins, managed a second straight 24-6 record last season before being knocked out of the playoffs by Vancouver in a heart-stopping mini-game. Midfielder Franz Beckenbauer, now 35, has recovered from knee surgery and is eager for one last big year. Giorgio Chinaglia can still score as well as anyone and Rick Davis, 21, may be the first great American player. If new coach Heinz Weiller can get the stars to play together, the Cosmos are the best in the league.
The Diplomats' Cruyff can do things no one else can do, and holdovers Bob Iarucci, Alan Green and goalkeeper Bill Irvin were good enough to help put together the league's fifth-best record a year ago. With at least three new starters, and defenders Mike Dillon, Jim Steele and Don Droege injured, it will take the club time to jell.
The Blizzard, who could contend for first in almost any other division, might win 20 of 32 games and finish third. Rochester, with the league's No. 1 flake, Shep Messing, rookie of the year Bronco Segota and new coach Ray Kilveca (Cosmos co-coach in 79) will be competitive. The Lancers beat the Dips twice last year.
CENTRAL: The Minnesota Kicks, with Alan Willey leading the way are one of the best five teams and one of the five best draws in soccer.
The Kicks stood pat in the offseason, satisfied that their 21-9 record, second to the Cosmos, was no fluke.
The Tulsa Roughnecks upset the Kicks in the playoffs last season and gave the Cosmos a battle. They will paly competitive soccer under new coach Charlie Mitchell but will be hard-pressed to hold off the Dallas Tornado for second place. The Tornado, strapped for scoring last season, may have solved that problem with the acquisiton of striker Klaus Topmuller, who immediately upon signing with Dallas challenged Chinaglia to bet him $5,000 on who would score more goals. David Byrne joining Jeff Bourne to provide punch.
WEST - Vancouver, even without Parkes, can dominate. Midfielder Alan Ball, Soccer Bowl MVP, is still a leader at 35 and the defense is solid. Many say that the defense has as much to do with Parkes' 0.96 goals-against-average as Parkes.
In Los Angeles, the Aztecs have a new look. Purchased by a Mexican group headed by former Dallas Cowboy placekicker Danny Villanueva, they are acquiring Mexican players and trying to luree Hispanics to the Rose Bowl. Whether they can do that or match last season's 17-13 mark with out Cruyff is debatable.
The Seattle Sounders have a new coach, Alan Hinton, who left Tulsa to move west, and have shed themselves of McAlister, whose nonpresence in the lineup caused problems last season. In Portland, Coach Don Megson won a power struggle with General Manager Kent Kramer and survived a 10-20 season. He may be in for more of the same this year with Clive Charles has only one quality player. AMERCIAN CONFERENCE
EAST -- This should be strictly a race for bragging rights in Florida between Tampa Bay and Fort Lauderdale. The Rowdies no longer have Rodney Marsh, the clown prince of soccer having retired. But they do have the Nasl's leading scorer, Oscar Fabbiani, and Neill Roberts, the moody South African star acquired from Atlanta.
The Strikers finished last last season but bombed in the playoffs. With Gerd Mueller and Teofilo Cubillas they have as much scoring power as anyone in the league and could be the sleeper team.
As could the Philadelphia Fury, because of Firmani's coaching and David Robb, third in th league in scoring last year.
In New England they're still srying about Mike Flanagan, the league's leading scorer in 1978 who never returned. Without him the Tea Men are ordinary at best and word is that the Lipton Tea Co. is losing interest in its struggling franchise.
CENTRAL -- This should be the year of the Sting. With Detroit weakened by the loss of Trevor Franics and Houston goalie Paul Hammond unlikely to pull the miracles which gave the Hurricane a 22-8 record last season, Chicago should dominate.
Detroit didn't make the playoffs last year and probably won't this year, either, with Keith Furphy, son of Coach Ken Furphy, the only legitimate scoring threat.
The Sting has one of the top scoring threats in Karl Heinz Granitza who, with Parkes, should make Chicago a solid team at both ends of the field. w
Watch out for the Memphis Rogues. They were second to Tampa Bay in indoor play and with Child and Cannell -- when he gets healthy -- in the lineup, they can score.
WEST -- This is the NASL's answer to the NFC Central -- no one can play. San Diego won the division with a 15-15 record last year and the Sockers led by Julie Veee, should repeat with a smiliar record. The California Surf won't be far behind -- how far behind 15-15 can you be?
Then comes Edmonton -- If Liekowski can coax 12 wins out of this club he should be coach of the year again -- and finally, the San Jose Earthquakes. The Quakes won eight games last year but may not do as well this year. They finally named a coach -- Bill Foulkes -- Friday. Root for them, though: John Carbray, former general manager of the Diplomats, has returned to where he started in soccer in 1976.