When I first heard that the NASL was going to put a team of Americans in Washington I had several questions:
Is there any way to make Johan Cruyff eligible for the team?
Is there really still an NASL?
If so, why?
And, finally, will the sports editor ask me to cover Team America, which most people still assume is a hockey team?
Six years ago, I was assigned to cover the Washington Diplomats. "I've only seen one professional soccer game in my entire life," I admitted.
"That's good," the editor said. "We've been looking for an expert."
So, in 1977, I covered the Diplomats, better known as the Dips. They were a wonderful bunch of guys, but their record was 10-16.
That winter, the Dips played a series of indoor exhibition games at the D.C. Armory. The night before the first game, they held a press reception. The boards enclosing the playing surface of the Armory had just been set up by workmen and here came the Dips to give the press a preview. Jimmy Steele immediately banked the first shot off the boards and they all collapsed, one by one, like dominoes, until none were left.
After the 1978 season, the Dips were sold to Madison Square Garden. Big bucks. Sonny Werblin, America's sports entrepeneur, would make soccer fly in Washington. The 1,230,400 youngsters playing soccer in the area and their parents would now start attending games.
In Werblin's first season he quickly warned the fans to start showing up or he was moving the team to Milwaukee. Or maybe St. Louis. Or New York.
Werblin did pull off a masterstroke. After the '79 season, he purchased Cruyff from the L.A. Aztecs. Cruyff was, next to Pele, perhaps the greatest soccer player ever. If you don't believe me, ask him. He was 33, had lost a step, but was still better than most players in the NASL.
The Diplomats averaged 19,205 a game in Cruyff's season. They were exciting and caught people's imagination. Actually, Cruyff was exciting. But, after the season, Werblin folded the team.
Was pro soccer dead here? Never. Three months after the Dips folded, the Detroit Express moved here in the spring of 1981 and named themselves--what else?--the Dips. They lasted one season, lost lots of games and finally folded, their owners, Jimmie and Duncan Hill, fleeing the country to avoid debtors.
Now comes Team America. Is it too late to naturalize Cruyff?