The principal owner of Team America charged yesterday that the North American Soccer League "has not met its legal or moral commitment to the team," and he said he will reconsider his relationship to Team America unless there is a change in the situation.
"I don't make threats," said Robert Lifton of New York, the principal owner of Team America. "But I don't think anybody expects me to continue to work under these circumstances."
Lifton's comments came a day after Team America lost its eighth consecutive NASL game to Montreal, 2-1, before 5,281 at RFK Stadium--the smallest turnout of the season home or away.
"The attendance is the product of the team's playing, and the team's playing is the product of the fact that the NASL did not do what it said it was going to do, which was give us the best of American players, and the MISL (Major Indoor Soccer League) did not do what they said they were going to do, which was to fill in with more players . . .
"Now we are facing the consequences, which are very unfortunate and very unhappy and very disappointing."
Howard Samuels, president of the NASL and one of the key figures in persuading Lifton to back the Team America concept, said, "Bob is getting to be like a typical owner when his team starts to lose. This is Bob's first experience with a sports team. I think he is personally upset with attendance. He feels he should have some player help. I am supporting Bob in every way I can, recognizing that I have responsibilities not only for Team America but for the other teams in the league."
Samuels discounted suggestions that Lifton might discontinue his relationship with the team. "Bob's too big a person for that," he said.
Although it was intended to field the best native-born and naturalized American soccer players to play in the NASL and train for the World Cup, the Team America idea failed to find universal support among NASL players. Several of the league's top Americans declined invitations to join the team.
Then NASL and MISL were unable to reach an agreement for the top American MISL players to play for Team America during its off season.
Lifton, however, said he'd been assured all along that both obstacles would be overcome.
"They all gave me personal assurances that the players would come," he said. "They said, 'Don't worry about it. Don't worry about it.' All of those 'don't worries' have led us to this point.
"I don't think it's fair to the fans. I don't think it's fair to the players. I don't think it's fair to me. This is not yet Team America in its entirety. I don't hide my feelings that I've been led down the primrose path."
Lifton said he has no complaints about the players who have agreed to play for Team America.
"They're wonderful, commendable young men who have given their hearts and their intestines to win, but they were not given the totality of the talent to win, and it was not fair to them."
At the beginning of the season, Lifton said, Team America "played nobly on emotion. I make the comparison with the U.S. Olympic hockey team. You can play five games on emotion, but you can't play a 30-game season on emotion."
After a respectable start, Team America has deteriorated since mid-June, losing nine of its last 10 games. It is now trailing Montreal by 37 points for the eighth and final spot in the NASL playoffs with just over a month remaining in regular-season competition.
Home attendance, which averaged more than 20,000 a game earlier in the season with some aggressive promotions, has dropped to a 16,089 average.
Lifton, who said before the season began that he expected the team would make a small profit, now says that's no longer the case. "It's a losing proposition, and it's substantial," he said, declining to discuss how much money he is losing.
Beau Rogers, vice president and general manager of Team America, said the team plans an international exhibition tour once the regular NASL season is over, and he expects American players from other NASL teams to join Team America for that tour.
There are nine-regular season NASL games remaining on Team America's schedule plus an Aug. 13 exhibition game at RFK Stadium with Juventus, the Italian club. Juventus has five players from Italy's 1982 World Cup champion team, including Paolo Rossi.
Because preliminary World Cup competition starts at the end of next year, Samuels said he expects many American players in the NASL who did not join Team America this year would do so next year to assure themselves of a chance to participate.
"It is hard to believe a player who cares about the sport would miss a chance to play for the U.S. team," Samuels said. "We will be as tough as we can, but we will not pass a rule that a player who refuses to play on Team America cannot play in the NASL."