EPISODE #112: The Once & Future Soccer Legacy of Ft. Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium – With Jeff Rusnak

Long-time South Florida Sun-Sentinel soccer columnist Jeff Rusnak joins to discuss the rich past, transitional present and promising future of one of American pro soccer’s most venerable, yet historically underrated venues – Ft. Lauderdale, Florida’s Lockhart Stadium.

Originally built in 1959 as an American football and track venue for four high schools in the region and named after a former city commissioner, the modest bleacher-constructed Lockhart was unwittingly transformed into the country’s first de facto “soccer specific stadium” when the (original) North American Soccer League’s Miami Toros moved 32 miles north from the cavernous Orange Bowl to become 1977’s Ft. Lauderdale Strikers.

The Strikers became a South Florida sports phenomenon during their seven NASL seasons at the crackerbox Lockhart, boasting world-class talent (Gordon Banks, Gerd Müller, Teófilo Cubillas, George Best) and magnetic personalities (Ron Newman, Ray Hudson) that quickly endeared the club and the sport to an adoring fan base.

Numerous lower division clubs kept the soccer flame alive after the Strikers moved (to Minnesota in 1983) and the NASL died – until 1998, when Major League Soccer investor-operator Ken Horowitz debuted the curiously-named “Miami” Fusion expansion franchise at a refurbished Lockhart, featuring Colombian star Carlos Valderrama.  Despite winning the MLS Supporters’ Shield in 2001 under the dynamic coaching of former Striker fan-favorite Hudson, the league contracted the Fusion after just four season – and the stadium again became the intermittent home to lower-league teams (and even FAU college football) until 2016.

But Lockhart refuses to give up the ghost, as an aggressive demolition and rebuild of the abandoned facility now becomes the focal point of a new David Beckham/Jorge Mas-owned MLS franchise called Inter Miami CF set to debut in 2020 – sans a permanent home in the city of Miami proper. 

Will Lockhart again rekindle the original Striker magic – perhaps even permanently?

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EPISODE #109: The NASL Players’ Strike of 1979 – With Steve Holroyd

Professional union labor lawyer and Society for American Soccer History sports historian Steve Holroyd returns to the podcast to go deep into one of the more curious rabbit holes in North American Soccer League history.

In early 1977, Ed Garvey, a labor lawyer and head of the newly-formed National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), recruited Washington Diplomats midfielder John Kerr to help gauge interest among his teammates and those of other clubs in forming a similar organization for the suddenly ascendant ten-year-old NASL. 

By the end of that summer, player representatives from all 18 league clubs agreed in principle to create the North American Soccer League Players Association (NASLPA), and on August 29th, 1977 – the day after the New York Cosmos’ dramatic Soccer Bowl victory over the Seattle Sounders in Pele’s US swan song – officially sought recognition by NASL owners to become the players’ collective bargaining entity.

Commissioner Phil Woosnam and league ownership quickly refused, fearing a threat to the still-fragile circuit’s integrity by a group run by a union of the NFL, with whom NASL owners already had a tenuous (and in the cases of Ft. Lauderdale’s Robbie and Dallas’ Hunt families, common ownership) relationship.     

With no progress towards recognition of the union either during the subsequent off-season or the next year, members of the NASLPA finally voted 252-113 to strike against ownership – announcing its intention to do so on April 13, 1979, one day before the league’s second weekend slate of regular season games.

What transpired next was five unprecedented days of confusion (would foreign imports risk deportation by playing during an American player work stoppage?); desperation (coaches Eddie McCreadie [Memphis] and Ron Newman [Ft. Lauderdale] donning uniforms to help their strike-depleted teams); naiveté (unwitting fans seeking Rochester Lancer “player” autographs during last-minute replacement tryouts); and ultimately, miscalculated futility – as player resolve waned almost immediately, especially among the association’s non-US residents, who actually made up the majority of the membership.

The players’ point had been made, however, and by mid-1984 – through a long series of subsequent court rulings – the NASLPA finally prevailed in its mission to collectively represent players at the bargaining table with league ownership.

Ironically, by then, it didn’t matter – the NASL folded in March of 1985.

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EPISODE #103: MISL Indoor Soccer's Origin Story – With Co-Founder Ed Tepper

We celebrate our second anniversary with the intriguing background story of the original Major Indoor Soccer League, with the man who started it all – Ed Tepper. 

A commercial real estate developer by trade, Tepper actually got his start in pro sports ownership as the owner of the original National Lacrosse League’s Philadelphia Wings – only to switch allegiances to an inchoate indoor offshoot of the world’s most popular sport after a chance exhibition (between the 1973 NASL champion Atoms and the Russian CSKA “Red Army” team) at Philadelphia’s Spectrum on February 11, 1974. 

Originally interested in the game’s bespoke Astroturf-covered surface as a potential improvement for his fledgling box lacrosse club, Tepper (along with 11,700+ enthusiastic curiosity-seekers) instead became instantly attracted to the fast-paced action and high scoring of “indoor soccer” – and quickly resolved to make a professional sport out of it.

In this illuminating interview, Tepper recounts some of the notable events and influential people along the journey from concept to the MISL’s official debut kick (by Cincinnati Kids part-owner Pete Rose, no less) on December 22, 1978 at Uniondale, Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum – including:

  • Convincing ABA Virginia Squires owner (and eventual MISL commissioner) Earl Foreman of the game’s potential;

  • The instant credibility boost of signing American superstar goalkeeper Shep Messing;

  • NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam’s on-again, off-again interest in the indoor game;

  • How (and why) NFL owners Carroll Rosenbloom and Al Davis wanted in; AND

  • The unsung role of TV executive Bob Wussler in garnering attention for the fledgling circuit.

PLUS: The untold tale of Tepper’s very own (barely one-season long) MISL franchise – the New Jersey Rockets!

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EPISODE #99: Sports Broadcaster Bob Carpenter

You know him today as the long-time television play-by-play voice of Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals. 

But before becoming one of the baseball’s most admired and durable broadcasters, Bob Carpenter cut his professional teeth in the burgeoning (but ultimately fleeting) American pro soccer scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s as the lead “man-behind-the-mic” for such iconic teams as the NASL's Tulsa Roughnecks and the MISL's St. Louis Steamers – as well as some less-than-memorable ones, like 1983’s ill-fated US Soccer/NASL hybrid, Team America.

His springboard into TV sports broadcasting’s “big leagues” – including 15 years of nationally televised baseball with ESPN, plus lead announcing duties for the Texas Rangers, Minnesota Twins, New York Mets, and his hometown St. Louis Cardinals – is rich in anecdotes, and we (naturally!) drag the versatile Carpenter back to some of the more “forgotten” stops made along the way, including:

  • A serendipitous segue from minor league baseball to “big time” pro soccer in Tulsa;

  • The Roughnecks’ gritty road to the 1983 NASL title as the league’s smallest-market team;

  • Leveraging national exposure from the NASL into soccer-centric gigs with the fledgling USA & ESPN cable networks;

  • The “invisible hand” of Anheuser-Busch’s soccer-mad executive Denny Long & his Bud Sports production division;

  • Returning home to call Steamers MISL indoor games at the often-packed St. Louis Arena (aka Checkerdome); AND

  • Masquerading as the “local” voice of the Washington, DC-based Team America – the de facto US National Team that played as an NASL franchise. 

Thanks to OldSchoolShirts.com, 503 Sports, Streaker Sports & SportsHistoryCollectibles.com for their support of this week’s episode!

EPISODE #95: The MISL’s Denver Avalanche – With Former Owner Ron Maierhofer

It was December 1979, and Denver-area IT marketing and sales executive Ron Maierhofer was having what some would consider to be a mid-life crisis.  Just off the heels of an annual work retreat and now vacationing on a British Virgin Islands beach with his wife, Maierhofer – a second-generation German-American immigrant and a former player with a lifelong passion for and recreational involvement in the sport of soccer – mused that his business career just wasn’t doing it for him anymore, and that a radical change of pace might be in order.

His muse was the fledgling professional sport of indoor soccer – and his entrée, the upstart Major Indoor Soccer League – the firecracker circuit that had just debuted a year earlier with its fast-paced play, enthusiastic crowds and a non-stop excitement that offered an alluring anecdote to relatively staid pace of the newly popular outdoor game.  The MISL, Maierhofer reasoned to himself and his wife, was the future of soccer – and his chance to make a profession of his love of the “beautiful game.”

Within months, Maierhofer was back home in Denver: hustling up an investment group (including his investment banker brother); working municipal politicians (securing hard-to-get dates and benefits from the city’s McNichols Arena); devising clever marketing hooks (like dash-board rumble seats and a new home for the popular Denver Broncos cheerleaders); and schmoozing the MISL’s top brass during the 1980 All-Star Game and Championship Playoffs in St. Louis – to eventually land what would become one of three new franchises (along with the Chicago Horizons and Phoenix Inferno) in the fall of 1980.

Maierhofer (No Money Down: How to Buy a Sports Franchise; Memoirs of a Soccer Vagabond) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss the heady rise, against-all-odds success, and (ultimately) rapid fall of his two-year “dream job” owning and running the Denver Avalanche – including life lessons learned from his adventure, and the fans that still fondly remember his efforts to this day, nearly 30 years later.

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EPISODE #93: National Soccer Hall of Famer Bobby Smith

We close out an amazing second season of episodes with a special year-end conversation featuring the US pro soccer pioneer who is, at least indirectly, responsible for the creation of this little podcast.  

Just weeks after signing with the fledgling New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League in January 1976, league All Star Bobby Smith (along with fellow Philadelphia Atoms teammate Bob Rigby) was already out pounding the promotional pavement in support of his new club – including (unwittingly) a stop at host Tim Hanlon’s then-elementary school in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey to hand out recreational league trophies and sign autographs. 

The seeds of life-long pro soccer fandom were quickly sown, soon blossoming into an obsession with America’s most famous and successful franchise – and, over time, morphing into an enduring fascination with professional teams and leagues across all sports which, like the Cosmos and the NASL, ultimately came and went.

Defender extraordinaire Smith joins the podcast to discuss his remarkable American pro soccer career before, during and after winning back-to-back NASL titles (1977, 78) with the Cosmos – including:

  • Winning his first league championship with the inaugural 1973 Philadelphia Atoms;

  • A skills-enhancing off-season loan to Irish first division side Dundalk in 1974-75;

  • Playing alongside world’s-best talent like Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, and Carlos Alberto during his time in New York;

  • Post-Cosmos stops with the NASL’s San Diego Sockers, Philadelphia Fury and Montreal Manic;

  • Indoor soccer adventures with the MISL’s 1980-81 Philadelphia Fever;

  • 18 caps with the US National Team during the 1970s; AND

  • Induction into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2007.

A big thank you to all of our great sponsors this past year – SportsHistoryCollectibles.com, OldSchoolShirts.com, 503 Sports, and Audible!

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EPISODE #91: NASL Soccer Video Archeology – With Dave Brett Wasser

The images are grainy, the commentary earnestly naïve, and the theme music disco-infused, but the bigger picture is clear – it’s American soccer history, in all its VHS videotape glory.

Gleaned from a simpler, pre-HD media landscape of the 1970s and early 1980s – much of it before even the mass consumer adoption of the VCR – the roughly 900 hours of TV broadcast match coverage that still survives from the pioneering North American Soccer League is a veritable time machine of pro soccer’s coming-of-age.   And one man has been chiefly responsible for compiling and preserving it.

De facto soccer video anthropologist Dave Brett Wasser has spent over two decades tracking down virtually every known snippet of NASL game footage – more than 450 league and exhibition matches in all – for what is arguably the most comprehensive collection of vintage soccer Americana anywhere.

Meticulously (and sometimes just plain luckily) sourced from a myriad of former players, coaches, TV network vaults, and even garage sales – Wasser’s now-digitized trove has become the go-to source for some of the NASL’s most memorable competitive moments for today’s generation of soccer broadcast producers and documentarians.  Including even the newly-rechristened National Soccer Hall of Fame in Frisco, TX.

In this revealing conversation with host Tim Hanlon, Wasser talks about: his childhood memories of local WOR-TV/New York broadcasts of Cosmos games; the impetus to rediscover them as an adult in the early 1990s lead-up to World Cup USA 1994; the people he’s met along the way of amassing his collection; and the tenuous relationship with the Hall of Fame in his quest to comprehensively digitize and permanently house the entire set of videos for current and future generations of American fans of the “beautiful game” to enjoy and learn from.

Celebrate the holidays (and help us keep our shows going!) by patronizing our great sponsors: 503 Sports, OldSchoolShirts.com, Audible, and SportsHistoryCollectibles.com!

EPISODE #85: Houston’s Iconic Astrodome – With Bob Trumpbour

When it debuted to the public on April 9, 1965 (with an exhibition Major League Baseball game featuring the newly-renamed Houston Astros and Mickey Mantle’s New York Yankees), the Astrodome – audaciously dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World” by its builders – immediately captured the attention of the sports, entertainment and architectural worlds.  

It was a Texas-sized vision of the future – a seemingly unimaginable feat of engineering, replete with breakthrough innovations such as premium luxury suites, theater-style seating, and the world’s first-ever animated stadium scoreboard.  At the time, it was the biggest-ever indoor space ever made by man – an immense cylinder nearly half-a-mile around and with a flying-saucer-like roofline – that evoked a modern space age that the city of Houston and a reach-the-Moon-obsessed nation envisioned for itself.

Amidst the ambition, not all was perfect: baseball outfielders were initially unable to see fly balls through the stadium’s clear Plexiglas roof panels, and attempts to grow natural grass for its playing surface failed repeatedly (ultimately leading to the development of artificial “AstroTurf”).    

Yet, unquestionably, the arrival of the Astrodome changed the way people viewed sporting events and – putting casual fans at the center of the experience, that would soon become the expected standard for all facets of live communal entertainment.

Penn State University professor Rob Trumpbour (The Eighth Wonder of the World: The Life of Houston’s Iconic Astrodome) joins host Tim Hanlon to discuss the life, impact and ongoing legacy of the Astrodome’s signature role in transforming Houston as a city – and some of the memorable (and not so memorable) pro franchises that called it home during its 43-year run, including the AFL/NFL football Oilers, the NASL soccer Stars and Hurricane, and challenger-league football’s Texans (WFL) and Gamblers (USFL). 

Plus, the backstory of Major League Baseball’s 1962 expansion Houston Colt .45’s – the original catalyst behind the dome’s conception and construction.

Our appreciation to OldSchoolShirts.com, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com, 503 Sports, Audible, and MyBookie for sponsoring this week’s episode!

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EPISODE #76: National Soccer Hall of Fame Coach Gordon Jago

We continue our march towards the upcoming 50th anniversary reunion of the North American Soccer League (as part the rechristening of the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Frisco, TX on October 19-21, 2018), with one of the coaching pioneers from the league’s heyday, Gordon Jago (A Soccer Pioneer: The Autobiography of Gordon Jago).

After a sparkling youth career with England’s Charlton Athletic and the national Under-20s, Jago quickly segued to coaching in the mid-1960s as an assistant coach with First Division Fulham – where he, during a summer exhibition in Oakland, CA, became smitten with the idea of professional soccer in the US.

Persuaded by eventual NASL co-founder (and Episode #74 guest) Clive Toye, Jago jumped the pond in  to become head coach of the newly consolidated league’s 1968 Baltimore Bays, whose beer baron/owner Jerold Hoffberger soon gave up on the team, the league and the sport by the following season.  After a brief stint overseeing the US National team later that year for World Cup ’70 qualifying, Jago returned to England to hone his coaching skills with Queens Park Rangers (who he guided to First Division promotion in 1973) and Millwall (promoted from Third Division to Second in 1976).

But it was the US for good when Tampa Bay Rowdies owner George Strawbridge came calling in 1978 to replace the recently absconded Eddie Firmani as the successful Florida NASL franchise’s head coach – a team he promptly led to back-to-back Soccer Bowl championship games with perennial league all-stars like Rodney Marsh, Oscar Fabbiani, Steve Wegerle, Mike Connell, and John Gorman.

It was also there (actually, St. Petersburg’s cozy Bayfront Center) where Jago got his first taste of the professional indoor game (including an NASL indoor championship in 1980) – experience that would later serve as foundation for a nearly 20-year coaching and management career leading the formidable Dallas Sidekicks, netting league championships across the MISL (1987), CISL (1993), Premier Soccer Alliance (1998), and World Indoor Soccer League (2001).

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EPISODE #74: NASL Soccer's Chief Architect Clive Toye

Soccer America columnist (and Episode #6 interviewee) Paul Gardner summed up this week's Hall of Fame guest in his May 2015 commentary:

“The debt owed by American soccer to Clive Toye is a vast one. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say, flatly, that without Toye’s blind faith in the sport in the 1970s, pro soccer in the USA would have withered and died. Yes, Phil Woosnam and Lamar Hunt and Bob Hermann were there too. But in those unpromising years it was Toye’s voice -- it came in a steady flow of ridiculously optimistic press releases and grandiose plans for a future that few others even dared to ponder -- that called loudest.

“The New York Cosmos general manager credited with turning that league’s fortunes around when he signed Pele to a contract in 1975. Toye, who was born in England and came to the United States in 1967 at the age of 33, was president of three North American Soccer League teams – the Cosmos, Chicago Sting and Toronto Blizzard – and general manager of the [original National Professional Soccer League and subsequent NASL] Baltimore Bays.  [He] was an official of the NASL in helping it through its crisis year of 1969 and in its final months in 1985 – and helped to found the third American Soccer League in 1988.

“There has always been the spirit of a showman in Toye, and surely it was that spirit that enabled Toye to overlook the virtual collapse of the old North American Soccer League and to see instead a glittering future for the sport in the USA, even to declare to anyone who was listening -- and not many were in those days -- the preposterous notion that the USA should begin preparing to stage the World Cup.

“And when the NASL, by the skin of its teeth and by the mad devotion of Toye et al., did survive, it was Toye who gave the reborn league its glittering image with his invention of the Cosmos, with his canny maneuvering and dealing, who brought Pele and Beckenbauer to New York.  Showmanship indeed.”

Toye (A Kick in the Grass: The Slow Rise and Quick Demise of the NASL; Anywhere in the World) joins host Tim Hanlon for a lyrical and anecdote-filled journey through the pro league that he helped create, later put to rest, and which ultimately shored up the long-term foundation of the “beautiful game” in America.

We appreciate our sponsors OldSchoolShirts.com, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com, Podfly, and Audible for their support of this week’s episode!

          

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EPISODE #71: National Soccer Hall of Fame Coach Al Miller - Part Two

We conclude our conversation with National Soccer Hall of Fame coach Al Miller, who shares a wide array of additional recollections, anecdotes, musings, and insights from a legendary career across US outdoor and indoor soccer, including:

  • An historic February 11, 1974 indoor game at Philadelphia’s Spectrum between Miller’s NASL champion Atoms and Moscow’s Red Army – generally acknowledged as the true genesis of the Major Indoor Soccer league four years later;
  • The positives and the negatives of the New York Cosmos “superteam” that dominated the NASL in the late 1970s/early 1980s;
  • Trading the Dallas Tornado’s cozy downtown confines of SMU’s Ownby Stadium for the major league bigtime of Irving’s Texas Stadium;
  • The only-in-the-NASL saga of the one-year Calgary Boomers;
  • Reuniting with Lamar Hunt via the 1983 Tampa Bay Rowdies; AND
  • Helping the city of Cleveland end a 30-year pro sports championship drought with the 1993-94 NPSL season-winning Cleveland Crunch.

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EPISODE #70: National Soccer Hall of Fame Coach Al Miller

In February 1973, the suddenly ascendant North American Soccer League hurriedly awarded a new franchise to Philadelphia construction magnate Thomas McCloskey, despite the league’s fast-approaching season start date of May 1st.  The result of some Super Bowl VII arm-twisting by Kansas City Chiefs (and NASL Dallas Tornado) owner Lamar Hunt after helping McCloskey secure last-minute tickets, the team that would soon become the Philadelphia Atoms had only three months to move from birth to first game. 

In desperate need of a head coach, McCloskey and GM/soccer novice Bob Ehlinger turned to a bright young Hartwick College coach named Al Miller to hastily assemble a roster and a playing style, which Miller quickly achieved with a handful of English lower-division journeymen married with a bevy of hungry, underappreciated American players from the college ranks – rapidly gelling into an NASL championship team that stunned the pro soccer pundits (including the editors of Sports Illustrated), and became a Philly fan sensation.

The immediate success of the Atoms and its decidedly American-style approach to the world’s game quickly thrust Miller into the US soccer coaching spotlight and set in motion a standout pro career that traversed the NASL, MISL and indoor NPSL (not to mention a brief stint helming the 1975 US Men’s National Team), and, ultimately a red jacket into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2008.

In the first of a two-part interview, Miller joins host Tim Hanlon to reveal some never-before-heard stories from the front lines of his pioneering coaching career, including the Atoms, the Dallas Tornado, the one-year Calgary Boomers, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, the MISL Cleveland Force, and the three-time NPSL champion Cleveland Crunch.   

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EPISODE #67: Behind-the-Scenes Tales from the Front Office with Thom Meredith

Our World Cup fever has yet to break, and we spend this week reveling in some of the heretofore unexplored (at least on this podcast) nooks and crannies of modern-day American pro soccer history with one of its most unsung front office heroes. 

In a career spanning over four decades, sports PR and event management executive Thom Meredith has proverbially “seen it all” across some of US sports’ most remarkable leagues, franchises and governing bodies – including remarkable (and sometimes dubious) assignments like handling press for the woeful NFL expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers of 1976-77, managing communications for Lamar Hunt’s World Championship Tennis circuit of the early 1980s, and directing a litany of events for the fast-growing (and World Cup USA-fueled) US Soccer Federation of the 1990s. 

But it’s Meredith’s work across some of the most exciting (and exasperating) teams of the late 1970s/early 1980s North American Soccer League – the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Washington Diplomats, Philadelphia Fury, and Dallas Tornado – as well as the enormously well-funded, but ultimately ill-fated Women’s United Soccer Association of the early 2000s, that really piques our obsessive interests.

In this episode, we journey back with Meredith – the consummate professional soccer management insider – as he recounts priceless moments shared in the trenches with a veritable Who’s Who of the modern American game’s most indelible personalities: Shep Messing, Francisco Marcos, Al Miller, Phil Woosnam, Jim Karvellas, Seamus Malin, Alec Papadakis, John Hendricks, Timo Liekoski, Dick Berg, Tony DiCicco, Pele – and, of course, the incomparable investor-patron Hunt.

We thank Podfly, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com, and Audible for their support of this week’s show!

EPISODE #66: Sports Broadcaster JP Dellacamera

Fox Sports soccer play-by-play broadcaster extraordinaire JP Dellacamera joins the podcast this week to discuss a pioneering career in sports announcing spanning over 30 years – including calling this year’s 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia – his ninth consecutive men’s quadrennial assignment since Mexico ’86.

Widely acknowledged as the original voice of US Soccer, Dellacamera’s calls have become synonymous with some of modern-day American soccer’s most indelible moments – including his accounts of the US Women’s National Team’s dramatic penalty kick shootout victory over China in the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and Paul Caligiuri’s historic “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” against Trinidad & Tobago in the final game of 1989 CONCACAF qualifying that punched the US Men’s National Team’s ticket for Italy ’90 – ending a 40-year World Cup finals drought, and reorienting the sport’s trajectory in the ‘States for decades to come.

The road to broadcasting global soccer’s marquee events has by no means been a straight and narrow one, however, and we (of course) chat with Dellacamera about some of the more memorable “forgotten” stops made along the way, including:

  • Talking his way into his professional debut calling local TV games for the 1978 NASL expansion Detroit Express;
  • Handling radio play-by-play for the American Soccer League’s ALPO dog food-sponsored Pennsylvania Stoners;
  • Parlaying years of minor league hockey broadcast experience into lead announcing duties for indoor soccer’s Pittsburgh Spirit of the fledgling MISL;
  • Cementing his stature as the voice of US women’s soccer as the play-by-play lead for the 2001 launch of the WUSA; and   
  • Returning to his first love of pro hockey – finally at the NHL level – with the short-lived Atlanta Thrashers.  

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EPISODE #64: American Soccer’s “Dark Ages” with Writer Michael J. Agovino

It wasn’t easy being a soccer fan in the United States in the 1980s. 

While the 24-team North American American Soccer League ushered in the decade with an air of stability and momentum (the NASL even sold a pennant labeling the game the “Sport of the 80’s”), it wasn’t long before big-time American pro soccer was dangerously on the ropes (the NASL shrank to just nine franchises by 1984) – and then seemingly gone for good when the league officially sank into oblivion in early 1985.  For a nascent generation of US fans newly hooked on the world’s “beautiful game,” it felt like an abandonment – and an air of disillusionment beset the American soccer scene in the immediate years that followed. 

For Bronx-born writer Michael J. Agovino (The Soccer Diaries: An American's Thirty-Year Pursuit of the International Game), the demise of the NASL and its global flagship New York Cosmos franchise was simply the last nail in the coffin of his soccer “coming of age” during the early 80s – the conclusion of an arc of tragedies: the US Soccer Federation’s unsuccessful bid to replace Colombia as host of the 1986 World Cup; the US national team’s failure to even qualify for the quadrennial event; and the unfathomable death of 41 fans in a riot at the 1985 European Cup Final in Brussels’ Heysel Stadium. 

As Agovino framed it: “Soccer – my new friend – was dead.”

Undaunted, Agovino’s love affair with soccer persisted, while Americans slowly got wise – qualifying for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, hosting the event in 1994, and re-birthing the pro game with Major League Soccer in 1996 – and ultimately turned it into one of the most popular sports in the country.

We chat with Agovino about US soccer’s mid-1980s “dark ages” and subsequent phoenix-like rise from seeming oblivion, including memorable stops like: New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal; the NASL’s Trans-Atlantic Challenge Cup; the 1991 Cosmos Reunion Game; Tony Tirado’s lyrical Spanish (and broken English) SIN-TV broadcasts; “Soccer Made in Germany;” and the legacy/enigma of Giants Stadium.

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EPISODE #61: Sports Promoter Doug Verb

If someone ever decides to build an American sports promotion Hall of Fame, the inaugural class will undoubtedly be led by this week’s special guest, Doug Verb.  In a career spanning more than 40 years in professional sports management, Verb’s remarkable career has included spearheading marketing, promotion, publicity, and television for some of the most innovative and memorable leagues and franchises of the modern era. 

One of the founding executives of both the pioneering Major Indoor Soccer League (along with sports entrepreneurs Earl Foreman, Ed Tepper, and previous podcast guest Dr. Joe Machnik), and the frenetic Arena Football League (with the sport’s inventor [and past two-part guest] Jim Foster), Verb additionally  served as president of pro soccer’s legendary Chicago Sting from 1982-86 – which, incredibly, drifted between playing in two separate leagues during his tenure (for one year, simultaneously) – the outdoor North American Soccer League and the indoor MISL. 

In our longest and more anecdote-filled episode to date, Verb vividly recounts the highs and lows of launching new teams, leagues and even sports themselves from whole cloth – with nary an operational blueprint or career roadmap to be found.  Buckle up for a wild ride through the woeful 1976 NASL Philadelphia Atoms, the “Rocket Red” pinball-like MISL, soccer for all seasons in the Windy City, and birthing indoor football. 

PLUS:  Kiddie City to the rescue; Earl Foreman’s “Brother-in-Law Effect;” getting paid in soybeans; and the curious one-game history of the Liberty Basketball Association! 

AND:  Verb reveals plans for a first-ever Major Indoor Soccer League reunion later this year in Las Vegas!

Thanks Podfly, Audible and SportsHistoryCollectibles.com for supporting the podcast!

Philadelphia Atoms apparel from Ultras - buy here

MISL apparel from Throwback Max - buy here

Chicago Sting apparel from Ultras - buy here

                                    

EPISODE #59: Pro Soccer’s Dean of Media Relations, Jim Trecker

With a career spanning more than four decades, the National Soccer Hall of Fame’s 2017 Colin Jose Media Award-winner Jim Trecker has been part of the American sports media relations landscape since the late 1960’s.  After a chance part-time undergrad job in Columbia University’s modest sports information department, Trecker traded his initial career ambitions in French language education for what ultimately became an unmatched professional journey in public relations at the highest levels of international sports.

After cutting his PR teeth with various post-grad pro sports gigs around New York (including work for the Madison Square Garden-owned New York Skyliners [actually Uruguay’s C.A. Cerro] of the 1967 United Soccer Association), Trecker helped manage media relations for the “Broadway” Joe Namath-era AFL-then-NFL New York Jets – a whirling dervish of major league sports information management that transfixed both the Gotham and national press corps, especially in the wake of a surprising Super Bowl III championship.

But it was the arrival of international soccer superstar Pelé to the fledgling New York Cosmos in 1975 that ultimately took Trecker – and the steeply ascendant North American Soccer League – into a stratospheric professional orbit, as the increasingly star-studded team, league and sport exploded onto the local, national and global sports scenes during the latter half of the decade.  Soccer’s first true international “super club,” the Cosmos became nothing short of an international sports and cultural phenomenon, and Trecker’s job was to manage all of the media’s intense interest in everything related to them – no easy feat.

Trecker joins host Tim Hanlon to recount some of the most memorable events during the heyday of the Cosmos, as well as his subsequent PR leadership roles with the NASL’s Washington Diplomats, the league office itself, and his mega role as head of media relations for the wildly successful USA-hosted 1994 World Cup.  PLUS: we discuss Trecker’s role behind the upcoming NASL 50th Anniversary, to be held in conjunction with the re-launch of the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Frisco, TX on October 16-18, 2018!

Thanks to Audible, SportsHistoryCollectibles.com and Podfly for their support of the show!