By Michael Lewis
Ron Newman always had dreams of playing on the same soccer team as his son, Guy, he just didn’t think it would turn out this way.
As the 44-year-old coach of the old Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Newman was forced to suit up just so there would be enough bodies on the field for his team’s 4-0 loss to the Washington Diplomats on April 14, 1979.
The reason? The North American Soccer League players’ strike.
“Phil Woosnam [NASL commissioner] told me to get a team on the field at all costs,” said Newman, who went on to coach the Kansas City Wizards and prior to that, the San Diego Sockers to Major Indoor Soccer League glory. “We had 15,000 spectators at the game. I think they were upset seeing people like me and people off the street.”
In 1979, the fledgling NASL Players Association, which had been certified by the National Labor Relations Board in 1978, was trying to get official recognition from the league. The owners refused to budge, and the players voted to strike the games on April 14.
For one Saturday, the world of American professional soccer was turned upside. Some players did strike, others didn’t, leaving for unbalanced teams and results. There were rumors and alleged threats from both sides that if foreign players with temporary visas did or did not play, they would be deported.
An official with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service eventually said since there was a strike “all permission to work is suspended for all temporary alien workers.”
The strike left the sport with a black eye and some of the most bizarre moments in pro soccer history. It did not paint a pretty picture of professional soccer in the U.S.
There were major rule suspensions. Woosnam, citing unusual circumstances, suspended three rules during the strike: the Americanization rule, in which each team must have at least two North Americans on the field at a time, the loan agreement, which forbid teams to loan players to other teams, and the provision that a player could not sign a one-game contract.
There were mismatches. Every player on the Memphis Rogues, for example, went on strike except for Argentine midfielder Ruben Astigarraga. That forced Rogues coach Eddie McCreadie, a former Scottish international, to play the final 22 minutes for his team — at the age of 36 — in what turned into a 6-0 rout by the Detroit Express, which fielded virtually a full lineup.
Newman, whose picture wearing a Strikers’ uniform was the cover photo in the April 19, 1979 edition of Soccer America, came on as a substitute in the 60th minute.
“It was the only time we [Guy and Ron] played together,” Newman once told me. “It should have been a charity exhibition game.
“I think the union picked on our team because of Joe Robbie [the Strikers’ owner]. He was very anti-union. I knew we were in trouble when the players didn’t show up for morning practice. We had to find a goalkeeper — a kid who had trained with us. We were really rushing around, asking people to bring their friends. I was disappointed. We lost the division by three points.”
There were emotional scenes. New York Cosmos players overwhelming voted to support the strike, but only seven players kept their word. As the team bus left Giants Stadium for a Warner Communications private jet to take them to their game against the Atlanta Chiefs, team player representative Bobby Smith was near tears. As the team boarded the bus, Smith yelled at his teammates.
And there were some strange moments. Take, for example, the Tulsa Roughnecks’ 5-2 victory over the visiting Rochester Lancers. The score told only a minute part of the story.
The Lancers’ Americans went on strike (while Tulsa manned a full squad), leaving the team without key starters and a bench. So, the team flew in eight amateur players from Rochester and several who played in the German-American (now Cosmopolitan) Soccer League in New York.
In a hastily organized afternoon practice, head coach Don Popovic tried to mesh these new players together with his foreign players. After practice, the backup goalkeeper drove off without Popovic ever knowing his name (he later was identified as Dan Snow).
Goalkeeper Kurt Kuykendall, one of those players from the New York City airlift, introduced himself to his defense just before the kickoff.
During the match, Lancers forward Julio Baylon limped off the Skelly Stadium field with a pulled leg muscle, Popovic looked down the bench at his five players and asked, “Who can play forward?”
“I felt like crying,” Popovic said later. “I thought the tryouts were sad. I never thought I’d ever get into a situation like that to get just 11 bodies for a game. It was ridiculous.”
It sure was — not only for the Lancers, but for the NASL and for the credibility of all of pro soccer as well.
The players eventually came back to practice several days later and there were no other work stoppages. The sides reached an agreement in 1980.
Did the strike directly lead to the eventual demise of the league? Probably not, although it did not help, particularly with the public’ perception of soccer at the time.