During the week leading up to the playoff it rained heavily almost every afternoon and Miami steamed in the sun and heavy air. Unfortunately, game time was scheduled for 3:30 p.m.—the evening would have been more pleasant—because television wanted it then, and the prospect of national exposure was too rich an opportunity for a struggling young professional sport to ignore. There had been no live national soccer telecast since 1968, the year some NASL executives call "The Great Disaster."
The league was founded then with 17 teams, but 12 of them folded when the season ended. It had started out with no base of popular support. No one seemed to know how the game should be televised and word quickly spread that it was a loser. First and second generation Americans from soccer countries sneered at the quality of play, and hardly anyone else cared at all. Fortunately, there were some who did care, most notably Lamar Hunt, who hung on in Dallas. Slowly the league began to revitalize, from the bottom up.
This year the NASL had eight new teams. In the last four years attendance has risen an average of 100% per team. Soccer is said to be the nation's fastest-growing team sport for schoolchildren, and, says the NASL's indefatigable commissioner, Phil Woosnam, "Those kids are starving for an American hero."
Well, perhaps Doug McMillan of the Aztecs will do. McMillan, 29, was the league's Rookie of the Year, and as much as anyone he deserved credit for the Aztec victory last week, for it was he who scored the tying goal with only 2:08 left.
McMillan started out in the game late, playing a little soccer in Scotland as a child, but his family emigrated to Ohio when he was 15, and American football became his sport. He was an all-state halfback, and he says, "Every time I got the ball I ran for a 75-yard touchdown." He wanted to be a professional but was only 5'7" and 140 pounds. So he joined the Navy, and in California he started playing soccer in the Greater Los Angeles League. He was a leading scorer, and last February Coach Alex Perolli asked him to join the Aztecs. He had a fine season, scoring 10 goals and getting 10 assists, and he displayed a hard-running European style, exceptional quickness and an uncanny ability to anticipate the ball. In the Aztecs' semifinal win over Boston he scored the second goal.
The other outstanding Aztec rookie, the first selection in the 1974 college draft, was Jose Lopez, a defender. Born in Mexico, Lopez moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was 11. He played four years of soccer at UCLA, and in three of them his team went to the NCAA finals. But all three times the Bruins lost to St. Louis University, twice in the Orange Bowl, most recently, last January, in double overtime. And now, before the game, Lopez was saying, "I think it's about time I stopped losing finals in the Orange Bowl."
For most of the afternoon it seemed as though Lopez would suffer number three. Miami Defender Ralph Wright scored the first goal on a head shot at 16:25 into the game. With that Los Angeles, which had not been able to get its attack going, suddenly caught fire. Sharp Aztec passes began to find Aztec feet that now seemed as prehensile as a shortstop's glove. At 25:10 an Aztec player was pushed and Ricardo DeRienzo scored on a penalty kick. Now it was 1-1. It stayed that way for the rest of the half, with neither team dominating. Aztec passes were short and accurate. The Toros sent long kicks downfield, to no avail.
Three minutes into the second half the Toros' Ronnie Sharp was awarded a penalty kick, an almost sure goal, and he missed. But the goalkeeper had moved before the kick, and Sharp got another try. He failed again.
Four minutes later the Aztecs had Miami in real trouble. Uri Banhoffer had the ball on his toe, and an almost open goal within spitting distance. Whap! The ball hit a goalpost and bounced back to Banhoffer's teammate, Doug McMillan. Whap! His kick bounced off the bar at the top of the cage. The game was starting to seem unreal.
And so it continued. Miami's Derek Watts fired at the Aztec goal from point-blank range and hit the crossbar. Ramon Moraldo, an Aztec defenseman, tried to clear the ball. It bounced around in front of his goal, caromed off teammate Julio Cesar Cortez, and rolled into the Aztec goal. Cortez was distraught; a Toro came up and embraced him.