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It was a game of improbables, of goals that should have been but were not, of goals that should not have been but were. It was dumb, exciting, ridiculous, laughable, thrilling, absurd—all of those things and more. What it came to finally, down there on the steamy, slick floor of the Orange Bowl in Miami last Sunday, was an ending worthy of your local kick-the-can tournament, with 22-year-old Tony Douglas of the Los Angeles Aztecs lining the ball past Goalie Osvaldo Toriani of the Miami Toros to make the score 4-3, or maybe 8-6, depending on how you want to count it, and giving his team the North American Soccer League championship.
The game had a little something for everybody, everybody meaning the 15,507 in the stadium plus a coast-to-coast television audience. There were goals scored on headers, goals that ricocheted off defenders, goals that came when the goalie was nowhere in the area and goals that came on penalty kicks. Mostly goals that came on penalty kicks.
Forget for the moment the hour and a half of regular play that left the score 3-3. More of that later. First the dumb part. Because the game was tied, the NASL's sudden-death system went into effect—a penalty-kicking orgy, each team taking five of them with five different kickers, the team that scores the most wins. It was as if the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks had finished game seven at 103-103 and then all had headed to the foul line for a free-throw contest.
A soccer goal is 24 feet wide and eight feet high, the ball is placed only 12 yards away on such penalty kicks and the goalie must not move his feet until the ball is on its way, thus the odds of success greatly favor the kicker. Mario Zanotti went to the line for Los Angeles and drove the ball into the left corner of the net as Toriani dived the other way. L.A. 1-0. But Miami's Roberto Aguirre tied it up, blasting the ball past Bias Sanchez, the Aztecs' goalie.
Now it was Uri Banhoffer up, and his kick skidded under a diving Toriani. L.A. 2-1. Sanchez blocked a kick by Ron Sharp, who also had had a penalty kick blocked during regulation play, but this time it was ruled that Sanchez had moved before the kick was made. Given a second try, Sharp converted for 2-2.
So it went, Luis Marotte scoring for the Aztecs, Ken Mallender for the Toros and Peter Filotes for the Aztecs to make it 4-3 Los Angeles. But then Roger Verdi, a Miami defender, sent his attempt high, too high. It cleared Sanchez but it also cleared the crossbar. The Toros were still behind and in trouble.
Now it was up to Douglas. Trying the penalty kick that would clinch the victory, he lined the ball left, only to have Toriani block it. For seconds there was joy in the Orange Bowl and Toriani looked like a prisoner with a pardon. But then Referee John Davies ruled the goalie had moved too soon and Douglas was awarded a second chance. This time he nailed a line drive into the right corner and the game was over. Los Angeles had made five goals that counted for one, Miami three that added up to none. Final corrected score, 4-3 Los Angeles.
Both Los Angeles and Miami had traveled an uphill road to the championship game. Miami was judged the favorite, perhaps because it was three years old while the Aztecs were an expansion club. In 1972 the Toros won only three of 14 games to finish an easy last in the Southern Division and, for that matter, the entire eight-team league. Last year the much-improved Toros won eight games, which was better than all but two other teams, but owing to the injustice of the league's playoff system, they were edged out by both Philadelphia and New York in the Eastern Division and thus failed to qualify for postseason play.
This year there was no stopping them as they won 15 of 20 games, earned a bye in the first round of the playoffs and beat the Dallas Tornado 3-1 to gain the final. Coach John Young was voted Coach of the Year and attendance, which was 54,000 in 1973, rose to 74,000. In the week before the game the Miami papers gave the Toros, if not as much space as the pro football Dolphins, at least some mention. John Young was still not Don Shula, nor did Steve David and Warren Archibald sound as familiar as Larry Csonka and Bob Griese, but the public was learning about them.
None of this impressed the Los Angeles Aztecs. They had beaten the Toros in their only meeting, but the Toros were quick to point out that the score was only 2-1, that the game was played in Los Angeles on a Sunday afternoon and that the night before they had been forced to play a game in San Jose. All of which, argued the Aztecs, still added up to one win for them. That, along with 12 other wins, put them at the top of the Western Division and gave them not only a playoff berth but a bye into the semifinals, where they beat Boston 2-0.