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MINNESOTA HAD TO EAT CROATMEAL
J. D. Reed
September 06, 1976
The league brass was hoping for a win by the Kicks, who had the right image. But ethnic Toronto, which did not, beat them 3-0 to take home the NASL title
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September 06, 1976

Minnesota Had To Eat Croatmeal

The league brass was hoping for a win by the Kicks, who had the right image. But ethnic Toronto, which did not, beat them 3-0 to take home the NASL title

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Midway in the second half of last Saturday's North American Soccer League championship game in Seattle, the Minnesota Kicks' 19-year-old forward, Alan Willey, failed to trap an easy pass from a teammate and fell to his knees in exhausted dejection. For a few seconds he gazed up at the ceiling of the Kingdome, thinking, undoubtedly, that it had been one of those days when nothing goes right, and wondering, perhaps, where exactly Zagreb, Yugoslavia was, and how come a team called the Toronto Metros- Croatia was leading his club—the "showcase of the NASL"—2-0.

Up in the seats reserved for team owners and league officials, NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam was agonizing, too. He was wondering how to reconcile himself to a championship game that seemed to be displaying, on national TV, the past meeting—and beating—the future. The youthful, vital Minnesota Kicks were just what Woosnam had wanted as opponents for New York or Tampa Bay in "Soccer Bowl-'76"—a team financially stable in its first year of operation, drawing an average of 23,120 fans per game at Met Stadium in Bloomington, where inexpensive tickets, tail-gate parties with a Big Ten flair and free parking were the talk of the league. The Kicks had won their division and disposed of both Seattle (3-0) and San Jose (3-1) before a NASL record 49,572 on the way to the championship. They were the wave of the future, a selling point in Woosnam's sincere pitch that the U.S. will become the world center of soccer.

But out there flinging East European mud on his shining dream were the Metros- Croatia, a low-drawing team from a low-drawing division—and Canadian rather than U.S. to boot. Here was a team that should have been defeated by Chicago in the quarterfinals—only Toronto won 3-2—and which then certainly should have been blitzed by Tampa Bay, the defending league champs, in the semifinal round—which Toronto won 2-0. Here was Toronto Metros- Croatia, showing up at the euphoric climax of the NASL's most successful season like the ghost of Christmas Past.

"The league is embarrassed that we're here," said one Toronto official, smiling. "But now they're just going to have to stand up and take it like a man." For the new American middle-class image Woosnam and other league owners wanted to project, everything was wrong with Toronto, especially their nickname. "The ethnic aspect of American soccer is over," Woosnam had said earlier, meaning, apparently, that the acceptable image is now English league soccer accented, of course, by luminaries of other persuasions, such as Pel�.

Toronto's Croatian connection began before the start of last season, when the Toronto Metros were bailed out of deep financial trouble by a merger offer from Toronto Croatia, an enormously successful team in Canada's semipro National Soccer League. "Just before the season started," said Woosnam, "they demanded to add ' Croatia' to the name. There was nothing we could do at that point." Nothing indeed, since Toronto Croatia was half-owner, and the city's enthusiastic Croatian minority would hardly have been satisfied with less. While televising last week's final, CBS bowed to league pressure and referred to the teams only as Minnesota and Toronto. Several hundred fans, carrying flags recalling the emblem of pre-World War I Croatia, showed up in Seattle, mildly protesting the decision.

The mildness was just as well. Croatians are said to be fierce fighters, capable of making the celebrated bravado of the Philadelphia Flyers look like kid stuff. They do not take slights easily. A few seasons back, when Croatia was still playing semipro in Toronto, a local newsman wrote up a game in which Croatia lost to its long-standing rivals, the Toronto Serbians White Eagles. "I reported the game perfectly straight," the writer recalled last weekend, "but I had to report that Croatia lost. Two nights later I arrived home to find on my front step a big, furry bat, nailed to a board with a spike driven through its heart. It was a criticism from the Croatians."

And this season, when Coach Ivan Markovic benched Croatian Defender Miralem Fazlic, a friend of Fazlic's attacked the coach, by one account with a two-by-four. Markovic resigned, and Fazlic was traded to Rochester.

With Marijan Bilic installed as player-coach, Toronto won its last four games to finish second to Chicago in the league's Northern Division with a 15-9 record—the same as Minnesota's—then swept the first three playoff games. Nevertheless, Toronto seemed old-fashioned in style. Led by Eusebio, a 34-year-old former World Cup player for Portugal, and a roster that reads like a page torn from the Zagreb phone book, Metros- Croatia refused to do anything in flamboyant NASL style. Said Assistant Coach Marijan Kenfelja, "The league would rather have Tampa Bay or the Cosmos here. But they will see. We are a skillful team."

And as the Toronto owners watched—looking a bit like a Russian trade delegation in their baggy suits and shadowy chins among the ultrasmooth NASL board of governors—their team played a final game that was both deftly defensive (their well-known strength) and explosive in front of the Minnesota goal. This out-to-lunch bunch of resistance fighters managed to dominate Soccer Bowl-'76 throughout.

Eusebio scored first on a free kick with 4:32 remaining in the first half. His boot sailed over the outstretched fingers of Kicks Goalie Geoff Barnett, glanced off the crossbar and into the net. Ivan Lukacevic put in the second goal early in the second half, blasting home an Ivair Ferreira pass from seven yards out.

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