With only one relocated team, Tulsa, and only one expansion franchise, Colorado, the National Conference wins the NASL Early Season Equilibrium Award. Among its 12 teams are the Cosmos, winners of Soccer Bowl '77, and the Seattle Sounders, who lost the championship game. But equilibrium never won a game and nothing is certain in the NASL save that, although their roster already outclasses the rest of the league, the Cosmos will cheerfully spend another bundle if they can find a new superstar to buy.
With or without him, the Cosmos will win the title for the third time in 12 years. Coach Eddie Firmani will field two former World Cup-winning captains, Carlos Alberto ( Brazil, 1970) at sweeper back and Franz (The Kaiser) Beckenbauer ( Germany, 1974), arguably the world's best player, at midfield. Striker Giorgio Chinaglia scored 15 goals (fourth in league scoring) in 1977; paired with fast and accurate English Winger Dennis Tueart, a newcomer, he should better that figure this season. Goalie Shep Messing is gone but replacement Jack Brand from Rochester will be adequate, and there are a number of other first-rate players.
Coach Domagoj Kapetanovic took a year off after winning Soccer Bowl '76 With the TORONTO METROS-CROATIA. Now he's back with the league's most ethnically oriented team. Besides Goalie Zeljko Bilecki, who topped the NASL with 10 shutouts last year, Toronto has a swarm of fast and fierce Croats, plus Forward Ivair Ferreira of Brazil. Toronto should improve on last year's 13-13 and keep the Cosmos honest.
The league's most interesting record was achieved by the ROCHESTER LANCERS in '77: Coach Dragan Popovic kept his job all season—not bad, considering that the Lancers have had 18 coaches in 11 years. Mike Stojanovic (14 goals) will again spark the offense and Defender Miralem Fazlic will try to shore up the back. The Lancers must play more aggressively away from home; last year they were 1-12 on the road. This season nine of their last 14 games are at home, which may get them into the playoffs again.
Only two starters return to the WASHINGTON DIPLOMATS lineup. Gordon Bradley, a former Cosmos coach, intends to produce an attacking, un-British style of play. Because Bradley is a Briton, as is star Forward Ray Graydon, this may not be so easy. The Dips, who were 10-16 last season, should be interesting to watch nonetheless, with new Winger Andries (Six Lights) Maseko (in South Africa, he once got six goals in a game and his name went up in lights on the scoreboard after each one), and Yugoslav Forward Mike Bakic, obtained from Rochester.
In the Central Division, the MINNESOTA KICKS (16-10) are favored to repeat as divisional winners, although they will have to struggle with Dallas (18-8). Coach Freddie Goodwin will not abandon the English long-ball style; he plans to augment it with new Defender "Total" Tony Want from the English First Division. Want's job will be to clear the ball quickly up to speedster-scorers Alan Willey (14 goals) and Ron Futcher (11).
The only original franchise still operating, the DALLAS TORNADO, features American Coach Al Miller and a dozen American players, led by Kyle Rote (he's dropped the "Jr."), whose improved general play made him the team's leading scorer (11 goals) last season. With the league's stingiest keeper, Ken Cooper (0.90 goals-against), tough Defender Steve Pecher, who was the team's MVP, and Miller's concept of "total attack," the Tornado might blow out Minnesota.
Potato chip heir H. Ward Lay's TULSA ROUGHNECKS are in their third city in as many years ( San Antonio and Hawaii were the predecessors). Only one player, Defender Charlie Mitchell, remains from '77. Former Chicago Coach Bill Foulkes' more intriguing early acquisitions include English Keeper Colin Boulton, Yugoslav Striker Minoslav Zec, and college Player of the Year Billy Gazonas, a small and fiery midfielder from NCAA-champion Hartwick College. Roughneck publicists tout Gazonas as the possible team leader. But don't bet too many chips on it.
When the COLORADO CARIBOUS open the season in their fringed, cowboy-style jerseys, Coach Dave Clements, an Irish-born ex-Cosmos midfielder, will be offering the predictable mixed bag of an expansion team. He picked up Arnie Mausser, a good goalie; a fine top draft pick in Southern Illinois-Edwardsville's Greg Makowski; and two real bargains—an inventive ex-Cosmos striker, Jomo Sono, and Center Forward Sead Susie, whom Clements lured away from Red Star of Yugoslavia.