The way local sky watchers figure it, Houston is the place to be when Sky-lab falls because NASA certainly won't let it drop on headquarters. Maybe so, but as the California Surf discovered last Saturday night, Houston is not the place to be when the Hurricane is blowing. The Houston Hurricane, that is, of the North American Soccer League.
In beating the Surf 2-1 in the Astrodome, the Hurricane scored the winning goal when Defender Stewart Jump knocked a ball to the head of Finnish Midfielder Kai Haaskivi, who bounced it to Ruben Morales, who lost control of it but saw it dribble to Dale Russell, who blasted a shot past Surf Goalkeeper Dave Jokerst.
Confusing? Well, Houston has players all over the NASL scratching their heads, trying to figure out exactly how the Hurricane does it.
"What is the Hurricane?" was the plaintive question of Atlanta Director of Operations Terry Hanson when Houston beat the Chiefs 2-1 in the Astrodome two weeks ago. "They're fourth in the league, and they beat you somehow, but you don't know why. You just leave town saying, 'Who was that masked man?' "
Says a Hurricane defender, Howie Charbonneau, "We can't figure it out ourselves either."
Houston, which finished the 1978 season at 10-20, now has a 14-5 record and lurks just behind the defending champion Cosmos (15-4), Minnesota (15-5) and Tampa Bay (14-6). Undefeated at home, the Hurricane—one of the NASL's so-called disaster franchises, along with the Dallas Tornado, the Toronto Blizzard and the San Jose Earthquakes—comfortably leads the American Conference Central Division by 22 points over Chicago (10-8) and has just about clinched a playoff berth.
Houston does not play pretty soccer or even physical soccer, and the team certainly does not possess superstars of the kind that dot the Cosmos roster. The Hurricane does not display the hard-drilled technical sophistication of Minnesota or the flash and dash of Tampa Bay, but it wins. It wins because of: 1) a Finnish hockey-player-turned-soccer-coach named Timo Liekoski, 2) a successful off-season campaign in the Major Indoor Soccer League and 3) a laid-back Texan approach to the game.
After last season's miserable finish, the Hurricane loaned its coach, players and, for a time, even its name—a fact that outraged the NASL—to the MISL and surprised everyone by playing a stunning brand of indoor soccer, which features six men to a side and is contested on a hockey-sized surface surrounded by boards. Summit Soccer, as the Houston team was eventually called, finished with an 18-6 record.
"That turned us around," says the 37-year-old Liekoski. "Last year we sort of crawled on the field and hoped to lose by one goal and get out before anyone could remember who we were."
When he left Helsinki to attend Hartwick College, the tiny soccer power in upstate New York, Liekoski was a hockey player. But he quickly converted to soccer and was All-America in his junior year. He later coached Hartwick for three seasons (30-9-7) and then spent two years with the Tornado as assistant coach before taking the reins at Houston last season. Liekoski traded on his hockey experience to transform his soccer players into indoor artists.