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The way it looked, late last Saturday at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, it was Glory-Glory-Hallelujah Night. The mighty, which is to say the Cosmos, had fallen, and the humble, which is to take but minor license in describing the Chicago Sting, had been exalted. As a consequence of which, some 4,000 Sting fans had invaded the field, joyfully torn down the netting from the goal at its western end and been balked from doing likewise to the other goal only by the timely arrival of security guards and a forklift.
Not a black-and-yellow-bedecked reveler among them cared that Chicago had won the 1981 Soccer Bowl 1-0 and, thereby, the NASL title by a dubious device, invented by the league, called the shootout, or that the score, after 90 minutes of regulation play and 15 minutes of overtime, had stood at 0-0. Their side was home free. Even in the moment of victory, though, it might have occurred to a few of them that the Sting had also thrown a lifeline to the beleaguered NASL and that sometime in the future Chicago's victory might be regarded as a turning point in U.S. soccer history: Here, at last, was an alternative to the tedious succession of Cosmos Soccer Bowl wins (1977, '78 and '80) and a rare outburst of fan enthusiasm.
Before Saturday night, though, it looked as if nothing could help the league, even though Soccer Bowl finally would feature franchises from two of the largest American cities. Goodby, Fort Lauderdale. Farewell, Tampa Bay. This time it was Goliath vs. Goliath, each with a 23-9 record, each committed to attacking play—didn't the Sting's and Cosmos' last regular-season game end 6-5 in Chicago's favor? And together their home areas could muster something like 17% of the nation's TV viewers.
But despite the potential for a huge audience, the privilege of watching this match of giants live was confined to Brazil and a few portions of Canada because ABC chose to telecast the game via tape delay in the U.S. At game time, a Sting fan tuning in to WLS, ABC's Chicago affiliate, would have found himself confronted by a Love Boat rerun. But, at least later in the evening, he would get to see the game. In New York, Cosmos backers would have to wait until 12:30 p.m. On Sunday to watch it. Otherwise, the fans' only shot was to turn up at Exhibition Stadium, the rickety Toronto ballpark, its worn AstroTurf hastily rearranged to cover the pitcher's mound. Marvelously, 4,000 Sting fans traveled the 515 miles to do just that.
The TV embarrassment reflected the league's parlous state. Almost a year ago, the number of NASL franchises shrank from 24 to 21. And last week, as the surviving owners assembled in Toronto for Soccer Bowl and the meetings that would follow the game, it seemed as if at least five more franchises were headed down the tubes. There would be no more Washington Diplomats, Dallas Tornado, California Surf or Atlanta Chiefs, it seemed sure. Probably no more Calgary Boomers either, though their financially troubled owner, Nelson Skalbania, was making a last-ditch attempt to find a buyer.
With that massive el foldo in the offing, a somewhat desperate new party line was being promulgated by NASL executives: that the new league, slimmed down to 16, would be more viable. Which, translated, meant: Let's toss out the weak sisters, lighten the sled and maybe we'll cheat the wolves yet.
The possibility that Phil Woosnam, the NASL commissioner, might join the weaklings in the snowdrifts was being openly discussed. "However hardworking he is, he has to go," one dissident declared. "He promised too much. Nobody will listen to him now."
And, fashionably, a strong monetarist voice began making itself heard, the league's David Stockman being a new comer to the NASL named Ralph Sweet, since last November the principal owner of the Minnesota Kicks and, like Woosnam, a Welshman. Sweet is given to hardline statements like "I don't enjoy paying out $100,000 a year to keep people comfortable in midtown Manhattan"—an unconcealed reference to the league's headquarters on New York's Avenue of the Americas, which, Sweet believes, should be moved 25 miles out of the city to White Plains, N.Y. Another of his pet peeves is the NASL budget, which, he says, should be reduced from $4 million to $1 million.
The odds are, however, that Woosnam has enough allies to keep him aboard the sled. What's more, somewhat improved attendance in the last stages of the season—it was nonetheless down 8.42% for the year—and the result of Soccer Bowl itself permitted at least a few rays of light to cut through the encompassing gloom.
One owner who was all aglow last week was Chicago's Lee Stern, who arrived in Toronto wearing a magnificent black Stetson with a yellow cockade—his team's colors. "You have the new city, Montreal," he said, "and now you have the old, veteran city, Chicago, that's been lying there like a dead dog, waking up."