Lively Tales About Dead Teams

1978-1983 Detroit Express

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1978 Detroit Express Media GuideNorth American Soccer League (1978-1980)
American Soccer League (1981-1983)

Born: 1977 – NASL expansion franchise
Moved: February 28, 1981 (Washington Diplomats)
Re-Formed: 1981 – ASL expansion franchise
Folded: Postseason 1983


Arena (Indoor Soccer): The Pontiac Silverdome (16,860)

Team Colors: Orange & Navy Blue


Soccer Bowl Championships: None
ASL Champions: 1982


The Detroit Express began life as an expansion team in the North American Soccer League in 1978. Express ownership was headed up by British football broadcaster and promoter Jimmy Hill. Hill and the Express gained some national (and international) attention for acquiring English soccer star Trevor Francis on loan from Birmingham City in 1978.  Francis was a prolific scorer and the first footballer to earn 1 million pounds sterling per season in England.

Francis played for the Express in 1978 and 1979. It was an era when NASL owners lured numerous aging European stars to America with eye-popping paychecks.  Francis was an exception to this NASL retirement plan.  He was only 25 years old and at the peak of his powers during his Express seasons. Francis was a prominent attraction for the Express. But one of the club’s general partners eventually soured on this imported superstar approach:

Trevor Francis Detroit ExpressIn a 2012 self-published memoir, Harold “Sonny” Van Arnem compared the NASL to “a league full of Harlem Globetrotters, except they player soccer.  Now, a lot of people enjoy watching the Globetrotters play, but only about once a year.  We need people to come out a dozen times a year, and this all-star approach isn’t working.”

Van Arnem’s solution was Americanization.  Grass roots pro soccer, relevant to the American fan because the American player was the norm rather than the exception.  This was just as well because the rest of the Express ownership gave up on Detroit in February 1981. Jimmy Hill moved the NASL franchise to Washington, DC where it met a quick and ugly end in six months.

Van Arnem, meanwhile, retained control of the Detroit Express name and marks. He immediately relaunched a new version of the  club in the ramshackle 2nd division American Soccer League in the spring of 1981.  The “New” Detroit Express would play in the ASL from 1981 to 1983.

This 1982 season was the high water mark for the New Express.  The club posted a league best 19-5-4 record.  Both the Express and their opening day opponents from Oklahoma City fielded starting line-ups full of young Americans, but the impact players were still foreign.  Detroit’s pair of English forwards, Brian Tinnion and Andy Chapman, finished 1-2 in the ASL in scoring in 1982, with teammate Billy Boljevic (Yugoslavia) 4th.

The Express and the Oklahoma City Slickers met in the best-of-three 1982 American Soccer League championship series.  After splitting the first two matches, the teams returned to the Pontiac Silverdome on September 22, 1982 for the deciding game.  Sonny Van Arnem, faced with only a few days to promote the game after advancing from the semi-finals, gave away 70,000 tickets to local Dodge dealers. An army of car salesmen offered the duckets for free to anyone who showed up at a dealership.  The result: an astonishing crowd of 33,762 that showed up at an NFL stadium to watch what amounted to a minor league soccer game.  The Express won the game 4-1 and with it the league title.

The Express played one final season in the summer of 1983. The team went out of business along with the rest of the American Soccer League


Two British stars from the ASL-era Express, Andy Chapman and Brian Tinnion, remain fixtures on the Michigan soccer scene.  Both were with the now-defunct Detroit Rockers indoor team in the 1990’s, and are still active in youth soccer in the region.


Detroit Express Shop

Express Weathered ASL Logo T-Shirt by UGP Campus Apparel

Express NASL Logo T-Shirt by Throwback Max

Ian Plenderleith’s Definitive Account of “The Short Life & Fast Times of the North American Soccer League



Detroit Express Memorabilia


In Memoriam

Head coach Ken Furphy (Express ’78-’81) died on January 17, 2015 at age 83.

Express owner Jimmy Hill passed away on December 19, 2015 at the age of 87 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Daily Mail obit.


Detroit Express Video

Express vs. Dallas Tornado at the Silverdome. June 11, 1978



Jimmy Hill’s ill-fated ownership of the Detroit Express and Washington Diplomats in NASL remembered“, Bob Williams, The Telegraph, December 22, 2015.

North American Soccer League Media Guides
North American Soccer League Programs
American Soccer League  Media Guides
American Soccer League Programs


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