Lively Tales About Dead Teams

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1974-1981 Washington Diplomats

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Washington Diplomats SoccerNorth American Soccer League (1974-1981)

Born: January 21, 1974 – NASL expansion franchise
Folded: December 1980
Re-Born: February 28, 1981 – The Detroit Express relocate to Washington, D.C.
Folded Again: September 1981

Stadia:

Team Colors:

Owners:

  • 1974: Nick Mangione, Mike Finci, et. al.
  • 1975-1978: San Juan Racing, Inc. (Steve Danzansky, et al.)
  • 1979-1980: Gulf & Western/Madison Square Garden Corp. (Sonny Werblin) & Steve Danzansky
  • 1981; Jimmy Hill, Duncan Hill, Gary Lemmen, et al.

Soccer Bowl Championships: None

 

The Washington Diplomats were the third attempt to establish pro soccer – and a North American Soccer League franchise – in the nation’s capital.  Club founders Nick Mangione and Mike Finci ponied up $75,000 to buy their NASL expansion franchise in January 1974. The Diplomats hired former Manchester United star and Munich air disaster survivor Dennis Viollet to coach the team.

The Dips, as the team was colloquially known, struggled to establish an identity in their early years. The team was mediocre during the Viollet (1973-1977) and qualified for the postseason only once. Ownership changed hands in 1975, with the Daznansky family buying out Mangione and his partners for $650,000. The club bounced back and forth between RFK Stadium and a high school football stadium in Fairfax, Virginia from 1974 to 1976. RFK conveyed big-city, Major League status. W.T. Woodson High School was economical and more convenient for the Dips’ white flight core audience. The Fairfax games also marked the Dips as a distinctly minor league operation.

Johan Cruyff Washington DiplomatsThe Diplomats’ glory years came during a brief period at the end of the 1970’s. The club hired John Carbray as General Manager in October 1976. Carbray, a veteran minor league baseball exec, brought his innovative promotions to soccer in 1976 with the NASL’s San Jose Earthquakes. Carbray persuaded the Dips’ ownership to commit to RFK Stadium once and for all. The NASL was never a league to worry much about FIFA conventions. Carbray embrace the league’s permissiveness, introducing multi-colored penalty areas and goal boxes at RFK. He also hired former New York Cosmos manager Gordon Bradley to replace Viollet as the club’s Hea Coach in 1978.

Announced attendance rose from 5,963 per game in Fairfax in 1976 to 13,037 at RFK in 1977 during Carbray’s first season in charge. The team had a major on-field improvement in form in 1978 under Gordon Bradley.  But attendance fell back to 10,783 and the team remained deeply in the red.

A lifeline arrived in October 1978 when Madison Square Garden Corporation, a subsidiary of the publicly traded conglomerate Gulf & Western, purchased the team. Madison Square Garden owned the NBA’s New York Knicks and the NHL’s New York Rangers. MSG Chief Executive Officer Sonny Werblin was the man who built the New York Jets and signed Joe Namath, setting in motion the AFL’s infamous upset of the NFL champion Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. With Gulf & Western’s resources behind the team, it suddenly seemed plausible that the Diplomats could take on the Time Warner-owned New York Cosmos as an international super club.

“Sonny and his crew are out to spend it all,” Atlanta Chiefs Director of Operations Terry Hanson predicted to Alex Yannis of The New York Times in December 1978. “I hear they are going to crank the whole thing wide open, spend all the money they have for players … I hear they already call them the Cosmos of the South.”

After Madison Square Garden’s takeover, the Diplomats negotiated for Argentine World Cup captain Daniel Passarella and nearly signed English captain and 1978 European Football-of-the-Year Kevin Keegan. But the Sonny Werblin era was not without controversy. Werblin’s original goal in buying an NASL club was to move the team to Shea Stadium in Flushing and take on the New Jersey-based Cosmos head-to-head. MSG ultimately balked at the $12 million territorial fee demanded by the Cosmos and elected to stay in D.C. But Werblin’s long-term commitment to Washington was placed into question from the start.

 

Washington Diplomats Shop

Diplomats Distressed Logo T-Shirt by Ultras

Diplomats Soccer Shorts by Ultras

Rock n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life & Fast Times of the North American Soccer League by Ian Plenderleith

 

Washington Diplomats Memorabilia

 

Diplomats Video

 

In Memoriam

Owner Sonny Werblin (Dips ’78-’80) died of a heart attack on November 21, 1991 at the age of 81. New York Times obituary.

Forward Bobby Stokes (Dips ’77-’80) died of bronchial pneumonia on May 30, 1995 at 44 years of age.

Manager Dennis Viollet (Dips ’74-’77) passed away after a two-year battle with brain cancer on March 6, 1999 at age 65.

Manager Gordon Bradley (Dips ’78-’80) passed on April 29, 2008 after fighting Alzheimer’s Disease. He was 74. New York Times obituary.

Midfielder John Kerr, Sr. (Dips ’76-’77) passed away from heart disease on June 19, 2011 at the age of 67. Washington Post obituary.

Midfielder Johan Cruyff died of cancer on March 24, 2016. The Flying Dutchman was 68 years old. New York Times obituary.

 

Downloads

1977 Washington Diplomats Ticket Brochure

1977 Washington Diplomats Media Guide Additions & Deletions

8-6-1977 Washington Diplomats vs. New York Cosmos Game Notes

5-27-1980 Washington Diplomats vs. New York Cosmos Match Preview Press Advisory

6-1-1980 Washington Diplomats vs. New York Cosmos Game Notes

Soccer Bowl ’80 Ticket Order Form

1980 Arthur Treacher’s Soccer Teacher Booklet

8-12-1981 Washington Diplomats vs. New York Cosmos Game Notes

 

Links

Jim Reed’s excellent Diplomat fan/history site: washingtondiplomats.blogspot.com

North American Soccer League Media Guides

North American Soccer League Programs

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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

Stadiums: 

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

Team Colors: Orange & Navy Blue

Owners:

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

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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

 

Links

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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