Friday, August 19, 2011

This Week in American Soccer History: Alan Willey Scores 5, Ron Futcher gets punched and the oddity of the NASL Playoffs

Guest Contributor Dillon Young

This Week in American Soccer History: August 1978

This week in 1978 the Minnesota Kicks, one of the divisional champions of the NASL took on the defending NASL Champions the New York Cosmos in a home-and-home playoff series. The Kicks, who had never previously beaten the Cosmos, furiously began the series opener with forward Charlie George crashing into Cosmos goalie Erol Yasin and scoring in the first minute. Not only did the miscue give the Kicks an early lead, it also knocked the Turkish international keeper out for essentially the whole match. Ten minutes later the Kicks struck again, this time off a Cosmos own goal. Late in the half, Willey hit for his first goal of the night, sending the Kicks into half time with a 3-0 lead.

After Georgio Chinaglia and Ace Ntsolengoe traded goals early in the second half, Willey caught fire, scoring off the post in the 63rd, a header in the 70th and a left footed shot in the 78th, extending the lead to 7 - 1. After the Cosmos' Steven Hunt scored a meaningless goal in the 84th, Willey came back to score the individual playoff record fifth just a minute later. Chico Hamilton closed the scoring in the final minute with a goal to make it 9 - 2.

In a traditional soccer home-and-home series, where the victory is based on an aggregate goal total, this final score would have all but guaranteed a series victory for the Kicks. Unfortunately for Kicks fans, the NASL was anything but traditional. Unlike the rest of the world, the NASL had a playoff format that would allow the loser of the opening match a great opportunity to advance. If they won the second match, regardless if it occurred in regulation, overtime or in the shootout and regardless of goal difference, a sudden death mini-game, an NASL invention, would be played immediately after the second match. If both teams failed to score in the two 15 minute periods, the game could go into a mini-game shoot out (another NASL invention involving stop watches and hockey-like run ups) to decide the winner.

Fans and media alike were bewildered by the format, with the Chicago Tribune incorrectly stating the Kicks were a meaningless match away from advancing to the semifinals. Even the night of the historic victory the Kicks, though jubilant, complained about the format with Hamilton saying, "The playoff system is crap.... If we do lose to the Cosmos on Wednesday the league should hang its head in shame.

Phil Woosnam and the NASL leadership did not hang their collective heads, but the Kicks did lose on that Wednesday in 1978 (Woosnam actually said it was the "greatest game" ever in the United States-- though he was prone to stating many games were the greatest in history). The Cosmos breezed to a 4 - 0 in the opening match. The game was not without controversy, with Georgio Chinaglia scoring two goals but also punching Ron Futcher in the face. Although the rule books call for a sending off, the ref only gave Chinaglia a yellow card, infuriating Kicks Coach Freddie Goodwin.

With the Cosmos winning the second match, the two teams had to play the mini-game. From many accounts, the Kicks outplayed the defending champions but could not break through to win the match and the scoreless 30 minutes moved to the shootout, ultimately ending with Franz Beckenbauer ending the stalemate in the shootout. After the loss, the Kicks continued to complain about the playoff format, with even the quiet Ace Ntsoelengoe voicing his displeasure about the format.

Though ultimately ending in a loss, the playoff match at the Met is often thought of as one of the most memorable Kicks matches in history. Many NASL playoff records were broken in the match, including most goals scored in a playoff match, fastest goal and most individual goals. Recently, the match was even mention by local sportscaster Mark Rosen on a local morning radio show. Unfortunately, no known video is available from the match, other than this highlight reel.

Dillon Young is a librarian living in the Twin Cities, working on his master's thesis on The Minnesota Kicks.


Blogger Troy said...

Fantastic work, Dillon! What a great and often bewildering era...

10:51 AM  
Blogger Dillon Young said...

Thanks Troy! I just wish I could have been there for that game!

1:44 PM  

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