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As the World Cup in Russia takes center stage on the global sporting landscape over the next few weeks, American soccer fans won’t have much of a rooting interest after the U.S. team failed to qualify for one of the planet’s most watched events.
In fact, it was the 1966 World Cup in Mexico that helped plant the seed for the sport to have a professional presence in America. And the late Jack Kent Cooke, who owned the local NFL team when they won three Super Bowls from 1982 to 1992, was a major player in making it happen.
A surprisingly large U.S. television audience and a subsequent widely-viewed documentary film called “Goal!”was the impetus in 1967 for some of the country’s leading sports owners—including Cooke, Lamar Hunt in Kansas City and William Clay Ford in Detroit—to form a consortium with the intention of forming a professional soccer league in North America.
They called it the United Soccer Association and launched the league in 1967 in a rather unique manner. Instead of franchises signing individual players, the team owners imported entire teams from Europe and South America to represent the cities in the new league.
The Washington Whips, owned by local entrepreneur Earl Foreman, brought over Scotland’s Aberdeen Dons and played their games in RFK Stadium. The league went nowhere fast, averaging about 8,000 fans per game, and television ratings on CBS were abysmal.
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In 1969, the North American Soccer League was formed and Washington’s franchise was called the Darts. This time, each club signed its own players, and by the time they signed up in Washington, none of them were exactly household names, save for their own households.
Still, most had played professionally around the world, were now on the downhill side their careers, and came to the U.S. looking for a few more paydays. There were only a smattering of Americans around the league—none of them playing for the Darts—and the best known had a very familiar name. Kyle Rote Jr. who played for Dallas, was the son of a former All-Pro wide receiver for the 1950s New York Giants of the same name and the league’s marquee American.
As a young reporter at The Washington Post, I was assigned to cover the league in the early 1970s, not exactly a plum assignment, though it definitely did have its moments.
The Darts played their games at Catholic University’s old football stadium, emphasis on old, and definitely decrepit. Back in the 1930s, Catholic University had a big-time college football program, and even played in the Orange Bowl in 1935, losing to Mississippi, 20-19.The program had been de-emphasized a few years later, and by the time the Darts got there, their on-campus stadium had about 10,000 usable seats, all wooden bleachers on one side of the field.
The teams I covered had an interesting cast of characters that included a one-armed goal-scoring forward named Victorio Casa, who lost his limb above the elbow in a freak shooting accident in Argentina in 1965. When the Darts signed him in 1970, the New York Times wrote that “the highest paid soccer player in the United States makes $15,000 a year, speaks no English and has one arm.”
They also signed Joseph Gyau, another smooth forward who was nicknamed “Nana from Ghana,”and a fabulous goaltender named Lincoln Phillips, who had played for the national team of Trinidad and Tobago.
In 1970, Phillips became the league’s top goalkeeper, setting a record for consecutive shutouts and consecutive minutes without allowing a goal, and leading the Darts to the league championship game, which they lost on a penalty-kick tiebreaker. He then left to become the full-time coach at Howard University, where the pay was better and he could attend classes for free.
Howard won the NCAA championship in 1971, but had the title stripped because it had used ineligible players. They won again in 1974 with Phillips at the helm, and this time kept the title.
Among my favorite memories of those early soccer years was a rather unique game promotion one season. The team announced that it was going to bring in a famous New York radio rock and roll disk jockey named Murray The K to provide a sound track for an entire game one Sunday.
An elaborate sound system had been set up, but by game-time, the weather had turned from morning sunshine to an afternoon downpour. Poor Murray never got to display his considerable talents, for fear that thousands of dollars in electronic equipment would be ruined, and the DJ might be electrocuted.
Over the years, pro soccer in Washington eventually morphed from the original Whips to the Darts to the Diplomats to the current D.C. United, soon to move into a magnificent new venue to call their very own, no rock and roll DJ necessary.
Top image by Flickr user Erin Johnson, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.