With only one relocated team, Tulsa, and only one expansion franchise, Colorado, the National Conference wins the NASL Early Season Equilibrium Award. Among its 12 teams are the Cosmos, winners of Soccer Bowl '77, and the Seattle Sounders, who lost the championship game. But equilibrium never won a game and nothing is certain in the NASL save that, although their roster already outclasses the rest of the league, the Cosmos will cheerfully spend another bundle if they can find a new superstar to buy.
With or without him, the Cosmos will win the title for the third time in 12 years. Coach Eddie Firmani will field two former World Cup-winning captains, Carlos Alberto (Brazil, 1970) at sweeper back and Franz (The Kaiser) Beckenbauer (Germany, 1974), arguably the world's best player, at midfield. Striker Giorgio Chinaglia scored 15 goals (fourth in league scoring) in 1977; paired with fast and accurate English Winger Dennis Tueart, a newcomer, he should better that figure this season. Goalie Shep Messing is gone but replacement Jack Brand from Rochester will be adequate, and there are a number of other first-rate players.
Coach Domagoj Kapetanovic took a year off after winning Soccer Bowl '76 With the TORONTO METROS-CROATIA. Now he's back with the league's most ethnically oriented team. Besides Goalie Zeljko Bilecki, who topped the NASL with 10 shutouts last year, Toronto has a swarm of fast and fierce Croats, plus Forward Ivair Ferreira of Brazil. Toronto should improve on last year's 13-13 and keep the Cosmos honest.
The league's most interesting record was achieved by the ROCHESTER LANCERS in '77: Coach Dragan Popovic kept his job all season—not bad, considering that the Lancers have had 18 coaches in 11 years. Mike Stojanovic (14 goals) will again spark the offense and Defender Miralem Fazlic will try to shore up the back. The Lancers must play more aggressively away from home; last year they were 1-12 on the road. This season nine of their last 14 games are at home, which may get them into the playoffs again.
Only two starters return to the WASHINGTON DIPLOMATS lineup. Gordon Bradley, a former Cosmos coach, intends to produce an attacking, un-British style of play. Because Bradley is a Briton, as is star Forward Ray Graydon, this may not be so easy. The Dips, who were 10-16 last season, should be interesting to watch nonetheless, with new Winger Andries (Six Lights) Maseko (in South Africa, he once got six goals in a game and his name went up in lights on the scoreboard after each one), and Yugoslav Forward Mike Bakic, obtained from Rochester.
In the Central Division, the MINNESOTA KICKS (16-10) are favored to repeat as divisional winners, although they will have to struggle with Dallas (18-8). Coach Freddie Goodwin will not abandon the English long-ball style; he plans to augment it with new Defender "Total" Tony Want from the English First Division. Want's job will be to clear the ball quickly up to speedster-scorers Alan Willey (14 goals) and Ron Futcher (11).
The only original franchise still operating, the DALLAS TORNADO, features American Coach Al Miller and a dozen American players, led by Kyle Rote (he's dropped the "Jr."), whose improved general play made him the team's leading scorer (11 goals) last season. With the league's stingiest keeper, Ken Cooper (0.90 goals-against), tough Defender Steve Pecher, who was the team's MVP, and Miller's concept of "total attack," the Tornado might blow out Minnesota.
Potato chip heir H. Ward Lay's TULSA ROUGHNECKS are in their third city in as many years (San Antonio and Hawaii were the predecessors). Only one player, Defender Charlie Mitchell, remains from '77. Former Chicago Coach Bill Foulkes' more intriguing early acquisitions include English Keeper Colin Boulton, Yugoslav Striker Minoslav Zec, and college Player of the Year Billy Gazonas, a small and fiery midfielder from NCAA-champion Hartwick College. Roughneck publicists tout Gazonas as the possible team leader. But don't bet too many chips on it.
When the COLORADO CARIBOUS open the season in their fringed, cowboy-style jerseys, Coach Dave Clements, an Irish-born ex-Cosmos midfielder, will be offering the predictable mixed bag of an expansion team. He picked up Arnie Mausser, a good goalie; a fine top draft pick in Southern Illinois-Edwardsville's Greg Makowski; and two real bargains—an inventive ex-Cosmos striker, Jomo Sono, and Center Forward Sead Susie, whom Clements lured away from Red Star of Yugoslavia.
The National Western is the league's solidest division and the SEATTLE SOUNDERS are standing pat on a full house of talent, which could be risky. Nevertheless they should win again. Among the aces are Rookie of the Year Jimmy McAlister, defender; Forwards Tommy Ord and Mickey Cave; and Defender Mike England. The Sounders' forte is a solid, consistent longball game, plus the league's second-best defense.
Although the LOS ANGELES AZTECS' 65 goals was tops in the league, and they made the playoff semifinals in '77, they drew only 7,000 fans a game, which is odd, considering that flamboyant George Best is still one of the game's finer midfielders and that Striker Steve David led the league with 26 goals. But if Coach Terry Fischer can replace a ho-hum Ken Rigby in goal and bolster a lagging defense (third in goals allowed with 54), the Aztecs should make the playoffs.
The PORTLAND TIMBERS fell last year to a 10-16 record and imported a new coach from England to do something about it. He is Don Megson, and he has Clyde Best, the team's No. 2 scorer, to build on. Last year the Timbers lost 12 games by one goal. Megson's remedy will be a swarming, all-out attack, but the team is still a couple of players away from a playoff berth.
Another proponent of all-out attack is the new coach at the VANCOUVER WHITE-CAPS, Tony Waiters, who should be able to improve on last season's 14-12 record. He has newcomer Kevin Hector, the current English scoring leader (250 goals), and returning Forwards Buzz Parsons and Derek Possee. But with 13 eager but unseasoned Canadians on the squad, it will be heavy going.
Eight of the 12 teams here are new or relocated, and any prediction in this, the weaker of the two conferences, that goes beyond saying Tampa Bay will win is strictly a hatpin job.
After Coach Eddie Firmani departed at midseason for the cool green of the Cosmos, the TAMPA BAY ROWDIES went into a slump, finishing at 14-12. They will have to stave off Fort Lauderdale to win in the East. Although the eccentric and brilliant Forward Rodney Marsh had troubles back in England with the new Rowdies' Coach Gordon Jago, all is apparently forgiven. Marsh and Derek Smethurst (14 goals) should see this strong, mixed-attack team through.
The FORT LAUDERDALE STRIKERS, under Coach of the Year Ron Newman, are standing pat after their surprising 19-7 season, best in the league. The sentimental favorite here is one-eyed Gordon Banks, England's World Cup keeper (1.12 average last year). Scoring will come from Forwards David Irving and George Nanchoff, an American who led the club in goals last year.
The expansion PHILADELPHIA FURY, coached by Richard Dinnis, features midfield general Johnny Giles, 36, owner-coach of Ireland's Shamrock Rovers, and Peter (The Wizard of Oz) Osgood, a sometimes brilliant center forward from England. They lead a younger group of Irish, English and American players and should help the Fury make the playoffs.
Lipton, however, will need more than Dandy Don to bag a playoff spot for its NEW ENGLAND TEA MEN. Coach Noel Cantwell, with three months to put together a team, has signed youthful ex-Rowdies Midfielders Ringo Cantillo and Dennis Wit, plus solid ex-Kick Midfielder David D'Errico and one of England's better keepers, Kevin Keelan.
The CHICAGO STING is the only club in the Central Division remaining from last year, when it was 10-16. New Coach Malcolm Musgrove, who worked wonders with Connecticut a year ago, should win this division. He has a clutch of new Polish and Yugoslav players who will attack, do a lot of close marking at midfield, challenge and counterattack.
Ex-Cosmos Coach Ken Furphy has built the DETROIT EXPRESS "up the middle" with Right Back Paul Hunter, a Cosmos rookie last season; Center Half Graham Oates, an English defensive star; and Striker Steve Earle, a 100-plus English scorer with Fulham. Expansion Detroit could be a sleeper.
The HOUSTON HURRICANE, under former Dallas assistant Timo Liekoski, will play in the cavernous Astrodome, but at week's end, only three players of any note had been signed by the new club—defender Stuart Jump, late of Tampa; Robert Lennox, a 300-goal Scottish National forward; and fellow-Scot John Dowie at midfield.
The MEMPHIS ROGUES have had internal troubles. Tony Field, a fine ex-Cosmos midfielder, will lead Coach Eddie McCreadie's English, Canadian and American side in what is projected to be an all-out attacking style.
Despite an unsettled defense that didn't help last year's 14-12 record, the SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES will win the Western Division. NASL alltime goal getter Ilija Mitic (with 96) is beyond starting age, but Forwards Paul Child and Leroy DeLeon (the NASL's fourth and fifth alltime scorers) will be arsenal enough, before sellout crowds.
The OAKLAND STOMPERS have a media prize in ex-Cosmos Keeper Shep Messing (1.45 in '77), the first American player with a six-figure contract. Midfielder Andy Atuegbu from the University of San Francisco and Striker Mike Flater from the Kicks, an American, are also on hand. The Stompers will finish second to San Jose.
The SAN DIEGO SOCKERS were the Las Vegas Quicksilvers last season, the San Diego Jaws in '76 and the Baltimore Bays way back. Coach Hubert Vogelsinger (late of Hawaii) won't have the Portuguese legend Eusebio this year but will give Oakland trouble with a Belgian, Dutch and West German squad playing "swarm-attack" ball, or the Dutch "Swirl"—plus American Keeper Alan Mayer.
As '77's St. Louis Stars, the CALIFORNIA SURF had a disappointing 12-14 record and few fans. Now ensconced in Anaheim, holdover Coach John Sewell brought with him American midfielder and strategist Al Trost and has added English Back Andy McBride for a solid defense. As opening day approached, much of the team was not set. Said Sewell, "They're not thirsty for soccer here yet. But they could be."