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History of Soccer in Los Angeles: Big success and big failure during the first professional era

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An era of rapidly changing fortunes in soccer comes to LA.

Best (left), then of the Aztecs, gives Pele a plaque.
Best (left), then of the Aztecs, gives Pele a plaque.
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In 1966, for the first time, the United States was able to watch the World Cup on their home televisions. The United States is a melting pot, as has been said so many times, so the different ethnic groups could watch their home nation. And as a nation in our own right, we weren't even good enough to be in the tournament, held that year in England. In fact since beating England in 1950 the USA team spent the next three decades losing, really only beating Haiti, Bermuda, Honduras, Canada, Poland, and China on the international level.

Even with the lack of success domestically, there was interest enough to lead to the formation of two leagues in 1967 -- the National Professional Soccer League (later revived, with an amateur league currently under that name), and the United Soccer Association. The NPSL wasn't sanctioned by USSF, but the patriotically-named USA league was.

However, both put a Los Angeles club in their leagues. In the USA the Los Angeles Wolves were actually English stalwart Wolverhampton Wanderers, in a quirk of the age where English teams came wholecloth to the U.S. in their offseason under a new name, and the NPSL launched the Los Angeles Toros. The Toros were horrible, finishing dead last, and struggled at the gate.

Across town, the Wolves, bolstered by a club that was still very good, won the West Division and the league, while averaging almost 8 thousand fans (7,773). During the offseason the two leagues merged and formed the North American Soccer League. The new league lasted for almost twenty years (until the 1985 offseason), but the Los Angeles Wolves, now without the Wolverhampton element, finished a bad year. In the 1968 offseason the Wolves were one of several NASL teams to fold, after just one season in the league, and leaving LA without a professional team once more.

It would take five years for a club to come back to Los Angeles, and when it did in 1974, they went for the glitz and glamour of the game. The Los Angeles Aztecs were born, and hit the ground running much like the Wolves previously, winning the league title in their first year, beating the Miami Toros 5-3 in penalties (Miami, of course, eventually became the original Fort Lauderdale Strikers). They were also co-owned by future Watford Chairman (not to mention international singing superstar) Elton John. Along the way they had some famous names, great crowds, and great teams.

However, the next couple of years they'd finish just above .500. Their first major signing was the great Juli Veee, who'd last a year with the club before becoming a legend in the Major Indoor Soccer League. Then just like the rest of the league, the club would go hunting for talent in the European leagues, and bring over Manchester United legend George Best, he'd score 15 goals, and gather 37 points in his first season over here. He'd be joined by Trinidadian Steve David in 1977, who would end up scoring 26 goals to take the league scoring title, in a year that the club would make it to the conference finals before losing to Seattle.

By 1979 Best and David were gone, and the Dutch influence started showing up in the club. First, the great Johan Cruyff, one of the best players in soccer history, came out to LA, after playing a friendly with the Cosmos. There's been rumors out there that both Best and Cruyff wanted to play with the Cosmos but were, ahem, "encouraged" by the league to play in other places. On the bright side, Cruyff won the league MVP award in 1979.

Aside from the star power of Cruyff, the Aztecs were also managed in 1979-80 by the legendary Rinus Michels, the former Netherlands, Ajax, and Barcelona manager who had helped revolutionize soccer with the "total football" philosophy. Alas, he could not take the emerging NASL by storm, as they'd have a horrible 1979 season, and finish 2nd in the division in 1980. By 1981, the NASL was bleeding money, so the team folded. Thus ended a strange era of pro soccer in LA, with the various teams' fortunes waxing and waning on a seemingly annual basis.

Next time in our series: the barren years in America, no major outdoor soccer league, and a generation of future legends grow up without the sport. It'll be ten years before another professional league comes in, and what is it like in one of the major markets of the country without major soccer.

Sources: nasljerseys.com and Playing for Uncle Sam: The Brits' Story of the North American Soccer League, by David Tossell.

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