Chris NeeComment

THE RISE OF THE AZTECS

Chris NeeComment
THE RISE OF THE AZTECS

By the 1974 season the North American Soccer League was beginning to establish itself and find a solid footing. At head office, Phil Woosnam now demanded a very handsome expansion fee from new clubs joining the NASL and plenty obliged ahead of the new campaign. The league's teams in Montreal and Atlanta shuffled out of the spotlight but they were replaced four times over as Woosnam and the NASL sent out a genuine statement of intent.

New teams sprang up in Boston, Baltimore, Denver, Los Angeles, San Jose, Seattle, Vancouver and Washington DC, bolstering not only the league's roster of clubs but its credibility as a national sports league. It was split into four regional divisions (Northern, Eastern, Central and Western) and soccer in the United States and Canada, while not quite encroaching into the psyche of the average American sports fan, was in relatively rude health.
    
On the field, the NASL did away with draws in 1974. Matches that reached 90 minutes with the scores level were settled from the penalty spot, with the winning team taking three points from their shoot-out victory instead of the six available for winning in regulation time; they also snared the point-per-goal up to a maximum of three that would have accompanied a win in normal time. Miami Toros mastered the art quickly, winning all six of their regular season shoot-outs, but it proved their undoing at the final hurdle. In their seventh shoot-out of 1974 Miami fell victim to a perfect five-out-of-five by a debut team from the other side of the country.

Los Angeles Aztecs, who played in Monterey Park at East Los Angeles College's (ELAC) Weingart Stadium, couldn't have achieved much more in their first season in the North American Soccer League. They finished top of the Western Division, seeing off San Jose Earthquakes thanks in large part to an eight-match winning run. In front of an average crowd of 5,000 - significantly below the league average of nearly 8,000 for the Aztecs' debut year - the pleasingly multicultural new team finished the regular season with the best record of anyone in the league, earning them a bye to the semi-finals of the post-season playoffs.

One of LA's clutch of Uruguayan players was Montevideo-born Uri Banhoffer, who scored seven goals and assisted four during the Aztecs' impressive introduction season. Before heading for the States and the NASL, Banhoffer had played in Uruguay, Mexico and Chile, where he won the Chilean championship in 1971. He later returned to Chile by way of a stint in the Netherlands, where he played for PEC Zwolle and added an Eerste Divisie medal to his collection of silverware.

Luis Marotte was one of two players in the 1974 Aztecs team to be named in the NASL All-Star Second XI. The diminutive Uruguayan midfielder joined LA having previously played a couple of seasons for Rochester Lancers and helped his new team to succeed by contributing four goals and four assists.
    
The pick of the inaugural Aztecs bunch was Doug McMillan. A Dundonian, McMillan made his Stateside footballing name in the American Soccer League, the region's de facto second division, in 1973. With eleven goals and seven assists in just seven appearances for Cleveland Stars, McMillan captured the first ever ASL Rookie of the Year award. He was also the NASL Rookie of the Year in 1974 after a stellar first season with the Aztecs and remains the only player to have won both accolades. McMillan played twice for the United States national team in 1974, appearing in a pair of 4-0 defeats at the hands of Bermuda and Poland in March.

But 29-year-old McMillan was a genuine force in the Aztecs' attack in the domestic season that followed. He played in all 20 regular season matches, scoring ten goals and assisting another ten. That placed him in third in the league's combined goalscoring charts behind San Jose Earthquakes' Birmingham-born forward Paul Child and another Englishman, Peter Silvester of Baltimore Comets. He assisted more goals than any other player in the league in 1974 but it was a goal of his own that capped his vital contribution in the championship game.

The Californian team joined the playoffs at the semi-final stage, just 90 minutes away from reaching the final showdown. They defeated a fellow debutant team from Boston, the Minutemen, by two goals to nil at ELAC, confirming a meeting with the Toros at Miami's Orange Bowl in the season's championship game. Miami beat Dallas Tornado 3-1 on the same day to line up their place in a bi-coastal glamour game that lived up to every expectation when it came to entertainment and value for money for the 15,000-strong crowd.
    
The 1974 North American Soccer League championship game ended 3-3 after 90 minutes; even that scoreline barely tells the story of a pulsating, dramatic and controversial final in the scorching Floridian heat of the Orange Bowl on a Sunday afternoon in late August.

The scoring began early and it was the Toros who took the lead with a shade over a quarter of an hour gone. Ralph Wright's opener was soon cancelled out by the Aztecs after referee John Davies awarded them the first of the day's plethora of penalty kicks. Ricardo de Rienzo converted from twelve yards and the fuse was lit. Miami's Ronnie Sharp had his first spot kick of the day saved by Blas Sanchez just after half time but the ball ricocheted in off the tall frame of Trinidadian Aztecs defender Ramon Moraldo to give Miami a 2-1 lead in the 72nd minute. Again, LA had an answer; Renato Costa made it 2-2 with twelve minutes left on the clock.

Even by 1974 the NASL had become accustomed to late drama, and the nation-spanning final of that year obliged by the bucketload. The pattern of the game continued and it was Miami who edged ahead, taking a 3-2 lead through Esteban Aranguiz. With just three minutes remaining, who knows whether Aranguiz and his cohorts thought they had the championship won. If they did they weren't inwardly celebrating for long because McMillan had one last trick up his sleeve. A minute after going behind for a third time LA equalised yet again and it was their top goalscorer who netted to make it 3-3 and take the game to penalties.

Never mind the Orange Bowl; shoot-outs were Miami's territory. But, in a test of nerve that stretched beyond the routine appearance of the 5-4 final score from the spot, it was the Floridians who blinked. Mario Zanotti and Banhoffer scored the first two for LA either side of Roberto Aguirre's successful kick for Miami, and then it was Sharp against Sanchez all over again. The Scotsman strode up to the penalty spot for the second time and for the second time Sanchez was equal to his effort, only to have been adjudged to have moved off his line too early. Sharp beat him at the third attempt and the shoot-out reached 2-2.

Marotte made it 3-2 to LA and Ken Mallender equalised. Peter Filotes scored LA's fourth and Miami's fatal moment followed when defender Roger Verdi blasted his kick over the crossbar and Tony Douglas, LA's young Trinidadian forward, was tasked with applying the final touch to a debut season championship. Remarkably he too was given a second bite of the cherry after goalkeeper Osvaldo Toriano saved his first effort only for the play to be called back just as Sharp's first penalty had been a few minutes previously. Douglas made no mistake at the second time of asking and the Aztecs were the champions.

It was a remarkable team effort. The NASL was bursting at the seams with opportunities to arbitrarily reward individual excellence but not one Aztecs player was named in the All-Star First XI in 1974, the season in which they topped the regular season standings and won the title. The Aztecs got one of the USA's most important soccer cities off to a flying start in NASL after the fleeting involvement of Los Angeles Wolves of 1968.
    
The Aztecs were represented by some colossal names throughout the 1970s. Alan Rothenburg was involved on the ownership side and went on to leave an indelible imprint on the history of football in the USA in the decades that followed. Elton John co-owned the Aztecs for a while, and both George Best and Johan Cruyff played for the club. Steve David, part of the Toros squad in 1974, later became the NASL's top goalscorer for LA.

But the club's late 1970s star power never matched the title-winning debut season. The year after the Aztecs won the championship the North American Soccer League underwent the beginnings of a revolution, inspired by the arrival of Pele at New York Cosmos. History shows that by the time he made his debut against Dallas Tornado at the Cosmos' ramshackle Downing Stadium, the City of Angels had already had its moment in the sun.

Chris Nee is an IBWM content editor and is the host of the Aston Villa Review podcast. He writes a regular football blog and you can follow him on Twitter: @ChrisNeeFC

Aztecs image courtesy of the phenomenal NASLjerseys.com

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