The summer of 1967 in Detroit will forever be remembered for the city’s race riots, National Guard presence and growing opposition to the Vietnam War, but amidst this turbulent period, the city also temporarily acquired a new ‘soccer’ team.
Before the formation of the MLS, football in North America was a bit like that Diana Ross penalty kick at USA ’94; it seemed like a great idea at the time but it just never quite went to plan.
One of the many professional leagues that is now defunct and cast away in the annals of football in America is the United Soccer Association. The 1966 World Cup had rekindled American interest in the game and subsequently saw the creation of two different leagues, the National Professional Soccer League and the United Soccer Association.
Baseball executive Dick Walsh served as commissioner of the United Soccer Association which sought to create a multi-national league for the summer of 1967. What was remarkable about the competition is that rather than seeking to recruit local talent, whole teams were imported from clubs across South America and Europe, where they were designated to an American city and given a franchise name. Northern Ireland’s Glentoran was one of the 12 teams invited to partake in the summer competition and were re-branded as the Detroit Cougars.
As they were the only part-time outfit in the competition, the Northern Irishmen were expected to be cannon fodder for the established European and South American clubs, such as Cerro of Uruguay, Serie A’s Cagliari and Stoke City of England’s top tier. However, rather than simply settle for just making up the numbers, Glentoran - or the Detroit Cougars - more than held their own against their professional opposition, and even finished just 3 points behind eventual Eastern Conference winners, Aberdeen FC.
The Ulstermen swapped their traditional colours of green, red and white for all-black kits that were akin to American Football jerseys with oversized numbering splashed across them and kicked off their tour with a fiery encounter against an outfit much closer to home. Shamrock Rovers of the Republic of Ireland had been assigned to the city of Boston due to the city’s strong Irish heritage where they were styled as Boston Rovers. While both teams did not compete in the same league, there was a slight degree of familiarity between them as both sides had competed in the various cross-border competitions, such as the North-South Cup and the Dublin and Belfast Inter-City Cup.
On 28th May 1967, the Northern Irish side made its debut as the Detroit Cougars in front of 7,000 inexperienced yet enthusiastic soccer supporters in Boston, with the match programme acting as a beginner’s guide into the rules and practices of soccer. The clash itself finished 1-1 and in the most controversial fashion as the Cougars had a last minute winner wrongly fully disallowed by one of the linesmen, who later transpired to be a Boston native. Scenes turned sour after the final whistle as Cougars’ player-manager, John Colrain, was alleged to have struck the linesman who made the decision.
The inexperience and perceived incompetence of match officials would become the subject of criticism throughout the United Soccer Association, with the Glentoran chairman even stating after the game that he would never have taken the team to America if he was aware of the poor standard of refereeing.
Despite the setback, attentions turned to the Cougars’ home debut on 4th June at the University of Detroit Stadium where they faced English Division One side Sunderland, competing as Vancouver Royal Canadians. In front of 12,000 eager supporters, reported to be the biggest crowd for a soccer match in the Motor City, the part-timers introduced themselves to the people of Detroit by earning a draw against the English top tier side, and even held the lead through Danny Trainor’s header after two minutes.
The Cougars extended their unbeaten run in the competition to four games, avenging the result against Shamrock Rovers with a 1-0 victory and a hard fought 2-2 draw against eventual Eastern Conference winners Aberdeen, who were re-branded as Washington Whips.
While Glentoran had already returned to Northern Ireland before the serious trouble erupted in Detroit that summer, tempers flared in the Motor City during their meeting against Brazilian side Bangu AC, now styled as Houston Stars, with the match abandoned after 73 minutes. Houston’s full back Luiz Alberto, fly-kicked Detroit’s Tommy Jackson in the kidney which sparked a mass on-pitch brawl between the two outfits. During the melee, Brazilian players were reported to have uprooted the corner flags where they were wielded and used as weapons. The match was abandoned with Bangu leading 2-0 but the result was allowed to stand in the Brazilian’s favour.
Violence and incompetent referees unable to effectively control affairs on the pitch seemed to be a recurring theme as the competition progressed, including an astonishing encounter in Toronto between Chicago Mustangs (Cagliari) and Toronto City (Hibernian) where chaos reigned as thousands of irate fans descended onto the pitch in protest of the encounter being abandoned and subsequently attacked the match officials, according to the Canadian Press.
After the defeat against the Brazilians which had brought their unbeaten run to an abrupt end, Glentoran were brought back to earth with heavy defeats against ADO Den Haag (San Francisco Golden Gate Gales) and Wolverhampton Wanderers (Los Angeles Wolves).
However, the Northern Irish semi-pros re-grouped, claiming a 1-0 victory against Dundee United, re-styled as Dallas Tornado, and earning a draw against Serie A’s Cagliari who were competing as the Chicago Mustangs.
Arguably the Ulstermen’s finest hour of the American Tour followed when the Cougars came up against the New York Skyliners franchise - Uruguay’s CA Cerro - at Yankee Stadium on 2nd July. Cerro had finished their 1967 Uruguayan League campaign in a very respectable third position behind Peñarol and Club Nacional; two clubs that were very domineering in South American club football during the 1960s.
In 80 degree temperatures, conditions favoured the South Americans, yet Glentoran pulled of the unthinkable and recorded a 1-0 away victory against established Uruguayan internationals. The result meant that the Detroit franchise still had a promising chance of finishing top of the Eastern Conference, an astonishing feat for a side who was heavily tipped to struggle in the competition.
In their final two games, Glentoran went onto record two draws, the first against Cleveland Stokers (Stoke City) and then against Toronto City (Hibernian), a game which the Northern Irish outfit lead until the final minute.
For their efforts of defying the odds in America, the Cougars were received as heroes on their return to Belfast as crowds lined the streets from City Hall to East Belfast welcoming the part-timers home.
However, Glentoran made the point of exceeding expectations again, only two months after their final game as the Detroit Cougars. The Northern Irish side more than held their own in a 1-1 draw against the late Eusebio’s SL Benfica in the European Cup. Player manager John Colrain scored from the penalty spot in the first ten minutes before Eusebio equalised at the death. In the return leg, a 0-0 draw subsequently saw the Glens become the first side to be knocked out of Europe on the away goal rule but also the first to keep a clean sheet at the Estadio da Luz in European competition.
While the 1967 United Soccer Association is now largely a forgotten piece of football history, it still holds particular significance in a corner of Belfast, when Northern Irish part-timers surprised the footballing world during the summer of love.