History Lesson: The NASL Strike Of 1979
(Note: I wrote this for the late, lamented Emerald City Gazette back in 2003, when the nascent MLS Players Union was working on its first collective bargaining agreement with the league. Some of the references are dated – Dave Sarachan is no longer the coach of the Chicago Fire, obviously – but it’s still interesting, I think. Especially given recent circumstances.)
From 1968 to 1984, the North American Soccer League gave fans their first look at big time professional soccer, their last look at Pele as a player, and the first—and last—player strike in American soccer history.
For less than a week in 1979, the NASL played a confusing game of “What’s My Lineup?” with some players walking out, some walking on, and many walking around wondering exactly what was happening.
“Back in the 1970’s, we were trying to get a union started, but the owners could basically do whatever they wanted to,” recalled Chicago Fire head coach Dave Sarachan, who played for the NASL’s Rochester Lancers in 1976 and 1977.
“We went out to play Team Hawaii, and the owner fined everybody on the team $100 because they said we didn’t play well, but they were really just trying to save some money on the trip,” Sarachan said.
“So when I came back and we got our paychecks, I got a letter instead that said, ‘You were fined $100 for the Hawaii game, and you only make $85, so you owe us $15.’ Sure enough, the next week, they took the other $15 out of my check.”
Sarachan’s story is funny now, but it was no laughing matter to the players at the time. When the NASL Players Association was finally organized and certified by the National Labor Relations Board in 1978, team owners refused to recognize it. The NASLPA Director, Ed Garvey (who would later go on to head the NFL Players Association), posed a strike threat on March 30, 1979, less than a week into the season, trying to force management’s hand.
Owners like Lamar Hunt of Dallas and Ft. Lauderdale’s Joe Robbie, who had just gone through a preseason strike by the players on their NFL teams (the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins, respectively) five years before, took a hard-line stance, and the league refused to budge.
Two weeks later, appropriately on Friday the 13th, the NASLPA announced its members had approved a strike by a vote of 252-113. Some teams scrambled to line up “contingency squads” for their matches the next day.
“I cannot say anything on the matter,” stated NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam, showing a lack of leadership that his baseball counterpart, Bowie Kuhn, would emulate just two years later. “The league cannot act at this point.”
The first fixture of Saturday, April 14 was the Chicago Sting’s match at Wrigley Field against Vancouver. The Sting had voted 19-0 not to strike, but dropped a 3-2 shootout decision to the Whitecaps, who were precluded from striking under Canadian law.
That didn’t help the Toronto Blizzard, who played like amateurs in a 7-1 rout by the Rowdies in Tampa. The Rowdies had announced they wouldn’t strike, but they struck for four goals in five minutes to make a statement that, at least in Tampa Bay, it was soccer as usual.
“A strike could threaten the very existence of the game that we are all trying to establish in the United States,” said Rowdies defender Farrukh Quaraishi, explaining his team’s attitude.
Every other NASL game went ahead as scheduled that Saturday, with varying resemblances to the games of the previous four weeks. In Philadelphia, the full-strength Fury pounded the New England Tea Men (who had ten players walk out) 3-0, while the Washington Diplomats, with three starters out, ripped the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers (their nickname being particularly fitting as 16 players left, leaving just five regulars, including George Best, and a dozen local amateurs) at Lockhart Stadium, 4-0.
In Portland, 17 of 18 Timbers refused to play against Minnesota, prompting team management to offer refunds to anyone dissatisfied with the caliber of play. The Kicks, who had seven regulars, won 2-0 in front of 6,244 fans, many of who likely took the Timbers up on their offer.
Five California starters picketed outside Anaheim Stadium before the Surf’s match against Los Angeles. The Aztecs, who were missing only forward Bob McAlinden, won 1-0. Edmonton and San Jose had full squads and a good crowd (15,550) to see the Drillers pull out a 1-0 overtime win over the homestanding Earthquakes.
Perhaps the most bizarre display of the night took place in Detroit, where the Express, missing just two players, faced Memphis, who brought only one regular, forward Ruben Astigarra. The Rogues started a former player turned agent, Eddie McCreadie, in goal, two amateurs from the Memphis youth program, and several Latin amateurs in their lineup, and went home after a 5-0 drubbing in front of a surprisingly large crowd of 14,272. Detroit’s Bob Rohrback scored four goals in the second half. They would be the only four goals he would score all season, and he never played again after 1979.
Most of the rest of the league waited to take their cue from the powerhouse Cosmos. The league’s pre-eminent team voted 20-2 in favor of the strike (only midfielder Terry Garbett and the great Giorgio Chinaglia were in the minority), then hedged their bets by flying 14 players to Atlanta in a private jet ahead of their match with the Chiefs.
Before their game in Tulsa, the Rochester Lancers called the press box in Atlanta to have the Cosmos’ starting lineup read to them. “Are you certain that Franz Beckenbauer is playing?” was the question put to Atlanta’s public relations director.
Beckenbauer did play, as did the rest of his teammates (Werner Roth had observed the strike for the first three days, then come back), and New York claimed a 3-2 shootout win over the Chiefs.
On Tuesday, April 17, Garvey and fellow union leader John Kerr (whose son would be involved in the first attempt to form an MLS union some 18 years later), along with representatives of the Strikers, Diplomats, and Lancers, met with the Cosmos to try to convince them to strike, knowing it would have a domino effect on the rest of the teams. The Cosmos declined, but the fatal blow to the strike was already in motion.
Players had originally been told that any foreigner in the country on a visa risked deportation if he played during the strike. As fifty-five percent of the NASL’s players were imports, there was a very real risk of there being no league if the US Immigration and Naturalization Service followed through with that edict.
“If the American authorities refuse to renew visas, the league is dead,” said Garbett of the Cosmos, an Englishman.
Finally, INS ruled that while it would grant no new visas to players attempting to enter the country during the strike, any player with a current visa would not be deported if they played. With no longer anything to lose, and with many players feeling they had never been completely informed as to the reasons for the walkout, the foreigners returned. The NASLPA called an end to this peculiar bit of stoppage time and ended the strike on Wednesday, April 18, 1979, less than a week after it began.
In all, just 143 players, less than a third of the league’s workforce, actually honored the strike. Nearly a quarter of a century later, it is still the only work stoppage in American soccer history, and hopefully will remain so in the future.