FOURTEEN YEARS after the first stab at establishing professional soccer in Utah ended in enough confusion, controversy and lawsuits to make even the Utah Jazz's pre-Larry Miller history look calm, a second stab is upon us. When the Salt Lake Sting take to the pitch today at 5 p.m. at Derks Field against the San Francisco Bay
Blackhawks, they'll officially inaugurate their residence as a franchise in the American Professional Soccer League.The Sting are scheduled to play 12 home games at Derks Field between now and Aug. 11, most of them on Friday or Saturday nights. They have a collection of respectable businessmen/owners, they have a 10,000-seat arena with a great view of the Wasatch Range, and so far nobody's threatened to sue them.
In three big areas then, they're way ahead of the last try.
It was 1976, soccer was booming in America, the North American Soccer League had recently signed the great Pele, and the rival American Soccer League appropriated a franchise to Salt Lake City and a Greek businessman named George Brokalakis.
There was a name-the-team contest that attracted 5,500 entries. The winner was a fan named George Stephenson of Salt Lake, who had the earliest postmark of eight people who suggested the winning entry, "Golden Spikers" (This was the year of the bicentennial and remembering the past, in this case the Golden Spike, was very much in style). Stephenson won a color TV, a soccer ball, dinner for two at the Athenian restaurant and an expense-paid trip to the ASL finals.
Whether Stephenson ever collected on the trip to the ASL finals isn't known; what is known is that the team he named never made it.
It wasn't that the team wasn't representative on the field. By mid-August the Golden Spikers had accumulated a 9-7-2 record and had qualified for the playoffs. The problems were off the field.
There were hassles at finding a place to play - the Spikers were turned down, in order, by the University of Utah and, ironically, by Derks Field, with Art Teece, then the owner of the resident minor league baseball team, suggesting that soccer and baseball couldn't coexist - and there were hassles with the ASL. The league wasn't exactly doing a landbank business as it was, and it got very sensitive when Salt Lake got behind on its payments of franchise fees and assessments.
After averting a lawsuit with a racetrack promoter, the Golden Spikers finally settled into a home at the State Fairgrounds, playing on the infield of the Speedway racetrack. But having a permanent address was bad news in one way. It allowed creditors to know where to find them.
One night in late July, the president of the league, Nick Sclavounos, came to a Spikers game to see the team president, Tim Themy. They met, as fate would have it, in the parking lot.
After throwing out a few phrases such as "past due" and "see you in court," Sclavounos was physically attacked by Themy, or so he alleged in a lawsuit that came a week later, along with a formal expulsion notice from the ASL, signed by league commissioner Bob Cousy.
That was it for pro soccer in Utah, with the exception of a short-lived and unsuccessful attempt by a group that called themselves the Pioneers to take over the Spikers franchise a week after the expulsion.
By contrast, the Sting launch into their opening season with established owners and an excellent stadium.
The Sting's owners include 14 buinessmen, several of them local, who are also involved with ownership of the Salt Lake Trappers baseball team, Derks Field's other tennant. Bill Murray, the actor, is among the Trapper/Sting owners. Credit wouldn't seem to be a problem.
Neither will coexisting on the same playing field with a baseball team, given the joint ownership, be a problem.
There is one more significant difference between Salt Lake pro soccer then and now.
The 1976 Golden Spikers belonged to a league that was trying to rival the NASL, if not the NFL. The ASL hired Cousy, the ex-Boston Celtics star, for big figurehead-type money, and paid high enough salaries to lure players from overseas, where soccer is a sport not a sidelight. The Golden Spikers were dominated by foreign players.
The APSL, on the other hand, is more modest in its approach. There is no Bob Cousy posing as commissioner, the Sting's owners reportedly got in for a $25,000 franchise fee (less than $2,000 a man), and there is a two-foreigners-per-team limit. The Sting have only one non-American.
It is significantly less likely that the league president is going to be looking for the Sting's owner one hot July night in the parking lot - unless he's after Bill Murray's autograph.