Monday, August 23, 2010

Rowdies Capture Soccer Bowl, 8/24/75

In August 1975, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were still one year away from playing their first down of professional football. In the interim during their first year on the scene, the Tampa Bay Rowdies did not just hold the attention of local sports fans with the new and exciting sport of soccer. In fact, they were able to win their hearts and minds as well.

Shrewd marketing and player interaction with the fans certainly helped promote the game, but having an extremely competitive team in the North American Soccer League kept fans coming back for more.

Defender Mike Connell, at the time just 18-years-old and in his rookie season, says today that the Rowdies had to be winners that first year if they hoped to be successful long-term in Tampa.

“It was a one-shot deal,” he says, “and it comes down to one year: 1975. If we were not successful in 1975, the magic in the subsequent years doesn’t happen.”

And successful the Rowdies were. Tampa Bay easily captured the Eastern Division title on July 29, the earliest any team had wrapped up a division in NASL history.

In the playoffs, the Rowdies posted two shutouts on the strength of excellent defense and superb goaltending by Paul Hammond. After sharing keeper duties throughout the season with Mike Hewitt, Hammond took over in the final regular season game against Toronto and then helped lead the Rowdies to a pair of playoff victories at home against Toronto and Miami to earn Tampa Bay a berth in the league championship game: the Soccer Bowl.

The Rowdies would have to travel all the way across the country to play at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, California, against the Portland Timbers. The Timbers, champions of the Pacific Division, sported an identical 16-6 regular season record as the Rowdies. The Timbers, like the Rowdies, were also an expansion team in 1975 and enjoyed the support of a rabid fan base.

The similarities, however, seemed to end there. In the days leading up to the game, several Rowdies commented on the cockiness of Portland’s players.

Statements like “Tampa Bay doesn’t have a chance,” spoken by Portland’s Graham Day after his team’s 1-0 semifinal win over St. Louis, certainly indicated a level of cockiness.

“They (Portland) all seem to be very confident, and think they’re going to walk into the game and take it away,” Connell said.

“All they feel like they have to do is go out there and put in their 90 minutes,” one Rowdies player said. “Well, it’s going to be a long 90 minutes for them.”

On August 24, 1975, singer Lou Rawls kicked off Soccer Bowl in style with his performance of the Star-Spangled Banner in front of the standing-room only crowd of 17,000 at Spartan Stadium. In order to win the game, the Rowdies knew they had to shut down Portland’s top offensive weapon. Tampa Bay defender Stewart Jump knew from the get-go then that his assignment would be to mark high-scoring striker Peter Withe. The 6-foot-2 Withe scored 17 goals in 22 regular season games for Portland, and his combination of size and skill presented a challenge for the Rowdies.

Jump and fellow defender Alex Pringle helped keep Withe thoroughly in check most of the afternoon, holding him to only three shots on goal for the game.

A scoreless first half gave way to some early excitement in the second half. Portland carried the play and much of the momentum while the Rowdies struggled to find their offensive punch.

Enter Arsene Auguste. The Haitian sensation entered the game at the 63 minute mark for defender Malcolm Linton, and it did not take long for Auguste to make his presence known.
A recent-arrival to the team -- having been acquired from the New Jersey Brewers in late July -- Auguste was playing in only his fourth game as a member of the Rowdies. Head coach Eddie Firmani’s decision to substitute “Augie” for Linton looked like a stroke of genius just three minutes later.

After taking a pass from Derek Smethurst, Auguste surprised Portland goaltender Graham Brown from nearly 35 yards out with a rifle shot aimed high to the top post that went just off the goaltender’s finger tips and into the net. The goal broke a scoreless tie and gave Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead. Through his interpreter after the game, Auguste responded to the question of why he attempted a shot from such a distance by saying that he “really didn’t have anything else to do with the ball.” Smethurst later called the goal one of the hardest kicked balls he had ever seen.

Tampa Bay held a one-goal lead and withstood a furious push by Portland for another twenty minutes before finally icing the game.

This time, Smethurst set up a charging Clyde Best who easily slipped his shot past Brown to put the game away once and for all at the 87:40 mark. In their first season, the Rowdies had come away with a 2-0 victory over Portland in the Soccer Bowl.

For his outstanding defensive effort in shutting down Withe, Stewart Jump earned the game’s Most Valuable Player honors.

“What more can you say about Stewart Jump?” asked Firmani after the game. “Peter With was supposed to be so good. What did he do today? Nothing, that’s what.”

The Rowdies returned home to a jubilant atmosphere. During the game, Boneshakers in Hyde Park was the scene of a Soccer Bowl viewing party for loyal “Fannies.” The favorite gathering-spot among players and fans would serve as a primary rallying point upon their return from California as well. The party, of course, would last well into the early-morning hours.

On August 27, the city of Tampa threw a parade from Tampa Stadium to downtown to celebrate the city’s first professional sports championship.

In a special ceremony on the Franklin Street Mall, the Rowdies were declared “honorary citizens of Tampa” by Mayor Bill Poe.

“Never in such a short time have so few swept into a community to do so much in sports,” Poe said in his remarks. Quite succinctly, but accurately, he added, “Tampa, Florida, is proud of the Rowdies,” and then promptly exempted Tampa’s newest “citizens” from paying the city’s garbage tax.

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