Los Angeles Aztecs vs Seattle Sounders, NASL 1979

The king is dead, long live the king. After a retirement lasting merely a few months Johan Cruyff was lacing up his boots again. Only now, in 1979, he did not step out onto the hallowed pitch of Nou Camp. Death threats and constant police protection had marred his time in Barcelona leading up to the World Cup 1978. Trying to get away as far as possible Cruyff took his family to the United States.

His first destination was New York. As early as 1977 Cruyff had joined the fabled Cosmos of Pele, Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer for a number of test matches. A long-term deal never came to fruition, so Cruyff set out to conquer the West Coast instead. Arriving in Los Angeles he wanted to “try to build up soccer where it wasn’t popular”. Money likely played its part as well. Cruyff’s recent investments had not been as successful as his footballing exploits. The Aztecs were only too happy to oblige. Cruyff stood to earn a cool $1.4 million over the course of two seasons.

In LA he was reunited with Rinus Michels. Together the congenial player/manager duo had reigned supreme in Holland and Spain with Ajax and Barcelona respectively. On the world stage they had come agonizingly close, losing the World Cup final 1974 to West Germany 1:2.

Aztecs already playoff bound, Sounders reaching

As they line up for their penultimate match of the season their new empire looks paltry in comparison. The Rose Bowl would be jam packed with more than 90,000 spectators when football of the American variety is on display. For the Aztecs in 1979 on average only 14,334 fans show up. While that is a 65% increase on the year before, those in attendance on the day look forlorn in the expanse of the giant stadium.

The LA Aztecs, though, are one of the premier sides in the league. Sat in second place of the Western Division, they are already assured a spot in the playoffs. Visitors Seattle are in with a shout but need to win their two remaining matches to prolong their campaign. Struggling to survive the cut from 24 to 16 teams hardly suggests a team of championship pedigree. However, the Sounders do come into this having just put nine past the Edmonton Drillers in a shutout victory. Whether that says more about Seattle or Edmonton the following ninety minutes would tell.

After a little Sounders flurry from the kick-off, the Aztecs establish their dominance early. Audiences with King Johan are in high demand, two or three defenders are on Cruyff as soon as he receives the ball in the opponent’s half. Naturally this opens space up for his teammates. Javier Sánchez Galindo and Thomas Rongen roam the midfield freely. The latter tees one up for his compatriot after seven minutes for LA’s first attempt at goal. Cruyff lets the lobbed pass sail over his right shoulder across his body to pull off a tough shot with his left foot from the edge of the box. He does not connect as flush as needed, sending the ball a yard wide.

Seattle struggle with building play up, are hurried already if a lone forward is pressing. The issue is not helped by the fact that goalkeeper Cliff Brown is not too confident with the ball at his feet, always opting to pick it up to throw it, and even employing Sunday league tactics in having the centre backs taking care of goal kicks.

Approximate formations and player movements for Los Angeles Aztecs vs Seattle Sounders, August 7th 1979

Approximate formations and player movements for Los Angeles Aztecs vs Seattle Sounders, August 7th 1979

Among the Sounders backline is Jimmy McAlister. In 1977 the Seattle native had been voted NASL Rookie of the Year. For some reason young Jimmy finds himself one on one with Cruyff after 17 minutes. Cruyff had received the ball on the left wing, about 25 yards from the goal line, his back towards goal. A half-turn to one side, a full one to the other take Cruyff past McAlister. Adding insult to injury he puts in a cross with the outside of his boot towards the near post. Leo van Veen beats the defence to it and puts the home side ahead.

With the season on the line the Sounders have their work cut out for them. They push up into the Aztecs’ half, while the home side are happy to sit back and soak up the pressure putting all ten outfield players between twelve and thirty yards out. Seattle threaten, mostly over the left wing, when LA are not yet set in defence. John Ryan and Alan Hudson, two of five Englishmen in the visitors’ side, then have some space to attack.

It is Seattle’s best phase of the match, yet chances are few and far between. The best of which comes with ten minutes left in the first half. Jimmy Neighbour dinks in a cross from the right towards the middle of the box. Ryan draws away one defender, another is defending dead space. Behind their backs John Impey comes barrelling into the box, gets a boot onto the ball, and sends it into the LA night sky from five yards out.

Dangerfield announces himself

Up the other end the Aztecs want the 2:0 before the break. The Sounders have trouble dealing with a Bobby Sibbald cross. Rongen and van Veen both have a go, before the ball comes to Chris Dangerfield who, lying horizontally in the air, pulls off a scissor kick that whizzes across the face of goal, inches wide. A warning shot the Sounders had better heeded.

Minutes before the break Galindo, with acres of space, moves the ball through the middle and plays it into the box for Dangerfield. Left of the goal, Dangerfield squares up Impey who does not close in quickly enough. Within three touches Dangerfield pulls the trigger leaving Brown hardly any chance going for the near lower corner. Mihalj Keri even goes close on a third just before half-time hitting the post from six yards out on a tight angle. Again, the Sounders defence was nowhere to be seen.

Colin Boulton, who had picked up two First Division winners’ medals with Derby County, proved tough opposition for NASL strikers too. LA’s goalkeeper led the league with seven shutouts. Upon restart Seattle offer a first challenge to his clean sheet within minutes. Mickey Cave sends a free kick from 20 yards out over the wall but well wide of goal too.

Van Veen and Dangerfield quickly respond with attempts of their own; the first is off target, the second stopped by Brown. They require little in the way of set-up. Cruyff had moved behind the first line of attack, picking out his options for through balls. Rongen offers runs very effectively. With Seattle chasing the game it becomes easy enough for the LA forwards to just be played into position, look for an opening and then have a go. Dangerfield comes close again after a chipped Cruyff free kick, peels himself around a defender, and gets his head onto the ball – inches wide.

Fifteen minutes into the second half LA are closer to the 3:0 than Seattle are to pulling one back. And then Keri brings down Steve Buttle in the box. While the defender had no chance for the ball; Buttle took the tackle gratefully, though, not necessarily gracefully. Ryan, 4 for 4 on the season, blasts it past Boulton with little fanfare.

Just as the commentary duo go over the extra time rules, for there were no draws in NASL, any such thoughts go out the window again. Cruyff had collected an errant pass from poor Jimmy McAlister. In one swift move he eases into the box, passes by Ian Bridge, and guides a shot into the far corner to re-establish the two goal lead for the Los Angeles Aztecs.

Sounders flounder

A brief glimmer of hope for the Sounders faithful, swiftly extinguished. Rinse and repeat as Ryan finds the netting a few minutes later, only to be called back. Again LA’s problems dealing with crosses had shown. Buttle had put in a rather tame effort from the right wing, yet no Aztec could get near it. Ryan pokes it into the goal from ten yards out. It’s inconclusive but it can hardly have been offside for the number of white shirts inside in the box. Perhaps Ryan had handled the ball.

Michels, apparently eager to keep the number of US-Americans in his side to a minimum, takes off Larry Hulcer for Jim Millinder. The 20-year-old out of El Camino College gets right into the thick of the action, laying off a Sibbald cross for Dangerfield. From the edge of the box, he drills a volley shot right underneath the bar, gets a favourable bounce, and puts the game beyond Seattle’s reach at 4:1 (67’).

So much for Seattle’s playoffs hopes. But if this performance is anything to go by, maybe they are better served to go back to the drawing board anyway. Van Veen gets his second on the night, pulling into the box from the right wing. Impey whiffs on the tackle, Brown opens up the near post, van Veen says ‘thank you’ and collects his bonus.

With twenty minutes still to go the question becomes just how many will the Aztecs put past Brown. The answer: seven. Dangerfield draws contact from Kruger inside the box for a penalty. Cruyff takes it, sees Brown’s movement on a stutter-step, and places it just inside the post for his second of the night (79’). Dangerfield, having hit the post earlier, completes his hattrick and the drubbing with the pick of the lot: a curling effort from just outside the box, a beautiful looping shot into the far upper corner past the hapless Brown.

Los Angeles Aztecs to win the Soccer Bowl?

Were the Sounders six goals worse than LA? Well, Seattle did show problems in all areas of the team. Brown, with only a handful of NASL starts to his name, did not instill confidence in his back-line. While the 22-year-old was certainly at fault for a couple of the goals, he was just left alone by his defence for the others. The defence was always a step too slow, or left the forwards half a yard too much space. There was no build-up from the back to speak of; no grit in midfield, and no plan on how to integrate their own forwards. Top goalscorer Derek Smethurst was completely anonymous. Contrast that with Angelo DiBernado who was thrown on by Michels in the closing minutes and almost instantly found his name on the scoresheet; only to have it erased out by the linesman’s flag.

Were the Aztecs six goals better than Seattle? No, even Cruyff admitted as much in the post match interview, stating the scoreline was “exaggerated”, as the proper contest had been concluded at 3:1. Seattle were forced to chase the game, thus opening up at the back. Four additional goals were nice for the fans but hardly indicative of where the team were at heading into the playoffs. In the Conference quarter-finals Cruyff & Co. would meet the Washington Diplomats. Played over two legs, LA picked up two wins (3:1 & 4:3 a.e.t.).

Against the Vancouver Whitecaps the full breadth of the NASL playoffs was on display. LA won the first leg 3:2, though, only after besting the guests 2:1 in a shootout (Attendance at the Rose Bowl: 21,213). Vancouver eaqualized the series with 1:0 home win in the return leg. This prompted a 30 minute “mini game” in which Vancouver prevailed 1:0. The Whitecaps ultimately went on to claim the Soccer Bowl. Johan Cruyff was awarded the MVP trophy.

Awards

  • Man Of The Match: Chris Dangerfield
  • Best Hair: Ian Bridge
  • Viewing recommendation: Dangerfield’s goals are worth the price of admission alone, Cruyff in NASL is a hot knife going through butter

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