The ephemeral Los Angeles Aztecs of the NASL

Football has somewhat of a hipster feel to it nowadays – it’s popular to support the most obscure team going or small community club whose fans are exclusive members of one subculture of society – I believe that it has added to the sport and made it more interesting. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this new type of fan is that they want to know the history of the sport and can more often or not reel off the most random facts about their new pastime.

So would that make me a hipster? I have football 91 scarves, a love of beer, and a goatee to prove boot. I’m not sure.

One such subsection of the beautiful game that hipsters worldwide want to love is the North American Soccer League (NASL) of the late 1970’s and early 80s. When the NASL is talked about, people usually think of the New York Cosmos, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Cascadian clubs (Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, and Vancouver Whitecaps), and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, but they forget the team that played out in Los Angeles.

That team was the Los Angeles Aztecs, a flash and fun team which had their day and were gone by the early 1980s – a similar fate of many of the teams of that period.

Los Angeles has been always a landing spot for the rich and famous being the home of Hollywood. The city has also always been a great place for sports, at both professional and amateur levels. The Los Angeles area has a total of eight professional men’s teams at present with probably the most globally famous being NBA Basketball team, the LA Lakers.

Football also has a long history in the city after being introduced in the late 1800s, however the city had to wait until 1974 when real estate millionaire, Dr. Jack Gregory founded the club to get its very own NASL expansion team.

In their first year as an NASL team, the Aztecs won the league after beating Miami Toros 5-3 on penalties in an entertaining NASL Final. The game ended 3-3 after normal time with Miami believing they had won the game after an 87th minute striker from Chilean Esteban Aránguiz, however Tony Douglas equalized just a minute later to take the game directly to penalties.

One could chat at great length about that triumph and the founding of the club, but the most interesting period of the was arguably from 1976-1980.

Numerous clubs can say that they have had George Best on their books after his Manchester United career came to an end in 1974 – there were three clubs in the NASL alone that could boast the same. His first club in the United States was the Los Angeles Aztecs, who were partly owned by then Watford owner Elton John.

Owner Elton John with new signing George Best in 1976
Owner Elton John with new signing George Best in 1976

Again, with the glitz and glamour that Los Angeles had, stars and famous people loved to flock to the city – in 1976 Elton John signed mercurial winger George Best and 1975 League MVP Steve David who had been a prolific striker during his time with Miami Toros.

In the 1976 season, Best scored 15 goals in 23 matches which only placed him sixth in the NASL in scoring charts. The LA Aztecs scraped into the play-offs after finishing third in the Pacific Conference Southern Division but were knocked out in the first-round with a 2-0 defeat to Dallas Tornado.

George Best and Trinidadian Steve David

The following season Best tied the league record for assists with 18, being named as the NASL’s best midfielder, as Steve David top-scored in the league with 26 goals. The team faired better, however they eventually lost to Seattle Sounders in the Conference Championships.

When Best’s demons started to get the best of him, the club moved him onto south Florida with Fort Lauderdale Strikers, where he would play under future American Soccer Hall of Fame member, Ron Newman.

To replace Best, the Aztecs went back to Europe and found another player who ran through clubs in the later part of his career, albeit at a lesser rate. The club brought another true legend of the game to the West coast to link up with two compatriots – the first, a man that is widely acknowledged to be the creator of ‘Total Football’ and the second, a future NASL, ASL, MLS, United States U-20, and America Samoa coach. The legend? Johan Cruyff. The creator? Rinus Michels, and the future coach? The snappy dresser Thomas Rongen.

Johan Cruyff in the LA Aztecs colours
Johan Cruyff in the LA Aztecs colours

After another season where the club didn’t quite make the grade with a 2-1 defeat to Vancouver Whitecaps in the Conference Semifinals, the club took a jaunt to Holland and England in the fall of 1979 (September through October) – the first and only time they did a European tour.

The reason for the tour was promotional with the presence of Cruyff who had won the 1979 NASL MVP drawing the crowds. Cruyff had an excellent first season in American soccer with 13 goals and 16 assists in his 23 games to lead his team in the overall scoring charts – something that was taken from NHL Ice Hockey.

Most of the tour was in Holland were Cruyff and Rinus Michels will always be a national icons, however the latter didn’t accompany the club on the tour. The Aztecs also played games in England against both Birmingham City at St. Andrew’s and Chelsea who were playing in the old Second Division at the time.

The match against Chelsea ended 1-1 with Gerry Ingram, and English journeyman, scoring the lone goal for the Aztecs. Ironically, it’s the only time he ever played for the club as played for the Anaheim-based club California Surf during the 1979 regular season.

Those friendlies were the last that Cruyff would play for the West coast club, as the Aztecs were sold in 1980 to a Mexican group who wanted to appeal to the Hispanic market of the area. They had no interest in retaining Cruyff on his  $700,000 annual salary, so offloaded him to the Washington Diplomants in February of 1980 a fee of around $1 million dollars.

The 1980 season saw the Aztecs lose the Conference Championships to Franz Beckenbauer’s New York Cosmos who dominated the season winning both the regular season and Soccer Bowl ’80. One positive point of the season was the Aztecs had formidable Brazilian striker Luis Fernando on their books. The striker scored 28 goals throughout the campaign to finish second behind the legendary Giorgio Chinaglia who top-scored with 32.

The last LA Aztecs team photo in 1981
The last LA Aztecs team photo in 1981

Like with many other clubs during the lifetime of the NASL, the club went bankrupt before the start of the 1982 season alongside six other teams to end an eight year stay in the league.

The North American Soccer League, the second tier of football in the United States is looking to add another club on the West Coast in the next couple of years. Right now there are plans for the San Francisco Deltas to join the league in 2017 with other markets being explored including Los Angeles.

While the copyright of the Aztecs name is owned by the League, there is plenty of talk of resurrecting the team in the future. There is a Twitter account which is proposing the reformation, but at the moment it is just talk. There isn’t an actual timetable or official group to bring the name back, but one can hope it will be brought back in the not too distant future.

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