Atlanta Chiefs (1979-1981)

This page deals with the second incarnation of the Atlanta Chiefs, who played in the North American Soccer League (NASL) for 3 summer seasons between 1979 and 1981. The earlier version of the franchise had operated from 1967 to 1972. The original franchise was owned by the Atlanta Braves baseball franchise, and was the brainchild of the vice-President Dick Cecil, who had seen the 1966 World Cup and was intrigued by Soccer’s potential. They won the second NASL championship in 1972. They played their final season, 1973, under a different name (Atlanta Apollos) and under different ownership. The Chiefs were created when the ownership bought the franchise rights to the Colorado Caribous in August 1978 and moved them to Atlanta. The Caribous had been a 1978 expansion franchise, but had flopped in Denver.

The Chiefs were again owned by Dick Cecil, ex Vice-President of the original Chiefs, Al Thornwell, and media mogul Ted Turner. Dick Cecil opted to return to the NASL after 7 years away as the league was stable and seemed stronger than before. Seeing the 10 year development of the league, and the grassroots strength of the sport, Cecil firmly believed that Soccer was going to be one of the major games of the future in America. He wasn’t expecting huge crowds like those that the New York Cosmos were drawing, but felt that over time the franchise would be solid and have a bright future. He was expecting the franchise to lose money over the first few seasons, and hoped for an average of 10,000 fans, although 20,000 would be needed to break even. Turner made his money in advertising, and also owned numerous TV stations in the southern United States. Prior to him becoming involved in professional soccer he also purchased the Atlanta Braves (baseball) and Atlanta Hawks (basketball) franchises in 1976. He was also a reputedly a very “hands-on” owner. During his spell as Chiefs owner he founded CNN in 1980. Co-owner Al Thornwell, was appointed President of the team, as well as running his electrical business, and his rubbish hauling business. Terry Hanson was named as Vice-President. Michael Oglesby was named as Public Relations Director.

The team also ran the Atlanta Chiefs indoor franchise in the NASL’s indoor league, also operating over 2 winter seasons between 1979 and 1981.

The outdoor team played at the local government owned Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium which had a capacity of 50,000. The Chiefs shared the stadium with the Atlanta Braves (baseball) and the Atlanta Falcons (American Football). For their indoor seasons the Chiefs played at the Omni Coliseum, a 15,278 capacity arena. The Omni was shared with the Atlanta Flames (NHL), and the Hawks (NBA). It too was owned by the City of Atlanta.

The first Head Coach of the franchise was also one of the youngest. Dan Wood was 33 years old when he was appointed. He had also been the Head Coach of the Colorado Caribous at the end of the 1978 season, and moved with the franchise regardless of the Caribous’ poor performance. He had also been Head Coach of Cornell University’s soccer program, and the Tacoma Tides of the American Soccer League (ASL). Wood wanted the team and their style to be fun for the American fans, providing a fun night out for the family.

Co-owner Dick Cecil had stated he wanted a young team competing, and with a base of American players. He wouldn’t guarantee a playoff spot, but said that they would be competitive. He wanted slow and steady progress for what he felt was still an expansion franchise, what with the Caribous only having played for one season. Financially, they were not going to over-extend themselves, or try and compete with the likes of the New York Cosmos and their multi-million pound budgets. He also felt that there wouldn’t be any competition with the Atlanta Braves who were paying at the same time in the same stadium.

The Chiefs were placed in the Central Division of the National conference, lining up against the Dallas Tornado, Minnesota Kicks, and the Tulsa Roughnecks. Each team in the NASL had to post a $150,000 bond to the league at the start of each season.
NASL rules stated that each team could have a roster of up to 30 players under contract at any one time. The Chiefs retained 10 members of the 1978 Colorado Caribous. Prior to the season they traded experienced goalkeeper Arnie Mausser to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers for cash and naturalized Yugoslav forward George Nanchoff. Nanchoff’s brother Louis was also on the Chiefs roster having been a holdover from the 1978 Caribous. Forward Bob Rohrbach was traded to the Detroit Express for cash and a 2nd round draft pick. The 1979 draft was held at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. The Chiefs had first choice overall in the draft, which they traded away to the Dallas Tornado for English striker Jeff Bourne, and their 2nd and 10th draft picks. Their first choice in the draft was English born midfielder Adrian Brooks from Philadelphia Textile University who signed a 2 year contract. Wood felt he was the standout college player of the 1978 season.

The Chiefs also acquired English defender Colin Waldron from the Philadelphia Fury for cash a second round selection in the 1980 draft.

Their pre-season was hugely successful, winning 6 of their 7 games, including victory against the strong Tampa Bay Rowdies franchise.

During the season NASL players voted to go on strike over team’s management refusing to recognize their union. The Chiefs players however opted out of the strike action, The Chiefs took a while to get going, losing their first 5 games, before 2 straight wins stabilized the team. English striker George Dewsnip was signed from the Los Angeles Aztecs. To make way for him Yugoslav striker Nino Zec was sold to the Houston Hurricane mid-season, after 5 goals in 14 games. Continuing signing players during the season, English defender Mike Balson was acquired from South African side Highlands Park.

The Chiefs had some big wins, putting 6 past the Memphis Rogues, and 5 past the Edmonton Drillers, but overall were quite inconsistent, alternating from winning runs to losing runs with frequency. In August, Dan Wood was given a 2 year contract extension as Head Coach, as well as assuming duties as the team’s Director of Player Personnel. Towards the end of the season they were still in with chance of a wildcard playoff slot, but they just missed out.

After the 30 game season the Chiefs placed last in their division, failing to qualify for the NASL playoffs. They won 12 of their 30 regular season games, losing 18, scoring 60 and conceding 60 goals in the process. English striker Jeff Bourne was the Chiefs leading goal scorer and assist maker, scoring 18 and assisting on 15 goals. This earned him 51 points, placing his 4th in the list of NASL leading points scorer.
The average attendance at the 50,000 capacity Atlanta-Fulton Stadium was low, only 7,350. This figure was far lower than the expected 10,000, and nearly 13,000 short of their break-even figure of 20,000. The sight of a few thousand fans rattling around massive stadia was a common sight in the NASL. The highest attendance was 13,012 when the Dallas Tornado were the visitors.

In the close season the Chiefs joined the NASL’s indoor season for 1979-80. This was the first of the NASL indoor seasons, started up as a response to the successful Major Indoor Soccer League that had started up in 1978. Teams were limited to a roster of 14 players, 5 of which had to be American or Canadian citizens. However, only 10 of the NASL’s 24 franchises opted to play.

Dan Wood continued as head coach, and the roster was comprised of 12 members of the outdoor team, the 2 new members being defender Stuart Lilley and Joe Mui. Lilley was signed from South African side Highlands Park, where he had played for 10 years. He signed a one year contract for covering the outdoor season as well.

The Chiefs were placed into the Eastern Division, lining up against the Detroit Express, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, New England Tea Men, and the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
The season was only 12 games long, and the chiefs finished the regular season top of the division with 10 wins and only 2 losses, scoring 70 and conceding 46. Topping the division put them directly into the semi-finals of the playoffs, however they were defeated by the Tampa Bay Rowdies 7-3 and 6-5. David Byrne finished as both the Chiefs, and the league’s top goal scorer and points scorer with 23 goals and 11 assists for 57 points. The average attendance was good, 5,069, and they frequently outdrew the outdoor team.

Returning to outdoor action in the summer of 1980, Dan Wood remained at the helm. He also brought in Englishman Dave Chadwick, and Scottish born ex-player to act as assistant coaches. McMahon prime role was in a scouting capacity.

David Irving and Tony Whelan came in from the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Whelan was traded for 3 1981 draft picks, cash, and future considerations. Scottish midfielder Brian Alderson was purchased from the New England Tea Men for cash and a 1981 3rd round draft pick. American defender Greg Makowski was sent to the Toronto Blizzard in exchange for 2 players, although he ended up at the Seattle Sounders. In the 1980 draft the Chiefs drafted defender Bruce Savage from Miami Dade, he was the 6th pick overall in the 1st round of the draft. They sold 2 South African forwards, Neill Roberts after a contract dispute, was sold to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, and Jomo Sono to the Toronto Blizzard.

The team lined up in the same division, with the same teams as the season before. The Chiefs opened their home 1980 campaign with a 2-1 defeat of the New England Tea Men in front of 5,442 fans. Louie Nanchoff and Brian Alderson got the goals, with Keith Weller replying for the Tea Men.

During the season the Chiefs released Adrian Brooks, who moved to the ASL’s Pennsylvania Stoners, as well as acquiring French striker Oliver Barthou from Bordeaux on a 2 year contract. Draft pick Bruce Savage was impressive at left back, Coach Dan Wood proclaiming that he wouldn’t trade him for any other left back in the league. As he had been drafted from High School he was also the youngest starter in the NASL. He developed into a minor celebrity in Atlanta, frequently being interview by local radio and newspapers. Back-up goalkeeper Tad DeLorm left to join the Minnesota Kicks in exchange for cash and a 1st round draft pick in 1981.

Al Thornwell resigned as Chairman of the Board, being replaced by Robert Wussler. English forward Keith Furphy, was signed from the Detroit Express in exchange for cash and a 1981 1st round draft pick. Keith’s father Ken was the Head Coach at Detroit. One of the reasons for the trade was the fact that the Express’ fans frequently booed him for being the coach’s son. Mike Otiz-Velez was signed from the Fort Lauderdale Strikers for cash, however the deal was not concluded when he was sent back for failing to pass the physical.

The Chiefs went on a 6 game losing streak during a terrible season, and were rumoured to have approached Ron Newman, who was managing the Miami Americans of the ASL to replace Dan Wood. This didn’t come to pass but Wood was fired as Head Coach on the 27th June, only a few months after signing a new 2 year contact. The Chiefs were 5 and 11 at the time of his dismissal, and in total his record in 56 games in charge was 19 wins and 37 losses, and he was replaced by his assistant David Chadwick until the end of the season. Robert Wussler said the ownership were disappointed with the record and were thinking of the team’s future.
Chadwick’s first game in charge was a 3-0 defeat against the Seattle Sounders, losing to a Roger Davies hat-trick. Ex-player Pat McMahon was hired as his assistant coach.
The change of coaches didn’t help as the team went on an 11 game losing streak(9 under Chadwick).They also set the all-time NASL record for going 13 games without scoring. Assistant Pat McMahon quit to take up a similar position with the Portland Timbers, as well as coaching their NASL indoor team. To spice up the team the Chiefs acquired 2 English forwards, David Irving and Tommy Ord from the Tulsa Roughnecks in a cash deal. Surprisingly the previous season’s leading scorer, and fellow Englishman Jeff Bourne was sent to the Seattle Sounders, also in a cash deal. He was having a disappointing season with only 5 goals, but the whole team was struggling. Goalkeeper Slobodan Illijevski was released, along with French striker Barthou, who had only been at the club just over a month and had signed a 2 year contract.

After the expanded 32 game regular season the Chiefs again finished dead last, winning only 7 games and losing 25 for the worst record in the whole NASL. They also scored the lowest amount of goals (34), and conceded the most (84). The franchises top goal scorer was Keith Furphy with 8 goals, he was also the leading points scorer with 21. Leading assist-maker was David Byrne with 6.

The average attendance slumped dramatically down to 4,884, making the Chiefs the lowest draw in the whole NASL. Given they needed 20,000 to break even this figure was a disaster.

Heading in to the 1980-81 indoor season, the Chiefs again fielded most of the team that had performed poorly outdoors. The season was conducted with nearly a full complement of the outdoor teams, with only the New York Cosmos and the Philadelphia Fury not competing. Due to this the divisions were re-organized. The Chiefs were placed in the Eastern Division alongside the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Jacksonville Tea Men, and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The Jacksonville franchise had actually begun as the New England Tea Men, but the franchise moved from Boston after only 2 games.

English forward Paul Child was signed, coming back to a club where he had started his American soccer career in 1972. He at that point was 4th on the all-time NASL points scorers list. The Chiefs acquired him from the Calgary Boomers in exchange for a “substantial” amount of cash and a 1981 1st round draft pick. Child had never played for the Boomers, who were a new franchise for 1981 who had previously been the Memphis Rogues. The Chiefs also signed Ken Mokgojoa from the Washington Diplomats. The Nanchoff brothers left in cash deals to join clubs in the more stable MISL, George signed for the Phoenix inferno, and Louie for the Philadelphia Fever. Ex-South African player of the year Lawrence Chelan was signed from the Arcadia Shepherds for cash.

Surprisingly, the Chiefs who had been so abysmal outdoors yet again won their division indoors. Of the 18 game schedule, the Chiefs won 13 and lost only 5, scoring 97 and conceding 75. In the 1st round of the playoffs the Chiefs dispatched the Minnesota Kicks 10-8 and 5-4. However they failed in the semi-finals, losing to the Chicago Sting in a mini-game after they won a game apiece. They also vastly outdrew the outdoor team, attracting an average of 10,287 to the Omni Coliseum. This was the highest average attendance in the whole history of the NASL indoor league . Keith Furphy scored the most goals with 32, scoring 76 points. The leading assist-makers were Brian Alderson and Tony Whelan with 16 each.

Before the start of the outdoor 1981 season, Ted Turner had stated that this season was their last chance to make a success, otherwise he would look to sell or close the franchise. The team retained Dave Chadwick as Head Coach for the 1981 NASL season. The team boosted its frontline considerably by signing English forward Brian Kidd on loan from Bolton Wanderers in England, pairing him alongside Paul Child. Also signed were English goalkeeper Graham Tutt. Defender Hayden Knight signed from Edmonton Drillers, in exchange for a 1982 draft pick.

In a league re-jigging, the Chiefs were placed in the Southern Division alongside the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Jacksonville Tea Men, and the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

There was hope that the team’s attendance might rise as the baseball season was delayed by strike action. Ted Turner offered any Atlanta Braves ticket-holders the chance to watch Chiefs’ games for free. The affect was only minimal however, with around 700 fans taking up the offer. Due to their success indoors Ted Turner was considering dropping the Chiefs and moving them indoors into the MISL. General Manager Terry Hanson partially blamed Turner for the team’s low attendances because he chose to televise all home Chiefs games in its debut season, thus not encouraging fans to come to the stadium, especially as they lost the first 5 games.

After 2 regular seasons finishing in last position, the 1981 season saw an impressive turnaround with them topping the division and qualifying for the playoffs. In 32 games the Chiefs won 17 and lost 15 games, scoring 62 goals and conceding 60. They went out in the first round of the playoffs however, losing 3-2 and 2-1 against divisional rivals the Tea Men.

Brian Kidd was the Chiefs leading goal scorer with 22 in only 27 games, placing him 3rd in the NASL’s goal scoring table behind Giorgio Chinaglia of the Cosmos and Mike Stojanovic of the San Diego Sockers. He was also the Chiefs leading points scorer with 52 (4th overall in NASL). The Chiefs leading assist maker was Scot Brian Alderson with 13.

The average attendance rose from the 1980 level back up to 6,189, but this was still the 3rd worst in the NASL that year, even though the Chiefs were successful.

On the 28th August 1981, 2 days after going out of the NASL playoffs, the Atlanta Chiefs announced that they were to fold. They blamed low attendances and the fact that they had lost $7,000,000 over the team’s 3 year history. Robert Wussler said the team would terminate operations on the 7th September, one day after the Soccer Bowl. The NASL had a rule prohibiting any team to cease operations before the Soccer Bowl. Up until that point they would consider any viable offers to buy the franchise. He also confirmed that the team was not going to be moving indoors and joining the MISL. They were put off by the potential of lawsuits from the NASL about jumping leagues. Turner had said in June that if the team won their division (they did) that he would sell everything he owned to keep the Chiefs going, however he now felt he couldn’t afford it, as he needed every dollar for his new CNN network.

Bruce Savage and Carl Strong were sold to the Portland Timbers, the Montreal Manic purchased the NASL rights to defender Hayden Knight and goalkeeper Victor Nogueira. Any players not signed went into a dispersal draft.

Ex-General Manager Terry Hanson said that if the Chiefs had still been going he would have wanted to get them into a smaller stadium, as the atmosphere in the Atlanta-Fulton stadium was the worst in the league and like a mausoleum due to the number of empty seats.

Outdoors there record in regular season game was:
Played: 94 Won: 36 Lost: 58 Goals for: 156 Goals against: 204
Most Appearances: Webster Lichada (93)
Most Goals: Jeff Bourne (23)
Most Assists: Jeff Bourne (20)
Most Points: Jeff Bourne (66)

Their playoff record was 2 games played, both losses scoring 3 and conceding 5.

Their total attendance outdoors over 3 seasons was 18,434, and their overall average was 6,141 fans in the 50,000 capacity Atlanta-Fulton stadium.

Their record indoors was
Games Played : 30 Won: 23 Lost: 7 Goals Scored 167 Goals Against 121
David Byrne scooped all the Atlanta Chiefs indoor records, with most appearances (28), most goals (37), most assists (20), and most points (94).

In the NASL indoor playoffs they played 6 games, winning 3 and losing 3. They scored 37 and conceded 42.

Their total attendance at the 15,278 capacity Omni Coliseum over 2 seasons was 15,356, making their overall average indoors, 7,678. This was a substantially higher average that their outdoor figures.

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