Utah Golden Spikers / Utah Pioneers

Utah Golden Spikers logo

The Utah Golden Spikers joined the American Soccer League only 3 weeks before the 1976 season kicked off, having only been founded on the 2nd March. George Brokaladis was instrumental in bringing professional soccer to Utah, with him representing the Chicago-based owners of the team.

The Spikers were placed in the ASL’s West Division, an entirely new division made up of 5 first year franchises, as part of the ASL’s westward expansion policy which had been planned over the previous 2 years. Lining up against the Spikers were the Los Angeles Skyhawks, Oakland Buccaneers, Tacoma Tides, and the Sacramento Spirits. The team would play a 21 game regular season, with one game being a game against a touring team from another country.

Tim Kotronakis (known as Tim Themy) was named as the team’s President, with Bill Hesterman named as VP.

The Spikers home would be Fairgrounds Stadium, although their renovation work of the stadium was halted after an injunction was served by local car racing promoter Ferrol Papworth. Papworth claimed that he still had the rights to the stadium, and that the Spikers had no permission to change the stadium around. Papworth had operated stock cars at the stadium until 1973, when he was denied a license because of noise infractions. This delayed the renovation work for a week as the matter was discussed, before Papworth’s injunction was thrown out. Due to the delay, the inaugural fixture of the Spikers would take place at Rice Stadium, a 32,500 capacity ground on the University of Utah’s campus.

The team’s head coach was named as Nick Kambolis, who had previously had a 3 season spell as Head Coach of the ASL’s New York Apollo.  He was under pressure as he had to create a competitive team within 3 weeks, and assess players in league play rather than in pre-season exhibitions.

Key players on the Spikers roster were English goalkeeper Peter Thomas, formerly of Coventry City and the NASL’s Washington Diplomats. In front of him the defence would be marshalled by Argentinian defender Daniel Mammana. Irishman Sid Wallace was signed as the team’s main goal threat, supported by Vince McCarthy, Bill McNicol, and Kiriako Fitilis.

The Los Angeles Skyhawks would be the opposition for the first ever professional game to be held in Utah on May 2nd 1976. 8,000 fans turned out to see the Spikers lose 1-0. English striker Jimmy Rolland got the goal midway through the first half. The goal wasn’t a classic, as he tapped home from 3 yards after a pass from Steve Ralbovsky. Overall the team’s defence played well, but they lacked an attacking threat. Kambolis wasn’t unhappy with the defeat, as the Skyhawks had been able to play exhibition matches before the season began, and thus were better prepared.

The Spikers started poorly, losing the first 3 games of the season. This was mostly due to the team getting to know each other and tryouts for the team basically happening in league play. A 1-1 draw in an exhibition match against the Sacramento Spirits raised hopes that the team was improving however. Newcomers to the team were Trinidadian forward Tony Douglas, Irish defender Tom O’Dea, and veteran ASL defender George Kondilidis (formerly of the New York Apollo).

Tony Douglas - star forward

The changes seemed to work as the Spikers registered their first victory, a 1-0 win over the Tacoma Tides, with a goal from newcomer Tony Douglas. Approximately 2,000 fans saw the victory, with the Spikers dominating, taking 17 shots on Bruce Arena in the tides goal. Scottish midfielder Vinny McCarthy said that he felt the team was beginning to come together.

The end of May saw the owner and founder of the Spikers, George Brokalakis relieved of his duties of the club, with a new corporate structure being put in place. Team President Tim Themy stated that Brokalakis had severed all ties with the club, and the Spikers would now focus on giving Utah a winning team first, and a sound business second. Themy said that the franchise was financially sound, although it would make a loss for the 1976 season, and probably the 1977 season as well. Bill Hesterman was relieved of the position of Vice-President and named as Public Relations Director and General Manager. Head Coach Nick Kambolis was given full backing and some GM duties. Themy stated that Brokalakis and his associates were relieved from his position because of alleged mismanagement of the team.

Midway through the season the Spikers scored a notable scalp by beating the Irish side Hibernians 2-0. Hibernians were on tour of the ASL, and each team’s game against them would count as part of the regular season record.  Hibernians players however were seemingly treating the tour like a holiday, so were not in peak form or fitness when they played the ASL teams. Three members of the Spikers were familiar with the opposition as Peter Thomas, Sid Wallace and Vinny McCarthy all played over the winter in Ireland with Waterford. Trinidadian forward Tony Douglas scored both goals, the first coming after just 45 seconds of the first half on an assist from Sid Wallace. At half-time the Irish players reputedly asked for salt tablets to help their dehydration, caused by the heat and their drinking around the pool in the Holiday Inn. Douglas’ second was the result of a 40 yard pass from the Brazilian midfielder Helio ‘Boom-Boom’ Barbosa. The Spikers were thankful for their goalkeeper Peter Thomas, who performed heroically to keep the Hibernians forwards at bay.

The game against Hibernians would have an unexpected consequence however. The team’s the Hibernians faced were liable for their travel payments, and the Spikers owed the Irish team money. They also owed the league franchise payments and fines, which totalled around $13,500. The ASL filed an injunction against the Spikers on June 18th to claim the money back, or be banned from completing the ASL season.

Brazilian midfielder (and Pele lookalike) Helio Barbosa was named as the Spikers Assistant Coach.

By June the team was in financial difficulty. The team had reputedly fallen $60,000 behind in its payments to the league, and the ASL’s President, Nick Scalvounos, had even been allegedly assaulted by Spikers President Tim Themy. The Spikers would have to bring their financial affairs before a Salt Lake City judge. On the field however the team were proving to be successful, winning 6 games on the bounce. The signing of Tony Douglas had proved instrumental as he performed impressively and scored goals.

In August, Spikers President & General Manager Tim Themy was suspended from the ASL for 4 years and fined $2,000 for his assault on ASL President Nick Scavounos. This ended almost 3 months of infighting, accusations, counter-accusations and vendettas between the Spikers front office and the ASL.

On August 3rd, after 18 games of the season, the Utah Golden Spikers license was revoked due to the $18,000 they owed to the ASL and the assault on Scalvounos. The team had also reputedly incurred debts of more than $100,000. Six days later the Spikers place in the ASL was taken by the Utah Pioneers, who inherited the Golden Spikers record.  The team’s new owners included Joseph Jimenez and Tony Escobar, both board members of a southern Californian company called Frontier USA, a 23 million dollar company which dealt in collateral lending. Escobar was named as General Manager, and told the press that the company was not interested in making a profit, only in achieving positive publicity for their company. Also the Pioneers could be used to lessen Frontier USA’s tax liability. The financial future of the Pioneers seemed rosy however, as they stated they were willing to pour in as much money as necessary to make the team a success. They had reputedly set a budget of $559,000 for the following season. At the team’s press conference at the Gala Hilton Hotel, they admitted having no players and nowhere to play, a tricky situation given they were to play against the Tacoma Tides the following evening.

Nick Kambolis was named as the coach (having coached the Spikers) and was tasked with trying to sign up ex-Spikers players to complete the season. Three local people with soccer experience were named as part of the team’s front office, with Keith Fisher, Bruno Gerzeli, and Joseph Raymond taking positions. It was announced that the Tides game would take place at the team’s new stadium as Cottonwood High School. The Spikers roster signed up to play for the Pioneers, having been guaranteed their plane fare home in an escrow account established by the club. The Pioneers management also agreed to play the player’s salaries one week in advance, as well as a generous bonus package for the remaining games and playoffs. Escobar also agreed to pay the travel expenses of the other ASL teams coming to Salt Lake City.

The Pioneers owners would not assume any of the Spikers debts however. This situation led to Spikers resident Tim Themy suggesting that he might sue the Pioneers ownership for taking the place of the Spikers.

The Spikers/Pioneers finished the regular season with 10 wins, 3 ties, and 7 defeats from their shortened 20 game season. This saw them finish 3rd in the West Division behind the Skyhawks and the Tides, with the 4th best record in the ASL. They scored 28 goals and conceded 22, for a total record of 84 points, and qualified for the playoffs. Tony Douglas was the team’s leading goals and points scorer with 7 goals and 4 assists from his 17 games for 18 points. This placed him 11th in ASL scoring for the 1976 season.

In the first round of the playoffs the Pioneers were paired in a winner takes all game against the Tacoma Tides in Tacoma. Unfortunately the Pioneers lost 2-1 and were eliminated.

The Pioneers folded after the playoff defeat.

In December 1976, ex-Spikers President Tim Themy was named in a suit by the U.S. Attorney’s Office over possible tax liabilities of the Utah Golden Spikers.

Utah Golden Spikers / Utah Pioneers 1976 roster:

Goalkeepers: Peter Thomas, Terry Weekes

Defence: Daniel Mammana, Gus Collesides, Paulo Peralta, Hans Henchen, John Micklewright, Kiriako Fitilis, George Kondilidis, Tom O’Dea, Ed Kelly, George Kossman

Midfield: Helio Barbosa, Jon Swerniak, Ramon Ramirez, Dee Benson, Arturo Martunich, Cres McTavish, Tony Escobar, Vinny McCarthy, Dimitrios Dimitrakis, Tibor Gemeri, Fernando Carvalho

Forwards: Sid Wallace, Billy McNicol, Tony Douglas

Midfielder Dee Benson went on to become a judge, and currently presides as a Federal Judge for The United States District Court in Utah.

 

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