1975 San Antonio Thunder Team Photo (Image credit: Don Batie personal collection)
In 1974 the San Antonio Thunder became the 17th team in the North American Soccer League (NASL). Between the awarding of the franchise in June and late summer, the club established offices, named the team, began to staff the front office and hired head coach Alex Perolli.
After Perolli joined the club, he set off on a wide-ranging tour of Europe and Latin America to build the inaugural season roster. It wasn't until well into preseason training that the club was able to assemble a team ready to begin a preseason match schedule. GM Mike Boyle faced difficult challenges in organizing this schedule which ended up being put together on a week-by-week basis as March and April of 1975 unfolded. These activities led up to the first match in the Thunder's history against the Dallas Tornado, 45 years ago this week.
Turbulent Six-Month Process to Build Opening Day Roster
Coach Alex Perolli’s player acquisition tour of Europe, Mexico and South America would take the better part of two months, with infrequent returns to San Antonio since he resided in Montreal at the time. His goal was to recruit a maximum 15-man roster and a three-man reserve group as emergency backup "on speed dial". This roster construction was typical of the NASL at the time, since the league only allowed two substitutes and worked with short game-day rosters. Perolli recruited to fill his preferred formation-a 4-3-3 with the defenders aligned in a diamond and a stopper playing in front of a sweeper in center defense.
The Thunder's first signing was Luis Marotte, a Uruguayan who had previously played for Perolli in Los Angeles and Rochester. He called him one of the finest midfielders in the league at his signing announcement. Marotte's signing was annulled by the NASL, because they determined that his rights were still owned by Los Angeles. He was eventually traded back to the Thunder a few months later.
Thunder midfielder Luis Marotte in a 1975 match against Dallas Tornado (Image credit: nasljerseys.com)
At the press conference to announce Marotte's signing, the club broke news that they would play their matches at North East stadium, a high school venue near the San Antonio Airport. The originally professed intention was to play at the more centrally located San Antonio ISD's Alamo Stadium, but the club could not come to an agreement with the district. One major stumbling block was the school districts unwillingness to waive the rights they held over all TV/Radio broadcasts and other branded concession sales from the stadium, something the NASL would not approve since they were looking to secure a TV contract for the 1975 season.
Renovated Comalander Stadium today (Image credit: North East ISD)
Perolli also intended to play Americans as much as possible. The NASL had a five-domestic player (including Canadians) roster requirement for each club and his recruiting focused on exceeding this minimum requirement. In a San Antonio Light interview, Perolli described this domestic player strategy. "The Thunder will have more Americans than any team in the league of that you can be sure." He added "When I say more Americans, I mean effective Americans, not just somebody we are taking to satisfy the league quota." Perolli went on to say he hoped to have eight domestic players who he would work into the lineup one player at a time. As discussed in the first article in the series, management supported this American player focus. GM Boyle noted in another interview that the club was seeking players who would commit to move to San Antonio while playing there and be interested in assisting in off-season marketing programs.
The main source of American talent at that time was the college draft held in January each year. The Thunder drafted four players, two of whom ended up playing for the Thunder through both years. One of the drafted players was Mark Stahl, a left-footed defender from Chico State University in California. In a phone interview last week, Stahl talked about his surprise in being drafted and how he never anticipated playing pro soccer. "When I graduated from college, I thought I was going to get a job like everybody else. During my senior year I loved soccer so much I hoped I could continue to play. My expectations were realistic though and I wasn't sure if I was going to be drafted." He attributed being drafted by the Thunder to his college and future Thunder coach Don Batie's relationship with owner Ward Lay. When a telegram from Lay on draft day informing him that he had been drafted arrived, he was happy but also had some reservations. "I was excited that there was this opportunity but was really scared about what that meant."
LA Aztecs forward Sergio Velasquez against NY Cosmos in 1976 (Image credit: nasljerseys.com)
The first-round selection in the draft was a highly touted forward from UCLA named Sergio Velasquez who never ended up playing a minute for the Thunder. Shortly after the draft, Velasquez became part of one of the most audacious trades in U.S. sports history when he was traded to Perolli's previous club in Los Angeles, along with future draft picks, for seven starters from the 1973 NASL Champion Aztecs. Luis Marotte, who had tried to sign with San Antonio in September, was the key acquisition by the Thunder in this eight-player trade. Mark Stahl, a trialist without a contract when he arrived, said that he respected Marotte not only because of his ability but also how humble he was. "He was the playmaker on the field, not necessarily a goal scorer but had the ability to set things up. For a good portion of the season he was the nucleus of the team. I remember paying special attention to him [in camp] because he was one of the players I could learn from."
Mark Stahl in action at Alamo Stadium in 1976 (Image credit: Don Batie personal collection)
Curiously, only three of the seven players acquired by the Thunder ever played for the club. One was released before the season started and others elected to play in other leagues outside the United States. Velasquez ended up having an undistinguished three-year NASL career in LA and Seattle.
The roster build heading into the season can only be described as tumultuous. Perolli continued to bring in players from all over the world, many of whom were also part of the Los Angeles NASL club he coached in the photo below, only to have them depart within weeks after they arrived.
1974 Los Angeles Aztecs team photo (Image credit: Jan Reinertsen and NASLJerseys.com)
Mark Stahl attributed this turmoil to being part of an expansion team in an emerging league, noting similarities to the situation he experienced in Hawaii, where the Thunder moved in 1977 and virtually built a roster from scratch. He also admitted that he didn't notice much of these players coming and going because "I was so scared about making the team and was just focused on doing the best I could. There would be new players there, but I was most happy that I was still able to be there myself."
Training camp officially started on March 1st at St. Anthony's Seminary in San Antonio with only twelve players on board. Stahl mentioned that a couple of early informal "pickup" practices started, without a lot of Thunder players present, at a local public park under the direction of assistant coach Ricardo Ordonez. To fill out the squad in these early practices, 20-30 local amateur players joined these workouts, which also served as unofficial tryouts.
One of these amateurs was Ken Cooper, who won the Name the Team contest held by the club the previous year. In an interview this week, Cooper, who is now a practicing attorney in San Antonio, talked about the experience of working with the Thunder when the team was being formed. "We [and others from his local club] went out and played games against them, just for practice and they would, kind of, beat us. They also had sort of a practice squad and I played on that with them a few times. Cooper continued, "I did realize the differences between professionals and amateurs. When you see how good people [professional players] really can be. But, of course, I wasn't that caliber, I was strictly an amateur player." Cooper did mention that he had tried out with the Dallas Tornado in the late 1960's and been offered a contract, so he maybe is a bit modest. None of these local practice players were signed and Perolli continued to recruit players from all over the world from the beginning of February virtually all the way up to the opener.
The entire Thunder roster, including the few players with families, were housed in the same apartment complex north of St. Anthony's, 10 minutes away from the San Pedro Avenue Thunder offices. According to Stahl, the team car-pooled to and from training and didn't have locker rooms available. When the official preseason began, the first portion of training sessions, including warmups and small-sided games, were led by the assistant coach and Alex Perolli would join when scrimmaging started. Stahl noted that Perolli, who was a 25-year coaching veteran, actively and vocally participated in soccer tennis matches with the team. He also remembered his appreciation for the practice field at St. Anthony's. "I used to love practicing at St. Anthony's. The field wasn't regulation length wise, but it was sunk into the ground, surrounded by trees and very private. When we were practicing there, you were able to shut out the world."
Thunder Assistant Coach and Goalkeeper Ricardo Ordonez (Image credit: nasljerseys.com)
A couple of examples illustrate the somewhat chaotic roster building process in the preseason. Veteran NASL goalkeeper Ricardo Ordonez, who had once played in Dallas, among other stops, was hired to be Perolli's assistant in late January of 1975. In mid-March Perolli released the college goalkeepers he had brought in on trial to back up Blas Sanchez, acquired as part of the blockbuster LA trade. Perolli then ended up deputizing Ordonez as the backup keeper, even though his last NASL match appearance was in 1968. Perolli also acquired midfielder Renato Costa in the LA deal and on February 4th traded him to Dallas for Bob Ridley, a quality and experienced English defender. Costa was sent packing even though Perolli had named him as his preferred assistant coach at his hiring announcement in September. Ridley didn't even make it out of training camp and was eventually traded to Denver. According to the San Antonio Express the reason for Ridley's departure was because of his focus on off-the-field business ventures in the DFW area, which caused the Thunder to believe his soccer performance could suffer. Costa was reacquired on waivers shortly after the season began six weeks later, completing the around the league shuffle, and stayed with the club for the remainder of their time in San Antonio.
Significant Challenges in Developing a Preseason Schedule
Two a day practices began two weeks after the club started camp when a bigger squad was available for training. The Thunder faced significant challenges in assembling a preseason schedule, especially in finding professional opposition. Lack of scheduling experience and connections as an expansion team, opponent and field availability (opponents could play at night but fields were only available in the day), the relative geographic isolation of San Antonio in the NASL and inability to secure a promoter for a planned match in Laredo were some of the preseason schedule challenges cited by GM Mike Boyle. The two best options he mentioned in early March never materialized. Attempts to schedule matches at their home stadium were also unsuccessful because the field was being resodded. Availability of North East Stadium was a problem for the remainder of the season. Stahl noted that the first time they saw their home field was during warmups at the home opener and that they never practiced on that field for the remainder of the season.
A Successful Preseason Included a Number of Matches Against Amateur Opponents
The first two preseason matches were victories in Austin against a collection of All-Stars from the local amateur soccer leagues and in Houston against the University of Houston club soccer team. The Thunder then returned home and defeated the best San Antonio amateur side at the time, Pearl International in two weekend matches. Mark Stahl mentioned that these preseason games against amateur opponents were effectively scrimmages.
The Thunder finally met professional opposition in early April and sent a below strength team to Monterrey, Mexico where they were spanked 5-1 by Monterrey University (likely Tigres UANL), conceding three penalties, in front of a crowd of 10,250 (bigger than any they would see in San Antonio during the 1975 season). Stahl was one of the players who traveled to Monterrey and, and though he didn't play, remembers the crowd atmosphere and quality of the field. "We were frustrated that the team didn't perform as we hoped, but that night it was cool and foggy and [on the bench] we were far enough from the crowd that all you could see was the game." He described the playing surface as "grass slightly longer, as smooth as a putting green and beautiful." He sardonically noted that the turf there was "quite different" than their home stadium in the 1975 season, telling me that his memory of North East stadium was that a long jump pit, covered by AstroTurf, was part of the playing surface there.
The preseason ended when the full squad split a two-match weekend series in Tampa against the Rowdies, who were a fellow expansion team. The "highlight" of the second Rowdies game came when a Brazilian trialist named Manuel Barboza delivered a knock-out punch to the Tampa Bay captain in the second half and was promptly escorted off the field and released a few days later.
Prior to the Monterrey trip they also played an exhibition match that popped up out of nowhere against the Kuwait National Team in San Antonio. Other than the fact that the Thunder won 8-1, there was no explanation how this match originated or why the Kuwait team was even in the United States in the first place for that matter. Stahl did not remember this game, stating it was probably like other preseason scrimmages, and couldn't shed any light on this mystery.
Thunder Introduce Professional Soccer to San Antonio
Dallas Tornado Kyle Rote Jr. in 1975 away match (Image credit: nasljerseys.com)
After finishing the preseason with a 6-2 record against mostly amateur opposition, local soccer fans and media were ready to see how the club would fare when the ball was first kicked in their inaugural NASL appearance against the Dallas Tornado. Owner Ward Lay had specifically requested that the Tornado be the opening night match in San Antonio, primarily due to the popularity and local history of Kyle Rote Jr., who was the most notable and skillful American player in the league at the time. Mike Boyle was unsure what size crowd to expect at the game but hoped for around 8,000 spectators at the match. He noted in mid-March that the club had sold 850 season tickets and that the traveling Dallas Tornado Booster Club had requested 250 tickets. This match would officially kick off the start of the second Texas Derby, after the late 60's Dallas-Houston rivalry ended when the Houston Stars folded after the 1968 season.
A Texas Challenge Cup was sponsored by a local San Antonio synagogue to be awarded to the club with the best record in the three matches Dallas and San Antonio would play that season. The Thunder entered the first match with a 14- man game day roster including players from four continents, captained by 22-year old Scottish defender John McKernan.
1975 Thunder captain John McKernan (Image credit: Stewart McKernan)
The third article in the San Antonio Thunder 45th year Anniversary series will be published on Monday and describe the inaugural match on April 18, 1975.
Follow the San Antonio Thunder 45th year anniversary over the next few months at Texas Soccer Journal (www.txsoccerjournal.com) or on Twitter @txsoccerjournal.
Sources for this article include: (1) San Antonio Light newspaper archives (sourced online from Genealogy.com) (2) San Antonio Express newspaper archives (sourced online from Newspapers.com) (3) Excellent reference material and photos courtesy of Dave Morrison at www.nasljerseys.com (4) Don Batie personal collection (5) photos from Stewart McKernan (brother of John)