A few days ago it was reported that San Antonio FC (SAFC) recently filed applications to Trademark the name and logos for the first professional soccer team to play in San Antonio…the San Antonio Thunder.
The Thunder (1975-76) were the third Texas team to play in the version of the North American Soccer League (NASL) that ran from 1968-1984. The Dallas Tornado and Houston Stars were the first, beginning play in 1968. The Stars folded after a single season (two if you count the year in the United Soccer Association) when the NASL nearly collapsed at the end of the 1968 season. A fourth Texas NASL team, the Houston Hurricane played from 1977-1980 before ceasing operations. The Tornado played for 15 continuous years before closing up shop in 1981.
Saturday night, San Antonio FC will provide a glimpse of one of the reasons for securing the intellectual property rights to the SA Thunder brand when they unveil pregame player-worn Thunder/SAFC tops to be auctioned off after the game, with proceeds going to the Spurs Sports and Entertainment non-profit charitable organization.
It is fascinating that SAFC may actually generate more interest for the Thunder now than existed when the club played in 1975-1976. Given that it has been 42 years since the Thunder played their last match in San Antonio, it is almost certain that the clear majority of fans who attend Saturday night’s match weren’t even born when the Thunder played in the San Antonio.
The reception the Thunder received in San Antonio during their two seasons could charitably be described as underwhelming. The average attendance in 1975 was 4,411 and despite a significant marketing effort by the Thunder in 1975, the average attendance only rose to 4,792 (17th in the 20 team league). The Thunder would probably have been ecstatic if they had drawn the kinds of crowds SAFC pulls in today.
The Thunder were the second top level professional team in San Antonio when they began play and the low attendance needs to be considered in the context of the times. The Spurs had joined the American Basketball Association in 1973 and only drew 6,000 fans during their first season in the HemisFair themselves. That actually was a good attendance figure then, but attempts to bolster attendance for the Spurs continued for some time, including the City of San Antonio establishing a payroll deduction plan for city employees to purchase season tickets. This option wasn’t offered to the Thunder and team ownership later pointed to lack of City support as one reason the Thunder ultimately failed.
Given the lack of relevance in San Antonio at the time, it is nice to see that some fans retain positive memories of the Thunder’s time in SA (shared by Mike Check on Twitter last week).
I became a fan of the San Jose Earthquakes when they started NASL play in 1974. Their home opener that year against Dallas was the first professional soccer game I ever attended. I was at many of the Earthquakes home games during the 1975 season when the Thunder began play. The Earthquakes played the Thunder that year and won 2-1 in San Antonio on May 16th, though I have no memory of that match. Since I was stationed in Germany with the Army in 1976, I unfortunately was unable to see either of the two matches the Thunder played vs. the Earthquakes in 1976. Though the Earthquakes won the Pacific Conference and advanced to the Championship game that year, they lost both matches (5-0 aggregate score) to a Thunder team that was decidedly better than the 1975 version.
So who were the San Antonio Thunder and why did they only last two years in San Antonio?
San Antonio Thunder:
After two days of NASL ownership meetings to consider expansion bids, San Antonio was awarded a team on June 25, 1974 to begin play in the 1975 season. The new expansion team was owned by H. Ward Lay Jr., (Ward Lay photo) the son of the founder of the snack food company that included Lay’s Potato Chips. The San Antonio team would be the 17th team in the NASL, and in a pre-echo of the feeding frenzy today for MLS expansion hopefuls, there were 11 other cities competing with San Antonio for the four remaining expansion teams to be awarded for the 1975 NASL season. NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam was in San Antonio a few days before these meetings and in a UPI article provided reasons why San Antonio would be a good candidate to join the league.
“I think the public is becoming sports minded here in San Antonio. It is very close to Mexico and I think the public could have strong ties to soccer with Mexican clubs. There obviously is very strong potential for a soccer franchise in San Antonio and also because of [the rivalry] it will have with Dallas and probably one day with a team we”ll have established in Houston.” (1)
The name for the San Antonio expansion team “Thunder” was announced in September of 1974. It was selected from the more than 1,500 entries submitted in a fan naming contest. In an example of the lack of understanding of the unique nature of the sport prevalent in the early days of U.S. professional soccer, Mike Boyle was named as general manager. His experience was in baseball, most recently as GM of a San Antonio minor league team. A few days after this announcement, Alex Perolli, a Canadian who had just finished the 1974 season as head coach of the NASL Los Angeles Aztecs, was named as the first head coach. According to reports in the Express-News, shortly after his hiring, Perolli went on an 11,000 mile trip to Europe, Mexico and South America during October and November in search of players. He was looking to fill an 18 man roster (with five mandated American players) that would begin training on March 1, 1975. (2) In a portent of future difficulties that would contribute to the Thunder ceasing operations, the original intent to play at the San Antonio Independent School District’s (SAISD) 21,000 seat Alamo Stadium fell through. The school district made it impossible to play there by contractually maintaining rights to TV and Radio matches played in the stadium and significantly increased rents from rates originally quoted after new district athletic department leadership took over. (3) The team ended up playing its 1975 matches at North East Stadium (now Comalander Stadium).
1975 San Antonio Thunder defender and captain John McKernan (Image credit: NASLJerseys.com)
The team made waves before its first kick when it traded its first round college draft choice, UCLA’s Sergio Velasquez and future draft picks in a blockbuster deal to the Los Angeles Aztecs for seven regulars from Perolli’s old team. When training camp opened at St. Anthony Seminary in San Antonio the Thunder only had 12 players on hand. The team played exhibition matches against the Austin All-Stars, University of Houston, a local club-Pearl International, professional side Monterrey University in Mexico, the Kuwait National Team (?) and the new Tampa expansion team. During preseason, the team made the controversial decision to cut veteran English forward Bobby Ridley, the big offseason acquisition from Dallas, apparently for off-field issues.
The inaugural match against Dallas Tornado was won by the Thunder 2-1 at home. Winger Peter Filopas scored the first goal in Thunder history and substitute forward James Doherty the game winner in extra-time (the NASL had eliminated regular season ties prior to the season).
(Image Credit: Pat Hamilton-SA Express)
The Tornado traveled to Los Angeles for Week 2 where Perolli suffered a 3-0 thumping against his old team. This was the start of a bad period of results for the Thunder, and after 3 more losses the team was in turmoil and coach Alex Perolli was sacked. After Lay took control of the club and lost three more matches, he hired a college coach from California, Don Batie, to take the reigns.
The Thunder went on to finish the season 6-16 (5th place in the Central Division), losing their last 6 matches, including the finale against the Tornado, 5-0. Strangely, the Tornado won the first version of the Texas Challenge Cup on aggregate goals scored, even though the Thunder had won 2 of the 3 games played in 1975. Two Brazilians–midfielder Jose Berico and forward Jose Marcio led the team with 5 goals.
Off the field the results were also not positive. According to reports Ward Lay lost between $200,000-250,000 during the first year, more than twice what he planned.
1976 San Antonio Thunder team photo (Image credit: NASL Jerseys and Richard Blom)
The 1976 season was the last for the Thunder, and the warning signs were there as early as September of 1975. The team sent out a release in the middle of the month announcing that they had posted a bond and would be returning for the 1976 season. I imagine this was a “What?” moment for fans who had been led to believe that there wasn’t an issue of playing next year. Ward Lay commented in the Express-News:
“We didn’t make a profit this year, but that has to be expected in the first season, and I feel, as do the other owners, that rather than calling it a loss, we feel that we made an investment in soccer and in San Antonio.” (4)
Coach Don Batie returned for the 1976 season and player signings began much earlier as Batie went to England for his own month long scouting trip. The club also changed General Managers with Jim Smith, who had an excellent record in ice hockey with the WHA’s Houston Aeros, taking over from Mike Boyle who stepped down of his own accord. As part of the rejuvenated marketing program, the team announced that it would be visiting every elementary, middle and high school in the metro area by April. At the same time the San Antonio Youth Soccer Association, who worked closely with the Thunder, stated that it had received over 1,000 registrations for their upcoming season. The team also released 1976 ticket pricing, ranging from $1.00-5.00 and a prime season ticket price of $55.00. The new season would be played at Alamo Stadium after the Thunder and SAISD apparently came to an agreement.
The club also made a unheard of three-year, six figure offer to bring one of the best players in the world, Northern Ireland’s George Best, to San Antonio. Not surprisingly, Best ended up joining the Los Angeles Aztecs instead. In press reports prior to the signing, Ward Lay noted that he believed the NASL wanted Best to play in LA instead of San Antonio or Chicago. The Thunder signed a pretty good consolation prize when legendary England international Bobby Moore agreed to come to Texas. The 1976 roster also included Scottish goalkeeper Bobby Clark, who just retired from a sterling 17 year coaching career at Notre Dame. By the time the regular season started the Thunder had replaced all but a handful of players from the previous season.
The big game of the year for the Thunder was the appearance of the New York Cosmos and their international superstar Pele in a March 31 exhibition match. This would be the Cosmos only appearance in San Antonio because the Thunder were not scheduled to play them in the regular season. The Thunder won this match 1-0 and according to reports rookie Thunder goalkeeper Peter Mannos from Northern Illinois University stopped a Pele direct free-kick to secure the victory.
After an undefeated preseason, the Thunder opened the regular season in front of over 5,300 fans with a 2-1 victory over the St. Louis Stars. Scottish winger Derek Currie had a brace to lead the way. These were the only two goals he would ever score in the NASL, as he only played in 2 more games with the Thunder. Currie had been one of the first three international professionals to ever play in the new Hong Kong soccer league in 1970 and later featured for the Hong Kong National team.
During the season the NASL took an “International Break” to play in the Bicentennial Cup in honor of the country’s 200th birthday. Thunder players Bobby Moore and defender Bob McNab were part of the Team America side that was humbled by Italy, Brazil and England, scoring only a single goal in the three matches in this Cup series.
In July, the Thunder were involved in a strange match in Seattle that they lost 1-0. They protested the game because only 80 minutes were played before the final whistle blew. The league eventually denied the protest admitting that the error was made, but making the dubious assertion that “It has been deemed that neither club gained an advantage or suffered a disadvantage because of the oversight”.
San Antonio made it to the last week of the season before being eliminated from the playoffs on the final weekend. The last ever game played by the Thunder was a 2-0 home victory in front of the third smallest crowd of the year, despite the playoff implications. The picture from the San Antonio Express here shows the mostly empty stands.
(Image credit: Pat Hamilton-SA Express)
San Antonio dominated the game, outshooting the Earthquakes 23-3 on the night. They fell one point short of the total they needed to advance to the playoffs and were unlucky to get the third goal that would have sent them through, hitting the goal posts twice in the second half.
The Thunder finished its final season 12-12 (fourth place in the Pacific Conference, Southern Division). Scottish forward Harry Hood led the team with 10 goals, including the final goal ever scored by the Thunder, and Bobby Moore was named to the All-NASL team at the conclusion of the season. The Thunder were awarded the Texas Challenge Cup after defeating the Tornado in the last match played between the two teams in the season series.
After the season ended, it became clear that the team could leave San Antonio and this unfortunately became reality when the club formalized a move to Hawaii in November. The first warning sign of the impending end of the Thunder came in July when the club informed the SAISD that they would abandon Alamo Stadium at the end of the season if they didn’t get a say in the marketing and sale of concessions at the facility, stating that the club would also leave San Antonio if forced to leave Alamo Stadium. (5)
A few weeks later the Thunder coach Don Batie left to return to his previous college coaching job. The San Antonio Express newspaper report of his departure mentioned that Thunder owner Ward Lay was vacationing in Hawaii, where it later came out that he was first approached by Honolulu investors. On September 16 Lay announced that the team would be playing in either Honolulu or San Antonio in 1977. He also revealed that General Manager Jim Smith had resigned to take a position in horse racing in California and that a group of unnamed San Antonio physicians were interested in investing in the team. Lay was unbelievably candid about the need for other investors and stated that he had an offer on the table from Hawaii investors that would allow him to keep a 50% stake in the team. He was quoted as saying “Frankly I can’t do it without local investors and involvement from the business community. We have gotten practically no advertising help or sponsorship in the last two years.” (6) Later it came out that Lay lost $600,000 in the two seasons in San Antonio.
The local investors did not pull things together in time to save the Thunder. Lay talked about the reasons. “I think the investors I talked with had good intentions and wanted to keep soccer in San Antonio. They didn’t realize how much a first-class organization would cost. I didn’t want to run a professional franchise on a second-class level and they realized this. It just wasn’t fair to the fans or investors.” (7) With no local investors forthcoming, on October 9th, Lay announced that he would ask the NASL to move to Honolulu. A week later the club released a statement stating that the club had received approval from the league to move to Hawaii, pending approval of a stadium deal there. On November 18th, the league formally announced the move for the 1977 season.
A Replacement Team Materializes and Then Quickly Disappears
Curiously, during the time the Thunder were looking to move, the Philadelphia NASL team, which had Mexican ownership, expressed an interest in talking to local San Antonio investors (what was thought to be the same group of physician investors) and relocating to San Antonio if the Thunder left. The Atoms had a roster primarily composed of Latin players and had struggled both on the field and in the stands in Philadelphia. Before they could make much progress, the NASL terminated the rights of this Mexican ownership group in December for financial reasons and then looked for ways to satisfy the obligations to the previous Atoms owner who had sold the club to the Mexican group.
The local San Antonio investors, previously dismissed by Lay, actually came together to purchase the Atoms to move to San Antonio in January of 1977. The league, under pressure to finalize schedules and the college draft, formally approved the Philadelphia Atoms move to San Antonio on January 11, 1977 on a 17-1 vote. (8) A San Antonio press conference the next day, moderated by the NASL Deputy Commissioner, introduced the 10 investors who would establish a newly rebranded team to play the 1977 season at Alamo Stadium. (9)
(Image credit: SA Express)
Bizarrely, the league terminated this investor groups rights to the San Antonio franchise a little more than a week later because the financing, thought to be in place for the performance bond demanded by the NASL and also to pay off debts to the old Atoms owner, actually wasn’t there. The investor group’s legal counsel Mike Hernandez stated, “Some committments were made by local banks to this group and apparently those commitments were’t firmed up. Maybe it was a misunderstanding, I don’t know. The money supposedly was there, then it wasn’t.” (10)
The NASL talked up the possibility of a return to San Antonio in the future, but nothing ever came to fruition before it ceased operations in 1984.
This kind of hubris was typical of the original NASL and goes a long way towards explaining why Major League Soccer organized itself in the 1990’s as a single-entity- joint ownership controlled structure, to ensure the NASL chaos would not be repeated.
The next time professional soccer returned to San Antonio was when the San Antonio Scorpions began play in 2012, ironically as part of a rejuvenated version of the NASL brand.
The Thunder’s Aftermath
The relocated team’s stay in Hawaii lasted one year (because it was a very bad idea). In his excellent 2014 book Rock’ n’ Roll Soccer about the NASL, author Ian Plenderleith listed many of the reasons that created the failure that was Team Hawaii…the overwhelming heat and humidity, travel, poor attendance, lack of local investment and the fact that visiting teams basically treated the trips there as vacations. The team then relocated again for the 1978 season to Tulsa, where the Roughnecks were fairly successful both on and off the field, winning a championship in 1983 and playing until the NASL folded in 1984.
In retrospect, Ward Lay, the owner of the Thunder, began to believe that maybe San Antonio wasn’t ready for soccer at the time. In 1976, his frustration became evident in this quote, “When we got the franchise, everyone said San Antonio would be another Portland, Seattle or San Jose (successful NASL teams). I thought so myself. [Now] I sometimes wonder if we wouldn’t draw this many (3-4,000) in a town of 50,000 like Stillwater, Oklahoma.” (11)
San Antonio FC has certainly changed this narrative in a much larger and rapidly growing San Antonio area today. Despite the increasingly dim chances of an MLS expansion team, the city, the team has nothing but excellent professional soccer prospects in the future.
I am looking forward to seeing the training tops at Saturday night’s San Antonio FC-Phoenix Rising match and will likely be part of the bidding after the match. This history is also a reminder that the United States Soccer National Hall of Fame is near completion and will be re-opening, after a long absence, at Toyota Stadium in Frisco next month.
Thanks to SAFC for bringing a piece of San Antonio soccer history back to life, if only for one night.
San Antonio Thunder 1975-1976 rosters
(1) Sisk, Mack K. (UPI), “NASL expansion for Texas” Plano Daily Star-Courier, June 23, 1974 p. 14
(2) Hutton, Jim, “Perolli searches globe for talent” San Antonio Express-News, November 16, 1974 p. 5-E
(3) Staff reports, “Soccer team, SAISD unable to come to terms” Express-News, November 24, 1974 p. 1-D
(4) Staff reports, “Thunder to play in 1976 season” Express-News, September 11, 1975 p. 8-E
(5) Associated Press, “Thunder Sounds Off” Austin American Statesman, July 14, 1976 p. D-7
(6) Hutton, Jim, “Thunder Decision: Honolulu or S.A.” SA Express, September 17, 1976 p. 1-F
(7) Hutton, Jim, “Atoms interested in San Antonio?” SA Express, October 27, 1976 p. 4-D
(8) Staff reports, “SA back in NASL” SA Express, January 12, 1977 p. 1-D
(9) Hutton, Jim, “It’s Official: S.A. in NASL” SA Express, January 13, 1977 p. 1-H
(10) Hutton, Jim, “Soccer team for San Antonio out before it’s in” SA Express, January 21, 1977 p. 1-D
(11) Hutton, Jim, “Thunder move could hurt S.A.” San Antonio Express, October 24, 1976 p. 7-S