San Antonio Thunder began their second and final NASL season in 1976 with a refreshed business strategy and roster. Though results improved over a challenging 1975 season, the club fell short of a playoff spot, and owner Ward Lay moved the team to Hawaii after season’s end. A mirage replacement team was announced early the next year, only to vanish a week later. High-level professional soccer did not return to San Antonio for 36 years.
This year is the 45th anniversary of the first season of the North American Soccer League’s San Antonio Thunder, which began play in April of 1975. Texas Soccer Journal is publishing a series of articles to bring this team back to life over the next few months.
The previous article in this series profiled Bobby Moore, the 1976 Thunder Captain, an internationally famous defender.
1976 San Antonio Thunder Season Storylines
- The season began with only a handful of carry-over players. Head Coach Don Batie and Assistant Jim Forrest traveled to Great Britain, where they recruited most of the roster. Legendary English defender Bobby Moore was the feature addition, supplemented by many top Scottish players. Batie noted, in a recent interview, that the 1976 team was far better than the 1975 team. He believes the 1976 team could have won the league championship if they played in 1975, though admitted that the entire league was also much improved in the Thunder’s second year.
- Centrally located Alamo Stadium became the new address for the Thunder. For the first time, they could sell beer at their home venue.
- The NASL scheduled a three-week break in late May and June for the Bicentennial Cup to celebrate 200 years of independence. Bobby Moore represented the Thunder on the American squad, which lost all three tournament matches. This competition created unexpected international demand for the Thunder jersey. Bobby Moore photos in his colorful Thunder gear were shared by the numerous visiting journalists in the U.S. for the tournament, creating overseas demand for replica versions. The creative jersey concept was designed by Coach Batie in the off-season. Here is an early draft version that was sent to the manufacturers.
- The first road game of the season was the inaugural match for the San Diego Jaws at a small, old stadium on the campus of San Diego State. Thunder winger Derek Currie said in the San Antonio Light that the field was the worst he had seen. Batie told me that there were no locker rooms on-site, so both teams were bussed to a high school stadium before, at halftime, and after the match. There was only one locker room, and the Jaws coach locked the Thunder out. Currie sarcastically commented that a five-minute halftime break on the stadium sidelines would have been a better idea. A 1-0 Thunder loss, on an extra-time goal, ended a frustrating night. Things did not improve for the Jaws, and they moved to Las Vegas at the end of the season.
- For the second consecutive year, rain postponed a home match, both times coincidentally when Seattle played in San Antonio. A July road game in Hartford was also suspended late in the second half due to violent electrical storms. Rather than replay the match, the league decided to go straight to a penalty shootout the next day, a few hours before the Thunder return flight to San Antonio. Forty fans were in attendance to watch the Thunder win this shootout.
- Weather issues were not the only challenge the Thunder faced during the season. A mid season winning streak allowed the club to climb the table. The Thunder seemed to be in a stable playoff position before a loss to Minnesota on July 7 began a stretch of five consecutive defeats.
- The June 12 Tampa Bay loss was one of two matches protested by Coach Batie during the season. The referee called back a successful Jim Henry penalty kick during the shootout, claiming he had not blown his whistle to restart play. Later in Seattle, a loss was protested when 10 minutes vanished from the stadium game clock. Though a little confused at the time, players and coaches, according to defender Mark Stahl, didn’t have the missing clock time confirmed until after the game. Neither protest was successful.
- Three opponents brought world-recognized stars to play in San Antonio. George Best and England 1966 World Cup hero Geoff Hurst both made appearances. Eusebio, a world-famous Portuguese forward, arrived with Toronto for a May match. He won the game for the Metros on a late free-kick, but Batie talked about another incident that he has never forgotten.
Batie remembered that Eusebio made an ugly tackle from behind in front of the Thunder bench. He then told him in a low voice “Eusebio, I’m disappointed in you.” Eusebio looked at Batie and walked away with his head down, but after a few minutes Batie said he forgot about the incident. Then 30 minutes or so after the game Eusebio ran up to Batie at full speed, causing him to wonder if he was about to get decked. Eusebio stopped in front of Batie and said ‘Coach, forgive me….forgive me. I am sorry. This is not how I am as a player.’ Batie said he told him to forget it and they parted ways on friendly terms, noting “He surprised me that he played that very humble role.”
- Despite the brutal mid-season losing streak, the Thunder still had solid playoff chances, but a home loss to last-place San Diego on July 31 was the crushing blow for playoff hopes. The stadium lights stopped working in the second half. The lights restarted after only 10 minutes; however, Batie felt the lost momentum turned around a winnable game that ended up having enormous implications. “Looking back on it, we weren’t counting points at that time. We were not really concerned about making the playoffs. It was one of those losses and we just went on, but unfortunately it was the loss that could have made the difference.”
- The Thunder won their final match but needed help from the Dallas Tornado to make the playoffs. After a scoreless first half in Los Angeles, Dallas, who had beaten the Aztecs 6-3 earlier in the year, conceded four goals in the final 30 minutes. This unusual collapse left the Thunder one point short of the playoffs. The Tornado faced the Aztecs again a few days later in the playoffs’ opening round and won 2-0.
The Texas Challenge Cup was a Consolation Prize
After losing the Texas Challenge Cup to the Dallas Tornado the previous year, the Thunder’s win over Dallas in the penultimate match of the year brought the trophy to San Antonio. Goal differential in their two games finished even, so the tiebreaker was a strange statistic that measured how many times each team managed to work the ball into the penalty box.
Off the Field
- NASL rosters were small; therefore, the Thunder only carried a 16-man team with two taxi-squad players. The club struggled all season with midfield depth and consistency; critical injuries bedeviled Don Batie all season. Three of his Scottish midfielders did not help matters when they made a day trip to Mexico during the regular season, only to discover their work visas would not allow them to return to the United States. After a forced return to Scotland for new permits, they finally returned to San Antonio three weeks later.
- New General Manager Jim Smith brought several creative promotion ideas in the second season. After failing to score in a couple of road games, the club announced a Guaranteed Goal Night and combined this with a local radio station sponsored Pet Rock Parade. Batie said nobody informed him about the guaranteed goal night before the match but was happy they scored, so the team didn’t have to provide the promised free tickets to the next game to all in attendance. The club also held a Pet Rock Parade (a fad then), and Batie said his daughter, who was 9-years old at the time, participated. Children who brought one received free admission and a chance to parade their rock around the running track at halftime.
- 42-year old Thunder San Antonio Light beat writer Ned Sweet suffered a massive stroke and died in mid-May. Batie said the club felt this loss because of Sweet’s genuine effort to learn about and explain soccer to neophyte fans. Thunder players dedicated the subsequent Portland away fixture to him.
- The Thunder’s only televised game in their short history came in Tampa on June 12. Equipment and announcers who broadcasted a match there the previous weekend were available. A local Spanish language station televised the game with an English language radio station providing a bilingual simulcast. No goals in regulation or overtime, coupled with a loss, did not help excite the fan base.
The End of a Brief Stay for Professional Soccer
After the season ended, it became clear that the team could leave San Antonio. The end became a reality when the club formalized a move to Hawaii in November. The first clear public warning sign of trouble came late when the club lost the school district bid for marketing and sale of concessions at Alamo Stadium. As a result, club beverage sponsors lost the ability to sell their products in the stadium. Lay and Smith had numerous meetings with the school board but were unable to resolve the differences.
Lack of Business and Government Support Doomed the Thunder
A more significant issue was that Lay was unwilling to continue without local financial assistance. Low attendance and lack of business and government support meant Lay lost over $600,000 throughout the two seasons. He said he was willing to sell 50% ownership in the club for $500,000 to continue for a third season in San Antonio.
Lay was candid about the need for local support and stated that he had a $2 million offer on the table from Hawaii investors that would allow him to keep a 50% stake in the team. He commented in the San Antonio Express, “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.”
A group of local physicians who expressed serious investment interest could not come close to raising the funds Lay was seeking to save the Thunder. In the Express, 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.”
With no local investors forthcoming, Lay announced on October 9 that he would ask the NASL to move to Honolulu. The league formally announced the relocation to Hawaii for the 1977 season a little over a month later.
Hopes for a Replacement Team Crushed
A brief flurry of activity in 1977 raised hopes that a relocated franchise would replace the Thunder in San Antonio. A group of physicians, presumably the same consortium who were negotiating with Lay, purchased the Philadelphia franchise. A public announcement of the new team, the San Antonio Atoms, was held on January 12. A week later, the NASL terminated franchise rights as financing fell through. The investor group’s legal counsel Mike Hernandez discussed the reason for the collapse in the Express. “Some commitments were made by local banks to this group, and apparently those commitments weren’t firmed up. Maybe it was a misunderstanding; I don’t know. The money supposedly was there; then it wasn’t.” Despite participating in the 1977 NASL draft and acquiring their first players in a draft-day trade, the Atoms never saw the field.
Success Finally Arrived Two Cities Later
Team Hawaii lasted one season before moving to Tulsa for the 1978 season. The local Honolulu investment Ward Lay expected never materialized, and attendance and financial losses were like their time in San Antonio. In Tulsa, the club finally enjoyed the success that had eluded the franchise previously. The Roughnecks won the 1983 NASL Championship and were one of a few final clubs in existence when the league folded at the end of the 1984 season. The club did have their share of financial struggles too. The article below describes how they almost folded shortly after the title win, revealing many of the same challenges in Tulsa the franchise suffered at both previous stops.
Would a San Antonio Thunder Third Season Have Made a Difference?
Ward Lay passed away in 2011 after a long bout with cancer. Batie, who remained close friends with Lay through the years, told me that he was the last non-family member to visit him before his death. He told me that they reminisced about the 1976 season during this visit. Lay ruefully commented about the “one more point” the Thunder needed to make the playoffs. Lay had initially made a three-year commitment to San Antonio when he first acquired the franchise. Batie inferred from this last conversation that Lay would have stayed if they had secured that single point.
Would this have made a difference to long term success? Probably not. The basketball Spurs were the 500-pound gorilla in the room, trying to establish themselves in the community. Both the World Football League team that lasted one season and the Thunder suffered from the lack of local investment dollars for sports in the 1970s. Lay expressed his frustration often with poor local business support for the San Antonio Thunder. The best evidence of his view of this apathy was a comment he made near the franchise end to the beat writer for the Express.
“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.”
San Antonio wasn’t the only city that wasn’t ready for soccer at the time. Constant franchise instability over the entirety of the NASL tormented league officials and its fans, especially after Pele retired in 1977.
The next time professional soccer returned to San Antonio was when the San Antonio Scorpions began to play in 2012, ironically as part of a rejuvenated version of the NASL brand.
1976 San Antonio Thunder Statistics:
Harry Hood led the Thunder with ten goals, despite not arriving from Scotland until the fifth game of the season. He did not score until June 4 and netted ten times in the final 17 matches. Hood also led the team with seven assists, one more than Victor Kodelja. Bobby Moore was the team leader in minutes and was the only one to play in every match. Unlike the 1975 season, San Antonio outshot and outscored opponents in 1976. The Thunder Most Valuable Player was Harry Hood, and Moore named to the NASL Best XI.
San Antonio Thunder 1976 season (home team listed first)
Total record: 12-12 Home: 7-5 Away: 5-7
April 14: Thunder-2 St. Louis Stars-1 SA: Derek Currie (2) STL: Own Goal (Peter Mannos) ATT: 5,304
April 17: San Diego Jaws-1 Thunder-0 (OT) SD: Stan Smith ATT: 5,261
April 24: Dallas Tornado-1 Thunder-0 DAL: Jim Ryan ATT: 11,892
May 1: Thunder-2 Minnesota Kicks-1 SA: Victor Kodelja, Eddie Thomson MN: Ron Futcher ATT: 4,717
May 8: Thunder-3 Los Angeles Aztecs-2 (OT/3-2 Penalties) SA: Neil Martin (2) LA: Bob McAlinden (2) ATT: 5,520
May 15: Thunder-2 Washington Diplomats-3 SA: Eddie Thomson, Bobby Moore WA: Own Goal (Unknown), Paul Cannell, Leroy DeLeon ATT: 5,138
May 19: Portland Timbers-1 Thunder-0 PORT: Tony Betts ATT: 19,223
June 4: Thunder-1 Toronto Metros Croatia-2 SA: Harry Hood TOR: Ivair Ferreira, Eusebio ATT: 6,789
June 6: San Jose Earthquakes-0 Thunder-3 SA: Neil Martin, Harry Hood, Dan Counce ATT: 17,180
June 10: Miami Toros-0 Thunder-1 SA: Bob McNab ATT: 1,300
June 12: Tampa Bay Rowdies-1 Thunder-0 (OT/5-4 Penalties) ATT: 11.158
June 19: Thunder-6 Vancouver Whitecaps-1 SA: Dan Counce (3), Harry Hood, Eddie Thomson, Jose Berico VAN: Tony Ord ATT: 4,418
June 26: Thunder-2 Chicago Sting-1 (OT/4-3 Penalties) SA: Harry Hood CHI: Clive Griffiths RC: SA: CJ Carenza ATT: 4,531
June 30: Hartford Bicentennials-1 Thunder-2 (OT/3-2 Penalties) HART: Allan Foggon SA: Victor Kodelja ATT: 1,634
July 3: Los Angeles Aztecs-1 Thunder-2 SA: Harry Hood (2) LA: Bob McAlinden ATT:8,313
July 7: Minnesota Kicks-3 Thunder-1 MN: Ron Futcher (2), Allan Willey SA: Neil Martin, ATT: 14,499
July 12: Thunder-1 Seattle Sounders-2 (OT) SA: Harry Hood SEA: Jim Robertson, David Butler ATT: 4,133
July 15: Vancouver Whitecaps-3 Thunder-0 VAN: Tony Ord (2), Billy Woof ATT: 9,105
July 17: Seattle Sounders-1 Thunder-0 SEA: Geoff Hurst ATT: 25,637
July 23: Thunder-0 Portland Timbers-1 PORT: Malcolm Smith ATT: 5,163
July 24: St. Louis Stars-0 Thunder-3 SA: Victor Kodelja (2), Dan Counce ATT: 5,414
July 31: Thunder-2 San Diego Jaws-3 SA: Dan Counce, Harry Hood SD: Art Welch (2), Doug Wark ATT: 4,500 (Est.)
August 7: Thunder-3 Dallas Tornado-2 SA: Jose Berico (2), Harry Hood DAL: Kevin Kewley, Bob Hope ATT: 3,164
August 13: Thunder-2 San Jose Earthquakes-0 SA: Neil Martin, Harry Hood ATT: 4,147
1976 Thunder Roster
|1||Bobby Clark||G||5′ 11″||170||19||1767||0||0||0||Scotland|
|1||Peter Mannos||G||5′ 11″||170||6||458||0||0||0||USA|
|2||Bob McNab||D||5′ 7″||150||12||1||0||2||England|
|3||Jim Henry||M||5′ 11″||168||18||1609||0||3||3||Scotland|
|4||Daniel Mammana||D||6′ 6″||200||–||–||–||–||–||Argentina|
|4||Ismael Moreira||D||5′ 9″||155||21||1650||0||1||1||Brazil|
|5||Eddie Thomson||M||5′ 11″||165||19||1533||3||1||7||Scotland|
|6||Bobby Moore||D||6′ 0″||183||24||2110||1||0||2||England|
|7||Victor Kodelja||F||5′ 9″||160||19||1465||4||6||14||Italy/Canada|
|8||Renato Costa||M||5′ 10″||165||0||0||0||0||Brazil|
|9||Chris Carenza||D||6′ 2″||185||19||1132||0||0||0||USA|
|10||Jose Berico||D||5′ 10″||159||15||1138||3||1||7||Brazil|
|11||Derek Currie||F||5′ 9″||135||3||2||0||4||Scotland|
|12||Tom Callaghan||M||6′ 1″||165||9||736||0||0||0||Scotland|
|12||Beriba Santana||F||5′ 5″||145||5||0||1||1||Brazil|
|13||Carlos Rodriguez||D||5′ 6″||151||2||0||0||0||Uruguay|
|13||Jim Zylker||M||5′ 9″||165||5||179||0||0||0||USA|
|14||Jim Forrest||F||5′ 10″||155||1||0||0||0||Scotland|
|15||Chuck Carey||D||5′ 9″||155||2||0||0||0||USA|
|16||Billy Semple||F||5′ 7″||152||21||1601||0||4||4||Scotland|
|17||Dan Counce||F||5′ 11″||179||20||1374||6||1||13||USA|
|18||Mark Stahl||D||5′ 8″||155||19||1660||0||0||0||USA|
|19||Neil Martin||F||5′ 11″||160||19||1654||5||3||13||Scotland|
|20||Kevin Missey||M||5′ 8″||165||1||0||0||0||USA|
|21||Dee J. Harding||F||5′ 8″||150||–||–||–||–||–||USA|
|21||Harry Hood||F||5′ 9″||165||20||1821||10||7||27||Scotland|
|22||Billy McNicol||F||5 ‘9″||155||–||–||–||–||–||Scotland|
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 http://www.nasljerseys.com (4) Don Batie personal collection