The Chicago Sting: Soccer's Forgotten Pioneers

May 15, 2020

1978 Chicago Sting

The most famous American soccer team of the 1970s was, unquestionably, the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League (NASL) led by international superstars Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia. However, there was another NASL club that in many ways had a more significant impact on the game in the United States.

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The Chicago Sting made their NASL debut in 1975 when the league was experiencing tremendous growth and increasing popularity. The team was the brainchild of Lee Stern, a successful commodities trader who felt his hometown, at the time the nation’s second-largest city,  would be a great market for professional soccer. The name was based on the very popular 1973 film of the same name, which took place in Chicago.

A British influence

Stern looked to Britain to build his team hiring former Manchester United defender Bill Foulkes as player/coach. Foulkes, in turn, assembled a roster made up mostly of his countrymen, a strategy that proved successful as the Sting posted a winning record and captured second place in the league’s Central Division. The following year, they captured first place in the Northern Division but lost in the first round of the playoffs. 

Despite their on-field success, the team drew poorly, averaging only around 4,000 fans a game. It wouldn’t be until 1980 that the team would break the 10,000 mark in attendance. In 1981, the year they won the championship, they pulled in over 12,000 fans a game good for 10th in the 21-team league. Oddly, the team’s championship parade through downtown Chicago drew over 100,000 people. The fact that, over the years, the team had moved homefields between Comiskey Park, Soldier Field, and Wrigley Field probably didn’t help them at the gate. 

Indoor adventures

In the midst of this post-season success, The Sting, along with several other NASL teams, ventured into new territory: indoor soccer. The league had experimented with the idea since 1971, staging indoor tournaments using a pitch that was basically a hockey rink covered with artificial turf. Tournaments were also held in 1975 and 1976, as well as 1978 and 1979.

In 1978, the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) began to play with six teams playing a 12-game schedule. While it only averaged 4,200 fans a game in its first season, it was successful enough to prompt the NASL to launch an indoor season in 1979 with 10 of the league’s 21 clubs competing. The Sting sat that first season out, signing on for the 1980-81 campaign. 

The team’s winning ways continued inside of doors and fans noticed. While outdoor games were sparsely attended, the indoor games set records. Over 19,000 fans showed up at Chicago Stadium (then also home to the NBA’s Bulls and NHL’s Blackhawks) to watch The Sting defeat the also popular Tampa Bay Rowdies. In 1982, an agreement between the NASL and MISL brought The Sting, the San Jose Earthquakes, and the San Diego Sockers into the latter's circuit for the winter. The NASL held one more indoor season in 1983-84, and The Sting part returned for that final campaign. The Sting won their second outdoor championship in 1984, downing the Toronto Blizzard 2 games to 0. The league suspended operations in March 1985 with the intention of returning in 1986. It never did.

One team, two leagues

The Sting spent the 1984-85 season in the MISL and became full-time members of that league in 1985, along with former NASL clubs the San Diego Sockers, Minnesota Strikers, and the New York Cosmos. The Sting’s performance on the pitch declined, though, along with attendance, and Stern finally called it quits in 1988.

At the time, the U.S. had just been awarded the 1994 World Cup with one of the conditions being that a new, top-level outdoor league be established. Stern assured the sports world that the Sting would be part of that effort. They were not. In 1996, Major League Soccer launched without The Sting or any other Chicago franchise. In 1998, the Chicago Fire (now Chicago Fire FC) took the field and have been in MLS ever since. 

The Sting wound up being one of only two teams, the other being the New York Cosmos, to win the NASL Championship twice. Their success in the indoor version of the sport helped propel the popularity of that game, though interest in that has waned over the years, particularly as MLS and international outdoor soccer have become more popular in North America. Still, the Sting are an important part of the sport’s history in this country.




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