by Elliott Turner
The year was 1969. Only one year earlier, professional soccer had finally arrived in Kansas City, under dubious circumstances. The National Professional Soccer League had merged with the North American Soccer League, forcing the then Chicago Spurs into a bind – they could either dissolve to make way for the newly minted Chicago Mustangs, or move. And move they did.
The Spurs owners favored a short trek to Milwaukee, but the Mustangs’ owner had obtained a far reaching exclusivity clause. Kansas City cared little about legal technicalities. Or league solvency. They just wanted a team. At the time, Kansas City had reached a crossroads. The Charlie Parker jazz heydays of the 1940’s had long ended. In sporting terms, the recently arrived Kansas City Chiefs dominated the American Football League, but locals were suspicious of this new league created by Lamar Hunt. The newly named Royals were more than a decade away from a World Series baseball victory. No ice hockey team considered Kansas City viable, the Greyhounds a decades old afterthought. Nevertheless, Kansas City craved sports. Kansas City craved success. For too long, the Midwestern city had glared at coastal rivals with jealous eyes.
Contemporary writers have chastised the current MLS team Sporting Kansas City for engaging in europhilia. Most Americans would never suspect the Kansas City Spurs of the same sin. Few yanks know of Tottenham Hotspur and instead immediately think to the longstanding San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association. Yet in the 1960’s, the Spurs were not the Spurs – they were the Dallas Chaparrals. Thus, the KC Spurs owed their moniker firmly to anglophilia. The current trend is a historical trend. We just forgot our past.
Name debates aside, the advantage of the franchise relocation, as opposed to expansion, was the already in-place roster. The Kansas City Spurs hit the ground running, featuring dazzling winger and Irishman Joe Haverty. As a youth, Haverty was a promising winger that spent several years at Arsenal before a dispute over playing time led to some club carouselry, ending in a hop over the pond. He added essential trickery and dribbling to the Spurs attack. His Arsenal-to-Spurs movement generated considerably less controversy than later players, for obvious reasons.
Up front, Kansas City fans lamented the loss of second leading goalscorer Eric Barber. Despite a great season in 1968, he ostensibly left due to financial difficulties. Further complicating matters, the Toronto Falcons had poached the Spurs’ star Brazilian forward Iris DeBrito at the start of the 1968 season. However, Hungarian manager Janos Bedl, who had recently won manager of the year, formed a fierce machine from the scraps available. The Spurs’ roster did not make the mouth water, but it clicked as a unit. It was a scrappy bunch, but impossible not to like.
Nevertheless, luck played a large part in the Spurs’ championship. The league had recently slimmed down to five teams from seventeen the prior year. Teams only played a modest 16 game season with no playoffs, and the Spurs finished with a total of 110 points from 10 wins, 2 losses, and 4 ties. The Spurs were the first team to bring a Champions flag to the Municipal Stadium, before either the Kansas City Royals or the Chiefs.
The entire season was a two horse race between the Spurs and the Atlanta Chiefs. Spearheading the Chiefs attack was South African Kaiser Motaung, who finished as the league leader in scoring. In fact, the Chiefs finished with 11 wins as compared to 10 wins for the Spurs. But the NASL system gave bonus points for goals scored. Thus, with 53 goals scored compared Atlanta’s 46, the Spurs four extra bonus points made the difference.
However, despite success, hindsight is always 50-50. Where we once saw hope, now we see smoke. While American football and baseball leagues merged in similar fashion to the NASL during this era, the soccer league laid on a rotten financial foundation. So did the Spurs. Just one year removed from their championship, the Kansas City Spurs finished third in their division, failed to make the play-offs and disappeared into the night. Unlike the NBA Kansas City Kings, their stay was at least short and sweet.
And the city forgot them. Len Dawson soon led the Chiefs to Super Bowl glory in the 1970’s and George Brett eventually inspired the Royals to World Series glory in the 1980’s. Both are forever enshrined in the City’s spotlight and collective consciousness. Yet the 1990’s passed without a sniff of a winner. Fans waited until 2000 for the Wizards of the recently formed MLS, led by US goaltender Tony Meola, to bring the city another championship. Times had changed, but cycles spun eternal. Like the Spurs, the Wizards shared lodgings first with the Chiefs and then with a minor league baseball team. The 2000 edition scrapped by on an airtight defense and meager budgets, but they delivered what city deserved – a champion.
While the Wizard’s championship flag will grace Sporting KC’s new Livestrong Sporting Park, no trace of the 1969 Spurs or their players remains. If you ask a local about Joe Haverty or Janos Bedl, they’ll stare at you funny. Some ghosts rest undisturbed.