When Hibs faced Cerro of Uruguay at Yankee Stadium in New York
Amid the so-called British invasion of the US in the 1960s, a group of entrepreneurs attempted to introduce professional football to America – with Hibs playing a part in the experiment
There was no shortage of notable events taking place in the USA in the summer of 1967. The Detroit Riots, the Summer of Love, and the nomination and subsequent confirmation of Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall as the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court.
So it’s understandable that the inaugural United Soccer Association season may have taken a back seat in the States.
The previous year, several sports entrepreneurs led by Los Angeles Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke and including future MLS co-founder Lamar Hunt and Toronto City owner Steve Stavro had formed the North American Soccer League in order to establish a professional football league in the region.
The group’s plans were thrown into disarray when a rival group calling themselves the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) emerged. Cooke rebranded the league as the United Soccer Association (USA) and targeted a launch date of spring 1968 – until NSPL chiefs struck a TV deal with CBS and announced plans to launch a year earlier.
12 teams... no players
Cooke and his colleagues took the decision to fast-track the launch to beat their rivals to the punch – quite a bold move without any teams or players.
The USA ended up importing 12 teams from Europe and South America to represent the franchises during the inaugural season, with clubs working on recruiting their own players in time for the second season.
Hibs would represent Toronto City, based at the 25,000-capacity Varsity Stadium. Former Easter Road goalkeeper Tommy Younger was a coach at the Canadian team, which may have influenced the decision to have the Capital club represent the Ontarians.
Fellow Scots teams Dundee United and Aberdeen played as Dallas Tornado and Washington Whips respectively. Shamrock Rovers of the Republic of Ireland were rebranded as Boston Rovers while their near-neighbours Glentoran played as the Detroit Cougars. Stoke City, Sunderland and Wolves played as the Cleveland Stokers, the Vancouver Royal Canadians and the Los Angeles Wolves respectively. Cagliari from Italy were temporarily rebranded as the Chicago Mustangs; ADO Den Haag from the Netherlands would play under the San Francisco Golden Gate Gales moniker with Brazil’s Bangu A and Uruguay’s Cerro featuring as the Houston Stars and New York Skyliners.
New York Skyliners v Toronto City
By late May 1967, after a handful of exhibition games, the USA was ready to start the season.
Playing in the Eastern Division, Hibs’ first match was a trip to the Big Apple to take on Cerro in a match billed a the New York Skyliners vs Toronto City. A crowd of 21,871 fans made their way to East 161st Street & River Avenue on 28 May, meaning the 67,000-capacity arena was only around a third full – but it was still the highest reported attendance for Cerro / New York.
Inside-right Benedicto Ribeiro opened the scoring on 41 minutes, with Allan McGraw levelling with a header after good work from Peter Cormack, as Hibs / Toronto recorded a draw in their first game.
News reports of the time suggest that Hibs effectively parked the bus to stifle their South American opponents and ensure a share of the spoils, with the Scots described as “solid and stolid”.
Speaking to the Evening News in 2009 Stanton shared his memories of the opening game, saying: “I remember in the Yankee Stadium in New York they'd simply marked out a “soccer” pitch complete with the pitcher's mound – which meant whoever was going up and down the right wing had to watch where they were going.”
The Easter Road side remained unbeaten against teams from outwith the British Isles in the short-lived competition but Shankly’s team lost 2-1 to Aberdeen / Washington in their second match.
They went on to record wins against ADO Den Haag / San Francisco, Cagliari / Chicago, Sunderland / Vancouver, and Shamrock Rovers / Boston, but draws against Glentoran / Detroit, Bangu / Houston, Sunderland / Vancouver and Dundee United / Dallas coupled with defeats to Wolves / Los Angeles and Stoke / Cleveland resulted in a third-place finish for the Hibees.
Hibs’ match against Cagliari wasn’t without incident – the Italians, playing under the Chicago Mustangs banner, had seen their previous match against Cerro in New York abandoned in the closing stages when a couple of hundred fans invaded the field of play.
The Sardinians were clearly still aggrieved and took out some of their frustration on the Hibs players. In Ian Thomson’s book, "Summer Of '67: Flower Power, Race Riots, Vietnam and the Greatest Soccer Final Played on American Soil", Peter Cormack recalled: “They were tackling you around the waist. It was brutal. I got hit a couple of times and then I made up my mind that the next one that does that, I'm just going to wallop them."
Cormack was given his marching orders as a result.
Substitute Colin Grant adds: “You were literally running for your life. The police over there were powerless to help – I think there were only two or three at the game. You had no protection."
A decent account
Hibs had taken a strong squad to North America with Scotland caps Stanton, Cormack and Jim Scott joined by Grant, Joe Davis, John Murphy, Jimmy O’Rourke, Eric Stevenson, Pat Quinn, Bobby Duncan and, eventually, Colin Stein among others. Despite the latter suffering a bout of chicken pox and arriving two weeks after his team-mates, Stein still ended up as one of the league’s top scorers, with four goals in eight games. Cormack chipped in with five in 11 as the Capital side finished top scorers in the Eastern Division with 23 goals.
A late unbeaten run had given them an outside hope of winning the Eastern Division title but they finished two points shy of Aberdeen / Washington, who progressed to the USA Championship final against Wolves / Los Angeles, with the English side winning an incredible see-saw showpiece 6-5 after extra time and “sudden death overtime”.
With the score tied at 5-5 after half an hour of extra time, the two teams played on in search of a golden goal winner which came after just two minutes – an own goal via the thigh of Dons’ defender Ally Shewan. Despite 11 goals, three penalty awards, extra time and a golden goal, there were around 4,000 fewer people at the final than attended Hibs’ opener in New York.
What became of the USA?
Despite initial curiosity in the competition, interest waned as the league progressed, with fewer than 700 people turning up for Detroit’s match against Boston, although torrential rain may have played some part in the low turnout.
Hibs ended the campaign with a high home attendance of 15,178; a low of 3,152 and a total attendance figure of 41,538.
Stanton was named in the USA All-Stars team alongside the likes of Aberdeen / Washington goalkeeper Bobby Clark, and Sunderland / Vancouver midfielder Jim Baxter, while Davis and Cormack were named in the Second Team alongside Stoke / Cleveland ‘keeper Gordon Banks.
In December 1967, the USA merged with the NPSL to form the National American Soccer League, and a handful of clubs folded, Toronto City included.
Alan Rothenberg, who was instrumental in bringing the World Cup to America in 1994 and oversaw the establishment of Major League Soccer in 1998, was working as a lawyer for Jack Kent Cooke at the time of the USA season, and told the BBC in 2017: "It was an abbreviated season and crowd turnouts across the board were disappointing.
“After the end of the first season it immediately became clear it had been a financial disaster for [the United Soccer Association and the National Professional Soccer League].
"All the owners who had invested money had been optimistic. But it was a great unknown that they were taking on, and ultimately they proved to be too early in trying to introduce soccer.
"But 1967 provided a kick-start and soccer gained momentum in the 1970s - with the NASL, Pele, the New York Cosmos, and a great explosion in youth football which laid down the roots for future decades."