When Baltimore Bays resigned their position in the North American Soccer League it left the fledgling professional league in a precarious position. After a 1969 season propped up in part by the wholesale import of overseas teams, commissioner Phil Woosnam now faced the prospect of the league being shorn back to just four teams. Action was required and the Welshman once again had to move to keep NASL alive.
He succeeded in adding two teams to the league’s 1970 line-up, bringing Washington Darts and Rochester Lancers over from the American Soccer League and charging them each a franchise fee in the process. The two new outfits took the league by storm in their first season, transforming Woosnam’s necessary resuscitation into a masterstroke. The Lancers won the championship by beating the Darts in a fiercely contested post-season playoff, benefiting from the odd goal in a 4-3 aggregate epic.
Washington, though, were the true team of the year. Rochester had topped the northern division but Washington’s regular season record in winning the southern division was superior. While the Lancers’ diminutive Brazilian striker Carlos Metidieri cruised to the top of the goalscoring charts it was the Darts’ solidity at the other end that made them favourites going into the championship series.
Although all six teams were bona fide domestic sides the influence of foreign clubs continued to make an impact on their prospects. Coventry City, Hertha Berlin, Hapoel Petah Tikvah and Varzim all toured the United States in 1970 and played games against the six clubs in NASL. It seems strange now but the results in those matches counted as part of the regular season; just as Wolverhampton Wanderers had helped to define the course of the 1969 NASL season, Coventry had their say in 1970.
Noel Cantwell’s Sky Blues came up against one especially notable player in particular during their tour against NASL opposition. Like Cantwell, Lincoln Phillips was a keen and talented cricketer (respected back home in Trinidad as a fast bowler) and a foreign influence on American soccer, which briefly provided Cantwell’s living after Coventry. He was also an exceptional goalkeeper and proved his worth as the Darts dominated NASL in their first season and narrowly missed out on the championship.
Commonly known as ‘Tiger’ because of his distinctive playing strip for his first club, Phillips is regarded by many as the best goalkeeper Trinidad & Tobago ever produced. He was born and grew up in a shack in the St James district of Port-of-Spain and became Trinidad & Tobago’s first choice international goalkeeper for much of the 1960s. He was on the winning side on his debut, a 4-1 win in World Cup qualifying against Suriname, but it was a rare high point. T&T lost each of his six further caps, scoring just once in total. That goal came in a 6-1 defeat as Suriname took their revenge.
A chance encounter with members of the West Indian Students Association at 1967’s Pan-American Games in Winnipeg changed the trajectory of Tiger’s life and career. They inspired him to relocate to the United States, a move that robbed his country of arguably their finest goalkeeper but also allowed him to prove himself on and off the field in a more intense spotlight. Phillips was one of eight Trinidad & Tobago nationals (including Leroy DeLeon, the father of current DC United winger Nick) in the Darts squad in 1970, a roster completed in large part by Scotsmen, Ghanaians and Argentines, but not containing a single American.
Tiger was a fearsome figure between the posts, standing at over six feet tall and known for bellowing at his defenders like some kind of Peter Schmeichel prototype. He was the driving force behind Washington’s twelve regular season clean sheets and conceded on average less than a goal every 90 minutes, the only goalkeeper to do so in NASL in 1970. Tiger was comfortably the most effective goalkeeper in the league and would have been a deserving championship winner, but the one-goal difference against the Lancers was enough to take away his best chance at winning a medal.
This being NASL, though, his regular season performance did earn him the honour of playing for the league’s All-Star team against Santos of Brazil, a fixture in which Phillips faced a future NASL icon. Pele’s impact in Santos’ 4-3 win at Chicago’s Soldier Field was crucial and not easily forgotten by Woosnam and Neshui Ertegun, the high-ranking Atlantic Records executive with whom Woosnam became friends in 1970. Ertegun launched New York Cosmos the following year in partnership with his brother, Ahmet, and Warner Communications president Steve Ross. The trio never lost sight of their desire to bring Pele to New York.
Santos also played tour matches in the NASL post-season in 1970, facing the Boston Astros twice and also playing against Milan. As well as beating the All-Stars, Pele and Santos dominated the Darts in a friendly match, winning 7-4 thanks to four goals scored by the man who soon made NASL his home.
Tiger Phillips, meanwhile, was beginning to shift his attention to coaching. He began coaching at Washington and has continued since, and his dedication to all areas of his profession is remarkable: his coaching career has taken in specialist goalkeeper coaching and general coaching both in the United States and his native Trinidad & Tobago, where he was the national team’s technical director between 2005 and 2012, a period notable for the Soca Warriors’ only World Cup finals appearance.
In the US his employment has primarily been in the collegiate sector, including a not uncontroversial spell with Howard University in the 1970s and his more recent appointment to the backroom staff of the Loyola University Maryland women’s team in June 2012. The high water mark was his stint as a goalkeeper coach for the United States Men’s National Team, with whom he worked under Bora Milutinovic between 1992 and 1994, another historical World Cup year for his employers.
The Darts might not have fulfilled their ability in 1970 but Washington, DC found a soccer legend. Phillips has been recognised for his dedication to the betterment of the sport by inductions into the Virginia-DC Soccer Hall of Fame and the Trinidad & Tobago Sports Hall of Fame. The team played just one more season in NASL before moving to Miami to become the Gatos in 1972. The franchise later became one of American soccer’s most famous teams, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and later still Minnesota Strikers.
For the league as a whole 1970 proved the last of the troublesome early years. 1971 brought not only the Cosmos but the chance to take the NASL offices to New York City. With Ross and the Erteguns onside growth seemed inevitable, and the league eased its way to the mid-1970s and the eventual signing of Pele. By deftly negotiating the tricky waters of 1968, 1969 and 1970, Woosnam had secured not only its short-term future but also, by paving the way for the Cosmos to bring in Pele, its eternal mystique.
By Chris Nee
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona