By Michael Lewis
No championship team caused more controversy and problems in the original incarnation of the North American Soccer League than the Toronto Metros-Croatia.
That's right, they were named the Metros-Croatia.
That nickname -- the club used it from 1975 to 1978 -- caused headaches for the league when the Metros-Croatia captured their first and only NASL title in 1976.
Despite that success, they were known as the league's black sheep. The NASL had no problems with the Croatian ownership, but it did not like a club identifying with one ethnic group.
In 1976, at least one team member had his salary paid at a meeting held in a church basement. The team had a running feud with the league over its nickname and it went through five coaches within a 13-month period.
Various officials around the league -- team and the NASL office -- felt the Metros did not have much of a marketing and public relations plan. One official noted that when the team defeated the Minnesota Kicks on national TV for the league title, many of the team's players could not speak English and several had names that were difficult to pronounce.
This was an image the league had hoped to have buried.
But the Metros-Croatia were defiant.
They also were quite talented.
Sparked by the likes of Portuguese legend Eusebio (16 goals in 21 matches), Italian goalkeeper Paulo Cimpiel and and Brazilian forward Ivair Ferreira (four playoff goals), and nine Yugoslavian players with Croatian backgrounds, the Metros-Croatia was a difficult side to defeat in the summer of '76.
Their playoff run was one of the most remarkable in league history after finishing in second place in the Northern Division with a 15-9 record and 123 points.
They started their magical journey to the championship on Aug. 18 with a 2-1 win over the archrival Rochester Lancers. Defensive midfielder Gene Strenicer, who had not scored during the regular season, tallied a controversial goal with only second remaining in regulation, earning him nickname of "89:59 Strenicer," from frustrated Rochester fans.
Two days later, Ferreira, who scored only six regular-season goals, struck twice as an own goal helped boost Toronto over the host Chicago Sting, 3-2. The Metros-Croatia then dispatched the defending champion Tampa Bay Rowdies, 2-0, on Aug. 24 as Eusebio and Ted Polak found the back of the net.
That set up a Soccer Bowl confrontation with the Western Division champion Kicks in Seattle. League officials were hoping for the Kicks to win, but the Metros-Croatia recorded a stunning 3-0 triumph on Aug. 28 as Eusebio, Ferreira and Ivan Lukacevic scored.
But not everything was fine in Metros-Croatialand as general manager George Simcich admitted that he hated the "black sheep" tag.
"We're the underdogs no matter where we've been," Simcich said in 1977. "We've been pushed around by the rest of the league and press.
"They called us winning the championship [in 1976] something incredible. What's so incredible? So what if we don't have the marketing a New York, Tampa or Minnesota has. That has nothing to do with the game on the field. They have the money. We have the team."
But getting there, especially off the field, certainly had its unique moments in North American sports history as the Metros-Croatia used some rather unconventional methods to operate a championship team.
With the club deep in debt in 1976, after one Sunday service at the Our Lady Queen of Croatia church, several members of the congregation met in the basement to take up a collection. The goal was to pay the salary of Filip Blaskovic, a superb central defender from Croatia, which at that time was a region in Yugoslavia. Hundreds of Metros-Croatia shareholders belonged to the church, which was the focal point of social activities in the community.
According to one witness, "It's like a social club. They take up a collection and you see dollars and checks all over the place. By the time they were finished, they had raised $10,000 for Blaskovic.
"What they [did] is common is common knowledge in Toronto. When you need financial attention, you know they're [Croatians] there. It's not a very professional way of running things, but it did the job."
The church had no problem with that set-up.
"Our members directly support the team," Father Gjuran of the church said in 1977. "The church doesn't give directly. But I'm a soccer fan because of it."
In 1975, the Metros-Croatia paid players Mariam Bradvic and Lukacevic the same way, the witness said.
Despite having five coaches, the team managed to prevail as NASL champions.
Midway through the 1976 season, the Metro-Croatia fired Ivan Markovic allegedly for not communicating with his players. Assistant coach Marijan Bilic and Domogot Kapetanovic were named co-coaches and directed the team to the title.
Kapetanovic, however, had commitments in Yugoslavia and could not return for 1977. Bilic was satisfied with being an assistant, so the Metros-Croatia picked Branko Vidkjak. But he didn't impress the owners, who finally settled on Ivan Sangulin.
"I definitely think the coaching changes have had no effect on the team," Simcich said.
Simcich felt the league's failure to recognize the team as the Metros-Croatia instead of the Metros, cost the club $200,000 in potential investments from the Croatian community, a decent sum of money in those days.
"I personally feel it's an injustice made on the owners of the team," Simcich said then. "They approved the name two years ago , so why not keep it? There wouldn't be a franchise in Toronto if it wasn't for the Croatian community."
Financial problems forced the Croatian owners to sell the club to new owners, who renamed it the Toronto Blizzard in 1979.
The Blizzard had some interesting times itself, reaching Soccer Bowl in 1983 and 1984, but the club never quite reached the heights of its predecessors.
Michael Lewis, who has covered World Cup qualifying since 1985 and every World Cup since 1986, is the editor of www.bigapplesoccer.com