New England Soccer Today

The Time Johan Cruyff Came to Foxboro


On Thursday, footballing icon Johan Cruyff, a man whose cerebral mastery of the game made him a legend, died following a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 68.

News of the Dutch footballer’s death instantly shook global soccer community, as millions of tweets and social media tributes quickly followed, no doubt a testament to his profound impact on the beautiful game.

“Words can hardly be found for this huge loss,” read a statement released by the Dutch FA on Thursday. “The greatest Dutch footballer of all time and one of the world’s best ever. Our condolences go to his wife, family, friends and the entire football world at home and abroad. We wish everyone a lot of strength in this difficult time.”

While Cruyff, the key component of Holland’s revolutionary “total football” concept during the 1970s, was most closely associated with Ajax and Barcelona at the club level, he also suited up Stateside for the Los Angeles Aztecs in 1979 during the first incarnation of the NASL.

In fact, it was during Cruyff’s brief spell with the Aztecs that afforded local soccer fans the opportunity to watch a legend in action. True, he may not have jammed the turnstiles at every stop along the way like Pele did during his time with the New York Cosmos. But even at age 32, the Dutch international still had plenty to give out on the pitch.

The date was May 30, 1979, and the occasion was a mid-week match between the Aztecs and the New England Tea Men. At the time, Los Angeles entered the contest with a 7-3 record (there were no ties in the NASL) with Cruyff was in the midst of a season in which he’d earn league MVP honors on the back of a 13 goal, 15 assist season.

On a clear evening in Norfolk County with temperatures hovering in the low-60s around the Tea Men’s traditional 8:00 pm kick off for home games, Cruyff and his Aztec teammates stepped onto the unforgiving Astroturf surface at Schaefer Stadium in Foxboro eager to help his team seize win no. 8. The plastic pitch was of little concern, though. At a time in which a number of NASL venues featured plastic pitches, such surfaces were hardly as daunting to international stars then as they are today. In short, there was no talk whatsoever about Cruyff sitting this one out.

Before a sparse crowd of 5,894 on a cool, late-spring Wednesday night, Cruyff, wearing an orange Aztecs strip bearing the no. 14 that surely invoked visions of his Clockwork Oranje days, took his spot in the midfield, ready to steer his side – which also included fellow Dutch international and future Revolution boss Thomas Rongen – to victory. After all, there was no road draw to be attained on this late-May evening.

But after playing the Atlanta Chiefs in at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta only four days before – a game which the Aztecs won 5-2 – the guests entered the match not only on short rest, but three time zones removed from their Rose Bowl home. The Aztecs’ best hope: keep the game scoreless, and pray for the best during the subsequent the 35-yard shootout.

That prospect, though, faded when New England’s Brian Alderson and Artur combined to set up King Keita in front of goal, where the Tea Men striker buried it to put the Aztecs in a hole it couldn’t climb out of, even with Cruyff in tow.

Despite that result, Los Angeles would go on to qualify for the playoffs, but were knocked out in the conference semifinals by eventual champion Vancouver Whitecaps on Aug. 25, 1979. Like the Tea Men three months prior, the Whitecaps somehow found a way to keep Cruyff and the Aztecs off the board.

The Dutch legend subsequently joined the Washington Diplomats in 1980, but an encore in Foxboro never came to pass, thus rendering the small crowd that saw him on that late-May evening nearly four decades ago among the most fortunate of all local soccer fans.

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