1966 is when it all began. England hosted the FIFA World Cup that year, putting soccer on the world stage for all to see. One of the millions enamored by the beautiful game that year was Dick Cecil, who at the time was the Vice President of the Atlanta Braves.
After the World Cup, Cecil was determined to bring professional soccer to his home city of Atlanta. Lucky for him and the rest of the city’s soccer fans, the opportunity that he had been clamoring for came with the emergence of the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL), which was looking for teams at the time.
On August 9, 1966, Atlanta became home to one of the league’s new teams, calling themselves the Chiefs. Cecil knew that getting a brand new team off the ground was going to be difficult, so he enlisted the help of Phil Woosnam, a Welsh international who had spent over 14 years as a player in England’s highest ranks. In his first season as the Chiefs’ player coach, Woosnam led the club to a 10-9-12 record and tallied nine goals.
After just one season, the NPSL merged with the United Soccer Association to form the North American Soccer League (NASL). Cecil and Woosnam, ready to improve on his first season in charge, brought in the likes of Vic Crowe and Peter McParland, longtime greats at Aston Villa FC in England. They also brought in Kaizer Motaung, a young South African striker, to supplement their veterans.
Crowe, McParland, and Motaung went on to help the team earn 16 wins in 1968, and most importantly the first ever NASL championship. Motaung tallied 16 goals and four assists that year, taking home NASL Rookie of the Year honors, while Woosnam was named NASL Coach of the Year. 10 teams folded from the league following the 1968 season, but with their exciting group of players and their historic run to the championship, the Chiefs were in Atlanta to stay.
The 1968 team wasn’t just good on the field – they would go on to have a major impact on the sport of soccer in the United States and overseas as well. Woosnam was named NASL Commissioner and head coach of the United States Men’s National Team in 1968. Woosnam, who held his role as commissioner until 1982, played a major part in bringing the NASL some of its brightest days. Legendary players like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, and Giorgio Chinaglia came to the league under Woosnam’s watch, bringing international notoriety to the game in the U.S.
Motaung finished his Chiefs career in 1971, and returned to his home country of South Africa to start a pro team of his own. Motaung named his team the Kaizer Chiefs, a mix of his first name and his former team in Atlanta, and also adopted the Chiefs logo. 42 years later, the Kaizer Chiefs are the most well-known club in South African soccer with over 78 trophies and millions of fans all over the continent.
After retiring in 1969, Crowe was named the manager at his old club, Aston Villa. After four season at Villa Park, Crowe took the head coaching position of the Portland Timbers. In his first season in Portland, Crowe led the team to the championship game that they eventually lost to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. While they didn’t win the championship, Crowe’s Timbers had crowds of over 30,000 attending their matches. These numbers were unheard of at the time and laid a foundation for the success of soccer in the Pacific Northwest, which is seen today most notably with Seattle Sounders FC.
The Chiefs would go on to play in the NASL until 1972 before being sold to the Atlanta Hawks and rebranded as the Atlanta Apollos in 1973. Cecil and Ted Turner bought the team and brought the Chiefs back in 1979. The Chiefs competed in both outdoor and indoor professional leagues until 1981 when they ultimately dissolved for the final time.
Though the Chiefs didn’t achieve significant accolades after 1968, the club still produced good players that would go on to impact soccer after their playing days were done, most notably Brian Kidd. In 1981, the Chiefs signed English great Brian Kidd on a season-long loan. Kidd had been playing in England since 1967 for Manchester United (203 appearances and 53 goals), Arsenal (77 appearances and 30 goals) and Manchester City (98 appearances and 44 goals). In his lone season with the Chiefs, Kidd scored an impressive 22 goals in 27 matches, leading the team to a 17-15 record. The record was good for first in the NASL Southern Division, allowing the club to bow out on a high note.
Kidd ended his playing career soon after in 1984 to pursue a successful career in coaching. He has been an assistant for many English clubs, most notably at Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson. Kidd is currently the assistant coach under Reberto Mancini at Manchester City, the winners of last year’s Barclays English Premier League.
Professional outdoor soccer officially returned to Atlanta in 1995 with the Ruckus, who in 1998 became the Silverbacks. Just as the Chiefs did years ago, the Silverbacks now compete in the NASL, although it’s a new form of the once-famous league.
Although not talked about with much frequency these days, the Chiefs were a groundbreaking force in Atlanta soccer. When looked at closely, it’s easy to see how much of an impact those who spent time with the Chiefs have had on the game – not just in the United States, but internationally as well.