Tuesday, February 11, 2014

From Amateur to MVP: Janusz Kowalik and the Chicago Mustangs

In the fall of 1968, the NASL flirted with extinction after its inaugural season. The league, after a merger between the USA and the NPSL, failed to capture the attention of the American sports fan as the owners had planned. Clubs drew less than 5,000 fans a game collectively, which ultimately led to twelve of the NASL’s seventeen teams to abandon the league all together. In the midst of this turbulent atmosphere, Janusz Kowalik, along with Pepe Fernandez, netted a league record thirty goals during the 1968 season. The record stood for a decade until Giorgio Chinaglia scored thirty-four goals during the 1978 NASL season. Due to the league’s popularity at the time of Chinaglia’s feat, the press covered the Italian’s exploits extensively and his place within the league’s history is unquestionable. Yet Janusz Kowalik is little more than a footnote in the league’s history due to the leagues near insolvency in 1968. Kowalik, like many of the NASL’s early players, remains a relative unknown, but his path from amateur to NASL MVP is truly remarkable.

The Youngest to Ever Play

Janusz Kowalik had been a professional footballer for seven years by the time he signed with the Chicago Mustangs in 1967. In 1960, he became the youngest player to play in the Polish top flight when he suited up for K.S. Cracovia at the age of sixteen. Janusz had been involved with the Polish team throughout his childhood, as his father was one of the club’s youth coaches giving Jan immediate access to the club. In addition to his achievements with the Cracovia first team, Kowalik featured in the Polish Under-18 team that ultimately lost the UEFA Under-18 championship to Portugal in 1961.

Courtesy of Cracovia
All told, Janusz spent six years playing for Cracovia, though his service for the club was not continuous. Due to the Poland Communist government’s heavy affiliation with the sporting clubs throughout the country, the government deemed all of the players in Poland amateurs, meaning the pay was far less than professionals in the West. This proved somewhat problematic to the young Kowalik. In October of 1962, due to his growing status within the locker room, Kowalik vented his team’s frustrations at their meager pay. Consequently, Cracovia’s management banned Kowalik for two years accusing him of trying to blackmail the club out of money. In the end, Kowalik ended up serving a nine-month suspension, before eventually returning to the first team. Ultimately, his dissatisfaction with the professional atmosphere in Poland led 
Kowalik to make drastic changes.

Kowalik’s pedigree and penchant for goal eventually earned him a spot on the Polish National Team. He made his international debut against Belgium in 1965, and earned six caps from 1965-66. He failed to score a goal in his six appearances, but he came close hitting the post in the dying minutes of a 1-1 draw with England at Goodison Park in 1966. 

Since the time of his nine-month suspension, Kowalik had been looking for a way out of the country to play abroad, despite his growing profile within Poland. After six years with Cracovia, Kowalik played his last game with the club against LKS Lodz on November 27, 1966. At the time, only Kowalik knew that he would never play within Poland again. Following the end of the season, Kowalik officially left Poland for an offseason vacation. His true intentions were more elaborate.

Kowalik’s vacation was a planned exodus from the country. From the time he planned his “vacation,” Jan intended to play outside of Poland. At the time the Communist regime within Poland and the Polish Football Association (PZPN), the governing body of Polish soccer, did not allow players to transfer out of the country until after their thirtieth birthday. Kowalik’s escape provided a way around that rule. Because of his father’s connections within the Polish military, Kowalik was able to obtain a passport and legally left the country on holiday at the age of twenty-three. By the time he reached Belgium, en route to the United States, officials within the Polish government became aware of his plan but were unable to stop him.

Chicago Eagles

Once in America, Janusz naturally made his way to Chicago, which had—and still has—the largest concentrated Polish population outside of Warsaw. Jan had family in the city and settled in with his cousin Leon. Upon establishing himself in Chicago, Kowalik quickly found a club. The Pole arrived in the U.S. while the interest in professional soccer was in its nascent stages. Two professional leagues debuted in the spring of 1967; the FIFA sanctioned United Soccer Association (USA), which imported clubs from around the world to compete, and the CBS televised National Professional Soccer League (NPSL). Despite his talent, Kowalik did not sign with either league upon his arrival in the U.S.  Due to his clandestine departure from Poland and the ongoing formations of the new professional leagues, Kowalik could not legally sign with another professional team without the authorization of Cracovia and the PZPN.

Therefore, Janusz took the road less traveled and signed with an amateur side, the Chicago Eagles (AAC Eagles), a historic Polish club in Chicago’s National Soccer League (NSL). The NSL was one of the premier amateur leagues in the United States upon his arrival. The Eagles also happened to be one of the most potent teams in the league during that period. 

Once he signed, Kowalik exhibited his ability at once. He and fellow Poles Hubert Miller and Walter Kaszubski made their Eagles debut during the NSL’s indoor season. The Poles showed no apprehension and took the indoor game naturally. In the end, the Polish trio displayed their class in a 3-1 win against the Ukrainian Lions in early February 1967. Kowalik served as the club’s playmaker while Miller booted in two goals in the trio’s debut. Eventually, the Poles led the Eagles to the NSL’s 1967 indoor championship in March. By the time the NSL opened its outdoor season, Kowalik was a known quantity within Chicago’s soccer circles and his talent began to draw considerable interest from the newly formed professional leagues.

By May 1967, the two newly formed soccer leagues were in direct competition for players to fill their club rosters. Initially, the FIFA sanctioned USA intended to begin play in the spring of 1968, but the renegade NPSL insisted on starting in 1967 forcing the USA to abandon its plans. In order to get a jump on the NPSL, the USA resorted to importing teams from around the world to compete in its inaugural season, while the NSPL acquired semi-pro and amateur talent from around the U.S. as well as foreign players. The owners of the USA planned to import teams during its first season in order to legitimize its league and attract fans, knowing that they would eventually build rosters by signing individual players and draw their talent from the existing talent pool in the U.S. In the end, Chicago ended up with two professional clubs; the NPSL’s Chicago Spurs, and the USA’s Chicago Mustangs, represented by the Italian club Cagliari Calcio. The creation of two professional teams in Chicago gave the best players in the NSL an opportunity to turn pro. Chicago Mustangs and Chicago White Sox owner, Arthur Allyn Jr. readily identified the talent in the city’s amateur league and set about signing many of the NSL’s players in preparation for the USA’s 1968 campaign. Kowalik was one of their main targets and one of the club’s first signings.

As with any transfer or signing, clubs have to address several legalities before acquiring a player. Kowalik’s situation made his signing with the Chicago Mustangs all the more unique and challenging. As the Eagles did not hold Kowalik’s rights, the Mustangs Frank Meder had to negotiate directly with the club that Kowalik abandoned just months earlier, Cracovia. In addition to Cracovia, Meder and the Mustangs had to negotiate with both the PZPN and the Polish government for Kowalik’s services. Negotiations between the parties lasted weeks. Officially, the Mustangs paid around $20,000-$22,000 for Kowalik, but as was customary when purchasing players from countries within the Soviet Bloc, Cracovia, the PZPN, and the Polish government all received substantial amounts of money under the table on top of Kowalik’s official transfer fee. In addition to the extra fee the Mustangs paid for Kowalik, the Polish triumvirate forbade any stories about Kowalik’s move for several years, lest other players follow his example.

Spring Training

Courtesy of www.nasljerseys.com
In addition to Kowalik, the Mustangs plucked three other players from Chicago’s National Soccer League in May 1967. Besides the Pole, the professional club was able to pry Edward Murphy, Tomas Fotiatis, and Fotis Dakouvanos from the amateur league. The Mustangs were also able to sign former Ajax midfielder Werner Schaaphok and Norwegian goalkeeper Ray Olsen at the same time. 

While Meder was signing Kowalik, Caligari Calcio, disguised as the Chicago Mustangs, kicked off the USA season on May 28 1967. The Mustangs never intended Kowalik and the others to take part in the 1967 season, as Cagliari were already competing as the Chicago Mustangs, but signed the four players for the following season. Consequently, the quartet was part of a group of around forty players that the Mustangs shipped to Sarasota, Florida to train under former U.S. National team coach George Meyer during the summer. In essence, there were two different Chicago Mustangs teams during the summer of 1967; the team that was  taking part in the USA season, Cagliari, and the group led by Kowalik, who were unheralded members of the club and technically part of the following season’s team.

Sarasota was the spring training home of Allyn’s Chicago White Sox and, due to the owner’s stature in South Florida, the city became the home of the Mustangs in June 1967. While Caligari was representing Chicago, Kowalik, and a group of professional hopefuls, got to work. 

Of about forty players, only a handful of players were under contract for the 1968 season. The rest of the group was on training contracts for the summer. Upon arrival, the club convinced local residents to form a caravan to transport the players from the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport to the Sarasota Motor Hotel, the player’s home for the duration of the camp. The idea to house and train players in Sarasota was Arthur Allyn’s intention as soon as the USA formed. The fact that he had to import a team to compete in the league during its first season did not change his plans, and Kowalik was the embodiment of his original idea of capturing the best talent available in the U.S.

While the Italians competed as the Mustangs in the USA, Meyer trained the future Mustangs at a peewee football field in Sarasota until a soccer complex financed by Allyn was completed. The initial camp lasted two months, from the beginning of June until the end of July. The purpose of the camp was to identify players that could represent Chicago professionally before the team returned to Florida for its preseason camp in January 1968. Judging from the press covering the Mustangs, soccer was an alien sport to the audience of Sarasota Journal. Despite the foreign nature of soccer to Sarasotans, Kowalik stood out amongst the Mustangs within a week. The Pole’s ability to score goals was unquestionable, and he quickly earned the praise of the local press. By the end of June the Sarasota Journal deemed Kowalik soccer’s Joe DiMaggio. The press continually highlighted his exploits for the duration of the camp. The climax of the Mustangs first training camp was a series of games against the 1968 U.S. Olympic Team, captained by future Mustang—and U.S. National team coach—Bob Gansler. Other than the Olympic scrimmage, the camp proved to be of little consequence to Kowalik’s place within the team, but signaled how important he would be to the club moving forward.

By the end of the camp, Kowalik and several of Chicago’s other signings were the only Mustang team remaining. Cagliari finished the USA campaign with a record of three wins, seven draws, and two losses and returned to Italy following the short season. Despite their unimpressive record, Cagliari fielded the league’s leading scorer Roberto Boninsegna, who finished the season with ten goals.

Predictably, both the USA’s and NPSL’s seasons proved to be extremely underwhelming. The leagues owners overestimated the pull the sport would have in the U.S. The lackluster gate receipts and abysmal attendance figures eventually led to a merger between the two leagues in December. The newly formed league took the original name of the USA, and became the North American Soccer League (NASL). Seventeen of the two leagues twenty-two teams signed on for the 1968 season. Of the two Chicago franchises, the owners chose the Mustangs to represent the Windy City, while the NPSL’s Spurs relocated to Kansas City. Much of the wrangling between the two leagues proved irrelevant to Kowalik and the Mustangs, as they continued to train throughout the calendar year. The group even played a series of games in Chile, where they won over Chilean fans with their professional level of play. Allyn used the Mustangs performance in South America to tout not only his team’s abilities, but also to highlight the success of the summer training camp. The team’s embarrassing 8-1 loss to Slavia Prague in Chicago in late November did not figure into Allyn’s praise. Kowalik again proved his worth in the club’s horrid showing scoring the lone goal for the Mustangs.  

In January 1968, Kowalik and the Mustangs returned to Sarasota to prepare for the first NASL season. The local press celebrated the club’s arrival and continued to trumpet Kowalik’s obvious talent. The club intended to stay in Florida as long as they could find competitive games, which proved a questionable endeavor. During the course of January, Kowalik and the club played local teams, which proved immensely inferior to the professional Mustangs. In their first training match, the Mustangs annihilated New College, a local university, 17-2. Kowalik netted six goals in the contest. Subsequently, the Mustangs rolled through several other teams, including a side made up of circus performers and a Mexican-American All-Star team comprised of migrant workers attending the season’s crops. The only real competition that the Mustangs faced during their preseason training camp was a four-game series against the NASL’s Houston Stars franchise. The Stars proved a worthy opponent and won three of the four contests. In the end, the Mustangs remained in Florida until the end of February. The two-month training camp served as a tune-up for the club’s legitimate preseason games against European competition.

Courtesy of http://www.wisoccer.org
While several of the other NASL teams were playing preseason games against Caribbean teams, Owner Allyn and Coach Meyer wanted to test their group prior to the club’s NASL opener on April 14, 1968. The Mustangs embarked on a nine-game tour of Europe during the month of March, scheduling games against the likes of Athletic Bilbao and Red Star Belgrade. In their first game against Austrian side FC Wacker, the Mustangs fell 5-2.  Kowalik netted both of Chicago’s goals, once again proving his troublesome transfer was well worth it. The Mustangs then lost 4-0 to Red Star Belgrade and 1-0 to FK Sloboda in their next two games. Chicago wrapped up their preseason exhibitions with an 8-0 beating at the hands of Atletico Bilbao. Out of ten games, the Mustangs won once, tied once, and lost eight times. On the face of it, the tour was a disastrous undertaking, but the games provided an unseen benefit. While most of the league were warming up against inferior teams, the Mustangs, though losing handily in some games, competed against legitimate competition. Kowalik and the Mustangs quickly forgot the embarrassing results and turned their attention to the first NASL season. The season would prove fruitful for Kowalik as the Pole continued his fine form and banged in a record number of goals.

The Blond Bullet

After nearly a year of training, the Chicago Mustangs kicked off their thirty-two game 1968 NASL season on April 12, 1968 against division rivals the Cleveland Stokers at Comiskey Park. In a stadium that could hold over 46,000 people, just 1,395 fans showed up to see the new more American Mustangs. Kowalik was absent from the lineup, nursing an ankle injury he sustained during the club’s European tour. Without the Pole, the Mustangs lacked a genuine goal-scoring threat and failed to outscore their opponents, dropping their season opener 2-1.  The Mustangs also lost their second game 5-2 to the Kansas City Spurs while Kowalik recovered. The club and fans alike had until the Mustangs third game to witness the Pole’s ability firsthand. Once he broke into the lineup, Kowalik proved his preseason goal-scoring prowess was no fluke.

Courtesy of www.nasljerseys.com
Fully healed, Kowalik made his second professional debut against the Atlanta Chiefs twelve days after the season opener on April 24. On a cold spring night in front of just 336 fans, Kowalik led the Mustangs to a 4-1 win netting two goals in the process. With the low attendance, Kowalik may have felt he was back training in Florida, only this time the goals counted. In his second NASL appearance, Kowalik scored another two goals in a 3-3 controversial draw against the Boston Beacons. The Mustangs protested the result claiming that Boston fielded two ineligible players including the scorer of the game-tying goal, Tony Gulin. The protests proved futile, though as Kowalik’s four goals in two games garnered significant attention from the Chicago press.

The Pole quickly became the face of the franchise, earning the nickname the Blond Bullet in the process. Just a week after the Boston game, Chicago’s African-American newspaper, The Chicago Daily Defender even did a profile on the Pole. The paper mentioned Kowalik’s name alongside the city’s leading athletes of the day including the legendary Bears running back Gale Sayers and one of the most celebrated Cubs of all-time, Ernie Banks. The Defender proclaimed that Kowalik as the man who was going to make professional soccer a popular sport in the Windy City.

Kowalik proved worthy of the admiration. After dropping their first two games without Kowalik, the Mustangs went on a sixteen game unbeaten streak with the Pole in the lineup. Following the draw with Boston, Chicago tied Vancouver 1-1, though Kowalik failed to score. However, he proved a lifesaver in Chicago’s next game netting the game-tying goal in the dying seconds of a 1-1 draw against the St. Louis Stars. Jan followed up his game-tying heroics the following game with an incredible four-goal performance in a 6-1 victory over the Dallas Tornado on May 17. Kowalik continued to rack up goals as the Mustangs extended their unbeaten streak into the summer. His only challenge throughout the season for the league’s scoring crown came from the San Diego Toros forward Cirillo “Pepe” Fernandez, who would nearly match Kowalik goal for goal and assist for assist by the end of the season. By the beginning of July, Kowalik was on his way to being named to the NASL All-Star team and the Mustangs were the hottest team in the league, though their status among the league’s elite soon changed.

The New York Generals, fresh off an exhibition win over Pele and the Santos eleven, handed the Mustangs their first loss since the Chicago club’s second game of the season, sans Kowalik. The loss proved to be the first in a series of losses for the Mustangs. For all of Kowalik’s goals and the club’s unbeaten streak, Chicago dropped its next four games jeopardizing the club’s chances for a spot in the NASL playoffs. Within this series of losses, the Mustangs played perhaps the most interesting game of the season on July 19, when Chicago faced the formidable Gornik Zabrze of Poland at Hanson Field. It was Kowalik’s first game against Polish competition since his defection. One can only imagine the conversations between the Miners players and Kowalik while they were on the field. Jan, no matter who the opponent, continued to score at will, netting both of Chicago’s goals as the Mustangs fell to Gornik 3-2.

Courtesy of www.nasljerseys.com
Despite the club’s hot start and its lengthy unbeaten streak, Chicago’s losing streak proved too much for the Mustangs to overcome. Chicago’s fourth consecutive loss came at the hands of Cleveland as the two teams entered the game tied for the division lead. The Stokers defeated the Mustangs 4-1 on July 30, taking sole possession of the Lakes Division lead. Kowalik again provided Chicago’s only goal, but left the game with a possible concussion. This injury resulted in the Pole missing the next game. Though the Mustangs were quickly falling out of playoff contention, Kowalik still led the league in points scored. The NASL counted each goal as two points, and rewarded one point for each assist. At the time of his injury, Kowalik led the league in points with a score of fifty-five points netting twenty-five goals and dishing out five assists. Pepe Fernandez trailed Kowalik with twenty-two goals and three assists, giving the Toros forward forty-seven points. The rest of the season proved an uphill battle for the Mustangs as the club unsuccessfully chased Cleveland for the division title and a spot in the NASL playoffs loss.

The loss against Cleveland proved to be the last chance that the Mustangs had at winning their division. Following the loss, the Mustangs never seemed to find their early season form and alternated between winning and losing the rest of its games, never threatening the Stokers position atop the Lakes Division. Ironically, Kowalik’s thirtieth and final goal came in a 2-1 loss to Cleveland on September 4, 1968 that mathematically eliminated the Mustangs from the playoffs and all but sounded the death knell for the Mustangs franchise. Chicago’s final game against the Detroit proved to be the last the Mustangs would play as the team, as well as the league, struggled to attract fans all season.

The highlight of the season, of course, was Kowalik. Despite the club failing to make the playoffs, Kowalik won the league scoring title and captured the league’s first MVP award, earning a new Volkswagen in the process (unfortunately the model of the car was not specified). Kowalik finished the season with thirty goals and nine assists giving the Pole sixty-nine total points. Fernandez, competing with Kowalik for the title throughout the season, finished second in points with sixty-seven points with thirty goals and seven assists. The thirty goals by both players set a league record that lasted for a decade, as the league nearly collapsed following the 1968 season.
Sparta Rotterdam 1970-71
Courtesy of http://thevintagefootballclub.blogspot.com
Due to the league’s abysmal attendance figures, many of the club owners bled money throughout the season. The NASL failed to attract enough fans for the owners to break even, and one by one the clubs began to abandon the league. By the end of 1968, twelve of the seventeen teams ceased to exist, while the Chicago Mustangs decided to join Chicago’s amateur National Soccer League. Kowalik, coming off of his superb season, was forced to play elsewhere. He eventually signed with the Oakland Clippers, joining Pepe Fernandez. Following the 1968 season, the club changed their name to the California Clippers and declined to partake in the 1969 NASL season. Instead, the Clippers decided to play only international exhibitions hosting the likes of Dynamo Kiev, Fiorentina, and West Bromich Albion, among others. The Clippers international experiment lasted a few months before the club folded in the summer of 1969, leaving Kowalik without a club once again. This time Kowalik was a free agent and was free to sign with any club without approval from Polish entities. From California, Kowalik signed with Sparta Rotterdam of the Netherlands. The Pole spent several seasons in the Eridivisie— the Dutch First Division—competing against Johann Cruyff for the league’s golden boot, though he had not played his last game in the NASL.

Kowalik returned to the U.S. and the NASL in the summer of 1976. He signed with the Chicago Sting and had a decent season scoring nine goals. Kowalik also played alongside Pele for Team America during the Bicentennial Cup, which was an international series to celebrate America’s bicentennial. Team America lost each of its games against the national teams of Italy, Brazil, and England. Following the end of the NASL season Kowalik returned to Holland only to return for one last campaign with the Sting a year later. 

Though he went on to have a very successful career in the Netherlands—and eventually returned to the NASL— none of Kowalik’s NASL accomplishments ever compared to his record setting 1968 season. Although most soccer fans acknowledge Kowalik for scoring a league record thirty goals and capturing the first NASL MVP, it is his journey from the fields of Krakow to his eventual NASL debut that makes his story all the more impressive.

Kowalik and Team America, 1976
Courtesy of www.nasljerseys.com
I relied on numerous primary and secondary sources to write this article. As always I consulted numerous articles from The Baltimore Sun, The Chicago Defender, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Tmes, The Sarasota Journal, and The Washington Post. In addition to newspapers, I referenced the American Soccer History Archivesa wonderful interview with Kowalik in Dziennik Polskiwww.footballdatabase.euhttp://www.rsssf.com/http://www.aaceagles.org/,  and Vadim Furmanov's incredible piece on the 1967 Mustangs. Many thanks to all who helped me throughout the process, including Vadim. You can give his blog a follow here, and follow him on twitter here.

1 comment:

  1. Frank Meder was my dad. I remember when he went ot Poland and was delayed there during the negotiations. There was considerable concern at our house, as dad was a Hungarian that fled the communists after the war. Telephone communications being what they were in the '60's, we were worried that the Soviet bloc had "repatriated" him. - Bob Meder