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Monday, March 13, 2017

The Extraordinary Story of the Cincinnati Comets


Having once been a soccer detractor, I came around as a fan in 2011. In 2012, I wrote a piece speculating on whether or not Cincinnati could support a Major League Soccer franchise. In 2015, I was an early adopter of FC Cincinnati; I bought season tickets and helped establish a supporters group. Since FCC’s incredibly successful first season, a lot has been written about their ambitions to jump from the lower divisions and join MLS. I’m content to support them at any level; however, I do believe that joining the nation’s top league is not only a good thing but also something achievable. Monitoring MLS expansion and lower division American soccer over the past few years has been fascinating. It got me thinking about past Cincinnati teams, where those teams went, and why they didn’t make it. In this website’s From the Archives series, I wrote about an abandoned stadium that also told the tale of one former club. That lead me to others—particularly the Cincinnati Comets, a franchise long lost to the dustbin of history. All that remains of the Comets' story is a small Wikipedia page, a few online factoids, and articles in newspaper archives. I think the team's story is one worth telling—one that should be remembered alongside the story of American soccer’s evolution, of Cincinnati’s departed NBA team, and of the city's missed chance at an NHL team.



The Extraordinary Story of the Cincinnati Comets

- A Cincinnati Comets souvenir program. Courtesy of the Dennis Hasty Collection.

Prologue:

I’m a sucker for ESPN’s documentaries. No matter the topic, these films drag me in. They’re not solely about sports; they also do a fairly great job of capturing moments in history. A particular favorite is “Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos,” which covers not only the rise and fall of one of America’s most well-known soccer teams but also the history of the once prominent, original North American Soccer League. I'm not from New York, and I wasn't born until five years after the first iteration of the Cosmos played their final game, but I still find the story captivating. The team rocketed from relative obscurity and a revolving door of venues to packing 77,000+ into Giants Stadium while international stars such as Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, and Giorgio Chinaglia played alongside American characters like Shep Messing. The Cosmos' story ends with aging and departing stars, an attempted hostile takeover at the corporate level, and rising expenses that would also force the entire league to close up shop in 1985. 

For a good while, though, soccer had found mainstream success on network TV, and it was competing for the attention of sports fans along with the more established athletic leagues of MLB and NFL. The type of soccer infatuation experienced by the NASL would not be seen again until Major League Soccer matured into what it is today. Even so, as MLS continues to grow and seek out better television deals, its comparison to those bygone days of the Cosmos and the NASL is debatable. 

When I look into and read about these sports stories of the past, I always like to think about where my hometown of Cincinnati fits into all of it. I wonder why Cincinnati didn’t try to get in on the action as the Cosmos were making headlines and as soccer was gaining notoriety. I’ve always enjoyed the histories of the Bengals and Reds, and I’m fascinated by the stories of the Cincinnati Royals, our NBA team that left town, and by the Cincinnati Stingers, the World Hockey Association team that was this close to joining the NHL. So where was our soccer team? 


These days, FC Cincinnati is enjoying record crowds and season ticket numbers rivaling teams in the top league they’re attempting to join. Among all the headlines in their inaugural 2016 season was the hosting of English club Crystal Palace. Hailing from the top European league, the English side came across the pond to play the upstart local division 3 outfit in a friendly. A sold-out crowd of 35,000+ packed into the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium for the historic match. A Cincinnati Enquirer article from June 2016 referred to the match as “the first of its kind for the Greater Cincinnati area.”

Except it wasn’t.

- Nippert Stadium packed with 35,000+ fans to watch FC Cincinnati take on Crystal Palace of the English Premier League on July 16, 2016. QC/D photograph.

In fact, FC Cincinnati wasn’t even the first association football club to call Nippert Stadium home. That distinction belongs to the Cincinnati Comets. As far as friendlies go, even the Comets weren’t the first to host a visiting international squad. Rather, an amateur Cincinnati team took on “The Pilgrims” of England (assumed to be Plymouth Argyle F.C.) during their American tour in 1909

By the early 1970s, as the North American Soccer League was finding its way into the hearts and minds of American sports fans, Cincinnati was actually attempting to get in on the action. Brandishing a space-themed name similar to the Cosmos of New York, the Cincinnati Comets were hoping to ride the wave of association football popularity taking over the country. 

- The roster of the Comets for a June 30, 1972, matchup against the St. Louis Frogs in St. Louis. Courtesy of the Dennis Hasty Collection

1972: Here Come the Comets

Allow me to paint for you the Queen City sports picture of spring 1972: The Cincinnati Royals—formerly the Rochester Royals—of the NBA were finishing up their last season at the Cincinnati Gardens and getting ready for their move to Kansas City (and eventually Sacramento, where they’re known today as the Kings). The Reds had just kicked off Opening Day of their third season in a relatively new Riverfront Stadium; this season ultimately ended in a National League title but a World Series loss to the Oakland A’s, but “The Big Red Machine” was just getting started. The Bengals of the NFL had merged over with their AFL brethren and would begin their fifth season at the end of the year. Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Swords of the American Hockey League had made the playoffs in their inaugural season, but they would ultimately lose to Baltimore. Baseball was resuming its tradition, the top level of American football was thriving, basketball was departing, minor league hockey was back, and Cincinnati was about to get its first taste of professional soccer. 

It was reported on April 4, 1972, that Cincinnati and Cleveland had been awarded franchises in the American Soccer League. Unlike the North American Soccer League, which was founded in 1967 and was starting to gain traction with franchises such as the Cosmos, the ASL had been around since 1933, and it was the successor to a league of the same name that dated back to 1921. While both leagues were fully professional, there seemed to be no established “soccer pyramid” at the time, and if you were an investor, the gamble on owning a franchise in either league appeared to carry some risk. Nevertheless, with the future unknown, Dr. Nico “Nick” Capurro and a group of local businessmen purchased a franchise in the senior ASL. 

- Dr. Nico “Nick” Capurro, coach and part owner of the Cincinnati Comets. Courtesy of the Dennis Hasty collection.

Nick Capurro was an Italian immigrant from Naples. He was an established surgeon in the Cincinnati area and the coroner of Clermont County to the east of the city by 1971, when he, his brother Giovanni (John), and several other business partners purchased an ASL franchise. A lifelong soccer fan and former player, Capurro had been the coach of the amateur Cincinnati Bruins. Cappuro wasn’t just the face of the new investment; he would also be the new franchise’s coach. Dubbed the “Comets,” the team was slated to start in the 1972 ASL season as a member of the league’s new Midwestern Division, along with expansion sides in Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Detroit

A May 1972 article in The Cincinnati Enquirer featured an interview with Capurro in which he described the Comets as Cincinnati’s first professional soccer team. Like FC Cincinnati would in 2015, Capurro also stated some ambitious long-term goals. The modern incarnation of pro soccer seeks admittance into the top national league, but Capurro wanted to put America on the international soccer map. He envisioned the ASL’s Midwestern division becoming a farm league for the national team. His plan called for 7 of each franchise’s 11 starters to be American-born, and at the conclusion of each season, those Americans would be put together into a national team draft. He intended to eventually take that proposal to the United States Soccer Football Association (known today as the United States Soccer Federation) for official approval. 

“All that’s needed is the coaching. Give us five years and believe me, this country will be a world soccer power,” 
- Coach Nick Capurro to The Cincinnati Enquirer


In the meantime, the owner/coach also needed to create a successful team on the field in a country where domestic talent was rare. “We’ll sacrifice everything but the quality of the players,” Capurro told the Enquirer. Despite his ambitions to eventually make America an international soccer powerhouse, the good doctor was apparently aware of the financial stakes involved with launching a new pro sports franchise—especially one in a relatively obscure sport as far as American culture was concerned. He knew that in order to eventually make money, the team would have to be successful on the pitch. 

While America had upset proverbial powerhouse England in a shocking defeat during a 1950 World Cup stage, the ensuing years lead to a drought in United States player production. Capurro knew domestic player production was a problem and it's still somewhat of an issue today.  His inaugural squad recruited international players hailing from Jamaica, Liberia, Peru, Argentina, Costa Rica, and England sprinkled in amongst a few Americans. One particular standout was Englishman David Murphy of Manchester City, a top European club both then and now. According to a June 1972 edition of the Enquirer, Murphy’s aunt resided in Cincinnati. Knowing that her nephew would be on a break from English competition, she asked Coach Capurro if he’d be interested in the English pro’s services. Murphy later commented to the newspaper upon joining the team: “I was just going to take it easy, but when Dr. Capurro offered me to come here and play I thought it would be a good chance to stay in shape and at the same time allow me to see the United States.” 

Thus the stage was set, and Dr. Cappuro’s new franchise was ready for its home opener against the Chicago Americans on July 1, 1972, at St. Xavier High School. Eight foreign-born players started alongside three Americans in a 4-2-4 formation which the doctor by day, coach by night described this way to the Enquirer: “You fit your system to your players, not the players to the system.” 

After the first half, the newborn Comets were locked 1-1 against Chicago. Capurro would later go on to say “the first half was awful,” but he was described as “grinning” in the post-game interview after the Comets won their home opener 7-2. The star of the game was Charles Roberts, who was recruited from Capurro’s former squad, the Bruins. 

That first night was a statement of how the Comet’s inaugural season would go. They went undefeated until August 27 when they lost to the Cleveland Stars while playing on artificial “Astroturf” for the first time. It was their only loss of the season. The Stars would prove to be an instant rival to the club, and Cincinnati barely edged them out in the divisional standings with only one more point. After eight matches played, the Comets boasted 6 wins, 1 loss, and 1 draw. They went on to defeat the New York Greeks 2-1 in the league championship. After just one year of professional soccer in the Queen City, Cincinnati had a championship that was won in front of the home crowd.

- Souvenir pennant celebrating the Comets’ league championship in their inaugural season. Courtesy of the Dennis Hasty Collection.

During their first off season, Coach Capurro and his Comets made appearances at youth tournaments and clinics, while also holding open tryouts. A star of the inaugural championship squad, 16-year-old Costa Rican Julio “Ringo” Cantillo had enrolled at the local Archbishop McNicholas High School. An Enquirer article published during the lead-up to the 1972 championship match described the South American teenager’s challenges of acclimating to life in the States while maintaining the career of a professional athlete. Cantillo lived with Capurro and his family, and despite his described homesickness, he was an integral part of the Comet defense. “He’s my boy, a soccer nut like me,” said Capurro to the Enquirer. Despite his ambitions to build America into a “world soccer power” via the ASL’s Midwest Division and his Comets, the coach had relied heavily on foreign talent to deliver a successful season—a theme that would be repeated in rival American leagues and American leagues to come. 

- 16-year-old Comets standout Julio “Ringo” Cantillo of Costa Rica.


1973: Big Venue, Big Expectations

The Comets started1973 with the goal of making the franchise profitable. Capurro returned as an owner and the coach while several investors bowed out and were replaced by new ones. The Chicago Americans disappeared and were replaced by the Tigers of nearby Gary, Indiana, while the league expanded the number of matches that year from 8 to 12. In April, the team also announced a change of venue. Leaving St. Xavier High School’s football stadium behind, they moved to the University of Cincinnati’s historic Nippert Stadium. Nippert followed the trend of several collegiate and sports venues by having synthetic “AstroTurf” installed in the 70s. The Comets had bemoaned the fake grass of Cleveland’s home pitch for handing them their only loss in 1972, but they were about to start playing regularly on the same type of surface. 43 years before FC Cincinnati would set United Soccer League attendance records, the Comets were the first professional soccer team to call Nippert home. 

- A view from the supporters section at Nippert Stadium during an FC Cincinnati match in 2016. While FCC has come to find a home in Nippert, the Comets were the original soccer tenants. QC/D Photograph.
Prior to the start of season 2, a Cincinnati Magazine exposé on the team proclaimed soccer to be “the real football.” The article’s author, acclaimed jazz DJ and historian Oscar Treadwell, went on to tell the story of how soccer was “the game brought over from the old country,” but soccer had now arrived in the mainstream, no longer “the week-end sport of ethnic enclaves.” The article featured photos of crowded stands, and it touted the Comets’ championship season, the recruitment of international talent, and the qualifications of Coach Capurro who had received an “A” rating, the highest designation for coaches by the United States Soccer Association. Treadwell highlighted the positive outlook that the Comets had for their sophomore season, how Ringo Cantillo stuck around as a foreign exchange student, and how selfless soccer players like international great Pelé can be (still two years before he would make his way to America). Things looked hopeful for the success of the Comets. Treadwell ended the preseason article with this statement about the team's impact on the Cincinnati sports scene: 

“And no boys’ room will be complete without a Cincinnati Comets pennant right up there with the Reds, Bengals, and Swords.”

The 1973 season started with an international friendly, the first at Nippert, and well before FC Cincinnati hosted Crystal Palace in 2016. Touted in newspaper advertisements as “England vs. Comets,” Bristol City F.C. faced the local club on May 20 and routed them 4-1. By June, the regular season was well underway, and the Comets had still lost only to Cleveland in regular season play. They were holding on to a one point lead over their rivals before an 8 p.m. tilt at Nippert Stadium on June 30, which they’d eventually win. However, they still couldn’t defeat Cleveland on its home AstroTurf, losing two games up north that year. 

The Comets were able to rout Cleveland in the playoffs at Nippert and repeat a trip to the league’s championship match, once again facing New York (who had changed their name from the “New York Greeks” to “New York Apollo”). This time, though, the ASL championship was held in New York at a venue described by Terry Duschinski of The Cincinnati Enquirer as “hardly conducive to a championship soccer match.” Playing in the shadows of the NASL’s New York Cosmos growing popularity, the Apollo held the game at the Metropolitan Oval, complete with its “bleacher seats on one side, and a hill with boards planted in it on three different levels of the other [side].” In a post-match interview, Comets’ winger Gladstone Ofori complained about how close the New York fans were able to get to the playing field. Ofori also nursed a head wound allegedly suffered when an opposing player sucker punched him. 

The lone goal of the game, scored by New York, came in the second overtime period. Comets player (and the coach’s son) Carmelo Cappuro complained that the line judge was about to negate the sudden death goal by ruling the scorer offside, but he had lowered his flag when fans began rushing the field to celebrate. Despite losing the championship under questionable circumstances to the team they had won it from the year before, the Comets capped off a seemingly successful sophomore season. 

- A Cincinnati Comets program from the 1973 season. Courtesy of the Dennis Hasty collection.


1974: Conflicts Arise and a Savior Steps Forth

A standard Google search doesn’t reveal much about the Comets, but newspaper archives give a detailed story. Throughout their existence, the team received fairly regular press coverage from the sports beat writers of local publications. One thing missing from all of this, though, is attendance figures. While the aforementioned Cincinnati Magazine story showed photographs from the first season with packed stands, hard numbers are tricky to come by. You can read about success on the pitch, but success at the gate is harder to ascertain. 

- Trechter Memorial Stadium on the campus of Cincinnati Technical College, known today as Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Image via Cincinnati State.

By 1974, the Comets were on their third venue and third club president. They moved out of Nippert Stadium and into Trechter Memorial Stadium down the hill. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of it—it doesn’t exist anymore. In its place today is a parking garage for Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Despite lining up an announced six international friendlies to be played throughout that third season, Trechter was definitely a downgrade from Nippert. In an interview with a player from a visiting German club, the author notes how the team had to wait for a grade school track meet to finish before they could practice for their matchup against the Comets. 

- The former site of Trechter Memorial Stadium now houses parking lots and garages for Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. QC/D Photograph.

1974 saw the Comets shift to a lineup predominately composed of South Americans. However, they still held open tryouts and attempted to recruit domestic players. One of the Americans who made the team that year was 23-year-old Paul Rockwood from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. A starter for several years at Akron University, Rockwood had moved south to Cincinnati to teach at Oak Hills High School, and he made the Comets team after trying out on a whim. In a 1974 interview with the Enquirer, he described the challenges of playing on a team where the first language was Spanish, but he ultimately felt humbled at the chance to play professionally. “All I can ever do is to do my best,” said Rockwood. “I always figured if you work hard, things will work out for you.”

Despite Rockwood’s optimism, there seemed to be some consternation brewing among the front office about the playing time Americans were getting. Following a June 3, 1974, match against Delaware, a disagreement between Coach Capurro and Team President Andy Lehr was documented in the press. With a strong lead of 4-0, Lehr approached Capurro and suggested inserting some of the American players in place of the more seasoned international ones. Capurro refused, and following the 5-3 Comets victory, Lehr told the press that changes would be coming. The following day, Cappuro said he’d rather step down as coach than give time to players someone else wanted him to play. Meanwhile, Jim Heath, the team’s Director of Player Personnel, stated to the Enquirer that “the direction the team is pointed is getting natural born Americans experience in soccer.” Heath’s comments seemed to be more in line with Capurro’s from the team’s first year in 1972. Despite once stating a long term goal to make America a force in the world’s game, Capurro tended to recruit and favor international players. Whether this was his true personal preference or just a feeling of necessity isn’t known, but the foreign talent pool was vastly larger, and clubs across both of America’s leagues relied on pulling from it to win. Capurro commented on this in the Enquirer

“They [the American players] are not in the same class with the rest [the foreign players] of this team.”

Nevertheless, the club felt local fans could identify more easily with American talent, and they most definitely needed fans to identify with something. On the same day the disagreement was reported, Comets attendance was listed at around 800 for the night.

In the following days, Andy Lehr resigned as president after a four-hour meeting with the coach. Capurro, who was still the majority stakeholder in the franchise, refused to back down on his reliance of foreign-born talent. Lehr claimed Capurro had threatened that several of the South American players would not show up to play for another coach, allegedly citing his guardianship of the young star Ringo Cantillo (who lived with him as a foreign exchange student) and his ability to sell him to another team. While departing, Lehr offered the four American players, including Paul Rockwood, releases from their contract. The four Americans admitted to the press that they felt alienated from the team and that they wished the Comets were taking the approach of rival North American Soccer League clubs such as Dallas and Philadelphia that relied heavily on American talent. Although they praised their foreign teammates, they casted doubts about the bleak attendance and support from their coach. Said player Bob Nelson to the Enquirer, “I think a lot of people don’t like Dr. Capurro and they come to the game to yell at him and antagonize him.” Three of the four American players eventually resigned, and Capurro became club president as well as coach and majority owner, while at the same time serving as the chairman of the American Soccer League’s Board of Directors. Paul Rockwood was the only American who remained.

- The Comets logo emblazoned on a souvenir window sticker, patch, and button. Courtesy of the Dennis Hasty collection.

Things were looking grim for the Comets, but someone would come along to bolster the team. In February 2017, I answered a call from an unfamiliar number—something I don't usually do. “Is this Ronny?” The voice was familiar, but it was the first time I’d ever spoken with the man it belongs to. For years, though, like so many others, I had heard Jim Scott’s voice in the mornings on 700 WLW. He was kind enough to speak with me about how he became involved with the Comets and where things went. We spent over an hour between multiple calls digging up his role in Cincinnati’s soccer history.

Midway through the 1974 season, Scott was the morning rock and roll DJ at WSAI radio station (known today as Fox Sports 1360). He had sons who were playing soccer, and was familiar with the Comets—the team's games were broadcast on the station. He thought he might be able to help out. Through some friends, he got invited to a lunch with Dr. Capurro. “I became more involved than I ever thought I would be,” said Scott, chuckling. “Soccer was really taking off around the country.” He had intended to see how he might be able to help specifically with promotions. “I was impressed and excited and offered to get involved. I invested $10,000 in the team, but at the time it never occurred to me that I would end up being the president of the team. The original intention was not to be the owner. I could afford to help out and was involved in the community as a disc jockey. All the sudden, I’m the president of the Comets!”

- LEFT: Jim Scott in a 1975 Burger Beer advertisement (Burger eventually became a sponsor of the Comets). RIGHT: Jim Scott broadcasting from the 700 WLW studios in 2015. Images via the Dennis Hasty Collection and iHeartMedia.com.

Nevertheless, Scott found himself impressed by the team; he described his start with the organization as “very optimistic.” He took on the duties of leading the organization while Capurro focused on coaching. “I took Spanish lessons so I could better communicate with the ball players,” he said. Scott partnered with other owners in an effort to boost the American Soccer League. “We wanted to raise the level of what we were doing in the ASL,” he recalled. One of those efforts was to recruit a pro sports-minded commissioner. After being turned down by legendary commentator Howard Cosell, the league approached Bob Cousy. “Out east where I grew up, Bob Cousy was ‘God,’” said Scott. The proclaimed “Houdini of the Hardwood,” Cousy had been an incredible NBA point guard, winning six championships with the Boston Celtics and emerging out of retirement for one season with the Cincinnati Royals. As the ASL looked to attach a big-time sports icon to their fledgling league, Cousy took the job. He took to the press to express the league’s future plans. They wanted to focus on growing the game and weren’t concerned with competing against the North American Soccer League; in fact, Cousy even hinted that he would pursue a merger of both leagues.

“We want to push the sport. We want to avoid wars in soccer.” 
- American Soccer League President Bob Cousy, December 18, 1974, to United Press International

Despite his name providing some legitimacy to the league, Cousy was viewed skeptically by the local Cincinnati press. He hadn’t been the most popular figure for the Royals after being instrumental in the trade of the legendary Oscar Robertson and in the team’s lack of success. Eventually, Cousy, the Royals, and NBA left the Queen City after the 1972 season.

Cousy officially became commissioner of the ASL in December 1974, after the Comets finished second place in a league that had consolidated from three divisions into two—Midwest and East. In the first round of the playoffs, the Comets once again faced their old foe, New York. After a 2-1 loss, the Comets failed to make the championship for the first time in their history.

- Press photography passes for the 1974 and 1975 Comets seasons. Courtesy of the Dennis Hasty collection.

1975: If Americans Finally Play, Will Fans Finally Come?

1975 began with the Comets’ usual round of community engagement: youth soccer partnerships and open tryouts. However, this year, the tryouts were different, with more emphasis placed on finding American talent. The change in domestic mentality after the previous year’s controversy came about for several reasons. New investors lead by Jim Scott had saved the franchise last year; however, it was reported in the media that this new group was simply unable to meet several contractual obligations of international players. While the move towards more American players bought the Comets some good press and seemed to push away last year’s controversy, it was also due to financial necessity. Interestingly enough, Dr. Cappuro remained as the coach. An Enquirer article before the start of the 1975 season described him as “unusually serene” below the headline, “New Peace Turns on Comets.”

Elsewhere in America, soccer was about to get a huge boost. The rival North American Soccer League had ended the previous year with its championship game televised live on CBS, and four of its teams were averaging over 10,000 fans per game. Unlike the ASL that was now comprised of only nine teams between Chicago and New York (with Cincinnati being the southernmost), the NASL had a national footprint with 20 clubs spread between the coasts (two of them in Canada). 1975 was also the year in which the New York Cosmos welcomed Pelé. A national hero of Brazil, the highest-paid athlete in the world, and three-time World Cup champion, Pelé is one of the greatest to have ever played the game. After a lengthy professional career, he emerged out of a quick retirement to play for the New York Cosmos, lured by an impressive contract put forth by Cosmos’ owners and their Warner Brothers corporate backing. His arrival put the American sports spotlight on soccer as Pelé became the face of the Cosmos and the NASL. Meanwhile in Cincinnati, the face of the Comets was trying to leave.

While Coach Capurro had allegedly threatened to sell the playing rights to Ringo Cantillo during the squabble of the '74 season, it looked like he might make good on that plan in February 1975. However, it wasn’t due to malice; rather, the two-time league MVP and star fullback had several higher profile teams expressing interest. Allegedly, teams based in Scotland, England, Greece, and Mexico were interested as well as the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies and New York Cosmos. The Cosmos were reportedly willing to buy Ringo’s rights from Capurro for $30,000. By this time, Ringo had graduated from Archbishop McNicholas High School and married a woman from Amelia, Ohio, a small town east of Cincinnati. 

The Comets began play that season with a preseason friendly against Indiana University in Bloomington. A 1975 Enquirer story covered the match by stating Comets defenseman Bob Cooley was “the first American black to play the sport professionally in the United States.” Cooley was also an IU alumnus and had been with the Comets since the beginning. Meanwhile, fellow original Charles Roberts balked at a $1,000 salary for that season and opted not to return. Nevertheless, Cooley would have a familiar face on the pitch. While it was reported that Ringo had a buyer, with alleged plans to be sold to Club America of Mexico’s first division, he would still play that summer in Cincinnati. “They are committed to buy Ringo. I cannot divulge for how much. It’s in the neighborhood of $50,000,” Capurro told reporters. “Ringo is the hottest thing in the country right now, soccer-wise.”

Maybe he was, but at the time of the comment, Pelé was still two months away from signing with the NASL's New York Cosmos. 

- Promotional schedule for the Comets 1975 season. Courtesy of the Dennis Hasty collection.

The '75 regular season started on the road, the first of twenty matches. Things got off to a rocky start after a fight broke out at the first match in Chicago (a team now loaded with former Comets players). Injuries plagued the Comets as the season wore on, but attendance for one match was reported at 1,710, substantially higher than the 800 fan figure in the previous season. Despite efforts to recruit more American players, international talent was continually brought in to help fill gaps. One player was fired and eventually Capurro’s own son left the squad. “It has nothing to do with me or the team,” Coach Capurro told reporters. “He has other things he wants to do.” In the wake of losing two players, Capurro and the league fined the entire team 10% of their salary for “lack of effort” in a match against Cleveland. An exhibition against an amateur German club came in June, but the Comets still struggled with injuries and results in league play. 

An Enquirer journalist in 1975 described the team as “disorganized” after a match where Bob Cooley accidentally knocked a would-be pass into the Comets' own goal. Near the end of June, marred by poor player performances and having lost 4 out of their last 5 games, several American players were released. As old rivals New York Apollo came to town, the press was quick to point out the difference between them and their crosstown counterparts, the New York Cosmos. While Pelé was lifting the Cosmos and the NASL into new heights of success, the ASL and teams such as Apollo and the Comets struggled on the pitch. The growing disparity between rival leagues was becoming more apparent. One report stated that NASL franchises typically sold for about $350,000, while their ASL counterparts could be obtained for around $35,000.

- A souvenir program from the Comets' June 21, 1975, matchup against their longtime New York rivals (billed here as “the Apollos,” but historically known as “New York Apollo”). When Apollo came to town that season, local press was quick to point out that they weren’t the popular New York Cosmos and that they didn’t employ Pelé. Courtesy of the Dennis Hasty Collection.

By July, the Comets had lost their radio broadcasting deal when WSAI completely dropped sports coverage. Results on the field were still looking bad, and Ringo Cantillo was getting anxious to move on. In a July 1975 interview with The Cincinnati Enquirer, reporter Jack Murray characterized Ringo as believing that his “abilities are being stunted [in Cincinnati]” and that “many of his Comets teammates have a don’t care attitude." The article highlighted a bidding war for Ringo between the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies and New York Cosmos (the Mexican first division deal apparently was no more); there was a chance that Ringo might end up playing alongside the great Pelé. In the interview, Ringo directly casted doubt on Cincinnati’s ability to support a pro soccer team:

“If I was investing money in this team, I would have quit a long time ago. No matter what they do, soccer is not going to go over in Cincinnati.”   
- Ringo Cantillo to the Cincinnati Enquirer, July 1975.

Nevertheless, Team President Jim Scott persisted in his efforts to lead the organization to success with the resources he had, hoping to capitalize on the Comets’ initial on-field success in their first seasons. “A lot of times in sports, a new team can do extremely well,” said Scott. “A lot like FC Cincinnati today, but where the Lindners have deep pockets, I was Jim Scott the disc jockey.”

By August, the Comets were cutting it close in making the playoffs. Grand victories at home were being overshadowed by a winless record on the road. Coach Capurro took to the press to vent about his players' performances. “I have to get all of this off my chest,” said Capurro to the Enquirer, following a practice. “Our people are playing with no heart. There are people on this club with superior talent but when it comes to game time they just don’t care anymore. We have players who are putting on their uniforms and then not even trying to win.” Capurro also spoke out about attendance woes and support from the fans: “The fans here have not supported us this year and this has hurt us financially.” Later that night, Cleveland defeated the Comets 2-1, dashing any hopes of Cincinnati making a playoff run in '75.

Fan support and player production weren’t the only things drawing the ire of Coach Capurro. In the following days, he took on the league itself, describing the ASL as “bush league.” He stated, “The ASL is a farce. If they’re going to send out amateur referees, they should go back to playing amateur ball.” The comments came on the heels of the playoff elimination in which Capurro blamed the referee for failing to prevent a fight on the field that included players and spectators alike. Meanwhile, in the NASL, Pelé and the Cosmos were drawing capacity crowds both at home and on the road. The rival NASL’s success was also starting to draw interest from television networks.

Eliminated from the 1975 playoffs, and with only two home matches remaining, Team President Jim Scott sat down with The Cincinnati Enquirer to lay out the franchise’s woes in an interview. Scott stated that he was faced with three options:

1) Restructure—bring in new funding and new partners.
2) Attempt to join the rival North American Soccer League.
3) Sell the team and personally get out of soccer completely.

According to the quotes from Scott in that interview, the NASL wanted the Cincinnati market “badly.” Following up with Scott recently over the phone, he recalls just how interested the NASL was:

“People in Michigan were interested in buying the Comets and putting them into the NASL. I got involved in the conversation and we almost had it worked out.” 
- Jim Scott to Queen City Discovery, February 2017

Part of that conversation included meeting with Lamar Hunt at the Indianapolis Airport.

- Sports icon Lamar Hunt. Image via Wikipedia.

There’s a lot of sports history tied to Lamar Hunt. An American businessman, sports enthusiast, and the son of an oil tycoon, Hunt had been one of the founders of the American Football League as well as the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. He helped promote the efforts that lead to the AFL/NFL merger, and he is credited with coining the term “Super Bowl.” He helped turn American Football into the juggernaut it is today; the most popular professional sport in America once well behind Major League Baseball. He was also a huge advocate for soccer in America. After taking in overseas matches, he founded the Dallas Tornado and eventually landed them in the NASL, where he played a prominent role within the league. Looking to help the NASL expand, the billionaire met with Jim Scott to “size him up.” Evidently impressed, he passed Scott along to a group of Michigan investors who were interested in taking the Comets brand from the ASL to the increasingly popular NASL. Meanwhile, on the ASL home front, rumors abounded that the league would expand westward and into a more national footprint.

The final game of the fourth season took place on August 23, 1975. In the morning paper, the stories weren’t about the impending athletic matchup; instead, they were about the future of the Comets organization. That night, the Comets would secure victory 2-1, even after an enraged Pittsburgh coach pulled his team from the field and refused to play due to poor officiating. The coach was ejected and play resumed; an estimated 1,200 spectators had seen the drama unfold. Coach Capurro told the press he was hopeful for the team’s return next season. With a final 1975 record of 7 wins, 9 losses, and 4 draws, the Comets missed the ASL playoffs for the first time.


The Fall of 1975: Loyalty and an Uncertain Future

By October, the sale of Ringo had finally been completed. He ended up going to a semi-pro New York winter league team for “about $30,000.” Jim Scott was also named president of the American Soccer League. He had been attending the league meetings by himself. “I ended up becoming elected president. They needed new leadership, or ‘new blood’ may be the better term.” On the home front, Scott and the Comets paid the required bond to play in the 1976 season and looked to reorganize investors. He mentioned to the media back then the potential option for public ownership through subscription, and he was still waiting on word from the investors in Michigan. Were the Comets headed for the NASL under new owners, sticking with the ASL under a grassroots ownership plan, or would they fold completely?

In an Enquirer interview from October '75, Scott spoke honestly about the team's financial outlook and its charismatic coach: “I’m sure if Nick Capurro wasn’t the coach of the Comets, there are people in the community who’d be interested in investing in the Comets. I’m not interested in talking to them. If it weren’t for Nick Capurro, there would be no professional soccer team in Cincinnati.” Speaking with Scott today, he still echoes his loyalty to Capurro’s efforts: “In hindsight, Capurro was tricky. A lovable guy with a big heart, he didn’t want to invest much of his own money and didn’t want to be president; he wanted to be the coach.” He remembers Capurro fondly, describing him as “deeply passionate.” It was the coach’s passion that had brought professional soccer to Cincinnati in the first place. Committed to the coach, Scott weighed his options and hoped to have a team for the doctor to lead on the pitch.

“It was right around Thanksgiving that I got this phone call. They were concerned.” 
- Jim Scott to Queen City Discovery, February 2017

“It was right around Thanksgiving that I got this phone call. They were concerned,” said Scott of the Michigan NASL investors who Lamar Hunt put him in touch with. “The economy took a turn and those guys pulled out.” Much of the Western world had been in an economic recession since 1973 in the wake of an oil crisis, the “Nixon Shock,” and stock market stagnation. While historians now agree that the economy was back on the rise by the spring of '75, inflation was still prevalent, unemployment still high, and the outlook bleak. Full confidence had not yet been regained, and the market environment seemed to have cooled the investors from the “Great Lakes State” on the idea of bringing the Comets, and Cincinnati, into the North American Soccer League. “There was definite interest, though,” Scott told me.

- A preserved milk carton emblazoned with Comets promotional advertisements. Courtesy of the Dennis Hasty Collection.


1976: The End

By January 1976, with the NASL investors now gone, the team announced that they would not be playing in any league that season, but that there may be hope for the future. “The American Soccer League wasn’t the right place to put the money, even if we had it,” Jim Scott told the Enquirer in January '76. Plans for public ownership were dropped, but Scott hinted that his investment group was looking at other ways to potentially join the North American Soccer League in the future. Capurro echoed that admission to the NASL was the ultimate goal, but that it would be tougher as Pelé and the Cosmos were raising soccer’s profile in America: “We could have bought a NASL franchise for $25,000 a few years ago. Now it will cost us anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million.” America’s bicentennial year came and went without professional soccer in Cincinnati, and the North American Soccer League would never end up placing a franchise here. The Comets were soon lost to history, fading into newspaper archives, a small Wikipedia entry, and a few photos here and there on the internet. “Many times I thought to myself, ‘we came this close to pulling it off,’” Scott told me.
“Many times I thought to myself, ‘we came this close to pulling it off.” 
- Jim Scott to Queen City Discovery, February 2017

Where are they now?

Ringo Cantillo ended up with the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies in 1976, and he eventually played one exhibition match with the New York Cosmos in 1977 before landing back in the ASL. He’d spend the rest of his career between '78 and '84 playing in the NASL, an indoor team, and in the lone season of the original USL. He was also called up for 11 games with the United States Men’s National Team.  

Coach and Dr. Nick Capurro continued being active in the Cincinnati soccer scene for a time; according to one article, he may have once been a coach for the Xavier University men’s team. He also served as the chief physician at the River Downs horse racing track, he maintained a private practice until around 1998, and he served as Clermont County Coroner until he resigned in 2002. In 2006, he and several other physicians were accused of illegally prescribing medication at a group of Southeastern Ohio pain clinics he supervised. In 2007, he pleaded guilty to “making illegal financial transactions involving cash he made at the pain clinics,” according to The Cincinnati Enquirer. As part of a plea bargain with federal prosecutors, most of the charges (such as illegally prescribing medication, conspiracy, and money laundering) against him were dropped due to his cooperation with investigators. He received two years of probation, he was ordered to return $88,000, and he was able to keep his medical license. He passed away on January 27, 2010, at the age of 83, with his wife, four children, nine grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren surviving him. 

The American Soccer League made good on its plans to create a nationwide footprint and even drew 9,000 to their championship game between the new Los Angeles Skyhawks and the Comets’ old foe, New York Apollo. However, the league was in delcine. Bob Cousy lasted as commissioner until 1979, and by 1983, the league was no more. Since the ASL’s demise, two more organizations have used the name.

The New York Cosmos eventually moved to Yankee Stadium and then to the Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands of New Jersey to accommodate their growing crowds. In 1977, they won the NASL championship—that was Pelé’s last season. However, the departure of Pelé marked the start of a downward trend for the league’s fortunes. Attendance fell, TV deals weren’t renewed, and even the Cosmos would begin struggling financially. The more popular NASL only lasted two more seasons than the ASL, shutting down in 1985. 

Lamar Hunt’s Dallas Tornado NASL club ceased operations after the 1981 season. Hunt merged them with the Tampa Bay Rowdies and retained a minority stake. However, Hunt’s pursuit of professional soccer was not over. He became an advocate for luring the 1994 World Cup to the United States, and he was one of the original founders of Major League Soccer. He owned the Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City), Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas), and Columbus Crew. In 1999, he financed the construction of Crew Stadium (now Mapfre Stadium) in Columbus, Ohio; the stadium was MLS' first soccer-specific venue. He’s often credited with guiding MLS through its initial instability, having provided substantial capital and leadership to the then fledgling league.  In December 2006, he passed away at the age of 74 from prostate cancer complications. He’s remembered fondly for his contributions to professional sports in America and philanthropic pursuits. In 2010, a statue of his likeness was dedicated outside of Crew Stadium in Columbus. These days, his son Clark oversees the operations of MLS club FC Dallas.

Jim Scott became the iconic morning radio host on 700 WLW-AM in Cincinnati. Many people (including me) once started their days hearing his voice. He looks back on his time in professional soccer fondly, with no regrets. He told me, “It was a fascinating time. No bitter feelings; it was quite the adventure. Taught me to be a little more cautious. As interesting as it was, it flamed out. I lost quite a bit of money—close to $100,000. I’m lucky I was a young guy and could build my savings back up.” Mr. Scott was 32 when he became president of the Comets in the summer of '74. While he never again entered the world of professional soccer ownership, he went on to enjoy a celebrated radio career. After 46 years, he retired in 2015. These days, he’s enjoying that time off, and he was kind enough to chat about Cincinnati soccer history with a random writer like me. His personality is as genuine and friendly as it sounded on the airwaves. When I said “thank you, Mr. Scott” at the end of our second phone call, he replied, “Call me Jim.”

Thanks, Jim, for taking the time to talk and for helping to grow soccer in the Queen City. 


Epilogue:

Even if the Comets had found their way out of the ASL and into the NASL, it’s likely that they would’ve gone down with the ship as American soccer began a downward trend in popularity. However, maybe the Comets name could’ve survived going forward. Several of the league’s clubs survived in one form or another, and their brands live on in MLS as the Portland Timbers, San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders, and Vancouver Whitecaps. Even the New York Cosmos, Tampa Bay Rowdies, and Fort Lauderdale Strikes names persisted in a new, second version of the North American Soccer League. While NASL 2.0—and the new Cosmos, for that matter—aren’t without their own story and recent instability, these classic names of pioneering professional soccer still exist today (the Tampa Bay Rowdies recently jumped from the NASL to the USL and will actually play FC Cincinnati twice in the 2017 season). 

As for soccer in Cincinnati, well, that story is still unfolding. FC Cincinnati was announced in 2015 and played its inaugural campaign in 2016 at Nippert Stadium, former home of the Comets. In that first season, they continually set attendance records in the United Soccer League. Since the beginning, they have expressed their desire to be admitted into Major League Soccer, the top league in America’s football hierarchy. On January 31, 2017, they submitted their formal application to join MLS. Two expansion teams are expected to be named later this year, while two more will be announced in the future. As of this writing, FC Cincinnati is about to begin its second campaign with 11,000+ season ticket holders in tow. Finally, and contrary to Ringo’s frustrated prediction, it seems the beautiful game has truly caught on here in the Queen City. 

While FC Cincinnati’s admission into the nation’s highest league isn't quite a sure thing, I know I and many others will support the club no matter the league they end up in. As one of the founding members of Die Innenstadt, an independent FC Cincinnati supporters group, I’ve been there for a lot of historic moments so far, and I plan to be around for many more, appreciating my city’s cultural and sporting history while documenting and telling the story of the next chapter to come.

The next time my fellow supporters and I march to the match and grab a beer at Nippert Stadium, I’ll raise it to the former team, their coach, Jim Scott, Ringo Cantillo, and all the others who played a part in the story.

Coach Capurro and the Comets, this one’s for you. We’ll “keep ‘M kicking.”

- A Cincinnati Comets bumper sticker. Courtesy of the Dennis Hasty Collection.

Special thanks to Jim Scott for taking the time to talk with me, John Kiesewetter for his insight, Jared Handra for proofreading an early draft/listening to me rant about this story, and Andrea Ward for her copy-editing skills. 

Almost all of the historical images in this article come from the collection of Dennis Hasty. Thank you, Dennis, for providing visual content, literally putting faces to names, and for preserving Cincinnati sports history. It’s greatly, greatly appreciated. 

Thanks to Jack Murray, Bob Rankin, Steve Richardson, Lonnie Wheeler, Tom Callahan, Terry Duschinski, Bob Hertzel, John Small, and Dick Forbes of The Cincinnati Enquirer, as well as Oscar Treadwell for Cincinnati Magazine and Nancy Baker of The Journal News, for covering the Comets from 1972-1976 and providing excellent resources from which to glean this larger story from. 

13 comments:

  1. Awesome work Ronny. Great story!

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    1. Hey Brian, thanks for checking it out! I really appreciate it, glad you enjoyed it.

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  2. This was a great read! The Rowdies are fighting to get into MLS as well. Just released a plan to renovate their stadium in downtown St. Petersburg. I will have to check out a FC Cincinnati game the next time I make it up to see family.

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    1. Please do come to a match, it's a great time!

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  3. Awesome story and great work. And former comet's player Coach Paul Rockwood went on to become a coaching legend in cincinnati, Ohio and beyond. He is still coaching and I'm lucky enough to have him coaching my son.
    -Jason

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    1. That's really great to hear. I'd love to chat with him!

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  4. How did you manage to write a history of pro soccer in Cincinnati that's as thoroughly researched and detailed as this without so much as a passing comment about the Kids? They were indoor and they didn't last beyond their initial season, but still....

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    1. Well, this isn't so much a history of pro soccer in the city, rather it's a history of the Comets in particular since it's pretty much just about them. If I wrote about all of the teams: there's the 1909 squad, the Bruins, the Comets, the Kids, the Silverbacks, Kings, and Riverhawks, plus maybe a few I'm not remembering. Oh! The Cincinnati 1788 Express or something of the like that was up in the burbs, and the current indoor incarnation up there- the Cincinnati Swerve.

      The Kids were mentioned in the earlier article about the Riverhawks/Galbreath Field which features a link to a youtube video about them here: http://queencitydiscovery.blogspot.com/2017/02/from-archives-part-3-galbreath-field.html

      Kids came a few years after the Comets called it quits.

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  5. Thanks for writing this blog! I am Dr. Nico Capurro's Granddaughter. My dad is Carmelo Capurro, his son that was on the team. My grandfather was also inducted into the Soccer Hall of Fame in Columbus, OH for coaching. Great read!

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    1. Hi Angela,

      Thanks so much for reading and sending in a comment. I'd love to chat with your father if he'd be interested in talking about his days on the team? If so, would you mind sending me an email at queencitydisco@gmail.com

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  6. Thanks for the read-
    Chris Cantillo

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  7. The first ASL game at Nippert saw the Comets destroy the Detroit Mustangs, 10-0, on June 9, 1973. 5,076 fans showed up.

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