When Sting was king

Members of the 1981 Chicago Sting gathered during a Chicago Fire game at Soldier Field in 2001 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their NASL championship. Courtesy of Peter Wilt

Some Chicago sports fans need a refresher course that the 1980s were not completely centered on Mike Ditka's 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears and the phenomenon of Michael Jordan.

The Chicago Sting was the toast of this city at the start of the decade, winning North American Soccer League crowns in 1981 and 1984.

It was 30 years ago when the Sting captured the Soccer Bowl over the famed New York Cosmos, winning in a shootout on Sept. 26, 1981, in front of nearly 37,000 at Toronto's Exhibition Stadium. That victory, highlighted by defender Rudy Glenn's game-winning score in the shootout, brought the first professional championship to Chicago since the Bears' 1963 NFL Championship over the New York Giants.

"When you think about it, 30 years later people still appreciate that championship game -- the '84 one, as well," Glenn said. "People still come up to you and tell you they're Sting fans. It carries a lot of weight, and I can't even imagine it being duplicated."

"We were the kings in town in 1981," former Sting forward Pato Margetic said. "The Chicago Sting was something that for some reason the whole city got behind. It was amazing, because everywhere you went, people would grab you and ask you for autographs and tell you how great the team was and wishing us luck. The whole year was like that. It was unbelievable."

'Best defense was a good offense'

Offense was the name of the game back in the '80s, and it was no surprise coming from Sting head coach Willy Roy. The German-born forward and Reavis High School grad notably had a 17-goal campaign with the Chicago Spurs during the 1967 National Professional Soccer League season.

The 1981 Sting team had its share of offensive weapons, led of course by German forward Karl-Heinz Granitza, who ended up with 128 goals, 101 assists and 357 points for the Sting's outdoor team in seven seasons.

That year, Granitza was second in the league with 55 points (19 goals and 17 assists) behind only the Cosmos' Giorgio Chinaglia (74 points). Sting midfielder Arno Steffenhagen had 17 goals, 10 assists and 44 points to rank in the NASL's top 10 in points. And Margetic, who figured he was on his way back to Argentina after the Detroit Express folded following the 1980 NASL season, was transferred to the Sting, where he tied for the team lead with 17 assists during the 1981 campaign.

"Willy was a great player and a goal scorer, and that reflected on the Sting at the time," Glenn said. "We were very goal-oriented. The best defense was a good offense. That was the thought he brought out there."

The Sting had the league's top offense with 84 goals in '81. The second-best was New York with 80.

Quick recoveries

When the postseason arrived, the Sting did not exactly make things easy for itself. In fact, Chicago fell behind in every round and needed to take each series to a third and decisive match.

The Sting dropped its opener to the Seattle Sounders in the first round, lost the first quarterfinal match against the Montreal Manic and fell to the San Diego Sockers in Game 1 of the semifinal round.

"There wasn't [a sense that we were on the ropes]," Glenn said. "That's the weirdest feeling. We were not over confident. We just knew what our team was made up of. We always said don't leave your seat when we're down, because we might break the game open. That was the mentality of that team."

The Sting clinched its spot in the final with a shootout win over the Sockers on a cold and rainy Sept. 21 day at Comiskey Park, where more than 39,000 fans braved the harsh conditions.

"We were always under pressure and were able to pull it through," Margetic said. "That's what made it even better -- coming back and winning to get to the final."

A defensive grind

It was ironic that the league's top two offenses had a difficult time finding the goal during the Sept. 26 Soccer Bowl in Toronto.

Sure, there were some scoring chances for both sides. The Sting's Ingo Peter headed the ball off the corner of the goal frame. Sting goalkeeper Dieter Ferner reacted well to his right to turn away Chinaglia's bicycle kick attempt. But through regulation and 15 minutes of overtime, both sides were level and scoreless.

"I was surprised that it was a 0-0 game," Margetic said. "I remember the turf in Toronto got wet, so it was kind of slippery. And it was more like we've got to watch these guys because we both can score."

That meant after 105 minutes of play the match went to a shootout. Each shooter started with the ball from the offside 35-yard line and had five seconds to get a shot off one-on-one against the goalkeeper.

But even in the shootout, both sides could not find the goal. The Sting's first three players failed to score, including Margetic to lead things off against Cosmos goalkeeper Hubert Birkenmeier.

"I tried to get around the goalkeeper, but he got on the ground and got to the ball," Margetic said. "I can't believe I missed that."

The Cosmos' third shooter, Vladislav Bogicevic, finally broke the stalemate with a left-footed shot that found the left corner of the goal for a 1-0 lead. But Granitza came right back with a low strike that got past Birkenmeier to tie it up at 1-1.

New York's Ivan Buljan missed his fourth-round attempt as he tried to chip the ball over Ferner as the Sting goalkeeper moved off of the line. But the shot wasn't high enough and Ferner kept the shootout level.

That set the stage for Glenn, who like Granitza took a low shot, which deflected off Birkenmeier's glove but found the back of the net to take a 2-1 lead.

"I did change things up a bit since it was a shootout with the same team and the same goalkeeper weeks before here in Chicago," Glenn said. "In Chicago I went one way, and in the championship game I went the opposite way. The key is being precise and handling the situation. Looking back on that now, it was total silence. I didn't hear a thing. It was full concentration, like me putting headphones on."

Cosmos defender Bob Iarusci was left to try to keep New York in the shootout, but his attempt was smothered by Ferner for Chicago's first NASL crown.

Sting's post-title buzz

It was estimated that more than 6,000 Sting fans made the trek to Exhibition Stadium. And when the Sting returned from Toronto, O'Hare International Airport was packed with approximately 10,000 people to greet the newly minted NASL champs.

"That was incredible," Margetic said. "They stopped the plane on the runway and told the people on the plane that the airport was packed, and that 10,000 people were waiting for us to get out of the plane to congratulate us. As soon as we went off the plane to our gate and walked to baggage, the line of people didn't stop. People were excited, crying and cheering. Police men were all over the place."

The title game itself was on tape-delayed television on ABC later that Saturday night in the Chicago market. A re-run of "The Love Boat" aired during the live time slot in the New York market, so the game was not broadcast until the following day.

"Obviously you want people to see it and watch it live," Glenn said. "That wasn't the case. The newscasts were saying, 'Don't listen. Turn off your TV if you don't want to know.' But we were so focused on everything else. We had Chicago behind us."

The NASL changed dramatically following this season, losing seven franchises before the 1982 season got underway. The days of the NASL faded several years after Chicago's 1981 title, as the Sting's 1984 championship provided a fitting bookend.

To this day, the Sting's accomplishments of the early '80s carry significant weight.

"You look at the members of that team and the different types of characters and types of mentalities that were with each player, and that's what made us special," Glenn said. "We were just talking the other day about our practice sessions and in reference to the games -- we had more injuries in our training sessions because we worked so hard. We practiced like we played."

"We're always telling stories and celebrating with this team," Margetic said. "This team had great personalities and great human beings from all over the world. It's something that I personally will never forget. It was a big part of my life."

Charlie Corr covers the Chicago Fire for ESPNChicago.com.