What the British soccer icon David Beckham imagines and dreams for South Florida, we have seen before. It’s been done here. There is a template. Fewer and fewer of us remember it, though. Those who do have lived down here a long time and are middle-aged or older.
The original Fort Lauderdale Strikers at Lockhart Stadium.
We were so different then. Can it really have been almost 40 years ago? Beckham will try to find a niche in a densely congested sports landscape for his would-be Miami expansion team in Major League Soccer. Then, it was a wide open field.
For the Strikers it was a perfect nexus of team, time and place.
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We didn’t have much beyond the Dolphins and Hurricanes football when Elizabeth Robbie (Joe’s wife) bought the failing Miami Toros of the old North American Soccer League and moved them to Fort Lauderdale in 1977. And the Dolphins were in a post-Super Bowls/pre-Dan Marino lull then, while the Canes hadn’t played in a bowl game since 1967 and still were struggling for relevance.
The Miami Heat weren’t born yet. No Marlins baseball or Panthers hockey. No MLS, either. The original NASL was the biggest thing in American soccer.
Into the local void stepped the Strikers in those bumblebee uniforms, and Fort Lauderdale embraced them. From 1977 until ’83 that team wrote a colorful if fleeting chapter in South Florida sports history, the buoyant passion of support from “Striker Likers” forcing Lockhart to be expanded, twice, to an eventual capacity of just over 20,000. The cozy stadium conveyed a Fenway or Wrigley vibe for its intimacy. Tailgating was huge. Fans would show up hours early. Strikers flags waved in parking lots amid smoke from cookout grills. If there had been any doubt Broward County could support a professional sports team, that thought ended with the Strikers.
All of those memories rushed back this week as the latter-day Fort Lauderdale Strikers — about the fifth iteration since the unmistakable originals — quietly announced they were leaving Lockhart and moving to Central Broward Stadium in Lauderhill. The final game at Lockhart will be July 30 and the first at the new place Aug. 20.
The move might be because Lockhart has grown old and decrepit. It might be because developers want to turn the area into a water theme park. It might be because the Strikers are waving a white towel and admitting a team playing to 85 percent empty seats presents a depressing tableau. It might be all of that. What it also is: a chapter ending.
To most, the announcement hardly was newsworthy. But to those of us to whom “Strikers at Lockhart” once meant something, it strikes an emotional chord. It casts the memory back to halcyon days.
When you chronicle sports for as long as I have for the Miami Herald, you become a de facto historian, and it sometimes bears reminding that stuff happened before ESPN, the Internet and social media came along and changed everything about the way we consume sports.
I covered the Strikers as my first major beat at the Miami Herald and it felt like a big deal. I was a college kid suddenly being dispatched to exotic locales such as Vancouver to follow a soccer team. Before that I attended Strikers games as a fan. There was a camaraderie at Lockhart, a palpable connection between players and fans. In those crowded bleachers, you felt as though you were surrounded by neighbors and friends.
Lockhart is where showman-coach Ron Newman once rose from a coffin at midfield to demonstrate his team wasn’t dead yet. Where a charismatic young blond Brit named Ray Hudson made the women swoon. Where foreign legends such as Gerd Muller, Teofilo (Nene) Cubillas and Georgie Best graced us in their career’s winters. Where a “Rotten to the Cor” banner flew toward the end against Dutch coach Cor Van der Hart.
“We were a bunch of pirates living near the sea, loving life,” Hudson once said of the team assembled in Fort Lauderdale in 1977. “It was a very exciting team that year. It was the start of a really great love between the Strikers and the city.”
Now fast-forward three decades, if you can believe that. MLS is futbol king in America now; the NASL hangs on as a diminished, second-tier league.
The Strikers and expansion-team Miami FC (which plays at FIU Stadium) are keeping the soccer seat warm until Beckham’s MLS franchise comes to fruition in its new stadium planned for Overtown and takes over.
Strikers attendance has plummeted to an average of 1,310 per game, last in the NASL. Miami is averaging a below-average 3,853, that high only because a curious 10,156 showed up for the franchise’s inaugural home opener. I’ll be surprised if either team let alone both survive once Beckham’s Miami flagship is up and running.
It is those original late-’70s/early-’80s Strikers that should be Beckham’s model, to this day, in terms of constructing a bond between team and fans.
His new stadium will be state-of-the-art, no doubt. But if it manages to capture faint echoes of Lockhart Stadium — of the way that place felt full on a spring night in 1979 — that’ll be a good start.