The Los Angeles Aztecs was a pro soccer team founded in 1974 by a real estate millionaire, Dr. Jack Gregory, as the newest expansion team of the North American Soccer League (NASL). In 1968 the NASL was the largest professional soccer league with 17 teams playing throughout the United States and Canada. The NASL team rosters were dominated by foreign players including Pelé, the great Brazilian forward considered the best soccer player in the history of the sport, who arrived in 1975 to play for the New York Cosmos. The Aztecs surprised the soccer establishment during their first year by winning the NASL Championship over the Miami Toros. The team appropriated the “Aztecs” name attributed to the Pre-Columbian Indians of Mexico to appeal to the large number of Latino fans in the Los Angeles area. The Aztecs held their first game on May 5th at the 22,500 seat East Los Angeles Stadium against the Seattle Sounders attracting over 4,000 spectators. The crowd size was relatively small compared to the 10,000 fans who attended the four exhibition games against visiting soccer teams from Mexico. The crowd size question raised by L.A. sports writers was whether “the fans came out to see the Aztecs or the Mexicans?” One sports writer noted that the “Most frequent complaint about the Aztecs of the North American Soccer League is that the team has no Latin touch. In this garden spot so heavily populated with spirited Mexicans, not a one among the Aztecs….” These questions continued to baffle soccer promoters in subsequent decades.
The original roster was coached by Italian American, Alex Perolli, and described as a “polyglot team” comprised of players from Argentina, Trinidad, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico and the United States. Perolli coached in several countries including Veracruz, Mexico for two years thus he used his multilingual skills to communicate with his “foreign” players. To reach out to the large Mexican fan base in the region, however, the Aztecs actively recruited players from Mexico and local Mexican Americans. One of these recruits was Jose Lopez, captain of UCLA soccer team and the No. 1 draft pick for the NASL college draft. Born in Mexicali, Mexico, Lopez was raised in Santa Ana where he excelled in soccer at Santa Ana Valley High School earning a soccer scholarship to UCLA.Another UCLA player was two-time All-American forward Sergio Velazquez (born and raised in El Monte, California) acquired in a trade with San Antonio Thunder for seven players. Another draft pick was Miguel Lopez, who was an all-CIF player at San Gabriel High School and played for Whittier College’s soccer team and semi-pro for South Bay United in the Greater Los Angeles Soccer League. When coach Perolli fired the Trinidad goalie, he convinced Blas Sanchez to leave University of Mexico for the Aztecs and immediately turned around the team’s losing streak. Although the Aztecs were winning home games they were averaging 5,160 spectators below the league average of 8,390. Aztecs owner hoped that “the Mexican goalie will attract Latin fans to the Aztec game.” The lackluster crowds and dwindling gate receipts forced Dr. Gregory to sell the team to a consortium of businessmen.
The public perception of soccer as a foreign sport haunted club owners who worried about declining gate receipts, so they began to “Americanize” the sport by crafting new rules for team rosters. In 1977, the North American Soccer League instituted a new rule requiring teams to native-born players to be on the soccer field at all times in 1979 and three in 1980. The NASL also required that each team have at least 4 “American” players (later changed to seven) on its active roster. Known as the “3-American Rule” was a step in developing more U.S. born soccer players because according to Phil Woosman, NASL Commissioner, “the situation has developed that the caliber of foreign players being brought into the league has advanced far higher than the caliber of American players coming into the league.” As one California Surf goalie put it, “It’s no secret why soccer hasn’t taken off in this country. It comes down to one word. Americanization. People can’t identify with the players when most of them are foreigners.” Key to the Americanization of pro soccer was developing college soccer teams with more U.S. born players. With the creation of the first NCAA soccer championship in 1959 colleges began to take soccer more seriously. UCLA Bruins prided itself has having eight American started in 1974 compared to four years earlier when the entire 30-man roster represented 22 nationalities. This rule was responsible for the decline of Latino players in the NASL. In 1978 there were only 15 Latino players remaining in club rosters. This Americanization plan also impacted the L.A. Aztecs. The new owners hired a young coach, Terry Fisher, to transform the team into the “New” Aztecs. The “New” Aztecs, however, did not include Latino soccer players. For example, check out the changing composition of the Aztec team rosters in the North American Soccer League Rosters website. In a published article titled, “Pro-Soccer’s Anti-Latino Game Plan ” (Nuestro Magazine, , May 1978) former head coach at Los Angeles Mission College and California State University Northridge, Horacio “Ric” Fonseca accused the NASL of trying to “Americanize” the game by discriminating against Latinos, both U.S. born and foreign players. Fonseca makes a convincing case by citing examples of three Latino players in the “old” Aztecs who were either traded or released because “they would not sufficiently ‘Americanize’ soccer—as if U.S. Latinos were not American!” Some coaches, according to Fonseca, also preferred players who could speak English and an “English style of play” that would attract more U.S. fans. The worst racist incident came when American players from the NASL team, Philadelphia Atoms, refused to play with new players from Mexico (the new owners were a consortium of businessmen from Jalisco, Mexico) because they “considered it an insult to play with a team of ‘Mexican scrubs’.” When rumors spread that the L.A. Aztecs were also going to be sold to a Mexican company the L.A. Times attempted to reassure readers with the headline “Aztecs to stay north of the border–in Pasadena”. “No, the Los Angeles Aztecs aren’t going to play their games in Mexico City or East Los Angeles. They’ll be back at the Rose Bowl. And the players can cancel those Spanish lessons they’d been planning to take because the Aztecs aren’t going to hire a Mexican coach.” It was true that the Aztecs did not hire a Mexican coach (instead they hired a Brazilian coach) but the other rumor was true. In 1981 the L.A. Aztecs were sold to the Mexican television network, Televisa through a California subsidiary.