The Strikers are in the playoffs thanks to some late season heroics - and with some help from our Boys in Green. To be a bit more precise, the combination of a Rowdies collapse and a strong Fall Season by the Strikers culminated to see them earn their playoff spot on the very last day of the season. The Strikers were on the road against the Jacksonville Armada in the last game of the NASL 2015 Fall Season - after the Cosmos' defeat of the Rowdies the day before the Strikers needed a draw or a win in their road game against the Jacksonville.
(And just a side note on the pride of beating your local rivals, the Strikers also won the informal annual competition played between the NASL teams in Florida. Not sure what the supporters are calling this competition nowadays, but at one point it was known as the Coastal Cup - anyway, kudos to the Strikers for beating their rivals along the way to the playoffs. This didn't impact the playoff race, but it is certainly a nice accomplishment to beat your local rivals - wish the Cosmos had some local rivals to beat up on regularly - wonder of the local MLS' clubs would be open to some friendlies?)
Back to the playoffs, and most importantly how the Strikers were able to turn their season around - the answer is their Supporters. To fully understand why the Supporters were the most important of the Fall Season we have to get into our way back machine and go all the way to the end of the 2014 NASL Season. Now follow me, because this is confusing - last year the Strikers were in the Soccer Bowl (NASL Championship game) losing to the San Antonio Scorpions. Sounds like a good season right? Making the finals ain't bad. But what happened next is a real head scratcher - the Strikers basically let go of their coach! Yes, after an improbable run to the finals in his first year, they let him go! Feel free to google Gunther Kronsteiner and the Strikers for more details on this period - for our purposes it is enough to know that Gunther was pushed out by new ownership.
Spring Season 2015 comes along and the Strikers with their new coach, hand picked by the new regime despite having no experience coaching professionals, got off to a rocky start. Nonetheless, the Supporters continued to get behind the team. But after many disappointing results the fans began to clamor for their old coach.
The supporters - lead by their Supporters Group Flight 19 and a Strikers' fan podcast called The Tailgate Show - made t-shirts with Gunther's image on them and wore them to home games, if memory serves they also had a tifo with Gunther's image. But the best thing they did was contact Gunther by phone and interviewed him on the record about his willingness to return to Fort Lauderdale. Now, the fascinating part is that Gunther was not in the United States, no, he had gone back to his home in Europe. During this interview Gunther and the interviewer from The Tailgate Show were in a mutual long distance love fest where Gunther admitted a desire to return to Fort Lauderdale because he loved and missed his players and fans and most importantly that he had no hard feelings about the end of the 2015 Season.
There are certainly details that are being omitted, not intentionally, but only because my knowledge of these events isn't limited by distance. Nonetheless, this left a huge impression because frankly I had not heard of this level fan involvement in the past. Maybe this is common in soccer? I don't know. Does this happen all the time? I haven't heard of this ever happening before in any sport - sure, coaches sometimes speak with local media after parting ways with a club, but with a podcast? Across the ocean? Again, maybe this is common, but it left an impression on me about the type of relationship Gunther had with the Fort Lauderdale community.
As impressive as that outreach by the fans was, it may have been even more incredible that the Striker's front office didn't ignore the Supporters. The front office could see the team had take a step back since last season, and they could also see that the fans weren't happy, but to their credit they not only saw and recognized these things but they took the fans' wishes to heart and reached out to Coach Gunther and brought him back early in fall season.
Yes, the Strikers reached out to Gunther all the way in Europe abd brought him back. The rest is history, the Strikers are in the playoffs and will be playing the Cosmos next Saturday in Brooklyn. Please feel to look into this story on your own, it is a fascinating testimony to the power of Supporters in their relationships with soccer clubs.
Thanks for reading this post. Please feel free to leave any comments or criticisms, or any details you might have about this wonderful NASL story, this would be greatly appreciated.