Charlie Fajkus

“I had been hoping to make the NASL’s 50th anniversary reunion later in October, but a family commitment got in the way. It sounds like a lot of folks are going, which is great.”

For Charlie Fajkus, soccer was always a family affair. His father, Jerry, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, had an outsize influence on the growth of the in and around the Chicago area — and beyond. Jerry, who died last year, founded the Sparta FC club and was a driving force behind the launch in 1976 of one of the first women’s soccer leagues in the United States. Charlie starred for the club, along with another NASL alum (and college temmated), Angelo DiBernardo.

“He had a massive influence on me and the game in Chicago,” Fajkus said about his dad. “Every Saturday he went to parks and did clinics. He told skeptical, mostly baseball fans, that playing the game would cost them nothing. He gave then shirts and balls for $5. He has branches to coaches all over the country. He touched several thousand.”

From his days with Sparta, Indiana University and later the fabled Chicago Sting, Charlie, along with Rudy Glenn and a couple of others, were part of the American contingent on one of the league’s most skilled and entertaining clubs.

“Certainly the ‘81 team [which won the NASL championship] was the highlight,” Fajkus said. “That team on paper wasn’t probably the best team, but it certainly had a great mix of players, it’s one of things Chicago and the Cosmos did as well, giving the American players a chance to play. We had some games when we had five, six, seven Americans on the field. Back then the rule was three North Americans on the field. Usually one was a goalie.

“We were German, Scottish, English, the rest filled in by Americans. I have to give credit to Willy Roy and Lee Stern. Quite honestly when you look at MLS today, it’s starting to go to the model of bringing in guys and extending careers. Even some academy players are not American. It’s great to have guys like Rooney and Ibra, marquee guys. But when secondary guys are coming over it’s pretty much a toss-up as to giving an American player a chance.”

Fajkus, now living in Kansas City, Kan., as the vice president in a sales division for Southern Glazer’s, the largest wine and liquor distributor in the country, said there was nothing easy about earning his spot with the Sting, where he played 138 games from 1979-84.

“The environment was welcoming and mentoring, but we had to earn our way, it was not entitlement,” he said. “We had to beat out some foreign players, certainly I had the grit, that was our third year for most of us. I came in in ‘79, the first group of college players, really that group of eight, 10 guys were the first that really got a chance to play.

“Other teams had a different approach. The Sting gave us a shot and that’s all you can ask for. My rookie year I got into the fourth or fifth game, 15-20 minutes. The next game a half, then I was a starter, but you certainly had to earn it. Then you develop from there. Over all it worked for me.”

Fajkus, along with a group of his teammates from the 1981 championship team, gather every five years in Chicago to reminisce and share stories and reconnect. It’s a unique thing, as he pointed out, more common for Super Bowl champions that Soccer Bowl champions.

“It’s a culture that starts with leadership,” he said. “For us, when we were on the field we were all brothers, when we were off the field we were brothers. But also fought like brothers.”