I’ll be at the NASL’s 50th anniversary reunion in October in Frisco, Tex., and I’m planning to play in the Legends Game. I can still walk so I guess I’m ahead of a lot of the guys who are going to be out there, that and I was only 24 when the league folded in 1984.
To his chagrin, Mike Sweeney — a former player for the Vancouver Whitecaps, Edmonton Drillers, Golden Bay Earthquakes, and Canada’s men’s national team — discovered that he is the answer to a trivia question.
The question: Who is the only Canadian to be ejected from a match in the World Cup finals?
“I wasn’t a goal scorer but I guess I’m one of those guys who is always going to be remembered,” Sweeney said. “I have a friend in Ireland who called me once and said he had been playing a trivia game and I was the answer to one of the questions.”
That is because Sweeney was sent off (two yellow cards) in Canada’s match against Hungary in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Canada was out after the first round and has yet to return to the finals — a situation that is likely to change when Canada, Mexico and the United States co-host the 2026 World Cup (although there has yet to be a decision that would automatically qualify the three hosts).
“There were only 24 teams there in ‘86 and I’m certain that we would have qualified for three straight if we had the same players when the tournament expanded to 32 teams,” Sweeney said. “In my days with the national team I cannot remember losing a meaningful game.
“In that respect, the NASL was a great league for us. Canadians were not considered to be internationals by the league. And several Canadians did really well in the league: [Branko] Segota, [Tino] Lettieri, Bobby [Iarusci], Wes [McLeod] and Bruce [Wilson]. When we played with our best players we managed to do OK. But without the league around, guys like [Owen] Hargreaves chose to play for other countries.”
Sweeney, who is from the logging town of Duncan in western British Columbia, was still a teenager when he was signed by the Edmonton Drillers. He spent three seasons in Alberta, appearing in 86 games.
“It was an exceptional reality for a young kid like me,” Sweeney said. “Most of us had very little coaching. We never had the opportunity to really look at the game or be able to practice at a high level.”
He moved closer to home when the Whitecaps acquired him in 1983, only to be shipped south to California in the NASL’s final outdoor season in 1984.
“Vancouver’s team was traditionally English,” Sweeney said. “I played in the reserves if I didn’t play with the first team. I got to play and train, and in the reserves there was [Peter] Beardsley and [Bruce] Grobbelaar beside you. It was humbling for us Canadians. We appreciated the opportunity and went to every practice and game to learn. Look, there were guys like [Peter] Lorimer. We could run circles around him, but we still couldn’t get the ball away from him.
“It was an unbelievable environment.”
Sweeney, still a young player when the league folded, went on to play many years of indoor soccer, settling in northeast Ohio after several seasons playing in Cleveland. Still, his experiences in the NASL are never far from his mind.
“For me it was only 4-5 years, just a blink of the eye and now I’m old,” Sweeney said. “I don’t have any one thing that sticks out. But on the flip side there are so many. I’m a kid from a small logging town in western B.C. And there I was being coached by a guy like Nobby Stiles. He played in a World Cup — bad teeth and bad hair — and then he ends up being my reserve coach. It was crazy that we were able to get people of that caliber to show us how to play. In those days we were so naive. All we wanted to do was work hard, run and play.”