Noel Lemon, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 68, was perhaps best known as the general manager of the NASL Tulsa Roughnecks, but he also played a pivotal role in the history of American soccer as the promoter of international matches in the late 1980s and early 1990s, providing much-needed competition for the U.S. national team and keeping outdoor soccer alive the years between the end of the NASL and the launch of MLS.
A native of Northern Ireland, where he played for Glentoran and other clubs, Lemon later played for clubs in Philadelphia.
As general manager of the Tulsa Roughnecks during the heyday of the NASL, Lemon was one of league's most colorful executives.
"We've only been in the league two and a half years and already half the teams hate us," he famously said. "Give me another two years and we'll have them all."
Lemon was no longer general manager when the Roughnecks won the 1983 NASL Soccer Bowl, but he intervened on behalf of Tulsa to convince NASL President Howard Samuels to allow star Ron Futcher to play. The Englishman was suspended for yellow-card accumulation, but Lemon told Samuels the Roughnecks would not travel to the final unless Futcher played.
Futcher played -- and scored -- in Tulsa's 2-0 win over the Toronto Blizzard.
Weeks later, however, the Roughnecks were bankrupt. The club only stayed afloat into the 1984 season because of a radio campaign that raised $65,000 so it could make payroll. The NASL folded in 1985.
Lemon was one of the few executives from the NASL days to stay in the game. He and former NASL executive Clive Toye founded Mundial Sports Group, which promoted such events as the Marlboro Cup.
The Marlboro Cup was one of the first events that tapped into the market for international soccer matches in the United States. More important, the event provided competition for the U.S. national team that would go on to qualify for the 1990 World Cup, ending a 40-year drought.
It wasn't like today when the U.S. national team can play any team it wants, home or away. Many of the Marlboro Cup games were against South American club teams. The Mundial Sports Group remained active long after MLS took off.
Lemon also served as the president of the ASL Ft. Lauderdale Strikers.