1980s' Tea Men soccer: A look back at Jacksonville's first top-tier pro sports team

The name always seemed silly. But for a brief, glorious stint it was a lot of fun for Jacksonville's first top-tier pro team, more than a full decade before pro football came along.

From 1980 through 1982, the Jacksonville Tea Men played in the original North American Soccer League, which was a rollicking good time for a while as teams coaxed top international players (Pele, George Best, Johan Cruyff, Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer and others) to come play in America, even though they might have lost a step. Or three.

It seems a good time to look back at the Tea Men, particularly as the World Cup gets ready to start Nov. 20 (the first U.S. match, against Wales, is the following day).

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Then there's the recent news that a new pro soccer team, with Tim Tebow in the ownership group, is coming to Jacksonville. The as-yet unnamed team will play at the top level of the United Soccer League, just one step below Major League Soccer. Plans also call for the creation of a women's pro team based in Jacksonville.

The Tea Men — the name came from owner Lipton Tea Co. and the team's original Massachusetts location where it kind of made sense — drew early enthusiastic crowds when it moved to town. But even the bigger, earlier crowds were swallowed up in the cavernous Gator Bowl.

Despite some success on the field, attendance declined, ownership changed twice and the team moved to lower-level leagues.

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And while it was all over by 1984, it did give the city a brief taste of big names and top-level competition — more than decade before the Jaguars came along.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: A look back at the Jacksonville Tea Men's brief run in pro soccer