Written by Steve Holroyd (email@example.com), with an intro by Colin Jose
To some the game of indoor soccer is new, but just as the outdoor game in the U.S. didn't begin with Pele, the indoor game wasn't born when the Major Indoor Soccer League came into being. Incredible though it may seem indoor, or "rink" soccer as it was known then, was played at least as early as 1885 when the Canadian team that visited New Jersey to play an outdoor international also played a series of indoor games.
Newspaper reports of the Canadian tour relate that the games were played at the Olympian Roller Skating rink, on Broadway, near Fifty-second street in New York. There were six players on each team on a surface that measured 165 feet x 80 feet. The goals were said to be eight feet high and 15 ft in width. The Toronto Globe of December 7, 1885 comments "The rink is a very fine one, though not sufficiently high to prevent the ball hitting the ceiling. The Canadian team played three rink matches all against the Clark's O.N.T. team winning the first game 1-0, the second ending in a tie, while the Canadians won the third 6-0, thus winning the cup."
The Toronto Mail relates that, as the cup was being presented, one of the Canadian players, Fred Killer, received a crack on the back of the head from an old woman who declared "the cup was not won by square play, and that it was nothing but an old pot anyway." The paper also reports that as the game was going on some women forgot themselves so far as to hiss the Canadian players and declare that "those Canadians must have gone to cheating school, they cheat so."
It is said that the silver cup was a handsome one and that the trophy stood about eighteen inches high, with the cup itself being supported by two bannerets with poles and on the pedestal a golden ball. Engraved on one side of the cup was a representation of a game in progress and on the other side the following inscription. "International Football Contest, America v. Canada, at Newark, N.J., Dec 2,3 and 4, 1885. Indoor soccer was also played at Madison Square Garden in the late 1920's when the famous boxing promoter Tex Ricard promoted the games. Indoor soccer also was played at the Boston Commonwealth Armory in 1885, and by the early 1920s, regular league schedules were being played. Although indoor soccer kept a very low profile in the United States until recently, this was not the case in other parts of the world. In the former Soviet Union, for example, a form of indoor soccer was one of the most popular winter sports. In England, too, a form of the game was played, as English First Division clubs pitted themselves against each other in “six-a-side” tournaments sponsored by the London Express during the winter months. In 1930, Uruguay’s Juan Carlos Ceriani devised the first set of rules for a five-a-side version of soccer, to be played on basketball courts and without the use of sideboards. This sport became known as “futsal.”
In the United States, however, it took a little longer for indoor soccer to get on track. Even though 11-on-11 indoor games were being played as early as the 1880s in Boston, the sport was rarely seen as anything other than a wintertime training device. About 1911, the Metropolitan Association Foot Ball League of New York City arranged an exhibition match at Madison Square Garden during the annual track meet of Columbia University. The game was a somewhat disastrous affair. The field was the wooden surface of the indoor arena, and players, unprepared and improperly shod, slipped all over the "field", and the ball spent a lot of time in the rafters. In Chicago, the International Soccer League (which, despite its grand moniker, was and is a semipro league; it exists today as the National Soccer League) held indoor tournaments in the 1920s. Similarly, full-sided indoor tournaments were staged at Boston’s Commonwealth Armory during the same period. In 1939, the second American Soccer League staged the first “professional” indoor matches in the country, at Madison Square Garden in New York.
In 1940, indoor matches were again played at the Garden under the ASL aegis. A lack of fan interest, coupled with the United States’ entry into World War II, ended the series. In 1958, the ASL tried again, staging an all-day tournament at Madison Square Garden. Playing on the hard soil left behind by a Roy Rogers horse show, the league allowed the use of dasher boards. The all-day tournament attracted over 14,000 people. Uhrik Truckers of Philadelphia defeated the cross-town Philadelphia Ukrainians in the final, 11-9. This tournament proved to be a one-off event, though; unfortunately, the ASL had stumbled upon a successful sport at the very time it, as a league, was beginning to devolve into an even-weaker semipro state.
Indoor Soccer did land on fertile soil in the Midwest. The National Soccer League of Chicago, remembering its early forays in the 1920s, established a full fledged indoor season in 1950, a U.S. first. Twelve teams participated that first year in a 13 week season, broadcast on local radio, as well as the first televised indoor match. Vikings won the regular season, with Eagles winning the playoff trophy. Similar to the ASL game, the NSL had a field of 60 x 42 yards with play-off boards, 7 man teams with two ten minute halves. The playing surface was dirt with only gym shoes permitted. Goalkeeper Gino Gardassanich won the MVP and went with the US World Cup squad to Brazil but did not play. The season was so successful that 17 teams took part the following season, in two divisions. The indoor seasons continued at least through the 1962 season, but appear to have been discontinued by 1968. However, they were later revived and indoor soccer is being played by the NSL to this day.
The next major attempt to professionalize indoor soccer occurred, once again, at Madison Square Garden in 1958. On November 12, an all-day, six game tournament was held involving ASL teams. According to the ASL News, there were “thrills, chills, spills, excitement, boos, cheers, heroes and goats”. New York Hakoah opened by beating Brooklyn Italians 3-0, and went on to win the tournament, defeating the Italians again, this time 4-3.
Iggy Malinkowski scored a hat trick as Brookhattan defeated Falcons, Pasquale Pepe scored four in the Uhrik Truckers 8-6 victory over Newark Portuguese, and a coin toss broke the 2-2 semifinal draw between Uhrik and Brooklyn. The players and fans had a great time, but the crowd of 6,121 was considerably less than the 14,000 anticipated, and despite hopeful words, this tournament proved to be a one-time event. The ASL was starting to enter a period of decline, which would only get worse through the 60s, and outside of the NSL games in Chicago, the indoor game went back to the basement exhibitions and training regimens.
While indoor soccer failed to take off at a professional level during this period, the indoor game continued to develop in cities across America. In St. Louis, for example, club teams would gather in church basements and play matches under rules closer to FIFA’s current “futsal” format than the current American version. However, the conditions these teams played under were unlike any seen at any professional level: often the players had to contend with support beams which were stuck right in the middle of the playing field. Meanwhile, colleges and amateur leagues staged various indoor tournaments in armories and gymnasiums for years. These tournaments were played under slightly altered rules: the goals were generally 7’ high (as opposed to the 8’ outdoor goal) and 12’ to 14’ wide (considerably shorter than the 24’ outdoor goal).
In the early 1970s, the North American Soccer League began toying with the idea of indoor soccer. In 1971, for instance, Dallas Tornado--led by coach Ron Newman--won the first indoor tournament ever staged by the league. While the tournament did not have much of an impact on the NASL or the Tornado’s fortunes, it did have the distinction of being the first of many indoor crowns to be garnered by Newman in the future.
Essentially, the birth of the modern game in America can be traced to February 1974, when the North American Soccer League staged two indoor exhibitions against the touring Red Army of Moscow club. The first game, played on February 7 in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, found the Soviets steamrollering a patchwork NASL All-Star team 8-4. It is the second exhibition, however, which is generally acknowledged as the “big bang” of professional indoor soccer in the United States.
During the 1973 NASL season, the expansion Philadelphia Atoms, coached by American Al Miller, captured the league crown in their first year of existence. As incredible as that feat was, the real triumph for the league and the sport at the time was that the Atoms accomplished this with a predominantly American line-up. As the defending champions, Philadelphia was scheduled to play the second game against the Red Army squad. The Soviets would be the best team the Atoms had faced to date, featuring world-class players like goalkeeper Leonid Shmuts; defender Nikolay Kiselev, midfielders Marian Plakhetko, Vladimir Fedotov, and Vladimir Kaplichnyi; and forward Vladimir Dudarenko. As a result, the game wound up being more than a simple demonstration of a “new” sport: it would be a test of American soccer, particularly since the Atoms were a mostly native side.
Miller, recognizing this, did not treat the game as a mere exhibition; he welcomed the opportunity to test his side against top, international competition. “The Red Army is definitely the best team the Atoms have ever faced,” Miller said. “If we were to beat them, it would be a tremendous upset...they play high class competition year ‘round. They are world-ranked, and are very fast and extremely tenacious.” Miller put his club through lengthy physical conditioning programs in preparation for the match, stating “I don’t want any of the Atoms to fall by the wayside because he isn’t fit enough to keep up with the Russians.”
Miller knew exactly what he was up against, having had the misfortune of being the coach of the select squad that was trounced by Red Army in Toronto. With the Atoms’ two top scorers and three-quarters of its starting defense playing in England at the time, Miller wisely “borrowed” four all-stars from the select squad: Paul Child (from the defunct Atlanta franchise), Harvard-educated Alex Papadakis (also from Atlanta), Dick Hall (Dallas), and Jorge Siega (New York). Among those filling out the Philadelphia roster were fellow indoor select members George O’Neill and Barry Barto, along with Bobby Smith, Bill Straub, and Sports Illustrated cover boy Bob Rigby.
On February 11, the two teams met in Philadelphia at the Spectrum, a hockey arena, with Astroturf covering the ice surface for the occasion. The game itself was played on a field the size of a hockey rink, with goals 4’ by 16’. The match was played in three 20 minute periods, allowed free substitution, and featured six man sides (five field players and a goalkeeper). The curiosity factor of a “new” game, coupled with the presence of the Atoms (a highly successful team at the gate outdoors) against a Soviet team during the ultra-competitive Cold War era led 11,790 fans to the arena that night. They were not disappointed: the Atoms held an early 1-0 lead, lost it, then kept rallying to tie until the score was 3-3 with about 17 minutes left to play. Then--Miller’s emphasis on conditioning notwithstanding--the locals faded and the Soviets hammered home three quick goals, giving them a 6-3 victory. The Russians were impressive. “Their movement without the ball was a thing to behold,” Miller said after the match. “They were constantly putting pressure on the defenders, and it literally wore us down.” Ersatz Atoms Siega and Child also had good nights, collecting all three Atoms’ goals between them. But the real highlight of the evening was the remarkable play of Rigby, who hurled himself all over the floor in stopping 33 of Red Army’s 39 shots. Moscow coach Vladimir Agapov bestowed plenty of praise on the young American, saying “it is difficult to tell from one game, but on his performance tonight, I think he could handle himself on most any field in the world.”
In spite of his side’s gutsy performance, Miller was disappointed with the result. “I thought it was important for us to win,” he said. “It would have helped us not only here [in America] but around the world. Russia is one of the best soccer countries in the world. They’re real big time.” While Miller may have been upset with the final score, he could take some consolation from the fact that the press were positive in their review of the final product.
February 11, 1974 SCORE BY PERIODS Red Army 2 1 3 - 6 Philadelphia Atoms 1 1 1 - 3 FIRST PERIOD: 1. Philadelphia, Siega (Papadakis), 6:21; 1. Red Army, Tellinger (Shladak), 6:55; 2. Red Army, Babenko (Popev-Dorofeov), 13:25. SECOND PERIOD: 2. Philadelphia, Child (Siega), 6:20; 3. Red Army, Kaplichnyi (Tellinger), 15:44. THIRD PERIOD: 3. Philadelphia, Siega (Child), 2:51;4. Red Army, Popev (Kodeikin), 5:59; 5. Red Army, Dudarenko (Popev), 13:25; 6. Red Army, Dorofeov (Morosov-Pollacarpov), 18:06. SHOTS ON GOAL Red Army 9 16 14 - 39 Philadelphia 14 10 6 - 30 Goalkeepers: Red Army, Astapovski; Philadelphia, Rigby Attendance: 11,790From a purely soccer point of view, this match demonstrated several things. First, it was a sport that Americans could play: the Atoms, who even outdoors started six Yanks at a time when other teams would use only one or two, were almost entirely composed of Americans that night, as their foreign stars were home playing in England. In spite of this “handicap,” the club performed extremely well. Red Army coach Agapov acknowledged the skill demonstrated by the Americans, saying “when it was 3-3, they were playing on our level, and they were inspired.” Also, as it was a “new” game, incorporating elements of hockey and, to a lesser extent, basketball, the Americans were able to remain competitive, as their experience at those games compensated for their lack of “traditional” soccer skills. In addition, the fact that the indoor game only used six players at a time allowed the American team to overcome the general lack of depth that afflicted most outdoor teams attempting similar all-American lineups (for example, the NASL’s St. Louis Stars of the early 1970s). Another important factor is that indoor soccer players--Americans in particular--did not suffer from an inferiority complex when compared with their foreign counterparts; while the Russians played it seriously, other countries only dabbled in the game. As a result, there were none of the inevitable comparisons to Pelé, for example, that outdoor footballers had to endure. Finally, indoor soccer, with its obvious connections to hockey and basketball, was a game easily understood by the American fan: with its high scoring and fast pace, it made for an entertaining evening.
It was this last feature which caught the attention of Ed Tepper. Tepper was among the nearly 12,000 in attendance that night. However, he was more interested in the Astroturf than the game--at the time, he owned the Philadelphia Wings of the National Lacrosse League, and had gone to the match mainly to investigate the viability of artificial turf on the hockey surface (the Wings played their games on plywood). Instead of the turf, however, it was the spectators’ enthusiastic response which caught Tepper’s attention: “At that moment I knew indoor soccer was the right game for the future,” he later remembered. For the time being, though, Tepper’s idea for some kind of organized, professional indoor game would remain just that.
Evidently, other individuals also took note of indoor soccer’s potential as a spectator sport. In 1975 two businessmen, Rick Ragone and Norm Sutherland, attempted to start a professional indoor league called the Major Soccer League. However, this was before the NASL’s boom in the mid-1970s, and the idea died before leaving the drawing board.
Meanwhile, the North American Soccer League also began exploring indoor soccer’s potential as an organized game. Among other things, the indoor game was expected to increase fans’ interest in the game as a whole. Not incidentally, it would also enable owners to generate additional revenues from players they already, for the most part, had under contract. After the Soviet exhibitions, the NASL staged an indoor tournament in 1975: sixteen teams participated in this affair, which was divided into four regional tournaments, with the winners meeting in San Francisco for the overall title in a format similar to the NCAA’s college basketball tournament. The regions consisted of four teams each. In the regionals, two teams would play each other, and then winners would play losers in a two game series. The team with the best record advanced to the national semifinals; in the event of teams having identical records, the side with the best total goal differential advanced to the nationals.
The first regional commenced in Dallas’ Fair Park Arena on January 24. The matches were played under the same rules as the Philadelphia-Red Army match, with the three periods being shortened to 15 minutes each. The opener found Philadelphia Atoms, behind the sharp play of reserve keeper Norm Wingert, defeating St. Louis Stars, 5-3. Atoms coach Al Miller had stated that his team should not be favored, as he was using mostly young American kids and would have to play “the American way--plenty of scrap and hustle--to overcome” their lack of experience. However, notwithstanding this or the fact that St. Louis outshot the Atoms 21-11, the Atoms prevailed on the strength of Wingert’s 18 saves, two goals by Bobby Ludwig and one goal apiece from Karl Minor, Joe Luxbacher, and 37-year old Walt Chyzowych. Three other American stars--Pat McBride, Gene Geimer, and two-time Hermann Trophy winner Al Trost--tallied for St. Louis. The second game of the doubleheader found Toronto Metros edging host Dallas Tornado, 2-1. On January 26, the second doubleheader of the tournament was played. The first game--televised nationally by CBS--found Dallas trouncing Philadelphia, 6-2; Mike Renshaw copped a hat trick for the Tornado, and Ilija Mitic, Bob Ridley, and Roy Turner also added goals. Philadelphia’s lone goals were from Luxbacher and Tom Galati. The biggest surprise was Dallas keeper Ken Cooper’s upstaging Philly netminder Bob Rigby, outsaving him 15-13 in the win. In the nightcap, Al Trost’s three goals led St. Louis over Toronto, 8-4. As all four teams finished with 1-1 records, Dallas advanced to the semifinals on goal differential.
The second regional opened in Rochester on February 6. The first pair of matches found New York Cosmos edge the expansion Hartford Bicentennials, 4-3, thanks to the sparkling play of Jorge Siega. (At the time, New York was expected to announce that it had acquired Northern Irish international star George Best; indeed, some papers reported that Best would join the Cosmos in time for the tournament. However, the deal fell through; Best would not join New York, and the Cosmos soon directed their attention to another world-class player, this time from Brazil). In the second match, another expansion franchise, Boston Minutemen, edged Rochester Lancers, 4-3.
On February 8, New York lost to Rochester 8-7, in spite of goalkeeper Antonio Carlos’ 35 saves; the lead changed hands four times before Frank Odio’s second goal of the match put Rochester up for good. The second match was a battle between the two new clubs, with Hartford defeating Boston, 5-3. Again, as all sides finished with identical 1-1 records, New York advanced on goal differential.
On February 17 and 19, the third regional was played at Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay Rowdies, another new club, drew 10,000 fans to its final match. Tampa Bay and Miami Toros beat both opponents to finish at 2-0; Tampa Bay advanced on goal differential.
The final regional was played in San Francisco the following week. The opening matches found Vancouver Whitecaps crush defending NASL outdoor champions Los Angeles Aztecs 15-4, while San Jose Earthquakes, behind four goals from Paul Child, rocked Seattle Sounders 14-4. Given the huge goal differential between the winners and losers, San Jose and Vancouver agreed to break format and play one another for the regional title. On February 19, San Jose edged Vancouver 7-3 behind Child’s hat trick and veteran goalkeeper Mirko Stojanovic’s solid play before a near capacity crowd.
On March 14, the semifinalists met in San Francisco’s Cow Palace to begin the championship series. The matches found Tampa Bay and San Jose advancing to the final held March 16, where San Jose captured the title before a full house and a national television audience, the latter again courtesy of CBS. San Jose’s Paul Child and Gabbo Gavric shared tournament Most Valuable Player honors; the all-tournament team included Child, Gavric, Cooper, Mitic, Renshaw, and Tampa Bay’s Doug Wark.
1975 NORTH AMERICAN SOCCER LEAGUE INDOOR TOURNAMENT (San Jose, California) FINAL STANDINGS AND STATISTICS W L GF GA GB San Jose Earthquakes 2 0 16 10 -- Tampa Bay Rowdies 1 1 18 13 1 Dallas Tornado 1 1 7 8 1 New York Cosmos 0 2 5 15 2 PLAYOFF RESULTS Semifinals: Tampa Bay 13, New York 5 San Jose 8, Dallas 5 Championship Game: San Jose 8, Tampa Bay 5 Leading Scorers G A TP Paul Child (San Jose) 7 3 17 Doug Wark (Tampa Bay) 7 0 14 Bernard Hartze (Tampa Bay) 4 3 11 Ilija Mitic (Dallas) 4 1 9 Siggy Lezak (Tampa Bay) 4 0 8The tournament was such a success, both on the field and at the gate, where crowds of over 9,000 regularly attended the matches, that it was repeated in 1976. This time only 12 teams participated in three regionals. The Group I Regional was held on March 12 and 13 in St. Petersburg. During the first day’s matches, Tampa Bay-eager for another shot at the title-defeated Washington 9-5, while Miami had to go to a tie-breaker to edge Boston Minutemen, 7-6. During the second day’s matches, Tampa Bay defeated Boston, 5-3, and Washington surprised Miami, 9-3. For the first time in the tournament’s brief history, a team advanced without relying on goal-differential, as Tampa Bay’s 2-0 record propelled them to the semi-finals. Chicago played host to the Group II Regional, held on March 13 and 14. Rochester Lancers defeated Chicago Sting 5-2 on the first day’s slate, and returned the next day to edge St. Louis 5-4 to advance to the semifinals. In the other matches, Toronto defeated St. Louis 8-6, but lost the next night to the host Sting, 6-2.
Defending champion San Jose was the early favorite to win the Group III Regional, again held in San Francisco’s Cow Palace, held on March 19 and March 21, and did not disappoint. However, the ‘Quakes had to rely on goal differential to go through. The March 19 crowds saw the ‘Quakes pummel Vancouver 18-6, while Dallas defeated San Diego Jaws-the former Baltimore Comets-5-2. The second night’s matches found San Jose defeating San Diego 8-4, while Dallas defeated the hapless Whitecaps, 11-2.
Again repeating the “final four” format, the semifinalists convened in St. Petersburg for the championship. During the semifinal matches, Rochester Lancers upset San Jose, 6-4, while Tampa Bay cruised past Dallas 6-2. On March 27, before a capacity hometown crowd, the Rowdies avenged the previous year’s loss with a convincing 6-4 win over Rochester. San Jose defeated Dallas 5-2 to earn third place.
W L GF GA GB Tampa Bay Rowdies 2 0 12 6 -- Rochester Lancers 1 1 10 10 1 San Jose Earthquakes 1 1 9 8 1 Dallas Tornado 0 2 4 11 2 PLAYOFF RESULTS Semifinals (March 26) Tampa Bay 6 Dallas 2 Rochester 6 San Jose 4 Third Place Game (March 27) San Jose 5 Dallas 2 Championship Game (March 27) Tampa Bay 6 Rochester 4Some exhibitions were played outside the tournament as well; on April 8, Philadelphia Atoms, who did not participate in the tournament and were now a predominantly Mexican side, edged Washington 4-3 in Philadelphia. As a warm-up for the tournament, Tampa Bay played a friendly against Santos (of Jamaica, alas) on March 6, winning 11-4.
Following years found individual teams playing indoor exhibitions, but no league play. These exhibitions were not unsuccessful, however: in 1978, for instance, Tampa Bay played 7 indoor games, drawing an average of 6,400 per game for its home matches at St. Petersburg’s Bayfront Center, while playing before crowds of 3,662, 3,111 and 3,250 during matches in Washington and Tulsa. These games were still little more than exhibitions, though. During a match against Dallas Tornado, Rowdies’ star Rodney Marsh, evidently bored and with his team up 7-3 with five minutes to go, resorted to the hamming that earned him the nickname “The Clown Prince of Soccer”. He leaped up and tried to catch the ball with his hands (missing several times) and, once he got hold of the ball, played “keep away” from the Dallas lads, taunting them to try to take it away. While the highly partisan crowd in St. Petersburg appreciated such antics, it is not surprising that Tornado coach Al Miller did not.
As noted, the NASL had only dabbled in indoor soccer: it was a sanctioned outdoor league, and that is where it saw its future. However, with the boom that accompanied the post-Pelé years, opportunists began to see a void that could be filled by an American hybrid of the game, a hybrid that provided more thrills, more spills, and higher scoring.
The immediate roots of professional indoor soccer were eerily similar to those of the outdoor game. In 1967, when three separate groups of businessmen--egged on by stadium owners anxious to fill their grounds--saw a money making opportunity after the success of the 1966 World Cup. Now, in the wake of the NASL’s Pelé-driven success, three separate leagues--this time encouraged by arena owners seeking additional sources of revenue--announced that they would be forming professional indoor soccer leagues, all beginning play in 1978.
The first group was the immodestly titled Super Soccer League. This group, headed by Jerry Saperstein, son of Harlem Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein, came into existence partly out of the junior Saperstein’s inability to get a hockey franchise for South Florida. Saperstein eventually grouped with the aforementioned Mssrs. Ragone and Sutherland, and announced that the league would begin playing a season beginning in April 1978 and continuing through November.
The second group was the brainchild of Ed Tepper. Three years after viewing the Atoms-Red Army game, Tepper approached his friend, Washington attorney Earl Foreman. Foreman was no stranger to the soccer wars, having been an owner of the Washington franchise in the United Soccer Association and the North American Soccer League. Tepper brought a video tape of an indoor game played between another touring Russian team--Leningrad Zenit--and Tampa Bay Rowdies. Foreman was excited by what he saw, and agreed to form a league with Tepper. In October 1977, the two contacted various arena owners who (not surprisingly) liked the concept and provided the duo with the seed money that enabled them to locate prospective owners. By October 1977, the two announced that the Major Indoor Soccer League would operate a circuit, concentrating on East Coast and Midwest cities, to begin play in the winter of 1978-79. In November 1978, it announced that it would begin play with 6 teams--Philadelphia, New York, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Houston, and Cincinnati--playing a 24 game schedule from late December 1978 to mid-March of the following year.
Meanwhile, the North American Soccer League, seeing a golden opportunity slip through its fingers, announced that it, too, would operate an indoor league through the winter of 1978-79, starting in December, with 18 of its 24 franchises participating. NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam stated that such a league was necessary to help Americans improve their level of play: “If [the U.S.] is to emerge as a world soccer power, provision must be made for players to have approximately 60 games a year to compete with the experience being gained by players overseas. Six-a-side soccer as a supplemental program is an ideal way to develop our young players.” Indeed, all three leagues stated that their intention was to give American footballers a chance to develop their skills at a professional level. When the SSL was asked if it intended to raid the NASL for players since it was holding its indoor season concurrent with the older league’s outdoor season, Ragone responded, “we don’t need to go after players from the NASL. Instead, we will specialize in kids out of American colleges while importing a number of top players.” Likewise, the MISL announced that, on its club’s 14 man rosters, a minimum of 10 would be American.
These altruistic pronouncements notwithstanding, the three leagues had bigger concerns to address, money and credibility being the two biggest factors. The MISL operated from the best position: it had secured solid ownership groups, and had also locked up most of the top arenas in the country, such as Philadelphia’s Spectrum, Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum, Houston’s Summit and Cleveland’s Richfield Coliseum. It also gained a significant coup in New York Arrows’ signing of American star Shep Messing, the goalkeeper on the 1977 NASL Champion New York Cosmos. The NASL, on the other hand, enjoyed name recognition and, in theory (as many outdoor stars were ambivalent about the indoor game), higher-quality players.
At first, however, it appeared that the SSL was going to be the king of the hill. It announced that it had secured a five year, $2.5 million dollar television contract from 20th Century Fox Television, calling for three SSL games to be televised in 1978, with the number increasing in future seasons. However, the Saperstein group’s inability to get its season started--after originally announcing an April 1978 start date, the league then announced that it would begin play in May, then June, then July and then November before finally holding off until April 1979--placed this deal in serious jeopardy almost immediately after it was signed.
The SSL was unable to get its season started as planned because it could not stabilize its franchise situation. While the MISL was stable with 6 teams, the SSL fluctuated from the originally announced number of 16 to 12, then 8, then 7 when the Atlanta franchise backed out, then back to 8 when new owners were allegedly found for that group. Eight months from its projected April 1979 start date, the SSL announced that it planned to open with 12 teams in a two-division line-up. However, the line-up at the time of the announcement only included Washington Fever (owned by Ragone), Birmingham Bandits (owned by SSL co-founder Billy Lyons), Shreveport (headed by Cal Rockefeller), New York Fever, Atlanta, and South Florida (Miami). Even at the time of the announcement, though, only Washington, Birmingham and Shreveport actually existed. Other rumored franchises in New England, New Jersey, Toronto, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle simply never materialized. In the end, a lack of financial preparation (a problem which directly contributed to the Atlanta’s group dropping out, for example, as it could not afford the Omni’s expensive rental fees) killed the league in its cradle. The Super Soccer League never played a game.
The NASL, meanwhile, also ultimately held off on its plans to form an indoor league. While many owners wanted to wait and see how well the MISL did, they, too, were also unprepared to start an indoor circuit on such short notice. The net result was that, in December 1978, the Major Indoor Soccer League was the only indoor game in town.
On December 22, 1978, 10,386 fans piled into Nassau Coliseum to watch the Cincinnati Kids take on the hometown New York Arrows in the first Major Indoor Soccer League match. In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, baseball legend (and Kids co-owner) Pete Rose kicked out the first ball.
Those in attendance viewed indoor soccer played under rules different than those under which the NASL tournaments had been played. While most of the NASL indoor rules were retained, Tepper and Foreman (who was now the MISL Commissioner) met with a few friends in a Philadelphia apartment before the season to try to add scoring to the game. As a result, the game was divided into four 15-minute periods, as opposed to the three 20-minute periods used in the NASL. More importantly, the size of the goal was enlarged, to allow for both heading and increased scoring. When asked how high the goals should be, Tepper stood in a doorway in the apartment and indicated they should be as high as the doorframe; as a result, the goals stood 6’6” high by 12’ wide, as compared to the NASL’s 4’ by 16’ goal. Tepper, predictably, was excited by their “new” sport: “Bringing soccer indoor provides all the speed and scoring lacking in the outdoor game,” he said.
Initial fan reaction to the game showed that Tepper might have been right. All of the six clubs drew respectable crowds to their openers, with Philadelphia drawing a capacity 16,529 crowd to its home debut on December 30. The league’s inaugural season consisted of a 24-game schedule; the league averaged 4,453 per game. Philadelphia Fever, made up mostly of players from that city’s amateur United League, paced the circuit with 8,500 per game.
The makeup of the early MISL rosters was very diverse. Some clubs, such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, relied primarily upon local talent. Others, Houston and New York in particular, imported the NASL’s Houston Hurricane and Rochester Lancers, respectively, to represent their sides. The latter approach was very successful: Houston dominated play to capture the first regular-season league crown, and New York won the first MISL championship. The Arrows, besides featuring ex-Cosmos star Shep Messing in goal, included a number of players who would go on to be dominant forces in indoor soccer’s history. Among these players was the one figure who would define the sport and all of its potential-Steve Zungul.
The league’s first season was such a success that it added five teams for the 1979-80 season (although losing one, Cincinnati, to financial difficulties). Foremost among these was the addition of the St. Louis Steamers to the league’s line-up. Employing an almost exclusively native line-up, the Steamers drew over 18,000 fans to their opener, and averaged over 13,000 for the season. Around the league, attendance was up to about 6,102 per game.
Ironically, the MISL began to receive more attention for the way it promoted its product that for the product itself. Pre-game theatrics used by many teams-introductions of players through clouds of dry ice, eight-foot tall mascots, and music accompanying the action on the field-gained more publicity for the circuit than the quality of play on the field, which was markedly improved. While the MISL took some heat over the on-field theatrics, these tactics would later be adopted by teams in “major” sports like hockey and basketball, and with great success.
On the field, New York repeated as champions, fielding an absolutely dominating club that featured Shep Messing, Steve Zungul, Branko Segota, and Juli Veee. Other stars of note included Joey Fink (Philadelphia), Kai Haaskivi (Houston), Fred Grgurev (Philadelphia), and Alan Mayer (Pittsburgh).
The MISL could no longer comfortably enjoy its status as the United States’ premier indoor league. Having regretted its decision to sit back and watch the MISL during its first season, the North American Soccer League announced that the clubs would play a full indoor league in the winter of 1979-80. NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam offered “we pioneered indoor soccer in this country-it’s a natural compliment to the outdoor version” as a justification for the foray. However, only 10 of the NASL’s 24 clubs participated, with marquee franchises New York, Washington, and Vancouver among those taking a pass. Moreover, those teams that did participate left their main stars outside, resulting in a league of reserves. Some legitimate stars did make appearances during the NASL’s 12 game season, including California’s Steve Moyers, Atlanta’s Victor Nogueira, Minnesota’s Tino Lettieri, and Detroit’s Pato Margetic.
Notwithstanding these drawbacks, the NASL performed respectably indoors. Overall, the league averaged 4,869 per game to its matches, with Minnesota drawing crowds of over 10,000 to some games, and Memphis and Atlanta regularly drawing more to their indoor games than they had to their outdoor matches. Tampa Bay continued its indoor dominance, defeating Memphis for the inaugural NASL title.
Two functioning leagues in a barely developed market can be a dangerous thing. Unfortunately, neither the NASL nor the MISL paid much attention to the lessons of outdoor professional soccer in 1967. A full-blown war developed between the two leagues, ultimately contributing to the death of both.
The MISL continued to grow, with franchise shifts to optimum locations and expansion. On the field, very little changed, though: New York Arrows continued to win championships, taking the 1980-81 and 1981-82 titles, and Steve Zungul continued to score goals at an incredible rate, netting 108 goals in 40 games in 1980-81 and adding another 103 in 1981-82. Attendance grew to 8,000 a game, and some clubs, such as St. Louis Steamers and Kansas City Comets, regularly outdrew their NBA and NHL competition.
The NASL, for its part, forced franchises to participate in its outdoor slate, causing riffs between the clubs. Edmonton Drillers-led by Kai Haaskivi-won the 1980-81 indoor crown, and San Diego Sockers won the first of many indoor titles the next year. Sockers forward Julie Veee, while not netting as many goals as his former teammate Zungul, scored 51 goals in 17 games in the 1981-82 season, averaging a hat-trick per game; even Zungul was never able to maintain that pace over the course of a season. Notably, several major NASL stars began to participate in the indoor season: George Best, Karl-Heinz Granitza, and Giorgio Chinaglia all placed in the leading scorers’ tables over the two seasons. With the improved play, NASL attendance climbed to 6,202 by 1981-82.
However, with both indoor and outdoor seasons, the NASL was fighting a war on two fronts. Many member clubs began complaining about the direction the league was taking. Others simply folded. As a result, the NASL did not stage an indoor season in1982-83. Incredibly, Chicago Sting, Golden Bay Earthquakes, and San Diego Sockers joined the MISL for that season, with San Diego taking its second consecutive indoor crown. With Alan Mayer in goal and Juli Veee, Jean Willrich and others on the floor, San Diego would soon replace the faded New York Arrows as indoor soccer’s reigning dynasty.
The MISL continued to grow. By 1984-85, it had won the indoor war, as the NASL was on the verge of folding and four of its top clubs-including the fabled New York Cosmos-joined the league as full-time members. At this peak the league could count Cleveland Force, St. Louis Steamers, Baltimore Blast, Kansas City Comets, Chicago Sting, and San Diego Sockers among its top clubs.
However, the MISL had created problems of its own. Clubs were seriously overpaying for players; Baltimore, who played before 99% capacity crowds en route to the 1983-84 MISL championship, lost millions of dollars. Essentially, the league was paying like a major league without any of the accoutrements that make paying such salaries possible, such as a national TV contract. One sign of the danger in this practice was the mid-season demise of the once-mighty Cosmos in 1984-85. The MISL was not overly concerned with this loss, however. With the demise of the NASL, at least, the league could avoid a suicidal bidding war.
Trouble loomed on the horizon, though, even though it would not be immediately recognized. Indoor soccer’s popularity had grown to the point where the introduction of a minor league circuit was feasible. The American Indoor Soccer Association started in 1984-85, with six teams in the Midwest. With average budgets of $400,000 and attendance averaging about 2,000 a game, the league maintained a level of viability in its early years. In 1986, another minor league, the Southwest Indoor Soccer League, formed in the Texas-New Mexico area. By the beginning of the next decade, however, both of these leagues would have outgrown their humble beginnings to become major players on the U.S. soccer scene.
The MISL provided the primary source of employment for American players in the post-NASL years, and a number of stars developed in the league. Along with Veee, Zungul, Segota, and Haaskivi, a handful of new stars burst upon the scene: Preki, Tatu, Dave McWilliams, and Dale Mitchell established themselves as top scorers, and Kevin Crow and Bernie James led the new wave of defensive heroes. In goal, Tino Lettieri continued to star in the league, along with Scott Manning, Keith Van Eron, Slobo Ilijevski, and Cris Vaccaro. San Diego continued to win championships, taking the title in 1985, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991 and 1992; Dallas Sidekicks broke the string with a title in 1987.
Almost unnoticed amidst the MISL/AISA battles was a small brainchild of a group of arena owners in some small southwestern cities. Looking for a regular sport to keep their arenas busy between entertainment events, decided to operate a small, economically financed circuit of indoor soccer franchises on a regional basis. This humble venture was headed by a Mr. Francisco Marcos, and was called the Southwest Indoor Soccer League, founded in 1986 with five teams, the Albuquerque Outloaws, Amarillo Challengers, Garland Genesis, Lubbock Lazers, and Oklahoma City Warriors. This league was to have a very interesting future ahead of it, growing to become a sprawling foundation on which the entire future of pro soccer would be founded. Ironically, even though the league was founded as an indoor league, it added an outdoor division in 1989, and over the years the outdoor league gradually took over, as Marcos expanded the idea of creating developmental leagues that would develop and provide the talent for an envisioned elite 1st divisional national league. As the indoor league stagnated, and slowly withered away, the outdoor league expanded steadily, from 12 to 15 to 20 teams, then to 32, and even 65 teams, finally splitting into different divisions. It exists today as the United Soccer Leagues, with outdoor leagues in Division 2 (The A-league, which the USL absorbed in 1997), the D3Pro league, the Premier (amateur) league, and a two division amateur women's league, comprising over 140 teams total. The indoor league barely survived the 1997-98 season as a small 7 team tournament, and it is not clear whether they (now the I-League) have even survived into 1999. The MISL, continued to insist on undermining its own purpose. By 1990 it had changed its name to the Major Soccer League, and attempted to position itself as the United States’ Division One outdoor league in time for the 1994 World Cup. Games between an MSL Select team and the U.S. National Team were played, as if to establish some legitimacy to the claim. In fact, the MSL was drowning in a sea of red ink, and did not know what to do about it. Flagship franchises such as St. Louis and Cleveland had gone by the wayside, and the glory days of the mid-80s were long gone.
The AISA, in the meantime, declared itself “major league” in 1990 by rechristening itself the National Professional Soccer League. Under the aggressive leadership of new Commissioner Steve Paxos, the league expanded its traditional base and placed teams in larger cities. By the 1990s, former MISL stars Hector Marinaro, Karl-Heinz Grantiza, Andy Chapman, Pato Margetic, and Victor Nogueira were fixtures in the junior league. The NPSL also introduced scoring innovations to the indoor game, some of which remain controversial. In particular, the NPSL abandoned the one-point-per-goal method, instead adopting a 3-2-1 system modeled on basketball. While purists howled, the school-age children who made up the bulk of the NPSL’s audiences approved of the changes. NPSL attendance grew while the MSL’s flat-lined. By 1992, the inevitable took place: the MSL folded, with Wichita Wings, Cleveland Crunch, and Baltimore Spirit (the former Blast) joining the NPSL. The NPSL continues to thrive today, although it is treated as a second-rate league, shunned by purist fans and eschewed by the game’s better players.
Two other former MSL clubs, San Diego and Dallas, were instrumental in the formation of the Continental Indoor Soccer League in the summer of 1993. With teams owned by basketball, hockey and arena magnates, the league was essentially an excuse to fill arenas in the summertime. Somewhat predictably, San Diego faced Dallas in the league’s first championship, with the Sidekicks taking the best-of-three series. The league was relatively successful, although it toiled in obscurity during its brief run; although crowds were respectable, it seemed that the 1994 World Cup had whetted American’s appetites for “real” soccer, and the novelty of the indoor game had worn off. In 1997, the CISL league folded, but several of the stronger teams formed the new Premier Soccer Alliance for 1998. The PSA had a respectable first season, and immediately expanded to new cities. The PSA reached an agreement with the English Indoor Football league, and merged with them in 1999 to form the World Indoor Soccer League (WISL). The new WISL was to have an English division, but this never came to pass.
Minor league soccer had a brief flurry of activity before quieting down and finally expiring for the time being. The SISL, which began as a small regional indoor circuit in 1986, evolved into the current United Soccer League; while perhaps the one league responsible for the outdoor game’s survival in the post-NASL, pre-Major League Soccer years, it has virtually abandoned indoor soccer league. Although the league staged an “I-League” indoor tournament in 1997 and 1998, but lack of interest from league teams resulted in their being no indoor tournaments for 1998-99 and 1999-2000. Finally, the USISL (Now renamed United Soccer Leagues, Inc. discontinued the I-League.
The first league designed specifically as an indoor minor league, the southeast-based Eastern Indoor Soccer League began play in the summer of 1997, serving as a developmental league for the NPSL and CISL, but folded after the 1998 season.
The WISL expanded for its 2nd and 3rd seasons, bringing in several foreign teams for limited series against the domestic teams, which counted in the standings. In the summer of 2001, the NPSL formally disbanded, but reconstituted itself as the new Major Indoor Soccer League, operating on a single-entity structure similar to Major League Soccer. Only six teams survived to join this new entity. Shortly after this move, the WISL and MISL reached a merger agreement. The WISL disbanded, and two teams joined the MISL for its 2002-2003 season. The MISL II struggled on, going through another reorganization in 2006, then folding in 2008. A new indoor league was formed, the National Indoor Soccer League which included many of the MISL II teams. In 2009 the NISL became the MISL III. So indoor soccer continues on a somewhat diminished scale in the early 21st century. Although leagues may come and go, the United States has been very successful in international indoor competitions, regularly placing in second and third in FIFA sponsored futsal tournaments, but the game would receive a major boost if FIFA were to adopt the US-style indoor rules rather than the Futsal version of the game..
While indoor soccer is currently viewed as a “kiddie game,” and is not taken seriously by soccer purists, its impact on the sports history in the United States cannot be overstated. It single-handedly kept the sport alive during the post-NASL years, providing a place for American stars to earn a living. While many MISL stars were criminally ignored during the 1990 World Cup team selection process, these players were still among the best the country has ever produced. Simply put, the game and its players are worthy of our memory, even as the U.S.’s rich outdoor soccer history continues to be re-discovered.
Last update: January 29, 2005
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