Indoor soccer and the remnants of outdoor, through SI’s eyes

I recently came across a classic Frank DeFord piece on the MISL — Show, Sex And Suburbs — and got curious to see what else Sports Illustrated had written about the heyday of the indoor game and the nadir of U.S. outdoor soccer.

Fortunately, SI’s vaults are open (to subscribers, at least), so I was able to trip through history.

Here we go …

July 9, 1979: Watch Out! The Sky Is FallingThe Houston Hurricane jump-started its outdoor season with a successful run indoors.

Houston Forward Kyle Rote believes the indoor experiences did more than just instill self-esteem in the Hurricane players. “Eight of our 11 outdoor starters played indoor, and we gained a lot of technical skills, particularly the Americans,” he says.

Feb. 18, 1980: They Get Their Kicks On A Hockey RinkBob Rigby offers up what might be the first mention of the phrase “human pinball” while SI contrasts the surging indoor game with the fading outdoor game.

Foreman also finds a chauvinistic satisfaction in the arrangement. “We felt that people wanted to see American kids, their own kids, playing,” he says. “The NASL hasn’t done much for them. We wanted to be the league where no American would wind up holding Beckenbauer’s warmup jacket. …

No wonder that some of the most talented young Americans are now signing up with the MISL instead of the NASL and finding themselves beneficiaries of the early stages of what could develop into a bidding war between the two leagues. Professional-quality U.S. soccer players are still in woefully short supply. Ty Keough, 23, a talented defender, signed with the MISL’s Cincinnati franchise when he graduated from St. Louis University in ’78. He now plays with the Steamers–Cincinnati being defunct–but last summer he was loaned to the NASL’s San Diego Sockers. He is now considering offers for the coming outdoor season. “I’m happy I signed in MISL,” Keough says. “I get a lot of game time and I can be choosy about NASL offers. I’ve got a steady income.”

(The story also has a Joe Machnik sighting.)

Feb. 15, 1982: Stan the Fran, Free SpiritEven with the NASL and the Cosmos still going, SI found a good story in Stan Terlecki, who had challenged Polish authorities and found a home in Pittsburgh.

Did you hear about Brezhnev calling all the top Soviet scientists together, Terlecki asked, and telling them how disappointed he was that the U.S. had beaten Russia to the moon? He proposed that the U.S.S.R. land a cosmonaut on the sun. One scientist had to tell Brezhnev that this was impossible because of the sun’s great heat. His boyish face beaming. Terlecki looked around the table to make sure everyone was ready for the punchline: ” ‘No problem.’ Brezhnev says, ‘we will land at night.’ ” Terlecki roared, and the group spent another 15 minutes cracking Brezhnev jokes. By the time the check finally arrived, everyone had defrosted.

May 21, 1984: 19th HoleOne of several letters in response to a story on the NASL reads as follows:

I was dismayed by the article by Clive Gammon, which purports to explain the many reasons for the near demise of the NASL. Gammon is another of the closed-minded “experts” who put the blame on everything from the players to the owners to artificial turf. What they can’t admit is the simple fact that outdoor soccer fails in the U.S. because it’s boring. While the NASL plods along with talk of “world sport,” the Major Indoor Soccer League has spruced up the staid European game and made it fun to watch. We Americans shouldn’t be ashamed of our preference for excitement. Our heritage is one of innovation.

The original story will be an uncomfortable read for NASL enthusiasts, scoffing at everything from the goofy rules to ignorant owners while labeling its non-Beckenbauer players as listless shadows of themselves or second-division European fodder.

June 18, 1984: The Blast Had One At LastThe Baltimore Blast, coached by one Kenny Cooper, won its first MISL title.

Most ebullient of all, though, may have been lame-duck team chairman of the board/director Bernie Rodin, who, after helping found the MISL six seasons ago, had just seen his final game as an owner. Last March Rodin sold the Blast to a local businessman, Nathan Sherr, for $3 million, effective June 15. “I’m the only original owner left in the league,” Rodin said, grinning. “I helped write the rules for this sport. It’s an incredible feeling. Like being Abner Doubleday, only I’ve got one thing Abner never had. A team that won the championship.”

March 4, 1985: Not In It For The KicksAll about Ricky Davis, the U.S. national teamer playing indoor out of necessity. And there’s a club vs. country undercurrent worth reading — not just the difference in the outdoor and indoor games but a looming schedule conflict.

The situation in general:

At the moment, this is where U.S. soccer happens to be. Fans have turned from the outdoor NASL—its 1985 season, with three living franchises, down from 24 in 1980, is in grave jeopardy—and are flocking to the MISL. The league is headed toward an attendance record for the second consecutive year; at present St. Louis is No. 2 on the list with an average of 12,829. Davis reportedly earns $100,000 a year from the Steamers, yet the indoor game that affords him so much fame and fortune may also be a barrier to the fulfillment of his dream.

Let’s be serious. The possibility that the U.S. might win the World Cup in 1986 is too remote even to consider. But the U.S. could win a berth in the final 24-nation field.

And you just have to read this part …

That lesson, along with his ever-improving skills and wholesome good looks, has made Davis the most visible symbol of the American game. “Davis has replaced Shep Messing as the pinup boy of soccer,” says Baltimore Blast coach Ken Cooper.

“True, but I have a better body,” says Messing, who once helped publicize soccer by posing nude for Viva magazine. Such a thing would be unthinkable for Davis, whom U.S. national team coach Alkis Panagoulias calls “a magnet and a model for American youth.”

“Put it this way,” says Messing. “The difference between Ricky’s image and mine is that I do Skoal chewing tobacco commercials, and he does Ivory soap.”

June 9, 1986: Dynasty With An Asterisk: The dazzling, fractious San Diego Sockers win their fifth straight indoor title between the NASL and MISL.

Any boring, bovine team is an endangered species in the MISL, which has been a slaughterhouse for 17 franchises in its eight-year history. The league held firm with 12 teams this season, and playoff attendance rose to an average of 11,985 per game from 8,509 last year. Things should get even better next year, when a new franchise in New York, the Express, will join the league with co-owner Shep Messing in goal.

But the game is the thing, and it has evolved into a good one as more players have come in from the outdoors. “The game is streaks away from where it was four years ago,” says Newman, an indoor coach since 1980. “It takes a soccer player to play this game, and we’ve started getting some really good ones.”

Oct. 27, 1986: Alive But Barely Kicking: A look at the post-NASL landscape, with Paul Caligiuri, John Kerr and David Vanole scraping by.

The NASL’s major sin was trying to make soccer a national sport without developing a foundation for the future. After an over-the-hill Pele gave the fledgling American game a star, naive owners continued to pay exorbitant amounts to so-called world class foreign players whose name recognition was zero and whose motivation to perform was possibly even less. Meanwhile, American talent remained undeveloped. ”Everyone thought Pele was a messiah,” says Cliff McCrath, coach of the Division II champion Seattle Pacific. ”It wasn’t his fault, but in my opinion, Pele was our executioner.”

The scars run so deep that the idea of launching another national outdoor soccer league anytime soon seems absurd.

March 9, 1987: The Shirtless Wonder Tatu Scores With Goals and Discarded GarmentsStarts by drawing a distinction between the Dallas Sidekicks star and the Fantasy Island sidekick.

Tatu is a promotional dynamo. He makes unpaid appearances at the birthday parties of his youngest fans, puts on soccer clinics, coaches a youth team, makes instructional films, poses for posters and signs autographs until the last kid has gone home happy. ”Tatu Toffee” is the latest Baskin-Robbins flavor to hit the Big D.

”I am determinated to make our game work in this country,” he says.

Other players are among Tatu’s biggest fans. They take no offense at his protracted postgoal celebrations, possibly because they are used to seeing people involved with indoor soccer lose their shirts. Recently the New York Express, whose projected success was thought to be the key to landing the MISL much needed national exposure, went under. Before Tatu came to Dallas three years ago, two soccer franchises had failed in the Metroplex.

”He’s not doing the shirt thing to put it in your face,” says San Diego Socker defender Kevin Crow, who often marks Tatu. ”He’s doing it to put people in the stands. Everybody is for that.”

I could not find anything about the MISL (then rechristened MSL, just to confuse everyone) folding. An AP story from 1992 has the news of the league’s final collapse and says its existence had been threatened each of the preceding years since 1988. Andy Crossley’s blog Fun While It Lasted rounds up several MISL teams’ histories, and David Litterer’s American Soccer History site has several essays on indoor soccer history.

But the SI pieces are particularly interesting — relics of a time in which indoor soccer had a lot of believers. And the outdoor game was all but dead in this country.

MLS, the state of (abridged)

Let’s try to wrap up a tempestuous day in North American soccer …

The D.C. Council cast aside its mourning for Marion Barry long enough for a heated discussion and vote on (and, mercifully, in favor of) a D.C. United stadium deal. The NASL announced it will run the owner-deprived Atlanta Silverbacks next year. The W-League (North American version) lost another traditional power in Ottawa.

(Insert gratuitous photo of proposed United stadium here)

And MLS commissioner Don Garber held his annual State of the League press conference in yet another new format, this time relaxing in comfortable chairs in a TV studio with a roomful of journalists who just happened to be affiliated with MLS rights-holding organizations.

Fans at least had a roundabout way into the room. They could ask questions on social media while Amanda Vandervort, the meta-guru for social media in the U.S. soccer community, sorted through everything. That was a thankless job.

Even when things are going pretty well for a sports league, you’re always going to see a bit of snark floating around. Just imagine what Vandervort’s NFL analogue would have to see if Roger Goodell tried this format.

Garber also made the occasional gaffe or oddball statement. One was simply amusing: In explaining for the umpteenth year why MLS isn’t likely to go to a fall-through-spring European-style calendar, he described the temperature in a prospective MLS city as “minus zero.” I’m not sure what to call that. It’s not a double negative. Maybe a one-and-a-half negative?

The other was more worrying. He said, in an unexpected bit of candor that didn’t sit well with other glowing assessments, that the league isn’t performing financially as well as owners would hope.

That’s apparently not a gaffe per se, because he doubled down on it in talking later with the Associated Press.

From that story:

Garber said the teams and the league are losing more than $100 million combined as they invest in player acquisitions, stadiums and league infrastructure. And he said owners are making financial investments that they were not expecting to still be making at this point.

The possible reactions to that story — some reasonable, some not:

1. This is just posturing for the collective-bargaining talks with the union.

2. This is a conspiracy — there’s no way the league is actually losing that much.

3. This means little — they’re investing a lot of money now in facilities, academies and Designated Players, and while they’re in investment mode, they’re going to deposit a couple of $100 million expansion fees. If MLS wasn’t investing for the future, it would probably turn a profit. SOP for a growing business.

4. Oh crap — everything is collapsing.

5. Avast, ye scurvy dogs! MLS will soon collapse, and we can usher in a new era of American soccer!

I’m inclined to go with 1 and 3, maybe a bit of 2. It’s not unusual for a league commissioner to talk in glowing terms about the league’s prospects moving ahead for the benefit of fans and sponsors, then plead poverty when the players are asking for more money. That said, MLS surely doesn’t have the financial security of better-established leagues.

The root of a lot of MLS debate is that some people are sick of being patient. They didn’t imagine in 1996 that we would be nearly 20 years into this venture and our national team wouldn’t be significantly better. Or that the league would still trot out obscure, unusual policies to get players like Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones to the teams they want.

On one hand, we still have to be patient. While D.C. United, NYCFC and a couple of other teams are sorting out their stadium issues, this league is still in start-up mode on some fronts. (So, no, MLS isn’t ready to start promotion and relegation while its teams are still investing on the assumption of being first-division teams — but at least Garber said “not anytime soon” rather than “never,” right?)

On the other hand, it’s disappointing to hear the commissioner going into CBA talks pleading poverty and failing to reassure everyone that the league won’t have a work stoppage. Investing in academies and facilities (and USL teams) is great, but are we really going to go to the brink with current players and risk a work stoppage that would shatter the league’s credibility?

It’s always helpful to remember things can change. So it was a nice coincidence that Vice Sports recently had a piece on a bit of U.S. soccer history — people chasing down collectibles from the glory days of the Major Indoor Soccer League. And that piece linked back to a Frank Deford piece from Sports Illustrated that offered a snapshot of the indoor and outdoor game circa 1983:

This season the NASL, which has atrophied to 12 franchises (from 24 in 1980) but still managed to lose that $25 million in 1982, permitted three of its franchises—Chicago, San Diego and Golden Bay—to field teams in the MISL as well. The toothpaste is out, and it’s never going back in the tube. Whenever the two leagues achieve some form of consolidation, it will be the NASL that must end up as the subsidiary partner. Already Samuels acknowledges that next year two or three more of his outdoor franchises will want to play indoors, too. Lee Stern, the owner of the Sting, which now plays in both leagues, says, “There’s no way pro soccer can survive anymore in this country without indoor soccer.” And Bob Bell, Stern’s counterpart with the San Diego Sockers, says, “I’m convinced now that indoor will be what makes soccer in the U.S.

There is, however, no way of knowing yet whether indoor soccer can do what hockey failed to do—win national acceptance and network contracts and become America’s fourth major professional team sport. But for better or worse, it’s becoming clearer all the time that if soccer does succeed as a spectator sport in the U.S., it will be the indoor brand that will thrive.(*)

Sure, soccer fans these days may think of Deford as the curmudgeonly vestige of old-school anti-soccer cynicism. But this piece was written more than 30 years ago. And at the time, it certainly seemed like he had a point.(**)

About 15 years ago, reasonable people thought women’s soccer would outpace men’s soccer as a big-time sport in the USA. Then 13 years ago, MLS nearly died, struggling to turn the corner from its debt-ridden start as the recession kicked in.

So things can change rather quickly in soccer. In the time it took Landon Donovan to go from youth prodigy to retiree, we’ve seen European soccer go from the occasional ESPN/Fox Sports World curiosity to big-time U.S. programming. We’ve seen MLS expand to 20 teams while only losing three along the way, a record not many leagues can match in their first two decades. We now see kids walking around wearing Beckham, Messi, Rooney and Dempsey jerseys.

When I checked in about the Garber quote with someone at MLS, asking specifically whether fans should be worried, what I got back was, “Don’t worry — MLS isn’t going anywhere.” And yes, it’s unlikely that the whole thing would go belly-up. But it faces a challenge in terms of thriving in an ultracompetitive environment. The USA is one of the few countries in which soccer isn’t the dominant sport (Australia, Ireland, India, Pakistan, maybe China, Japan and Indonesia), and it’s one of the few leagues in the world in which its domestic fans are repeatedly badgered for supporting the league at all.

Fans cannot take MLS’s future success for granted. Nor can MLS take it for granted. With all the long-term investment in place, MLS isn’t exactly complacent, but it’s time to get creative — or in some cases to just take off the training wheels.

What about actual free agency? What about a nice pay raise for first-team players? How about replacing the muddy allocation system with a simpler revenue-sharing plan that makes teams pay into a general pool when they splash out on a big contract?

And why aren’t we closer to a CBA at this point, just 82 days before D.C. United is expected to field a team in the CONCACAF quarterfinals?

(Also in the State of the League roundtable, Rob Stone won fans and admirers by holding Garber’s feet to the fire on NYCFC and LAFC’s lack of concrete stadium plans, Garber wants to press onward to 24 teams but isn’t thinking of anything beyond that, the commissioner tossed out a neat idea for aligning the final meaningful games of the MLS regular season at the same time and getting the best ones on TV with NFL-style “flex” scheduling, and the 12-team playoff might not be happening after all. See RSL Soapbox for the rundown.)


* – Indoor soccer has its own issues at the moment.

** – The whole story is a recommended read. It has some amusing anachronisms (hey, remember when SI and The New York Times set the sports agenda for the nation?), but some of the arguments over special treatment for American and Canadian players are still ongoing.

Why the San Diego Sockers-Dallas Sidekicks game will matter in 2013

The San Diego Sockers have won 45 straight games, which is a professional sports record. Yes, you may quibble over the term “professional” in the PASL, and you may argue that the Sockers face even less competition in that league than Celtic faces in the Scottish Premier League. Peter Wilt, no stranger to indoor and other soccer, raised exactly that objection on Twitter. (’s Andrew Wiebe sums up Wilt’s Tweet and a video from Fox Soccer.)

In the 2010-11 season, they lost two games in December and dominated the rest of the way, winning their last 13. That includes a couple against lower division teams in the Open Cup. Last season, the Sockers had two overtime games early, then won the rest by two, four, five, six … maybe 12 goals. After those 16, they won two more in the playoffs, taking the streak to 31. This year, they’ve opened with eight straight, all by at least six goals.

(Wait a minute: 13 in 2010-11, 18 in 2011-12, 8 in 2012-13. That’s 39. Where are the other four? Ah, here we go — the FIFRA Club Championships, the indoor-with-boards version of the World Club Cup. And actually, they count two more games for a total of 24 last year, which must have been the Open Cup. So if you really want to quibble, you could discount maybe 4-5 games against non-league teams, but I honestly don’t know whether those teams are “pro.” One Open Cup opponent, the Las Vegas Knights, appear in the PASL Premier, not the pro league, but the Sockers count those games.)

FIFRA? Yes. The Federacion Internacional de Futbol Rapido is functioning. They held a Euro 2012 this year.

Meanwhile, the MISL’s affiliation is totally different. The MISL is now part of the USL. The Sockers won many MISL titles when the MISL was huge, but they were reborn in the PASL.

Got all that? No? Let’s back up with a quick indoor timeline:

– 1978-1992: The original Major Indoor Soccer League rules. Players like Preki and Tatu are semi-household names. A few teams average more than 10,000 fans. The pregame pyrotechnics pave the way for a lot of what we see in NBA and NHL games today. Teams play up to 56 games in a season. The NASL tries to head off the competition by also playing a few indoor seasons, but the MISL outlasts them and absorbs several NASL teams — including the San Diego Sockers. Another league, the AISA, springs up and forces the MISL to face more competition. (Also existing but not competing — the SISL, which would become the outdoor/indoor USISL and then the mostly outdoor USL.) The AISA changes its name to the NPSL and survives. (As always, Dave Litterer has the complete history to this point, and he has a complementary history by Steve Holroyd.) San Diego dominates the last years of the MISL, winning eight of the last 10 titles. The exceptions: The Baltimore Blast in 1983-84 and the Dallas Sidekicks in a whirlwind 1986-87 season documented in all its feathered-hair, synth-music glory.

Of course, for sheer video goodness, we have to see this one again:

– 1992-2001: The NPSL goes on as a low-key but relatively stable enterprise, absorbing two MISL teams and settling with an average attendance in the 5,000s. Meanwhile, two MISL teams — San Diego and Dallas — move on to the CISL, which plays in the summers when arenas have more open dates. The CISL also averages 5,000-plus.

– 1997: San Diego folds before the season. After the season, the CISL morphs into the PSA, which includes Dallas.

– 1998-2001: After one year as the PSA, the summer league becomes the World Indoor Soccer League (WISL), intending to have international divisions. Those don’t materialize. The attendance still hovers in the 5,000s, led by Dallas. In 2001, San Diego returns.

– 2001-08: Under aggressive new commissioner Steve Ryan, the NPSL reclaims the classic MISL name. And then they merge with the WISL, welcoming Dallas and San Diego back to the fold. And it looks a bit like the old MISL, with the Baltimore Blast and Kansas City Comets among other long-standing names. The league still keeps attendance near the 5,000 mark, but neither Dallas nor San Diego survives.

Ready? Now it gets interesting….

– 2008-09: Three leagues! Several MISL teams form the National Indoor Soccer League. Others go in a completely different direction with the Xtreme Soccer League (XSL). One team, the California Cougars, go to the Professional Arena Soccer League (PASL-Pro), the new pro effort by the decade-old Premier Arena Soccer League (PASL-Premier). The XSL lasts one year. The NISL name lasts one year, as the league goes back to the MISL name and re-absorbs Milwaukee from the XSL.

– 2009-11: The MISL limps along with five teams. Meanwhile, San Diego is reborn in the PASL-Pro. (The Sockers also maintain a reserve team.)

– 2011: The USL, which had been planning to revive its long-dormant indoor league, absorbs the MISL and keeps the name.

And that’s where we stand now. The MISL isn’t the old Preki-Tatu-Zungul league with sellouts in large arenas. But it’s relatively healthy, with the long-standing Baltimore Blast helping the average attendance stay up over 4,000.

The PASL, on the other hand, is a low-budget alternative. The record attendance is 5,909, set by …

… the reborn Dallas Sidekicks in early November.

Such attendance is not typical. But Dallas and San Diego are drawing well. And they give MLS nostalgia freaks a chance to see Chad Deering and Paul Wright in action.

And San Diego and Dallas are dominating the competition. You’ll see more competitive games in the MISL, which streams its games online.

But remember Jan. 27. That’s when San Diego will likely take its win streak of 48-ish games to Dallas, waking up the echoes of long MISL rivalries. And they’ll play again Feb. 1 in San Diego. Both games are streaming, but it’ll cost you.

So the accounting may be dubious. Still should be one of the most interesting matchups you’ll see. And with Dallas in the PASL, at least San Diego has a Rangers to its Celtic.

Indoor soccer: Not given enough credit?

Bill Archer started the “legacy” talk a couple of days ago with a good piece on Pele being trotted out to stir up interest in any vaguely New York-ish soccer endeavor, though I was disappointed in the lack of a shoutout to the Simpsons’ “Crestfield Wax Paper” segment.

Then I happened upon this piece on the reborn Dallas Sidekicks, tying together the history of the decorated indoor team. That included a line that will make soccer purists spit in horror:

The success of the Sidekicks is one of the main reasons soccer is now the most popular youth sport in North Texas.

I wasn’t aware of it, but the Sidekicks’ most remarkable season is documented in this wonderfully ’80s film. Haven’t seen this much feathered hair and heard this much synth music since a-ha ruled the airwaves.

When that film was made, outdoor soccer was pretty much dead. (I did enjoy seeing Eddie Radwanski, who went back outdoors with my local Greensboro/Carolina Dynamo.) The MISL was all there was, and it wasn’t doing badly. Did the Colorado Rapids have that many people greeting them at the airport when they arrived home from MLS Cup?

And just what is indoor soccer’s place in keeping the game alive?