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.

The indoor soccer wars, part 3,785

Imagine if, in 2002, five MLS teams had broken away from the league to seek a stronger future in the A-League.

That’s roughly what we’re seeing now in the latest twist of indoor soccer, which had a fractious history in its heyday and continues to have as many views on the way forward as it has prospective owners.

In another sport, perhaps we would have been surprised to see a championship game immediately followed by a statement about the USL’s commitment to moving forward with a top-quality league … without a few teams.

Fundamental to the resulting reforms that will be implemented is ensuring that our most important partners, the team owners, not only share our vision, but are also capable of meeting the operational, economic, and legal standards of participating in a high-level indoor professional soccer league.  As a result, several teams that possess a different philosophy on how to structure and operate an indoor professional soccer league will not be returning to the MISL.

As a follow-up, the USL released a video explaining the situation:

It didn’t take long for the “several teams that possess a different philosophy” to reveal themselves …

Syracuse president/head coach Tommy Tanner, whom some may remember playing on some “physical” N.C. State teams of the late 80s: “What I want to see is a league that’s sustainable, that year after year we don’t lose teams, that we can grow the sport. We definitely are on good terms with the MISL. But we need to find more teams.”

MISL champion Missouri Comets president Brian Budzinski: “We told the league a year and a half ago that we’re committed to this league, but we need to see some sort of growth. We need you guys to step up and get more teams, basically. They haven’t done enough to make us happy. The four of us, if we don’t see some sort of immediate changes, then we’re leaving.”

The other two teams besides Syracuse and Missouri — Rochester and, the unkindest cut of all, indoor soccer cornerstone Baltimore.

Left out of the mix at the moment is another venerable indoor franchise, Milwaukee.

They have another option besides the MISL — the PASL, which launched a professional league a few years ago. It’s not a model of stability, either, and most of its teams would be thrilled to have the attendance figures posted by MISL clubs. But it has more teams, including two that have some institutional links to the glory days — the Dallas Sidekicks and the San Diego Sockers. You may remember the Sockers, who claimed the record for longest professional winning streak ahead of the Washington Kastles of World Team Tennis.

So will we see these four teams move to the PASL? Or will they grab the Sidekicks and Sockers and a couple of as-yet-nonexistent teams to form yet another league? Or will the MISL make a massive comeback again?

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. (MLSSoccer.com’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?

Tales of soccer survival: MISL’s Milwaukee Wave

For a few years, indoor soccer was the dominant form of the game in the United States, with more than 10,000 watching the hybrid of hockey and outdoor soccer. Serbian-born Preki carved out a nice career in the indoor game before going outside with MLS and proving that his skills translated to a bigger field without those pesky walls.

These days, the outdoor game is alive and well, and indoor continues on its own path. The MISL went away for a while, leaving two competing leagues that eventually came together and became the MISL again, except last year, when the league was the NISL. The PASL, which operates a pro league and amateur divisions, opted to affiliate with FIFRA. No, not FIFA, the custodians of the World Cup. The PASL actually has its own U.S. Open Cup, with the reborn San Diego Sockers (first version immortalized in this not-quite-Super-Bowl-Shuffle video) traveling to take on the Louisville Lightning this weekend.

Anyway: The Milwaukee Wave led Sunday’s MISL final 6-0 in the third quarter. Then came a three-point goal by Monterrey’s Chile Farias, quickly followed by a two-pointer to make it 6-5. La Raza took the lead late in the third, made it 9-6 in the fourth and tacked on an empty-net three-pointer for a 12-6 win. (Video highlights)

Not the way any player, coach or fan wants to end a season, but after what Milwaukee went through last year, the city’s soccer community still has plenty to celebrate.

Continue reading Tales of soccer survival: MISL’s Milwaukee Wave