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 Falling: The 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 Rink: Bob 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 Spirit: Even 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.
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 Last: The 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 Kicks: All 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 Garments: Starts 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.