Not indoor soccer, not Bruce Arena — it’s ARENA soccer

Writers use Game of Thrones to explain everything these days. I don’t have HBO, so maybe someone can explain Game of Thrones to me in terms of indoor soccer history. Is the Stark family the equivalent of the MISL? Is “Lord Littlefinger” Tatu?

When we last left the Indoor Soccer Wars, the MISL had a new plan for moving forward without any of the teams that played in it. The teams themselves were all going to play … somewhere.

If you’re one of the diehards who checks the BigSoccer indoor soccer forum, you’ve watched as the rumors of a new league building on the existing PASL have come true. If you’re not one of the diehards, you woke up Monday to this:

Major Arena Soccer League? What does THAT mean??

It means a couple of things:

1. The PASL has won the latest Indoor Soccer War, though I’m not sure they really intended to fight. They were a low-budget alternative to the MISL, which just ended a three-year run under the auspices of the USL. Six of the seven teams from last year’s MISL departed to join this new league. The seventh, the Pennsylvania Roar, shall rest in peace.

2. It means the powers that be are trying to phase out the name “indoor” in favor of “arena.” In Mexico, it’s actually “futbol rapido,” because it often takes place outside, neither in a stadium nor an arena.

It's more scenic than the place I play, but half my clearances would end up in the trees. (Photo from Mario Ortegon via Wikimedia Commons; click image for original)
It’s more scenic than the place I play, but half my clearances would end up in the trees. (Photo from Mario Ortegon via Wikimedia Commons; click image for original)

3. It means the Baltimore Blast, Dallas Sidekicks, Milwaukee Wave, San Diego Sockers and the Not-Tacoma Stars (more explanation on Facebook) will be in the same league, just like the old days. In several cases, they’ll have more ties to their glory days than the current Seattle Sounders, New York Cosmos, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Portland Timbers, etc.

4. With 24 teams, this will be the largest top-level indoor (er, arena) league since … ever. The NASL had 24 outdoor teams in the 70s, and it had an indoor league, but not all the teams participated. Spoilsports.

(I’m not going to sum up indoor soccer history because I already did it. And that includes the infamous San Diego Sockers rap video.)

The PASL’s pro league (they also have amateur competitions) contributes 14 teams. Their average attendance early last season ranged from 6,144 to 242. The lack of parity showed in the standings, as the San Diego Sockers claimed a record win streak that the Washington Kastles (World Team Tennis) also claimed. (Sadly, the new league is not taking Dan Steinberg’s suggestion – United Alliance of Super Awesome Amazing Indoor Soccer Playing Awesome People.)

Beyond that, a lot of things are up in the air. They still haven’t settled the argument over Multiple Point Scoring (2 points for most goals, 3 points for a goal shot from beyond an arc), which is to arena soccer fans what promotion/relegation is to outdoor soccer fans.

The Baltimore Blast, by most measures the most stable NPSL/NISL/MISL team, is one of the big movers and shakers behind the new league along with the San Diego Sockers and Missouri Comets. Next step: Re-signing all the players.

(Yes, those are the same Missouri Comets whose sibling team is FC Kansas City of the NWSL. In Vlatko we trust.)

There is still a World Cup scheduled for March, pushed back from February. The organizing body used to be FIFRA — futbol rapido accounts for the “FR” of the name — but it’s now the Confederation Panamericana de Minifutbol (warning — my SiteAdvisor rated that site “yellow), an affiliate of the World Minifootball Federation, which is an umbrella of various 5-, 6- and 7-a-side games. Except futsal and beach soccer, which are under the control of FIFA. Got it?

But back to this continent: The indoor game has a consistent, coherent direction now. There’s a pro/amateur organization. All the indoor teams in the USA are on the same page.

And that really can’t be a bad thing.

If you don’t like indoor soccer, ignore it — which you already are. If you do like it, a lot of the clutter of the past 15 years is gone, and that has to be encouraging.

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.