The Dark Ages: Soccer in America From 1984 to 1996

Prologue

July of 1967, in Los Angeles. A crowd of just under 18,000 looks on as the first FIFA-sanctioned, nation-wide soccer championship in the United States is contested at the LA Memorial Coliseum. It’s a historic event, in the technical sense, but in the sweep of US sporting history, the match, and its participants, have been more or less forgotten. This is the birth of the professional game in the US and Canada. The league, the United Soccer Association, represents the first attempt at building a truly coast-to-coast, major soccer league. And they did it with borrowed teams.

On the day, the Los Angeles Wolves beat the Washington (DC) Whips 6-5, after extra time. The two teams had emerged as champions of their divisions, Western and Eastern respectively; outplaying teams in 10 other major US and Canadian cities. They truly were the best in America, and yet there was nothing American about them. The entire roster of the LA Wolves was identical to that of Wolverhampton Wanderers, Washington’s the same as that of Aberdeen FC of the Scottish First Division. To a man.

The 1967 Washington Whips. Courtesy of www.nasljerseys.com.

The 1967 Washington Whips. Courtesy of www.nasljerseys.com.

As a matter of fact, the entire league was composed of imported European and South American clubs. All twelve USA franchises were wholesale imports, picking up extra playing time and paychecks during the traditional summer off-season. In addition to Wolves and Aberdeen, the others were

Shamrock Rovers (Ireland): Boston Rovers
Cagliari Calcio (Italy): Chicago Mustangs
Stoke City (England): Cleveland Stokers
Dundee Utd (Scotland): Dallas Tornado
Glentoran FC (N. Ireland): Detroit Cougars
Bangu AC (Brazil): Houston Stars
C.A. Cerro (Uruguay): NY Skyliners
ADO Den Haag (Netherlands): San Francisco Golden Gate Gales
Hibernian FC (Scotland): Toronto City
Sunderland AFC (England): Vancouver Royal Canadians

The league only contested one season before merging with rival National Professional Soccer League to form the NASL in 1968. But it seems an oddly (perhaps cynically) appropriate beginning for the Great American Soccer Experiment, this importing of whole teams from European and South American leagues, considering what became of the NASL, and the Dark Ages induced by its collapse.

Most fans of soccer in the US are familiar with the roots of the collapse of the NASL, but if you’re not, this 1984 Sports Illustrated article by Clive Gammon saw the writing on the wall as the league began what would be its last season. And yet, he must have been a lover of the game, for he closed on an optimistic, and prescient, note: “Soccer is too great a sport to be lost because of the antics of sports-illiterate owners and fast-buck seekers. Even if the NASL goes gurgling down tubes of its own making, soccer will surely come back for another life.” It did, of course, in the form of the (hopefully) more stable MLS, but it was a long dark winter for the sport between 1984 and now.

Among the Ashes

The collapse of the NASL didn’t mean a sudden disappearance of fans or players, of course, or even many of the clubs. Most of the game moved indoors, though, and not a few clubs simply vanished in the implosion. Those dedicated to the outdoor game were reduced to semi-pro status at best, and dozens of leagues sprang up across the country, changed names, and collapsed over the twelve years between the end of the NASL and the birth of MLS.

In the Pacific Northwest, for example, a handful of teams created what was originally called the Western Alliance Challenge Series in 1985, the year after the collapse of the NASL – a sort of mini-league composed of four independent regional teams: FC Portland, FC Seattle, Victoria (British Columbia) Riptides, and what remained of the post-NASL San Jose Earthquakes.

This was the state of outdoor soccer across the country immediately after the NASL: small regional groups of small-budget teams competing for nothing more than pride.  Chief among them seem to have been the Lone Star Soccer Alliance in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas (featuring the worst club name I came across during this research: San Antonio XLR8), the Southwest Independent Soccer League, and on the East Coast, the third league in the history of the country to call itself the American Soccer League.

These leagues were not particularly stable, however, fluctuating constantly in membership and name, and none of them as wildly as the Southwest Independent Soccer League. Between 1986 when it was established as an indoor league and 1997, it went through 8 different names. While it was composed of multiple divisions, over 40 of its listed member teams only existed for one season (including worst name runner-up, Ohio Xoggz). Most of those single-season teams played only in 1994, the year the United States hosted with World Cup, apparently hoping for a groundswell of interest in the club sport. Still, by the time its own dust had settled, the SISL had transformed from a small regional league into the United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues, or USISL, and had constructed the divisional pyramid of semi-pro and developmental leagues that still operates today as the basis of lower-league soccer in the United States and Canada.

Meanwhile, the Western Soccer Challenge Series had become the Western Soccer League in 1989 and fielded teams from Arizona to Edmonton. It’s opposite, the ASL, managed the miraculous: two full seasons without losing a franchise. In 1990, the two merged, forming the first nation-wide outdoor league since the NASL: the American Professional Soccer League. Indeed, come 1994, the league would present itself to the USSF as a candidate for the Division 1 professional league the Federation had promised to FIFA in exchange for hosting the World Cup. Despite being the only functioning league put forward, the APSL lost out to what would become MLS.

The league rebranded itself again, this time as the A-League, but it was in steep decline and in 1996, when most of the league’s best had jumped ship to MLS, it was practically dead in the water. Enter here the ascendant USISL to absorb the A-League, which was merged with the USISL Select division. The new joint venture retained the name A-League and operated as the 2nd Division in the US and Canada for many years after, eventually being rebranded again as USL I – still here today, if barely. But none of these leagues could ever really lay claim to being truly Professional in the way the NASL had been, or that MLS would become. That honor laid elsewhere, in hockey arenas.

Bringing the Torch Inside

“Indoor soccer will be the game of the Eighties. Bet your cherries on it.”

- Charley Eckman

There’s a certain ironic truth to that quote, taken from a 1983 Sports Illustrated article on the Major Indoor Soccer League by Frank Deford.  I say ironic because indoor soccer was, certainly, a sport of the Eighties, but not since. Charley Eckman was a former NCAA and NBA referee and had coached the Fort Wayne Pistons of the nascent NBA in the mid-1950s. By the mid-Eighties, though, he was the color radio commentator for the MISL’s Baltimore Blast, and had become a vocal proponent of the indoor game.

And well he should have been, for the game seemed well positioned to move in on its competition indoor winter sports hockey and basketball, neither of which had hit its peak. Consider this – searches of the Sports Illustrated electronic archive returned 10 articles dedicated to the MISL throughout the 1980s. Not a lot, to be sure, but a search for articles related to the predominate interim outdoor leagues discussed above returns only a suggestion to search for something else. It’s telling not only as an excuse for the sparse information presented here regarding outdoor soccer in the 1980s, but as a reading of public sentiment regarding the sport altogether.

St Louis Steamers

After the collapse of the NASL, SI saw nothing worthy of coverage in the domestic outdoor game. When youth teams were taken on group trips to see a pro match, it was likely the MISL they saw (there may even be a St. Louis Steamers pennant lost among the collected memorabilia of my childhood somewhere). The outdoor game had failed – that was a fact. Nevermind that that was due more to poor oversight than cultural disinterest, indoor soccer was in its ascendency and no one was looking back.

In 1975, the NASL had undertaken its first-ever indoor tournament. Divided into regional groups, 16 of the 20 teams participated in the group-to-elimination competition. The San Jose Earthquakes defeated the Tampa Bay Rowdies 8 to 5.  The tournament was staged again the following year, but with only 12 teams competing (the flagship New York Cosmos notably one of the abstaining teams). Tampa Bay was vindicated in the final, but the tournament was put on hiatus.

There were tentative plans to launch a full-on indoor NASL league as a supplement to the regular season, but the NASL was beaten to the punch when, in December of 1978, the Major Indoor Soccer League opened its inaugural season. Pete Rose, baseball legend and part owner of the Cincinnati Kids franchise, kicked out the first ball, and the first professional indoor soccer league in the United States was underway – six-a-side, with hockey-style boards and all. Although there were only six teams that first year, the venture was a success, and the NASL quickly followed suit, fast tracking its own plans for an indoor league that began the following winter, though many of its stars – and some entire teams – declined to participate.

The NASL-Indoor may have featured incarnations of America’s topflight clubs, but it was really a doomed enterprise, formed as it was at the beginning of the end of the NASL. Teams began dropping out of the competition almost immediately, and as more and more teams folded completely, the NASL-Indoor dwindled to a paltry 7 teams in the winter of ’83-’84 – the last NASL competition, indoor or out, to be played. It didn’t help that, during its dying days, a few teams even jumped ship to MISL. Indeed, what had been the start-up rival league grew from it’s original 6 to 14 teams in the same time span, including former NASLers like Chicago Sting and Minnesota Kickers and even one season of the New York Cosmos in 84/85. Without the outdoor NASL, MISL was now the premier soccer league in the nation.

Over the next several years, attendances climbed to dizzy heights near 10,000 – more in places like St. Louis. ESPN broadcast as many as 18 games a season, and the league even had bonafide star players in Croat/Yugoslavian Steve Zungul and the Brazilian Tatu. And, in a pattern unsurprising in retrospect, soccer-ignorant businessmen clamored for the chance to throw their millions into the show.  Many a pundit (and hopeful investor) truly believed indoor soccer would be the version of the sport to capture the American market. Sports Illustrated writer JD Reed wrote 1980, “Magic or human pinball, the craze may be around for a while.” In many markets, the indoor teams were drawing far better crowds than their deceased and dying outdoor predecessors could.

MISL trading cards

Purists, of course, were mortified. This was not soccer, what with its hockey boards, multiple-point goal ranges, and penalty boxes. Ben Kerner, owner of the best-selling St. Louis Steamers told SI’s Drank DeFord, “All right, it’s not soccer. Call it something else. So what does it matter what you call it if the people enjoy it, heh? It’s better than being out on the street.” Former NASL goalkeeper Bob Rigby, playing in MISL in 1980 said, “Some crazy must have invented this sport. It’s a zoo, a circus. I can’t believe anybody takes it seriously, but they do.”

Many were stumped as to why, exactly, MISL seemed off to such a good start. If was, after all, a mere bastardization of a sport that was barely keeping its head above water. But it was, due in part perhaps to its own hype – which shouldn’t be under-estimated. Teams were introduced to a dazzling light show, emerging from clouds of theater fog to rousing disco tunes. Outrageous mascots (the Philadelphia Fever’s 8-foot-tall, electric-light-infused Socceroo, for example) threw trinkets and toys to the crowd. The players themselves were paraded and posterized in their leg-revealing short shorts. The spectacle was most certainly Of The Eighties, and it seemed to be working.

So much so, that in 1985 MISL got a rival start-up of its own, the American Indoor Soccer Association. The salary war that resulted saw the MISL shrink back to 7 (only after folding and re-establishing the Tacoma Stars franchise). By 1990, a certain equilibrium between the leagues seems to have emerged, as each competed with eight teams a piece.

In 1991 both teams rebranded, becoming the Major Soccer League and National Professional League, each having dropped the “indoor” qualifier from the name – perhaps an indicator of the primacy of the indoor version of the sport at the time. But, alas – and befitting the Sport of the Eighties – it was too late. MSL collapsed the following year as attendances drooped into the 6,000s. In 1993, however, the Continental Indoor Soccer League was born, which would stage its games in summer, and would come to include Mexican teams.

Since they played on opposite schedules, the CISL and NPSL were both able to grow in the run up to and immediately following USA ’94. The CISL folded two years on, though, unable to compete with the summer-schedule outdoor MLS. And while the NPSL carried on for several more years – and other leagues have since come and gone in an endless cycle – the birth of MLS was the writing on the wall for indoor soccer. All the predictions that indoor would be the version to sweep America proved hopelessly hopeful.

Sports writers, and the public in general, have displayed an amazing ability to forget the long and complex history of association football in the United States. And yet it seems they still sting from the lessons learned from the NASL and indoor soccer, hesitant to embrace the sport that has failed them so many times before. The future of soccer here is not guaranteed, of course, but as MLS nears its 15th season, the current top-flight organization has learned its own valuable lessons, and continues cautiously apace. It leaves one hopeful that the future will prove more steady than the past, especially since I have never heard anyone call soccer the Game of Nineties, 2000s, or Teens.


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