American Century: The 1980s

The NASL dies as indoor rises and falls

The NASL had staged several indoor mini-tournaments in the mid-1970s as tune-ups for its outdoor season, but by 1978 a full-fledged rival had emerged.

Ed Tepper and Earl Foreman launched the Major Indoor Soccer League with six teams. The MISL played its first match on Dec. 22, 1978, with Cincinnati part-owner Pete Rose kicking out the first ball. Shep Messing, the first player signed by the league, led New York to a 7-2 win.

In response, 10 NASL teams played a 12-game schedule during the winter of 1979-80.

Although five of its 24 teams averaged more than 15,000 fans per game in 1978, 10 NASL franchises drew less than 10,000. It had no national TV contract, which Commissioner Phil Woosnam had been counting on for badly needed funds and exposure.

Entranced by the wild action and noisy environment of indoor, some owners - such as Bob Bell in San Diego and Lee Stern in Chicago - lobbied for a longer indoor schedule to increase revenue and spread out player costs over a full year. All 19 NASL teams played a 1980-81 indoor season.

Reckless NASL expansion had condemned many teams to face three choices: Fight it out in a lackluster market, move or fold.

More and more folded. The NASL shrank from 24 teams in 1980 to 14 in 1982.

The New York Arrows, fueled by scoring machines Steve Zungul, Branko Segota and Fred Grgurev, won the first four MISL titles. The MISL grew to 12 teams for 1980-81.

Attendances in St. Louis and Buffalo topped those of several NASL cities. Baltimore packed its 11,100-seat Civic Center night after night.

A feature article in Sports Illustrated in February 1982 proclaimed the MISL as the future of soccer in America. Faster and rougher, indoor was perceived to be sexier and more American than the outdoor game.

There was no NASL 1982-83 indoor season. Instead, three teams - Chicago, San Diego, and Golden Bay (formerly San Jose) - played in the MISL.

San Diego played its outdoor opener between the fourth and fifth games of its indoor final series with the Baltimore Blast. It lost the outdoor opener, but won the deciding Game 5.

The NASL spiraled downward. The Tulsa Roughnecks battered their way to the 1983 league championship. Seven NASL teams labored through a 32-game indoor season the next winter that yielded the Sockers another indoor crown.

In 1984, the NASL's membership dropped from 12 to nine. No team averaged more than 15,000, and Chicago topped Toronto in the final.

At season's end, Tulsa folded, and four teams jumped to the MISL.

The NASL officially folded in 1985, although a watered-down Cosmos team played a few friendlies before shutting down.

The MISL built followings in Cleveland, Dallas, St. Louis, Wichita and Tacoma. It fielded 14 teams for its 1984-85 season, although the MISL Cosmos played only 33 of their scheduled 48 games.

The New York Express collapsed halfway through the 1986-87 season. Dallas beat Tacoma in Game 7 of the playoff finals in front of 21,728 fans.

Eleven survivors completed the 1987-88 season, at the end of which the Sockers celebrated another title but four other teams folded.

Plagued by bankrupt teams and a shrinking salary cap, the MISL had just seven teams for the 1988-89 season. The end was approaching.

by Soccer America senior editor Ridge Mahoney

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