They appear, running, out of a swirling cloud of steam, like minor gods in an Aristophanes comedy, to be greeted by a hysterical ovation from 15,000 hyped-up fans in the St. Louis Checker-dome. The rock group Kiss? The hockey-playing St. Louis Blues? Neither. The disco-punctuated, foot-stomping entrance is the specialty of the St. Louis Steamers, indoor soccer's best-drawing franchise and exemplars of this winter's most startling sports phenomenon.
Indoor soccer—six men to a side, on a surface of artificial turf laid out in a hockey arena, utilizing rebounds from the boards and featuring staccato action and a ton of scoring—may be a nightmarish aberration to soccer purists who love the rhythmic classicism of the outdoor game. But this winter, the indoor variety, as offered by two rival 10-team leagues in 19 cities, is packing a lot of arenas and causing a good deal of head-scratching among those attempting to explain its sudden popularity.
How, for instance, can the Steamers draw sellout and near-sellout crowds for Major Indoor Soccer League games when the old St. Louis Stars of the North American Soccer League, playing outdoors, were driven by yawning apathy from this venerable breeding ground of American soccer two seasons ago? The Steamers' average crowd is 13,523, even though their record is 8-13, the second-worst in the MISL. And in the NASL's version of the indoor game, the Memphis Rogues, who finished last summer's outdoor season with a miserable 6-24 record and drew a paltry 7,137 fans per game, now routinely pack the Mid-South Coliseum with crowds of 8,300 and are close to the lead in their division. Last season's Soccer Bowl runners-up, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, not long ago put 5,858 fans in the 5,548-seat Bayfront Center, a standing-room feat.
Bob Rigby, a seven-season NASL goalkeeper now with the Philadelphia Fever of the MISL, is ecstatic. "Some crazy must have invented this sport," he says. "It's a zoo, a circus. I can't believe anybody takes it seriously, but they do. It's a human pinball game."
Indeed. Attackers flood the area in front of the 12-foot-wide by 6'6"-high goal and pepper shots bumper-pool fashion off the boards, off each other and straight on, trying for a score. The action is accompanied by disco sounds, flashing lights and eight-foot-tall mascots like the Fever's Socceroo, whose costume is wired for electric lights and who throws Frisbees into the crowd.
Deputy Commissioner Ed Tepper, whose brainchild is the two-year-old MISL, would like to make one thing perfectly clear. "It's not the world's most popular game, soccer, that we're playing indoors," he says. "It's athletic show business, an entertainment."
MISL Commissioner Earl Foreman, a former owner of the NBA Bullets, the ABA Squires and the NFL Eagles, says, "What we've done is capture the speed and artistry of the outdoor game and added some distinctly American flavors. There's high scoring and time-outs. Our game is broken into four 15-minute periods, while the outdoor game has two 45-minute halves of continuous action. We have body contact and the rules are very simple. Anyone can enjoy it."
Deep-think strategy is not a big part of the indoor game; fast break on offense, get four guys back on defense is pretty much it. For fans accustomed to the outdoor version, goals seem to come with dizzying frequency. An outdoor game may end 1-0 and leave the crowd delighted. In indoor soccer the score is more likely to be 10-8. And while an outdoor goalie may consider as few as half a dozen saves a day's work, indoor goalkeepers routinely face more than 45 on-goal shots per game. The current record for two teams in a 60-minute game is 165, the highest total score 14-8.
The Rogues' success is partly attributable to the high-speed action of their game and partly to the fact that they have a new owner. Avron Fogelman, a 39-year-old Memphis real-estate magnate, bought the sagging franchise from a disgusted out-of-towner, Harry T. Mangurian, who also owns the Boston Celtics. Stressing his hometown credentials, Fogelman began to apply proven techniques and hard cash to selling the Rogues. "Memphis is like my living room," says Fogelman, who also owns the Memphis Chicks, a Double-A baseball team that also draws uncommonly well. "I know where all the power switches are." And Fogelman promised his fans the sort of non-stop hysteria that seems to be a big factor in indoor soccer's success. "They won't sit on their hands. Anytime there's a break in the action we'll have music or something going on."
Indoor soccer has been around for a while. In Europe, it has long been a gymnasium game in the winter, though there the goals are the standard 8' x 24' outdoor ones and there are no hockey boards. The sport attracted professional interest in the U.S. in 1974 when Philadelphia played a Russian squad at The Spectrum and drew a crowd of 13,700. After that, the NASL backed and filled, never scraping together more than a few teams to play a few games each season.
In 1978, however, Tepper and Foreman sensed that the time was ripe for indoor soccer and formed the MISL, selling franchises for $25,000 apiece in Cincinnati, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Houston, and filling the rosters mostly with young American players, most of them bench warmers in the foreign-dominated NASL during the summer. The clubs met with enough success for the league to expand to 10 teams, each playing a 32-game schedule—up from 24—this winter. The MISL dropped Cincinnati but added teams in Buffalo, Hartford, St. Louis, Detroit and Wichita. An established MISL franchise is now worth about $1 million.
Having watched the MISL survive its first season and head into a second, the NASL decided to get into the act. This winter the league has 10 of its 24 franchises playing 12-game November-February schedules: Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Memphis, Atlanta, Los Angeles, California (Anaheim), Detroit, Minnesota, New England and Tulsa. Fan response has been mixed. Minnesota is getting 10,000-plus crowds, and Memphis hovers near sellouts. But lowly Fort Lauderdale attracts only 2,223 fans a game. In Detroit, the only city where the two leagues confront each other, the MISL's Lightning draws an average of 4,865 and NASL's Express 3,497.
NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam says he is encouraged by the results so far and is not at all reluctant to claim a little credit for his league. "We pioneered indoor soccer in this country—it's a natural complement to the outdoor season," he says. "And most owners can now see its potential. The spirit of the game is right for the times."
One of the MISL's chief drawing points has been its insistence on using home-grown talent. League rules require that 12 of the 16 players on a team's game roster must be North Americans. In contrast, the NASL stipulates that only five members of its teams' 14-man rosters must be North Americans. The MISL rule not only saves money—Americans come cheaper than big-name foreign stars—but also squarely faces up to the fact that the big stars will not play on the hard artificial turf of indoor soccer. Too much chance of injury, they say.
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.
"One of the few successful sports transplants has been American baseball in Japan," says Foreman. "Do you think it would have worked if half the Osaka roster had been from Pittsburgh? We're committed to American players."
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."
Some of Keough's less-talented buddies find that salaries in the MISL are higher than those in the NASL, because Americans are not merely low-rent bodies filling out rosters in the MISL. Ten Fever players are Philadelphia products or went to college in the area. Fourteen of the Steamers are from St. Louis, as is Coach Pat McBride.
A lot of Europeans may simply not be interested in the indoor game. Germany's Hubert Vogelsinger, in summertime the coach of the NASL Sockers, recently retired from the MISL after a short traumatic tour of duty as technical adviser of the Hartford Hellions. "It hurts so much in here," he moaned, pounding his chest, "when you see those terrible shots, those—what do you say?—misfires, going into the net. The whole game's an accident."
Indoor soccer fanatics don't regard that as a valid argument against the entertaining nature of their game. Recently in St. Louis, the Steamers had Detroit beaten 6-1 with 10 minutes left in the final quarter. The Steamers' victory song, Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now was booming over the speakers when Lightning tough guy Manny Hernandez elbowed Keough to the turf in front of the Steamers' goal.
The crowd howled for Hernandez' blood, and a bench-clearing semi-melee ensued, with players pushing and threatening fisticuffs that never quite materialized. However, it was enough for referee Joseph Machnik. He sent Hernandez to the penalty box with a five-minute misconduct. Steve Pecher of the Steamers was also given five minutes for being the third man into the fight, and Steamer Goalie Robert Robson was given a major penalty for chasing Hernandez to the Lightning bench. All three penalties also meant automatic ejection.
Playing with five men against St. Louis' four, Detroit scored a goal 26 seconds after the penalties had been assessed, bringing the score to 6-2.
It then developed that no one in the Checkerdome that night knew what should happen next—except Machnik. Should stand-ins for the penalized Steamers now be allowed to enter the game—as the St. Louis players argued—or should they be kept out of action until the five minutes had expired, as is the rule in the NHL? The referee decreed that the penalties be served out.
Detroit Coach Terry Fisher, one of three Americans guiding MISL teams, put a field player in for his goalkeeper, and Detroit hammered the beleaguered Steamers for five more goals before the penalties expired. This blitz occurred before an astonished, almost dead-quiet crowd of 15,125 seething Steamer fans.
Ah, but this was indoor soccer. Trailing 7-6 when the penalties ended, the Steamers came back to tie the game in regulation time and win it 8-7 in sudden-death overtime. The Checkerdome erupted in a shower of Busch Bavarian. Said a trembling security guard, wiping the perspiration—or was it suds—from inside his hat, "Whew, can you imagine anybody who bought a $2.50 ticket to this thing going home and saying they didn't have a good time?"
Although both Woosnam and Foreman shy away from calling their confrontation a war, both will escalate the stakes next year. At an NASL owners meeting in Chicago later this week, the league will consider expanding next winter's season. Woosnam would like all 24 NASL teams to participate, but this is doubtful. The MISL will add two Rocky Mountain-area franchises and two on the West Coast and is considering a December-April schedule of 40 games, which would overlap the start of the NASL outdoor season.
"We don't worry anymore about depending on NASL to furnish us players," says Foreman. "Only 35% of our guys are on loan from NASL teams. We can do without them."
Both leagues are optimistic about possible television revenues from the indoor game. "It is perfect for television," says Tepper. "You can see the whole field at once, and close-ups of players are more possible. Plus, you've got regular timeouts, and that sells beer, tires and razor blades." The MISL now has a contract with a cable television network that airs selected games to more than five million viewers in 47 states.
But what, one wonders, are all those folks watching? Is it Socceroo, or is it the soccer? The crowds are coming in increasing numbers, but still no one is sure why. Maybe Paul Cannell, the fine and flaky English forward of the Rogues, has the answer. "I'm astounded at the crowds," he says. "I sense that Americans have found a game they can love. We've come up with something that's magic." Magic or human pinball, the craze may be around for a while.