Try to forget for a moment, assuming you remember at all, the alphabet-soup acronyms, musical-chair franchises and tacky theatrics that have stigmatized indoor soccer. Because as the San Diego Sockers went to the limit of their artistry—and a seven-game championship series—to overtake the Minnesota Strikers and win their fifth straight indoor title early last week, the Major Indoor Soccer League's vital signs were strong. There were some glitzy touches, to be sure, including razzle-dazzle pregame introductions in San Diego, during which Socker coach Ron Newman would run onto the floor attired in a tuxedo. But for the most part, the game was the focus of attention.
And make no mistake: Even in its full-frenzied indoor version, soccer is a sport of clearly etched moments. For instance, the winning goal in Game 7—a perfect 100-foot pass from San Diego goalie Jim Gorsek that midfielder Brian Quinn, sprinting upfield, caught on his foot like Velcro Man, dribbled twice and shot past Striker goalie Tino Lettieri. Or the many times Lettieri squared up face-first to field 70-mph bullets off the foot of Socker star Branko Segota, shots that would have made Brooks Robinson duck. Or the sight of San Diego's aging virtuoso, Juli Veee, his legs all but gone, still blazing unexplored trails in creative dribbling and passing, like a grand master fiddling with three-dimensional chess.
"Yeah," said a weary Quinn, the series MVP, speaking in his thick Belfastian brogue on behalf of the indoor game. "We can do magic."
Certainly there was magic in the Sockers' performance. They surpassed the record of the late New York Arrows, who won four MISL titles from 1979 to '82, albeit with an asterisk to denote that the Sockers were indoor champions of the rival North American Soccer League in 1982 and '84. And if dynasty and indoor soccer look odd in the same sentence, consider that while filthy lucre in the form of guaranteed salaries and massive TV revenue has made repeat champions rare in other sports, they don't exist to corrupt the men of the MISL. The Sockers' per-player share for winning the championship series was around $2,000; for the Strikers some $1,000.
Besides the lack of financial incentive, the Sockers had plenty of reason to quit after Minnesota outhustled and outsmarted them to win three of the first four games. The Sockers, far from a harmonious lot even when they're winning, were bickering and second-guessing each other at a record rate, "Everybody's arguing, and nobody's listening," said defender George Katakalidis in the noisy locker room after San Diego's 4-3 loss in Game 4. But the Sockers found their championship heart in time and swept the next three games.
"Sometimes all the commotions pull us through," said Veee, the 36-year-old Budapest-born philosopher-king of indoor. "Only morons agree all the time. If you don't have some excitement, some disagreement, it's like a cow team. You know, you just chew your cud."
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."
San Diego dominated the regular season with a 36-12 record, setting a league record for most goals scored (308). It also featured a No-Goal Patrol, which killed power plays at a 75% clip. Even the bottom-line-inspired sale of Steve Zungul—The Lord of All Indoors—to Tacoma for $200,000 on Feb. 4 didn't slow the Sockers. Segota simply stepped in with his explosive moves and terrifying shot to score 106 points, third best in the league.
Still, the Sockers did not merely cruise into the finals as they had in past years. St. Louis and Tacoma each gave them a battle, and their struggle with Minnesota provided the ultimate proof that the rest of the league has narrowed the gap. Under coach Alan Merrick, the Strikers went 26-22 during the regular season, but their swarming defense and fearless shot-blocking helped them win three of three against San Diego. And in the playoffs, the Strikers kept getting better while eliminating Dallas and Cleveland.
The biggest factor was the charismatic Lettieri, who would erase his team's defensive mistakes with one reflex save after another. Lettieri was brilliant in the Strikers' 6-1 Game 2 win in San Diego, which evened the series and snapped the Sockers' streak of 26 home playoff victories. The game also got the state of Minnesota excited. The last pro team from the state to win a championship was the 1954 NBA Minneapolis Lakers. Minnesotans suffered through losses in four Super Bowls, one World Series, one NASL Soccer Bowl and a Stanley Cup—not to mention the presidential bids of Hubert Humphrey and Fritz Mondale. Suddenly the Strikers were bigger than walleye season or Kirby Puckett. There was only uneasy silence when, at a luncheon before Game 3 at the Met Center, a replica of the MISL championship trophy that Merrick and Newman were holding for photographers fell apart.
But the Strikers routed the Sockers 7-2 to go up two games to one, with Alan Willey scoring four goals. "If we don't win the next one," said Veee, "I think it will be coffin time." Indeed, San Diego blew a 3-0 lead in Game 4 to lose 4-3 on a goal by Striker Gregg Thompson with 30 seconds left in regulation. Still, the Sockers refused to be buried. "I think we can win three in a row," said defender Kevin Crow. "They've just won three in a row, and we're as good as them."
Better, it turned out. Before their home fans in Game 5, the Sockers beat Minnesota 7-4; then, in Game 6, they beat the Strikers, 6-3, for the first time in six tries at the Met Center. Back home in Game 7, Quinn scored the first goal to put the Sockers in control and then booted in the one for the books on the pass from Gorsek, which gave San Diego a 4-1 third-quarter lead. The Sockers had no trouble holding on for a 5-3 victory.
At the end, his teammates hoisted Quinn onto their shoulders, then took several laps around the field with the trophy, which, unlike the replica, stayed in one piece. For the immediate future, at least, so should the MISL.