The birds of prey on New York's drive-time radio shows are descending on the infant New York Express. Howard Stern, the uncultured vulture of WXRK-FM, knocks the players' sexuality and offers ethnic slurs about Shep Messing, the team's goalie and president, who is Jewish. Don Imus, WNBC's purveyor of insults, calls Messing a "slime-ball" for signing himself to a two-year contract and says watching indoor soccer is like "committing suicide slowly."
People in the Express front office love this. In fact, they love anything said about the Express. "We pay Stern $1,000 a minute to tear us to shreds," says Micah Buchdahl, the team's p.r. director. "In New York, that's credibility."
Launching a new pro team in New York is almost as tough as producing a long-hair drama on Broadway. Getting such a team going in suburbia is even tougher. Long Island's Nassau Coliseum is littered with corpses: The Sets (team tennis) and Tomahawks (box lacrosse) died for lack of interest and the Nets fled to the New Jersey swampland. Even the beloved Islanders had a rough start. Three previous area soccer teams, the Cosmos, Rockets and Arrows, all folded. "New York fans ask so much from a new team," says Express forward Mark Liveric, who hails from Zadar, Yugoslavia. "They expect you to pick them up at work, drop them off at the arena, buy them dinner and then drive them home."
Of the MISL's six charter members in 1978, only Cleveland remains. The Force and the Kansas City Comets were the only franchises to turn a profit last season. The 12-team league has been successful regionally—two years ago it drew a higher average attendance than either the resident NHL or NBA operation in seven of the nine cities in which it went head-to-head against either of the other leagues—but it lacks a network TV contract that would make it profitable. TV executives remain unconvinced of the MISL's saleability. "Having a New York-based team is terribly important for the league," says Comets owner David Schoenstadt, who had a large chunk of the Arrows. "If the Express [0-3] goes under, it will be a big step backward."
So the expansion club is spending $700,000 on an advertising campaign with Delia Femina, the agency that handles the Mets. The Express holds dozens of free clinics. The team curries favor with the local sporting press: The twin son and daughter of NBC's Marv Albert are ball boy and ball girl. To add a little ready-made glamour, it has clothed players in Islander blue and orange.
One of the many aspiring marketing geniuses behind the Express is assistant general manager Joel Finglass. His mind is a Rolodex with a hustle scribbled on every card. It was Finglass who thought up Finny's Line, a pick sheet handed out to spectators during home games (hit five of five winners and get two free passes). And it was Finglass who, as sales director for the Baltimore Blast, stirred up secular interest by promoting the Third Annual Methodist Youth Night. Embarrassed ministers signed up when they realized they hadn't been to the first or second. Finglass didn't bother telling them there hadn't been a first or second. "The name of the game is staying in business," he says. "That's why sooner or later all the players have to be American."
"The fans want to see players whose names they can pronounce," says midfielder Michael Collins. "Local players, not guys from wherever." So the Express adopted the slogan "Soccer...American Style" and tried to limit its roster to a minimum of players whose names begin with five consecutive consonants. Messing boasts that the team has four Ivy Leaguers ("If we go into overtime, we'll challenge our opponents to a debate") and more "native-born" players than the Islanders. Now he hopes to be attracting many native-born fans.
The Express won a bidding war for free agent Ricky Davis, the former star midfielder of the Cosmos and captain of the U.S. national and Olympic teams. It even signed four Long Islanders, including Collins, whose father, Peter, is president of the local junior league. "As far as I'm concerned, Mike is the Pope of Long Island," says Finglass. "Kids don't know Shep anymore. He's a generation away."
Still, the 10,570 kids and seven adults on hand for last Friday's home opener seemed to find Messing the most recognizable commodity on a squad loaded with Arrows and Cosmos castoffs on the one hand and wincingly green players on the other. (Midfielder Gustavo Crnko is so unfamiliar with the rules that when he got blue-carded in preseason, a teammate had to lead him to the penalty box.) The 37-year-old Messing has toned down his act since the days when he kept a pet boa constrictor concealed beneath his cascading curls, challenged linebackers to barroom glass-eating bouts and posed nude for Viva magazine.
The first player ever signed to a MISL contract, Messing jumped from the big fields of the NASL in 1978 and was immediately blackballed from the outdoor game. But he got a certain revenge, having lasted longer than the NASL.
Messing, who grew up in Roslyn and lives in Westbury, wanted to bring a team back to the Island. With 200,000 registered soccer players, Long Island looked like fertile ground for a franchise. The Arrows won four MISL championships at Nassau Coliseum but went broke two years ago. "In the past," says community relations director Tom Mulroy, "some owners have had champagne tastes and Coca-Cola pockets." There's more optimism on the Express. They've already sold 1,000 partial- or full-season tickets. The best the Arrows ever did was 600.
A year and a half ago Messing took his idea for a team to Stan Henry, who owns 24 giveaway advertising weeklies on the Island. Henry claims his Pennysavers reach 450,000 homes. He put up $1 million to buy and run the Express and enlisted Ralph McNamara, chief executive officer of an Island brokerage house. Now the team offers stock to fans. You get a two-year season ticket with every $1,000 unit, but no guarantee of profit or even that the team will play that long.
On Friday, after Jan Goossens of Kansas City beat Messing at the net to clinch a 4-2 Comet victory, Henry muttered some things even Howard Stern might find offensive. "Can you imagine Shep blowing a play with 3,000 owners in the stands?" mused Henry. "They'll demand a shareholders meeting."