For many soccer fans in America, the dark time between the demise of the NASL and the rise of MLS was filled with indoor soccer, specifically the Major Indoor Soccer League. Even though the league has long-since folded and the outdoor game has once again asserted itself as the top in America, soccer in America today owes a big debt to the service of the league.
Beginning in in the 1978-79 season and lasting until the 1991-92 season, the Major Indoor Soccer League was the place to be for American soccer fans. With such teams as the Baltimore Blast, Dallas Sidekicks, Kansas City Comets, San Diego Sockers, and the Tacoma Stars, the league provided a place for top American soccer players to play following the demise of the NASL. While it may not have been an outdoor league, the league was instrumental in giving playing time to future members of the 1990 World Cup squad. Some of the more famous names to pass through the league are Fernando Clavijo, Tatu, Andranik Eskandarian, Dale Mitchell, Bruce Arena, Steve Zungul, Hugo Perez, and Preki. Just taking a look at those names you can see the direct imprint on soccer in the U.S. today.
So what happened? Why did the MISL fold? With the huge crowds of the NASL and now the huge crowds at certain MLS matches, it’s easy to forget that that MISL also drew decent crowds. Averaging only a little under 4,500 fans it’s first season, the league rose to average nearly 9,000 fans per match in it’s heyday. Overall, throughout its history the league averaged roughly 7,644 fans. In particular, places like Tacoma, San Diego, and Kansas City were known to draw in particularly boisterous and large fan bases.
However, like most professional sports leagues, the success of a few teams while others struggled heavily was not enough to help the league survive. In the league’s 14 seasons 32 different teams participated in the league. The league also went through 4 commissioners. Even with low salaries, many teams succumbed to high expenses on things like rent and travel. Without the deep-pocketed owners that the MLS would have, the league just couldn’t survive.
Ultimately, it was the rise of the outdoor game that began to do in the league. With the U.S. qualifying for the 1990 World Cup, more American stars began to join clubs in Mexico and Europe. Players with aspirations to play on the national team needed to find outdoor clubs rather than indoor clubs if they every wanted to be on the team. Additionally, the rise of the USL (then known under a variety of names) meant that players had a legitimate outdoor option after college.
Still, even with the rise of the outdoor game and the demise of the MISL, the indoor game lingered on. Since that time there have been numerous leagues catering to the indoor fan. The American Indoor Soccer League, Xtreme Soccer League, Continental Indoor Soccer League, World Indoor Soccer League, and a second version of the MISL have all tried and failed to once again popularize the indoor game. Many of these leagues have served as extra paychecks for some of the players in the USL. Players like Ryan Johnson and Jonny Steele (both of whom would later play in MLS) have had stints playing indoor soccer.
However, for indoor fans there is hope. Currently a third version of the MISL, aligned with the USL, seems to be somewhat stable and growing. The league features teams in traditional indoor markets like Baltimore, Chicago, Milwaukee, Kansas City, and Wichita. The partnership with the USL has allowed the league to trim several administrative costs as well as make it easier for USL players to get a contract in the league. Additionally, a second professional indoor league, the Professional Arena Soccer League, has emerged. By playing in very regional markets, having low player salaries (or no salaries), and playing in adequately sized venues, the league has managed to create a working financial strategy.
While these leagues are not going to unseat outdoor soccer anytime soon, they do provide American soccer fans with a place to get their soccer fix during the winter months. So as the indoor season starts up in the next month or so, it’s worth remembering the impact indoor soccer has on American soccer and to check out a match.
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