Major Indoor Soccer: The hype of the U.S.' one-time biggest league remembered

With its showmanship and (for some reason) Darth Vader, it was, for a small pocket of time, the U.S.’ biggest league. Amid the dry ice and fireworks, why did this revolutionary enterprise end in tears?

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Andy Chapman, one of only two men to have enjoyed a professional indoor soccer career in the U.S. spanning four decades, is reflecting on the time that he knocked 
a cheerleader unconscious.

“I was playing in St. Louis, and they used to go crazy with the razzmatazz – there’d be 18,000 people watching an indoor football match in the 1980s, a bigger crowd than some English First Division sides got,” he tells FourFourTwo in a cockney accent that hasn’t been dimmed with his 35 years stateside. 

“There were fireworks and dry ice, and the cheerleaders would kneel down to welcome us onto the pitch. You couldn’t see a frigging thing, and as I trotted out 
I accidentally kneed this poor girl in the temple. She was spark out and had to be carried off. On another occasion, when I was with Baltimore Blast, the players would emerge from a replica of a spaceship that got lowered down, and the crowd would go berserk. For a lad from a council house in the East End, it was barely believable.”

When discussing the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL), which ran from 1978 to 1990 in its most recognizable format, very little is believable. Americans have always been mocked by snooty European purists for their meddling with the beautiful game, and the MISL is surely the most unashamed example in history. 
A turbocharged version of six-a-side, it featured such wonderfully named sides as the Cincinnati Kids, San Francisco Fog 
and Minnesota Strikers, playing in lurid uniforms in front of rabid crowds.

Most astonishingly, at one point in the fluorescent wonderland that was the mid-’80s, the MISL actually became the foremost league in the United States. In some areas the much-maligned sport of soccer even began to overtake the popularity of big-hitters like basketball. Acting as a bridge between the NASL of Pele and the 1994 World Cup bid, its importance should not be understated. At the same time, however, the whole thing was so bonkers as to be almost beyond parody. 

So how did it come about, and why did it end as dramatically as it exploded into life? FFT grabbed its pom-poms, short shorts and disco ball to delve deepe r…

“The fans kept cheering – the players had to come back for a curtain call”

The American obsession with stats was also catered to: players were precisely graded with points for goals and assists. It worked. Supporters weaned on the all-action scoring of basketball preferred it to the ‘boring’ one-nils of the NASL, and flocked to watch.

The MISL was devised in 1977 by Ed Tepper, a free-thinking real estate mogul who had dabbled in professional lacrosse. The NASL was on the wane, with franchises struggling to draw crowds (it eventually perished in 1985). Tepper theorized the league wasn't appealing to enough customers.

“It’s not the 
world’s most popular game, soccer, that we will be playing indoors,” said Tepper, who became the league’s Deputy Commissioner. “It is athletic show business.” He arranged a tour with a Russian XI facing off against six American sides. The popularity of these indoor showcases – with beer, burgers and central heating – convinced Tepper it would work. He set about mustering teams to compete in a 1978/79 winter season.

His sidekick, MISL Commissioner Earl Foreman, who part-owned the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and had been instrumental in the formation of the NASL, shared Tepper’s vision. “What we’ve done is capture the artistry of the outdoor game and added American flavor,” he said. “There’s high scoring and time-outs. It’s broken into four 15-minute periods. We have body contact and the rules are simple. Anyone can enjoy it.”

1972: MISL Commissioner, Earl Foreman (left)

Tepper and Foreman sold six initial franchises for $25,000 each: Cincinnati, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Houston. A year later, five more clubs were added with a 32-match season (Buffalo, Hartford, St. Louis, Detroit and Wichita came in). Even the NASL got interested, with its summer sides playing indoors over winter. “It’s a natural complement to the summer season,” said NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam. “Most owners can now see its potential. The spirit of the game is right for the times.”

Played on artificial turf in ice hockey arenas with teams of six, 12-foot-by-6-foot nets, a hi-vis orange ball and rebounds off the hockey boards, this was the Americanization of soccer taken to its logical conclusion. Games would produce 10 to 20 goals; one 1980 match saw a record 165 shots on target. The American obsession with stats was also catered for: players were precisely graded with points for goals and assists. It worked. Supporters weaned on the all-action scoring of basketball preferred it to the ‘boring’ one-nils of the NASL, and flocked to watch. 

1978: The MISL kicks off with a 7-2 win for the New York Arrows

In some places – especially Midwest towns without a hockey or basketball franchise – the MISL got bigger crowds than top-level basketball. Attendances could touch 20,000 and averaged 7,644 across the States.

“I was never a soccer fan until I started going to Baltimore Blast in ’82,” remembers Sydney Nusinov, who edited an MISL fanzine and now runs the Indoor Soccer Hall of Fame. “It was the antithesis of outdoor soccer. The fan intensity was incredible. I remember the Blast winning a playoff: they did their victory lap and went to the locker room, but the fans kept cheering. They had to come back for a curtain call. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

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