Saturday, December 22, 2018

MISL Launch -- The Birth of Big Time Indoor Soccer

PETE ROSE HAD at least a dozen kids in 1978. There were Buzz and Gene, Tony and Mark, Ty, Mario, John, Krys, David, Doc and two guys named Keith.

They weren't literal kids but Cincinnati Kids, one of the original six franchises in the Major Indoor Soccer League, the MISL that launched 40 years ago today.

From volume 1, issue 2 of Missile, the official
magazine of the Major Indoor Soccer League
Rose -- part owner of the Kids -- kicked out the first ball in the league's inaugural game against the New York Arrows at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island on Dec. 22, 1978.

His star power wore off quickly though as the host Arrows downed der fussball kinder 7-2 before 10, 376 curious onlookers.

A week later and 120 miles south, the Philadelphia Fever opened to a sellout crowd of 16, 259 at the Spectrum arena. Game on!

Indoor soccer, the mutant spawn of outdoor soccer and ice hockey: six guys per side, five chasing a bright red ball around an astroturf-covered NHL-size rink, trying to slam it off the walls, off each other, and into a 6 1/2-foot high by 12-foot wide goal set into the end boards and guarded by the sixth.

Human pinball.

Briefly dubbed hoc-soc -- a hat tip to its genetics -- the concept was tried out in 1971 by the Division I outdoor North American Soccer League. In the winter of '74, the NASL tried it again with a series of exhibition matches against a touring Soviet squad, most famously one with the Philadelphia Atoms that drew 11,790 fans to the Spectrum. That contest begot another the next year against the league's glamour franchise, the New York Cosmos.

Shep Messing, cover boy and interviewee
One of those watching was Ed Tepper who, together with his friend attorney Earl Foreman, recognized that with some rejiggering -- a bigger goal than used in those early matches, and four 15-minute periods rather than three 20-minute intervals -- they could create a fast-paced, high scoring version of soccer for American sports fans.

Foreman would be the MISL's founding commissioner, with Tepper as his deputy. The league, wherever possible, would rely on American players, a commitment mostly honored in the breach.

Still, its first signee was ex-Cosmos star goalkeeper Shep Messing, who once posed for Viva magazine wearing nothing but a soccer ball and would soon publish an autobiography, The Education of An American Soccer Player. He'd play for the New York Arrows.

In addition to New York, Cincinnati and Philadelphia, the founding franchises of the MISL included the Cleveland Force, Pittsburgh Spirit and Houston Summit Soccer, named for a home arena that would one day become evangelist Joel Osteen's megachurch.

They'd play a 24-game season capped by a two-tiered playoff in March 1979. With rosters dominated by members of the NASL's Houston Hurricanes and Rochester Lancers, the Summit and Arrows quickly became the class of the league.

Opening night highlights...
... and headlines.

Houston's biggest star was Finnish forward Kai Haaskivi. New York countered with Yugoslavian Steve Zungul, available to the new league only because he'd defected from his homeland and, at that nation's insistence, was then banned from outdoor play by FIFA.

Zungul's uncanny scoring ability would make him the greatest player in MISL history, while earning the nickname "the Lord of All Indoors." His Arrows wingman was Canadian teen sensation Branko Segota.

Other notable players that first year included Philly forward Fred Grgurev, who won the scoring title, posting 46 goals and 28 assists; Cincinnati's Ty Keough -- whose father Harry represented the U.S. in the 1950 World Cup tourney -- and Cleveland's British-born Alan Hamlyn, who received the Bronze Star for his military service in Vietnam after being drafted while still just a green card-holding U.S. resident.

In February, each team played an exhibition match against the Soviet Union's touring club, Spartak Moscow, which rampaged to a 5-1 record. They lost only to Houston, 7-5, and closed out their visit with excessive force, crushing Cleveland 20-2.

Spartak Moscow, the red menace
Houston paced the league with an 18-6 record, followed by New York, Cincinnati and Philadelphia. Pittsburgh and Cleveland didn't make the post-season dance. In round one, the fourth-seeded Fever brought down the Summit, while the Arrows beat the Kids, setting up a best of three final between New York and Philly.

The Arrows won, two games to none, capturing the MISL's first championship. Zungul was its first MVP.

For the most part, MISL hit its target audience and by season's end, though its league-wide average attendance per game was just below 4,500, plans were unveiled to expand to Buffalo, Detroit and perhaps two more cities.

Rose's Kids --  undermined by the free agent baseball star's decision to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies and by their junior leaseholder status at the city's Riverfront Coliseum, which they shared with the doomed World Hockey Association's Cincinnati Stingers -- would not return for year two.

Defector, FIFA outlaw and lord of all indoors
Still, MISL management pressed ahead, adding five teams for a net total of 10,  the Detroit Lightning, Buffalo Stallions, Hartford Hellions, St. Louis Steamer and Wichita Wings. A year later they'd be in 12 cities, adding Chicago, Denver and Phoenix, while losing Pittsburgh and shifting the Summit to Baltimore and Detroit to San Francisco.

All of this ramped up the pressure on the already shaky NASL, which committed ever more to meeting the MISL threat on its own ice-covering artificial turf. Its resources largely depleted, the outdoor league which once boasted 24 franchises across the continent collapsed after its 1984 season.

Four of its franchises found refuge with the all-indoor-all-the-time MISL and suddenly the mutant spawn, playing a bastardized version of the world's most popular sport, was the top soccer league in America.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Sunday, December 16, 2018

O.J. Simpson Runs to Glory -- December 16, 1973

I WAS THERE because somebody dumped New York Jets tickets on my dad.

"The consummate runner fulfills the promise"
It was Dec. 16, 1973, one of those punishingly cold days at Shea Stadium, when icy wind whipped in from Flushing Bay, numbing everything in its path. Green Bay's Lambeau Field may be synonymous with "frozen tundra," but a late season Jets home game could just as easily freeze you to the marrow.

On this day, the team was 4-9. By the 1 p.m. kickoff, snow was falling.

So why go?

Why trudge out to the C-shaped municipal stadium surrounded by parking lots and expressways to sit in the arctic chill, drink watery hot cocoa and watch bad Jets football (a virtually redundant description throughout the 1970s)?

Two words. Make that two initials: O.J., as in Simpson, a man on the cusp of rushing for more than 2,000 yards in a 14-game season, something never accomplished before or since.

O.J., aka The Juice, winner of the 1968 Heisman Trophy while at the University of Southern California. Selected with the first overall pick by the Buffalo Bills in the 1969 National Football League draft, he was handsome, articulate and charismatic. A first-magnitude star.

If you were born after 1994 -- after his descent into infamy -- it may be difficult to comprehend the hold he had on the American public, as an athlete, part-time actor, sportscaster and pitchman for orange juice, western boots and rental cars.

He'd come of age in an era that saw the first wide-spread acceptance of black celebrities as just plain celebrities. In 1965, Bill Cosby became the first black to play a lead role in a television drama, I Spy. Three years later, while Simpson was running to greatness at USC, Diahann Carroll took similar stride for black women in Julia. In 1970, Flip Wilson got in his own TV variety show.

Why run through airports when you can fly?
During the 1960s, Muhammad Ali transcended professional boxing to become one of the world's most widely recognized celebrities, a man willing to sacrifice his career for his principles. But where he was controversial and brash, Simpson was silky smooth and universally liked, by men and women, white and black. He transcended race in the same way Barack Obama would three decades later.

O.J.'s affable demeanor and good looks made him a natural for the tube and silver screen. Holding out for a better deal before signing with the Bills, he even threatened to bypass Buffalo for Hollywood, where he'd already had bit parts in Dragnet, Ironside, Medical Center and It Takes a Thief.

While he eventually signed, he didn't hit the ground running. O.J. rushed for just 1,927 yards over his first three seasons combined, barely surpassing Jim Brown's single-season record of 1,863. But things changed in 1972, when the Buffalo hired a new coach, Lou Saban, who plugged in The Juice and let him run.

Simpson's 1,251 yards led the league. His 94 yard-run from scrimmage in an October game against the Pittsburgh Steelers was the longest in the league that year. He averaged 4.3 yards per carry and 89.4 per game but scored only six touchdowns as the Bills staggered to a 4-9-1 record.

By game 10 of the 1973 season, Simpson surpassed his previous season total, running for 1,323 yards, 123 of them at the Jets' expense in week 3. Though held to under 100 yards in three games, he finished the year in a rush, piling up 480 yards just over weeks 11, 12 and 13. Arriving at Shea, he'd already carried  the ball 1,803 yards and Brown's record was only 60 yards away.

That record fell before the end of the first quarter and, with the frost-bitten Shea faithful to bear witness, he piled up precisely 200 yards on the day as the Bills bullied the Jets, 34-14.  It would be the last game for Jets coach Weeb Ewbank, architect of their Super Bowl III victory, and my first as a fan.

For the season, Simpson had juked and jetted his way to 2003 yards -- almost 1.14 miles -- pursued by 11 men swearing to stop him.

In time, and with extension of the standard NFL season to 16 games, the record would fall. So too would O.J., in a manner that would have seemed unimaginable fiction to football fans on that snowy day.

Simpson as doomed astronaut John Walker, with co-stars Sam Waterston and James Brolin
in the thriller Capricorn One. Photo from the July 1978 issue of Starlog Magazine

Between those two defining moments, Simpson played pro-football for just six more years, the final two for his hometown San Francisco 49ers. His acting credits included roles in The Towering Inferno, The Cassandra Crossing, Roots, Capricorn One and the Naked Gun movies.

In 1985 he wed Nicole Brown, with whom he had two children over seven tumultuous years during which the former football star cheated on and abused her. They divorced in 1992.

In June 1994, he was charged with murdering her and friend Ronald Goldman, but apprehended only after a 50-mile -- or 88,000 yard -- low speed chase across the Los Angeles freeway system pursued by dozens of police officers sworn to stop him.

Simpson was acquitted after an epochal 1995 trial but found legally culpable in a civil suit two years later and ordered to pay more than $33 million to the victims' families.

Ten years after that, he'd be convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping for crimes involving sports memorabilia -- our communal tokens of hero worship. Sentenced to nine to 33 years imprisonment, The Juice was set free in 2017.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive