So why do I love indoor soccer?
Forty-eight years ago, a 22-year-old rookie writer on the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle walked up the staircase to the old Community War Memorial in Rochester, N.Y. wondering what he had gotten into.
Only weeks before, he was assigned to cover the Rochester Lancers in the North American Soccer League. His first assignment was to write about a North American Soccer League regional tournament that pit the New York Cosmos, Boston Minutemen, Hartford Bicentennials and the Lancers against one another from Feb. 6-8, 1975.
If you are familiar with my soccer writing career, you already know that I didn't want to cover the sport or have anything to do with the Rochester Lancers. Despite having a glorious past, in recent years they had been mired in controversy. And what young, rookie sportswriter wanted to cover a club that had way too many headaches? Let's not forget the fact I didn't know very much about the beautiful game.
After a year of covering high school sports at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, editor Larry Greybill and assistant editor Bill Parker thought I was ready to step up game. Glad they had confidence in me.
At least my first game was indoors, which resembled hockey at times, and basketball at others. So, I wasn't totally lost.
And in contrast to the great outdoors, indoor soccer had plenty of goals to write about.
In my past Valentine's Day columns on MASLsoccer.com, I have asked various players, coaches, league personnel why they loved indoor soccer. I got a bunch of varied answers. Last year, Major Arena Soccer League director of communications/team services Lindsay Mogle suggested that I write a column on why I love the beautiful indoor game.
I counted the number of professional indoor leagues that I have covered through the decades. The list includes the North American Soccer League, the first and second incarnations of the Major Indoor Soccer League, National Professional Soccer League (formerly the American Indoor Soccer Association), Continental Indoor Soccer League, Xtreme Soccer League, MASL and MASL 2.
I have been fortunate to witness much history in the sport, interview the leading personalities, players, coaches and league officials, and write stories about some of the best to have ever played the game in North America.
Do the names Steve Zungul, Branko Segota, Fred Grgurev, Shep Messing, Slobo Ilijevski, Tatu, Kaz Deyna, Julie Veee and Luis Alberto ring a bell? I had the privilege and the delight of writing articles about those stars who shined brightly back in the day and over the years.
Of course, Zungul was the best player of them all since the man nicknamed the Lord of All Indoors was the fulcrum of the New York Arrows' early dominance in the original MISL. The legendary coaches include Ron Newman, Kenny Cooper and Don (Dragan) Popovic.
Oh, and about those memorable matches; so many of them.
So why do I love indoor soccer? Well, first of all, it is a combination of three sports - basketball, hockey, and of course, soccer.
It has produced some of the most intriguing games and situations I have written about over the decades.
And perhaps most importantly, it has been personalities and the many individuals that I have met and written about over the years and many of which I still talk to. That's what stands out to me.
Covering indoor soccer certainly made some intriguing stories on and off the field.
Here are some of the reasons why I love indoor soccer:
You never forget your first time
That was on Feb. 6, 1975. Grgurev, who led the MISL in scoring in its inaugural 1978-79 season (and not Zungul), scored the first indoor goal I witnessed as the Cosmos tallied at 11:25 of the second period (Grgurev returned to Rochester on a fulltime basis, playing for the Lancers from 1978-79). He added a second goal as the Cosmos prevailed over the Hartford Bicentennials, 6-4, in the first game of a doubleheader of the NASL regional tournament There were plenty of familiar names to the soccer community in that encounter that celebrated goals. That included Joe Fink, Werner Roth, Jorge Siega and Tony Picciano for the Cosmos, and player-coach Manny Schellscheidt, Henry McCully, Charlie McCully and Edner Breton for Hartford. The Cosmos had hoped that the great George Best could have played for them in the tournament, but it never came to fruition.
In the nightcap, the Lancers lost to the Boston Minutemen, 6-4. Eddie Jijon, Francisco Escos and Frank Odoi found the net for Rochester. Andy Rymarczuk assisted on two goals. Lancers legend Carlos Metidieri scored a short-handed goal and assisted on the game-winner.
And one other thing: The rules were slightly different from the indoor game we know and love of today. There were three periods, not four quarters, and the goals were four feet high and 16feet wide, as opposed to the arena goals that measure eight and a half feet high by 14 feet across.
Close to home
At the time, I was on the staff of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. Since the NASL team I covered, the Rochester Lancers, formed the core of the New York Arrows, who were guided by Rochester coach Don (Dragan) Popovic. So, when I had an opportunity to visit my family on Long Island, I took in Arrows games at the Nassau Coliseum, which was only minutes from my parents' house in Westbury.
The transition game
Only a week after winning the very first MISL title over the Philadelphia Fever at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, many Arrows players returned as members of the Lancers to visit the Philadelphia Fury across the street at Veterans Stadium in their 1979 NASL opener. Not surprisingly, a tired Rochester side dropped its season opener, 3-0.
What a rivalry
The Buffalo Stallions joined the league as an expansion team for the 1979-80, giving me an opportunity to cover more indoor matches. Sometimes I would be assigned by my editors, sometimes I went on my day off. The best games, needless to say, were the ones that pit the Stallions against the Arrows. It went beyond New York being the best team. Since Buffalo was stocked with former Rochester players, these affairs many a time turned into a battle royale and a half.
Those games were fierce for two teams that did not any history, the players competed so hard. There were so many Rochester players and former Lancers in the Eastern Division that I dubbed the Arrows, "Lancers South," the Stallions, "Lancers West" and the Baltimore Blast "Lancers Deep South."
The greatest games
Who would have thought I would have witnessed two of the greatest indoor games, perhaps the best one ever, within 48 hours in St. Louis in late March 1981?
Trailing the Wichita Wings, 6-1, in the fourth quarter of their semifinal playoff game, the St. Louis Steamers went on a comeback for the ages. The Steamers reeled off five consecutive goals to knot up the game at 6-6. After every goal, they played the Budweiser theme song, which is still seared into my memory. The Steamers eventually prevailed via penalty kicks.
That set up a classic championship confrontation between the host side and the New York Arrows. It went down to the final 30 seconds as the Lord of All Indoor, Mr. Zungul, tallied a dramatic game-winner to boost the Arrows to their third successive crown in a 6-5 triumph.
When a goalkeeper outscored the opposition
Goalkeepers have scored goals in indoor soccer, and they have blanked the opposition, but no one had ever doubled up in the same game - until Joe Mallia accomplished the feat for the Harrisburg Heat against the Wichita Wings at the Farm Show Arena in January 1993. As a sportswriter I don't root for any team, only for the story. On that night, I was rooting for Mallia to record the shutout after he rolled the ball across the carpet and into an empty net. I got one fabulous story.
Yep, that's what I called this January 1982 encounter between the Buffalo Stallions for a Soccer America column. For some reason, I drove from Rochester to Buffalo on the New York State Thruway during a Sunday afternoon snowstorm (I don't think there is any insanity in my family). The Buffalo Stallions took on the lowly and struggling New Jersey Rockets and the hosts grabbed an early lead. Buffalo head coach Ray Klivecka decided to see how much the Rockets wanted to play, so he had his defender Dennis Mepham and goalie Paul Maxi start their own private catch with the ball in the Stallions’ end at the Aud. New Jersey did not do a thing and allowed the Stallions to take precious time off the clock. It turned into a mockery of the game. Both coaches accused each of not playing. A few days later, the Rockets fired head coach Timo Liekoski.
Keep on (TV) trucking
In May 1985, CBS allowed me to sit in the truck for an MISL final series playoff game for a Soccer America story and I was schooled in what transpires in a TV truck. On the field between the visiting San Diego Sockers school the Baltimore Blast behind a 14-2 victory. I also wrote one of my favorite all-time stories on way transpires behind the scenes in a TV truck.
On the road again and again and again
In January 1992, I had a brainstorm. I wanted to cover an NPSL team on a road trip. The expansion Harrisburg Heat were to embark on a three-games in three-day journey to the Midwest. Former Lancers captain Jim Pollihan, who was the Heat coach, gave me the go-ahead to take the trip. It was a memorable bus ride and then some as Harrisburg became the first NPSL team to win all three contests in as many days. That was in Canton, Detroit and Dayton. The players wanted me to go on future trips with them, but I had to decline because I had a day job back home in New York.
Home, sweet, home
As a sequel to my trip the previous year, I decided to spend a weekend in Harrisburg, Pa., covering the Heat. They defeated both NPSL division leaders, the Baltimore Blast and Wings. And to top it off, Mallia posted that shutout and a goal in the same match. I am 5-0 with the Heat!
You can go home again
After reporting about the demise of the NASL outdoor Lancers in 1980, I never thought I would ever cover a team named the Rochester Lancers again. That all changed in November 2011. After dropping its franchise opener at the Syracuse Silver Knights, 16-15, on Nov. 4, Rochester held its home opener at the Blue Cross Arena a week later on Nov. 11. I attended the match as the Lancers lost, 13-4, to the Missouri Comets before a crowd of 6,528 at the Blue Cross Arena at the Community War Memorial that afternoon. Jeremy Ortiz and Mauricio Salles, who scored off a bicycle kick, got on the scoresheet for the hosts. Ryan Junge led Missouri (3-0) with five points, and a long three-point goal. Reigning league MVP Bryon Alvarez contributed two assists.
But the bottom line was that indoor soccer, and the Lancers were back!
Some media game glory
At the 1982 MISL all-star in Buffalo, I participated in arguably the best media game as the written press were pit against its broadcast counterparts. If my memory is correct, we played at the Stallions' training facility. I was a right wing. I scored a goal to pull the print media into a 7-7 tie. I celebrated my first "professional" goal with a flying punch into the air, not unlike the great Pele. Kyle Rote, Jr., the first American to lead the NASL in scoring, was a broadcaster and he played for the enemy. He could have dominated the game as a forward, instead was a playmaker on defense at the left point. Guess who had to cover him? An unskilled writer (unskilled as a player) from Rochester. I lost count of how many times I accidentally kicked Rote in his shins. I must have set a world record for apologizing to another player in a sporting event. And oh yeah, we won, 10-9.
Five years later, I participated in another media match prior to a New York Express game at the Nassau Coliseum. Realizing there were more skilled, younger and faster players on my team, I decided to move back to the defense. I was proud of one play when I battled an opposing forward for the ball in the right corner. Our goalkeeper shouted to me to pass the ball back to him. By then, I saw plenty of misplays between defenders and their goalkeepers, such as steals and own goals. And since we had given played together before, in my mind, I had him standing on one side of the goal and me passing to him on the other side for an own goal. After the game, I explained to him why I ignored him and he understood.
Today's game and stars
Since writing a weekly in-season column, I haven't had many opportunities to attend games because there are no teams within decent driving distance from Long Island. But I have had the opportunity to interview and write about the biggest names in the MASL and indoor soccer and tell their unique stories.
The list has been endless - Ian Bennett, Leo Gibson, Franck Tayou, Zach Reget, Kraig Chiles, Drew Ruggles, Gordy Gurson, Luiz Morales, Boris Pardo, Chris Toth, Nick Perera, James Togbah, Tavoy Morgan, Marcelo Moreira, Joey Tavernese, Doug Miller, Carlos (Chile) Farias, Jenna Winebrenner, Jessie Vilkofsky and Gino D'Ippolito.
I enjoy telling these stories.
And there are so many more individuals to write about.
So, who will I feature next?
Well, I'm not going to say. You'll have to turn in next week to find out.
But in the spirit of V-Day, I will give you a clue. He is allowed to use his hands most of the time.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at email@example.com His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, recently was published. It can be purchased at https://tinyurl.com/2p8rzhpy.lk