The inside story of how indoor and arena soccer got its start in the US

by Michael Lewis

While Dec. 22, 1978, is considered a red-letter date in indoor soccer in the U.S., the arena sport has been around in some sort of organized fashion for decades if not a century.

On that date 40 years ago Saturday, the New York Arrows hosted the Cincinnati Kids in the very first Major League Soccer game. Since then, several leagues have propelled the sport into the 21st century with the Major Arena Soccer League leading the way in 2018.

There were several attempts at forming leagues in big cities as long as eight decades ago. In fact, players at the very first indoor game at Madison Square Garden had a riot of a time -- literally and figuratively.

In what the New York Daily News called "a riotous debut," at the old Madison Square Garden, a crowd of 8,000 witnessed a doubleheader on Feb. 10, 1941. In the opener, the Brookhattan Truckers shut out St. Mary's Celtics, 2-0, "a mixture of feet and fists which was enlivened by a three-minute free-for-all just as the first half ended."

The quality of play, or lack thereof, was hampered by a rather slippery floor that was made up of cement and cork as many players had problems keeping their balance. Three players were carried off with injuries. Oh, and case you were wondering, Joe Boyle scored the first goal and set up the second by Joe Skiba.

The field was 250 by 125 feet with the goals seven feet high and 14 feet wide.

New York Herald Tribune columnist Richards Vidmer wrote: "Apparently, the Garden has hit upon the perfect game for indoor sports enthusiasts ... in soccer."

In a doubleheader that was held at the garden May 6, officials made changes, using a dirt floor left over the circus, and the penalty area and offside was abolished to limit fighting. Little did that help in the second game. In the opener, a team made up of players from the New York Americans and Brookhattan players defeated the Scots Americans, 3-2, as Boyle tallied two late goals to ice the game.

In the second game, St. Mary's survived a 4-1 victory over Brooklyn Hispano, 4-1, as a fight broke out five minutes after the opening kickoff. How bad was it, the Daily News reported that the match "was nearly completed at the Polyclinic Hospital."


There were reports that the crowds were so encouraging that an organized league might be formed the next winter. It never happened because there were outside forces too strong to stop, such as the advent of World War II for the U.S. later that year.

It was almost 30 years before another major indoor tournament was held, this one in St. Louis. Since the game was a hybrid of hockey and soccer, the North American Soccer League tournament was called Hoc-Soc.

Coached by the legendary Ron Newman -- for which the MASL's championship trophy is named -- the Dallas Tornado defeated the outdoor defending champion Rochester Lancers, 3-0, before 5,060 spectators at The Arena and take home the top prize of $1,000. Don Popovic scored a brace in the consolation game, the Stars' 2-0 victory over the Washington Darts in the consolation game.

"I think hoc-soc has a potential as a league undertaking," NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "and we will take it up at league meeting in about 10 days. If you can generate this much enthusiasm for mere exhibition games, a league schedule would be much more attractive."

The NASL held preseason tournaments throughout the league in 1975 and 1976, but still could not get a winter league off the ground as someone else beat the league to the punch.

Originally, it looked like it was going to be the Super Soccer League.

League president Jerry Saperstein, the son of Harlem Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein, founded the would-be league. The SSL was scheduled to kick off in 1978 with 12 teams -- New York, New Jersey, New England, Toronto, Washington, D.C. Atlanta, South Florida, Birmingham, Shreveport, La., Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Clubs would play 32 games a season, from July through October.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a Super Soccer League Inc. agreement said that players would be paid $250 a week for a 16-week period from mid-June through October for a a total of $4,000. The contract included medical insurance, return airfare to a players' home and an apartment they would share with one or two teammates. The league would obtain visas for foreign players.

Only weeks prior to kickoff, Saperstein pulled the plug, postponing the league until the spring of 1979. "To be candid," Saperstein told the Fort Lauderdale News, "we couldn't put together the elements necessary to begin this summer. It's in the best interests of everybody -- the team, the players and the fans -- to begin next spring."

It never got off the ground.

Enter Earl Foreman and Ed Tepper, who fell in love with the indoor game while watching the Red Army of the old Soviet Union defeat the then North American Soccer League champion Philadelphia Atoms, 6-3, at the Spectrum in Philadelphia on Feb. 11, 1974. (coached by Al Miller, who will receive the Walt Chyzowych Fund's Lifetime Achievement Award at the United Soccer Coaches convention in Chicago on Jan. 12).

"This is a novel concept," Foreman told the Baltimore Sun in 1978. "I think the average sports fan still has a hard time identifying with outdoor soccer. I think soccer has turned the corner, but there are still a lot of dead spots in the game because of the size of the playing field and the poor viewing angles.

"Indoor soccer makes the game a lot simpler and much faster. You can play the ball off the dashers and change teams in a matter of seconds, just like hockey."

Remember Don Popovic? He became the architect of the Arrows team that played in that very first game while guiding the club to the first indoor dynasty, winning the first four MISL crowns.

He remembered that night at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y. as an event with "a lot of excitement."

"I think a lot of people wanted to see what kind of game we were going to show," he said. "I thought it was a very exciting game and everybody enjoyed it very much."

Especially the Arrows, who went on to register a 7-2 victory, and scoring machine Steve Zungul, who connected for the first of his countless hat-tricks. For the record, defender Jim Pollihan scored the very first professional indoor soccer goal in the second quarter for the hosts side before an enthusiastic crowd of 10,386.

Among those spectators was baseball legend Pete Rose, who was a part owner of the Kids. At the time, Rose was about to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies.

"Pete Rose was a big thing for all of us," Popovic said. "If he was interested, it must be an interesting game. I was actually thrilled to see Pete Rose involved with indoor soccer."

An original member of the Indoor Soccer Hall of Fame and the Rochester Lancers Wall of Fame, Popovic was one of the early pioneers of the arena game.

"I was very fortunate to have a good team, but I had experience in indoor soccer a little bit," he said.

Popovic coached a world all-star team vs. Brazil in the seventies, a squad that included such greats as Bobby Moore, who captained England to the 1966 World Cup, and the fabulous Eusebio. The Brazilians included such imposing figures and World Cup champions such as Carlos Alberto and Nilton Santos.

"We played them in a sold-out arena," Popovic said. "It was just beautiful to watch. So, I was experienced on what players I was supposed to look for. I thought it was a helllvua show. It was beautiful for four or five years. It was a sporting town on Long Island.

"We drew much more than the Islanders at that time. Hockey is a helluva of a sport. Outdrawing hockey was a pleasure. That was beautiful stuff."

Zungul, 24, at the time, quickly earned the nickname, the Lord of All Indoors. By the time he retired at 35 after the 1989-90 season, Zungul had written the MISL record book. He played for eight championship teams, four with the New York Arrows and four with the San Diego Sockers. He finished with 652 goals, almost 200 more than the second leading goalscorer, Branko Segota (463). He also had the most assists (1,123).

"Steve Zungul was a helluva player," Popovic said. "He made me look good."

That league gave many an American soccer player an opportunity to earn a living and to continue to play the beautiful game.

Dave Sarachan, who ended a 13-month tenure as U.S. national head coach in November, was one such player. An American midfielder-forward, Sarachan rarely saw action trying to break into a Rochester Lancers lineup (NASL) that had many European players. He got an opportunity to produce with the Pittsburgh Spirit, Buffalo Stallions and Baltimore Blast before continuing his career as a coach at Cornell University, Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.

"If I didn't have indoor, I don't know how long my outdoor career would have lasted to be honest," said Sarachan, who was named coach of the North Carolina FC (United Soccer League Championship) earlier this week. "It was a challenge as an American to get on the field back then, in my position especially because I was a winger, a forward, a midfielder. Usually the American guys who got the real chances were goalkeepers and backs. So, when indoor was available it kept me going and earning a living."

The MISL lasted until 1992. During that time, the NASL had indoor seasons during four winters, its final season in 1983-84.

It was during that time that Newman had joined the Sockers as head coach and he took the game to a different level, along with his one of his disciples, a former goalkeeper on a team that he coached, the Dallas Tornado, Kenny Cooper. They helped refine tactics in the game, managing a match better. For example, they noticed their players could gain several precious yards on the field by entering the bench via one door and exiting it several yards down the pitch, closer to the opponents' goal.

"When he started coaching indoors, it was the offseason of the NASL teams," said Guy Newman, Ron Newman's son who was his assistant coach for so many years. "He wanted to see how the game was played. He studied it the first year, looking how he thought it would be. he was trying to figure out how to take advantage of certain situations. "

"One of the biggest things he had to do in indoor was one-touch play. Everything was one touch. Great. Boom, boom, boom. It was like how Barcelona plays now. He had all these options. The ball moved really quickly. The other team couldn't touch the ball sometimes. He always empathized that.”

Ron Newman passed away in August.

"When Steve Zungul was playing for him, Steve was getting on a bit in years," Guy continued. "He was always a great player, but it was hard for him to do all the running and the defending. Dad told Steve: 'Go out and play and every time you lose the ball then come off. I'll get some young guy to do all the running for you. And as soon as we win the ball, I'll yank him off and you go back on.' It worked. He got a little bit of a rest and now he's back in a more dangerous situation. With one player coming on and one player coming off, it was like Waterloo [metro] station out there."

Since the original MISL went to that great soccer league in the sky, several other leagues promoted the arena and indoor game in North America.

That included the American Indoor Soccer Association (which was renamed the National Premier Soccer League), Continental Indoor Soccer League, World Indoor Soccer League, Xtreme Soccer League, the second and third editions of the MISL (the last one operated by the United Soccer League), Professional Arena Soccer League and the MASL.

While many of those teams and leagues are gone, they obviously had had an impact on many players, coaches and front office staff that work in the MASL today.

Sockers general manager Sean Bowers grew up in San Diego, watching the original MISL team in his hometown, which included some of the greats of the game -- Julie Veee, Zoltan Toth, Jean Willrich and Brian Quinn, among others. That helped inspire him to want to become a soccer player. He did -- in the NPSL and MLS.

"Every time Julie Veee got the ball, you would hold your breath," he said.

Some four decades later, arena fans are still being entertained.

"It's definitely a testament to owners and the people who want to see this go and its going down the right path right now," Bower said. "I'm glad some of the teams that have been around for a while are still connected to it. We need to get some newer teams in with some really good owners that are here to stay for a while."

Which is what the MASL is trying to do. The 17-team league is considering expansion to full divisions in Mexico and Canada. It also has a 15-team second division, MASL2, aka M2.

Commissioner Joshua Schaub, who was introduced to arena soccer as a fan of the Milwaukee Wave {NPSL) in the 1980s, understood that it was important to remember and honor the past and look toward the future at the same time.

"It's a question we always get, how do you connect the history of the sport to today's MASL and what is appropriate because I've had a lot of owners saying we need to stand on our own, we need to look forward and not look back to the alphabet soup of leagues and just concentrate on who we are now and find a new audience," Schaub said. "I think there's a little bit of both. You can connect to the past and tell people even when I pitch to investors and sponsors, this league was bigger than the NBA for four straight seasons in the eighties. The American sports fan has proved it and the Mexican sports fan has loved this sport to a very high degree. So, we need to connect. We also need to talk about where we fit in the American soccer landscape and what piece of that we really are. I do definitely revel in the past in arena soccer."

Needless to say, Schaub is bullish on arena soccer.

"Obviously, it has stood the test of time, so it has a lot of appeal to a lot of people and its through a lot of reiterations and ups and downs," he said. "There's such passion among our hardcore fans and really the operators in our league that have let it sustain. Ed Hale [Blast owner] said this before and I believe it too: 'We're a rocket ship on the platform ready to launch and we just need some rocket fuel.' Now I think with the World Cup in 2026 coming and so much investment in soccer as a whole, i think arena soccer is finally ready to relaunch back into the atmosphere of what once was it. I hope to surpass the idea that we are just a niche sport and that we are the off-brand of outdoor soccer, that we are part of the American soccer landscape."