TOZER: FORGING AN INDOOR SOCCER CAREER
Little did 21-year-old Keith Tozer realize that the course of his soccer career would dramatically change during a whirlwind 48 days in 1978.
His journey started when he scored his 50th collegiate goal in his final game to being drafted by an indoor league he had never heard of and playing in that league's inaugural game that Dec. 22.
Tozer forged long playing and coaching careers, mostly indoors, to climb the ladder to his present position - as commissioner of the Major Arena Soccer League.
The MASL is celebrating its 10th anniversary this season as the league kicked off the 2023-24 campaign with four games over the past Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
The triumvirate of league chairman Shep Messing, president of communications/media JP Dellacamera and Tozer took the reins in June 2021.
Under their guidance, the league has added some interesting touches, including establishing a combine and college draft, a new rule on back passes to goalkeepers, a three-man referee system that will be used at each team's opening two home matches, and to an exhibition match at the United Soccer Coaches convention in Anaheim, Calif. in January.
Tozer is equally proud of the MASL players who have made an impact on and featured on the various national sides representing the United States, including indoor, futsal and beach soccer.
"From day one, we wanted to get better from A to Z and now I think we're at 50-60 percent there," he said.
"I'm so optimistic about this coming season. We felt like there's so many things that have changed in two years, from the referee standpoint, rule changes, measurement of the game level of players, level of coaches, combines drafts, new sponsors. There have just been so many positive things that we feel that this will be a fantastic year for the 10th anniversary of the MASL."
When we talk about our life's ambitions, few probably talk about becoming commissioner of a sports league. Most of us want to become professional players in whatever sport that we love to compete.
Keith Tozer was no exception.
Growing up in Clifton Park, outside of Albany, N.Y., Tozer was introduced to the game fairly late, as an eighth grader, when an older brother brought home a soccer ball.
"We started kicking the ball around and I really enjoyed it," he said.
Despite the late start, Tozer joined his high school team and wound up as the leading goal-scorer.
In 1975, Francisco Marcos, who created the United Soccer Leagues years later, called Tozer and asked the high school player if he wanted to play for Team USA in an international tournament at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. Tozer competed and fell in love with the city. He wanted to attend Hartwick, but it just didn't work out. Oneonta State head coach Garth Stam, however, got Tozer into Oneonta. Tozer made Stam's belief in him stand up, setting a school goal-scoring record with 50 goals. He also was named to the U.S. Olympic soccer team pool.
"It was a great ride," he said. "Oneonta was fantastic for me in so many ways."
Then came those 48 life-changing days in 1978:
On Nov. 4, Tozer scored his final goal for Oneonta State in a 3-0 win over Union College.
On Nov. 14, he was selected by the Cincinnati Kids of the fledgling Major Indoor Soccer League.
On Dec. 22, he played in the very first MISL game against the New York Arrows.
"It was crazy because our season just got finished," Tozer said. "I had conversations with the Washington Diplomats that they were going to draft me in the NASL draft sometime in January.”
Tozer walked into the athletic department at the Oneonta State gymnasium on Nov. 14 and was told there was a phone call for him. On the other end of the line was former Hartwick goalkeeper Keith Van Eron, who told Tozer that he had been selected as the No. 1 draft choice in the MISL.
"What's the MISL? I never heard of it," Tozer told Van Eron.
It turned out that MISL commissioner Earl Foreman and assistant commissioner Ed Tepper were friends of U.S. Olympic head coach Walt Chyzowych.
"Those two guys [asked] Walt 'Hey, could do the college draft?' And he said, sure. All of a sudden, there I was."
A couple of weeks later, Tozer was flown to Cincinnati to sign with the Kids, who were owned by baseball great Pete Rose.
Tozer wanted to keep his outdoor options and called the Diplomats.
This is how he remembered the conversation:
Tozer: "Hey, I got great news. I'm not poor anymore," he said. "I'm going to play indoor soccer before I get to go to you."
The Diplomats: "We don't want you to go. We don't want you to play."
Tozer: "Well, you want me to turn down the money? You don't want me to play? Okay, I will do that. But you’re guaranteeing me that you're going to draft me."
The Diplomats said they couldn't.
Tozer said that he, and several upcoming young players, such as Doc Lawson, Ty Keough, Joe Morrone and Jimmy Stamatis, were blackballed by the NASL, because they wanted to play indoor soccer.
He had few problems adjusting to the great indoors. Tozer played ice hockey before competing in soccer and was familiar with the smaller dimensions.
"When I got into a rink, said 'This is cool,' " he said. "I understand the boards. I understand penalties, understand playing the ball off boards. I felt comfortable right from the beginning."
That first game was a memorable one in so many ways.
Forget about the fact the Arrows defeated the Kids, 7-2, it was who was guarding the goal on the other end of the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y. that was mind boggling.
"During college and my early professional career, I was dating a woman from New York City, and her parents had season tickets for the Cosmos," Tozer said. "During the summer, when I was down in New York City, I went to the Cosmos games. I loved the Cosmos. They were my team. I got to see Shep play. Wow, Shep Messing. [Franz] Beckenbauer, Dennis Tueart and [Giorgio] Chinaglia. You can go on and on and on.
"Next thing you know, December 22, 1978. I'm standing on the field, Peter Rose is kicking off the game, and I'm with Messing together on the field. It was like, "Is this really happening?' And then, of course, spring forward 40 years later."
When Tozer, Messing and Dellacamera teamed up.
The Kids lasted one season. Tozer performed one season with the Pennsylvania Stoners (American Soccer League) in 1979 before moving indoors for good. He performed as a forward and defender with the Hartford Hellions, Pittsburgh Spirit, Louisville Thunder and Atlanta Attack in the MISL and American Indoor Soccer Association (which changed its named to the National Professional Soccer League). He retired after the 1990 season.
"I learned a long time ago that I wasn't the best player on the team," Tozer said. "But if I was one of the hardest working players and if I did all the player appearances, and I did all the stuff at the booster club and if I went to schools, I can become a popular player. So, if I was a hard worker and a popular player, but not the best player, it would be hard to then make a decision to get rid of me. That was the game plan."
During his Thunder tenure (1984-87), Tozer entered the coaching ranks as a player-coach. He guided several teams, including the Los Angeles Lazers, Atlanta and Kansas City Attack and Milwaukee Wave.
"When I became a coach, I felt that I was a very hard worker, I felt that I was a learner, so I can teach," he said. "I would do all the appearances. I do radio, I do television. When I came to Milwaukee, my responsibility as a coach was to promote the game. I did charity and media work. I felt that giving back to the community was a responsibility. I always felt it wasn't my right to become a professional player or coach. It was a privilege.
"The players and the staff we had in the 23 years in Milwaukee, were simply fantastic. My time in Los Angeles with Jim and Jerry Buss was fantastic. My other owners in Louisville and Atlanta and Kansas City were great. So was Chris Economides in Kansas City. But coming to Milwaukee … Sometimes we always feel like the suitcase is packed when you're a pro player and a pro coach. I felt like this was my home. This was it. Every day when I woke up, it was a privilege to go to work. And I think people felt that."
Now 66, Tozer’s tenure with the Wave became one of the longest professional coaching stints in American soccer history, perhaps the longest. No one lasts that long these days. It certainly didn't hurt that Milwaukee was one of the most successful clubs, winning six championships - three in the NPSL (1997-98, 1999-2000, 2000-01) and three in the second incarnation of the MISL (2004-05, 2008-09, 2011-12.)
"I know was not easy to play with for a long period of time," Tozer said. "I pushed people. I got them outside their comfort zone. I did film sessions longer than most. They were in a weight room. We grinded and we worked hard. We sacrificed. It was a big part of the game. I started reading books about leadership and motivation. I've learned so much from the players and the staff around me that it became a culture. When we started winning, it was an amazing thing that transpired for over 20 years in Milwaukee."
He left the Wave after the 2014-15 season.
Tozer's coaching tree has started to grow deep roots as many former players are running the show at their teams. The list includes the Empire Strikers' Paul Wright and Dallas Sidekicks' Ed Puskarich, who took over the helm for this season; Nick Perera, who has called the shots with the Tacoma Stars, Hewerton Moreira, the head man with Utica City FC, Giuliano Oliviero, current head coach of the Milwaukee Wave played ten years under Tozer who drafted him first overall out of Vancouver.
Brian Haynes, who earlier this month was named the head coach of the Trinidad & Tobago Under-20 and U-23 national teams, and former Wave goalkeeper Victor Nogueira has coached professional teams, college teams and a youth soccer club. Harrisburg Heat coach and general manager Pat Healey, former Kansas City Comets head coach Leo Gibson and David Bascome, head coach of the Baltimore Blast as well as San Diego Sockers GM Sean Bowers played for Tozer on the U.S. futsal national team. Other former players include Sockers assistant coach Rene Ortiz, and Clemson University head coach Mike Noonan, Johnny Torres, head coach Creighton University, and Zoran Savic, assistant coach for Sporting KC.
"It's kind of like, oh my God, you were listening. You did believe," Tozer said.
“As I get older and really look back and appreciate all the all the things that have happened in my life. I was really blessed to have these wonderful people be in my life."
Even while he produced those winning sides, Tozer found time to direct the U.S. national futsal team, which helped expand his knowledge during a two-decade run. He played for John Kowalski, who was the Cincinnati assistant coach and the head man in Hartford and Pittsburgh when Tozer played there. Tozer played for U.S. national futsal team under Kowalski in a 5-a-side tournament in Budapest in 1985. Chyzowych was Kowalski's assistant then.
Fustal is played without any boards and requires highly skilled players who can play in close quarters.
"You see how this all kind of keeps folding together?" Tozer said. "Walt drafted me into the league. Next thing you know, I'm with the Olympic program and then with him and in Budapest. Spring forward, John goes to the Major League Soccer."
Kowalski was named the Tampa Bay Mutiny head coach in 1997, opening up the futsal head coaching position. Tozer became interim head coach, guiding the USA to the Concacaf championship. A year later, he was named the fulltime coach with Kowalski's blessing.
Traveling internationally enabled Tozer to increase his knowledge of the indoor game.
"There's no book really on indoor soccer," he said. "Where does a coach learn how to teach indoor soccer? It's through osmosis. So, I did. In the middle of the season, I'm off to Brazil [with the U.S. futsal team]. We played Brazil, Argentina and some other countries. I had lunch and dinner with all those coaches and went, 'Hey, by the way, why do you do this? Why'd you do that?' When I came back to indoors, I started using that methodology in a hybrid system.
"A couple months later, I was off to Europe, or I was off to Asia or the Caribbean. I started to really expand my knowledge and ideas. I had to bring in Brazilian players to help me teach this thing. We [Milwaukee] started winning championships in 1998. Futsal was another big reason that we became who we were back then."
All those experiences helped Tozer’s preparation to become MASL commissioner.
There's still plenty on his plate to achieve.
One of his more immediate hopes is the opportunity to showcase the league at the United Coaches Convention on Thursday, Jan. 11 at 8 p.m. ET. That's when two California teams, the Sockers and Strykers will meet in the MASL Pro Indoor Cup at the Anaheim Convention Center. The exhibition game will be broadcast through Twitch and Canela.
As when he was as a player and a coach, Keith Tozer is still promoting the league, this time as the head man.
"We showcased our players each and every game during the regular season," he said. "We showcased our players at the TST 7 v 7 tournament, where they won [this past summer]. We've showcased our level of players and coaches recently in Dubai at the world 7 v 7 championships and to have college coaches, professional coaches and players, high school coaches, administrators, professional teams from around the world to be up close and personal to see the level of talent that we have. I think it is fantastic."
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at email@example.com. He has written two books" Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers and a sequel, STILL AND ALIVE AND KICKING: The story of the 21st century Rochester Lancers. It has many features about indoor soccer and MASL players. Both books can be purchased at www.RochesterLancersBook.com.