Those of us that enjoy a game of football have probably all played 5 or 6-a-side indoors at the local leisure centre or sports hall. We’ve probably all kicked workmates, and scored worldies (in our own minds). We’ve probably all been involved in comedic defending and goalkeeping, and taken our own turn between the sticks.
But beyond the joyful amateurs, indoor football has never really been much of a thing over here. Back in the day, 5-a-sides used to be a big part of training, while the 1980s saw the Guinness Soccer 6s tournament. The Noughties saw the launch of Masters Football, televised on Sky which saw retired pros represent their old clubs and – in some cases – show us all how fat and unfit they’ve gotten since hanging their boots up. Aside from this, in Blighty football is an outdoor sport.
Our American cousins on the other side of the Atlantic were a little slow on the uptake when it came to football – or soccer, as they prefer to call it – much preferring other sports, including indoor stuff such as basketball and ice hockey.
When soccer finally did start to become a thing of interest in the States, they inevitably developed an indoor offering which – at one point – became more popular than the outdoor version.
The roots of indoor soccer in America can be found in their first organised league competition, the North American Soccer League that burned out over a sixteen-year period following its formation in 1968. The NASL wasn’t just soccer, it was rock ‘n’ roll soccer, and during the halcyon days of the 1970s attracted some of the game’s biggest names. Pelé, Best, Cruyff and Beckenbauer all strutted their stuff for the likes of New York Cosmos and LA Aztecs. It was all glamour and glitz – young English midfielder who headed for the States said that his biggest highlight over there was meeting Mick Jagger – and in some respects, the NASL influenced the development of the Premier League, the Champions League, and the doomed European Super League. But despite the big names, soccer didn’t take off in the way that many of those involved in the game hoped.
As well as the 11-a-side format, the NASL permitted the development of an indoor format, with various tournaments throughout the 1970s, and formal seasons in 1979/80, 1980/81, 1981/82, and 1983/84.
The first staged indoor tournament was held in 1971 at the St. Louis Arena, and was won by Dallas Tornado who pocketed $2,800 in prize money. The various franchises saw indoor soccer during the close season as the means to keeping their players active during the winter months, and were keen for its expansion, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that it became a regular thing when five indoor tournaments were held. Former USA international Jim Pollihan described it as “a very interesting and rewarding thing for players where we could play year-round. Play indoors in the winter and go back to the NASL in the summer. Basically, be full-time professional soccer players”.
One of the indoor soccer’s most passionate advocates was Earl Foreman who was an NASL commissioner, but was best known for his role in basketball. Foreman was an early enthusiast of the indoor format, and – with fellow businessman Ed Tepper – launched the Major Indoor Soccer League, with the first season being the 1978/79 season. Ahead of the competition’s first campaign – which had just six teams involved – Foreman told the Baltimore Sun, “this is a novel concept. 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.”
And he wasn’t kidding. Some described indoor soccer as “ice hockey with a ball you could see”, while the speed in comparison to the outdoor game got spectators rocking.
The first formal NASL indoor season was the 1979/80 season twelve months after the launch of the MISL – who had attracted Portuguese legend Eusebio – and Tampa Bay Rowdies – who were one of the NASL’s big names – won the title. The Rowdies also lifted the title in 1983.
The final NASL indoor season was the 1983/84 season. By this point the NASL as a whole was struggling, and there was a big fear that it would be difficult to find teams to play in the indoor campaign. Certain teams were finding it difficult to secure appropriate venues, while others were struggling financially. In the end, and despite all the uncertainty, it turned out to be the biggest ever indoor campaign. The title – the final one – was won by the San Diego Sockers.
When the NASL collapsed in 1985, four of its teams joined the MISL. The MISL continued until 1992 when it folded. But despite its financial failure, the league was considered to be a great success, with average attendances of over 7,000 per game during its fourteen seasons. The San Diego Sockers were the MISL’s most successful side, winning eight titles.
After the success of the 1994 World Cup and the launch of the MLS, a new indoor soccer competition was launched in 2002 and folded in 2008. The American Indoor Soccer League was a semi-professional league, and as with the MISL, it started with just six teams. The AISL managed just five seasons before folding, with the final champions being Rockford Rampage.
Just as the AISL folded, another new indoor soccer league began, the Major Arena Soccer League. The MASL has been much more successful and is still going today, and includes teams from the USA and Mexico. As with the old MISL, the MASL’s most successful team is the San Diego Sockers who have won five titles and are the league’s current champions.
While there has not been much in the way of permanence when it comes to each of the various indoor soccer leagues, they all have a place in the development of the beautiful game Stateside, and they have all been a platform for innovation and experimentation. And just like the NASL, the indoor soccer leagues have been home to teams with incredible monikers; Baltimore Blast anyone? Kansas City Comets? Ontario Fury? New Mexico Storm? Tulsa Revolution?
But as much as I admire the Americans for trying to make a success of the indoor game, I guess I’m something of a traditionalist in that I’d prefer to keep that part of the game for my unfit mates and me!
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