TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY U.S. SOCCER FANS may not realize it — or wish to contemplate such an unbecoming reality — but for a short time immediately post-NASL, indoor soccer was the American game’s dominant professional strain. Indeed, the heyday of Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) took place during this period, even as the country’s first golden generation of outdoor talent began to coalesce. These coincidental facts, these uncomfortable truths, represent yet more indicators of a domestic soccer culture in a worrisome state of inconstancy, if not outright crisis. However, even outdoor purists were obliged to acknowledge that the MISL had survived into 1985 and beyond, while the North American Soccer League (and the second-division American Soccer League) had not. The pay wasn’t spectacular indoors, but the checks frequently failed to bounce. What’s more, the matches were actually on TV at that time, filling late-night space next to competitive lumberjacking on ESPN.

In 1986, MISL’s newest expansion franchise, the New York Express, named Ray Klivecka head coach and player personnel director. He had this to say when 1985 Hermann Trophy winner, Duke’s Tommy Kain — the top Express draft pick that winter — chose not to report. “I was counting on Tom this year,” Klivecka told the Chicago Tribune. “His decision came out of left field. I knew his dream was to be an outdoor pro, but I thought that wasn’t in the picture . . . He’s losing a year in the MISL, but I told him that if it didn’t work out, he could come back, even this year. He’s welcome. He has the potential to be a good indoor player. That’s where the game is in the U.S., and that’s probably where his future is.”

Klivecka had a clear business interest in the Express and its fortunes, but he was not some wild-eyed indoor-soccer evangelist. He’d been an outdoor footballer all his own life, as an all-American at Long Island University, as an assistant to Angus McAlpine in training U.S. Soccer Federation youth squads during the late 1970s, as an assistant to Cosmos coach Eddie Firmani for two years. No one knows whether Klivecka honestly preferred the indoor game, or not — but he clearly sensed where the U.S. soccer winds were blowing during the mid-1980s. Better than most, the coaches understood how shaky NASL truly was. When Klivecka had the opportunity to join the ownership group behind the MISL expansion franchise in St. Louis, he jumped at it: The Steamers joined MISL for the 1979-80 season. He would briefly lead the NASL’s Rochester Lancers in 1980, but that was his last outdoor gig. He coached the MISL Buffalo Stallions for two seasons before rejoining the Cosmos, in 1984-85, as head coach for their first (and last) indoor season. The following summer, he joined the expansion Express.

So, Klivecka wasn’t posturing for the Tribune reporter. He was voicing an attitude toward indoor soccer — “That’s where the game is” — that proved quite pervasive, if not exactly prevailing, in 1986. Having watched NASL fold, having seen no replacement outdoor league forthcoming, a lot of people felt indoor was the way forward for soccer in this country.

The Express would eventually help illustrate why they were mistaken.

MISL had awarded the new franchise to financiers Ralph McNamara and Stan Henry, who intended to generate the club’s initial operating capital from an issuance of public stock — the kind of market-based, true-believing thing people did during Reagan’s go-go Eighties. They had partnered with none other than former Cosmos keeper Shep Messing, who would play goal and serve as the face of their franchise. The Express positioned itself as an all-American response to the New York Arrows, the demonstrably ethnic MISL franchise it replaced on Long Island. Messing had played six winter seasons for the Arrows. He quickly lined up former teammate Ricky Davis, whose Steamers contract had played out. He also recruited former Cosmos Mark Liveric, Hubert Birkenmeier and Andranik Eskandarian.

“The whole plan for franchise success was built around Ricky Davis. Not the greatest player at that point, but the one with the great American-born name, demeanor and name recognition,” Micah Buchdahl told the website, a treasure trove of fascinating information about failed sports leagues and franchises of all kinds. Buchdahl served as director of public relations for the Express.

A few days before the media event introducing Davis, “I was told [Ricky] had changed his mind,” Buchdahl told the site. “We had announced that we would introduce the top American-born player in soccer. I remember [Express GM] Kent Russell and Shep asking me if it would be a problem if we just said we had meant Kevin Maher.

“I told them we’d be totally screwed.”

By January 1987, not even halfway through the club’s maiden campaign, it was all coming apart. Russell and his assistant bailed on the Express first — jumping to the Dallas Sidekicks. Buchdahl, just 24, became acting GM. Then, on Feb. 1, 1987, the club failed to pony up $75,000 in player payroll, forcing the league to draw down the club’s $250,000 letter of credit to cover it. The owners pulled the plug two weeks later, initiating Chapter 11 proceedings. Let the record show the Express finished 3-23. For those three victories, they spent a reported $3 million during just nine months of operation. Buchdahl ended up holding much of the club’s office equipment hostage in his aunt’s garage — in a failed effort to wangle five weeks of back pay.

“This team should never have been let in,” Eskandarian told the Chicago Tribune. “I don’t think the league is going to last long if it’s going to be like this.”


For Shep Messing, a childhood hero to Generation Zero and one of the highest-profile U.S. players of the 1970s, the Express debacle was an ignominious close to a colorful, hyper-eventful on-field career. If there was a better embodiment of “Seventies Boomerdom, Pro Soccer Division” than Shep Messing — born in 1949, Harvard Class of ’72 — I can’t identify him. When something happened during this consequential era of American soccer, Messing was there in the thick of it. Between the pipes for Pelé’s two finest seasons in New York (1976 and ’77), Messing had also been in goal the year before — for the Boston Minutemen — when fans stormed the field and literally ripped the shirt from The King’s back. By then, as a U.S. Olympian, Messing had experienced firsthand one of the decade’s mind-bending tragedies: the kidnapping and killing of 11 members of Israeli’s Olympic team during the Munich Games in 1972. This tragic, macabre drama had unfolded just 30 yards down the hall from Messing’s dorm room.

“It really forged a greater Jewish identity for myself at that moment than I ever had before,” he told The Guardian in 2015. “That was a turning point in my life as an athlete — and as a Jew. Words really can’t describe it.”

Eighteen months after the Olympic experience, Messing latched on with the Cosmos. He was promptly kicked off the team for posing nude in Viva magazine, for a reported fee of $5,000. Management argued he’d violated the morals clause in his contract; Messing asserted he’d delivered the club more exposure than anything in franchise history. He signed with Boston for the ’75 NASL season. Pelé arrived in New York at the same time. The Cosmos re-signed Messing a year later, his trademark mop of curly brown hair and pornstache in tow. He cut a figure straight out of Boogie Nights — something even Harvard graduates could pull off during the 1970s, apparently.

Not yet 30, Messing landed with the newly relocated Oakland Stompers in 1978. There he found time to publish his freewheeling autobiography (The Education of an American Soccer Player) before joining the Rochester Lancers in ’79, his final outdoor season. That was the Express connection: The MISL Arrows of the early 1980s were stocked almost entirely with NASL Lancers. Like so many Boomers, Messing transitioned straight from the self-actualizing Seventies to the blindly capitalist Eighties. It didn’t go well. Though Messing’s expansion misadventures with the Express registered barely a ripple in that era of soccer anonymity, white-collar crime, junk bonds, and savings and loan crises. Come the Nineties, Messing moved seamlessly into the broadcast booth.

As for McNamara, the moneyman behind the N.Y. Express, his firm closed down when the stock market tanked in October 1987. Four years later, New York state revoked his broker’s license. In the late 1990s, he surfaced in Florida under the name Ralph DeLuise, operating what proved to be a fake venture capital operation. In 2007, a court found McNamara guilty of racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering, communications fraud, grand theft, loan broker fraud and money laundering. He was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison.


The Express went away, but professional indoor soccer never did. While the original MISL folded in 1992, later iterations — including the still-extant Major Arena Soccer League — can still be found on the boob tube, live from assorted secondary American cities. During the mid-1980s, when it wasn’t clear whether professional soccer would ever fly in this country, MISL remained a vital part of the professional, competitive mix. The league offered players not just a bit of cash but fitness and training, even if its brand of fitness and training did not do much for outdoor preparedness. That disconnect is why Duke striker Tommy Kain jilted the Express, and why Mike Windischmann avoided indoor like the plague. It’s why, when MISL’s mighty Cleveland Force drafted him straight out of college in 1986, Brian Bliss didn’t exactly jump for joy.

“For us guys who had only played outdoor, we deemed indoor soccer a bastardization of the game,” Bliss explains, still visibly bristling at the indignity of it all. “But that was our only option to get paid and make a living in the game. So I did sign with the Force. [Fellow USMNTers John] Stollmeyer and Des Armstrong were there, too, and some of the other guys were spread around the league.”

Steve Trittschuh graduated from college with Bliss and also went straight into MISL — because what other practical options did he have? “Brian and I are the same age,” Trittschuh says flatly. “We had to make decisions.”

MISL wasn’t the only entity fueling America’s indoor-soccer heyday. Multiple pro leagues operated during the mid- and late-1980s, featuring a range of geographic reach, money and quality of play. Directly below, nearly beside MISL on the U.S. indoor soccer pyramid sat the American Indoor Soccer Association, where Jim Gabarra first caught on as a professional with the Louisville Thunder. In 1986-87, the AISA expanded beyond its original Midwestern footprint into Pennsylvania, Georgia and Florida. When the Tampa Bay Rowdies first launched an indoor team, it did so as part of the growing AISA.

I was aware of this league because David Slade, a college teammate of mine, played for the AISA’s Hershey, Pennsylvania, franchise. “Slado” was a memorable character, a sort of surfer dude whose blond shag haircut and laid-back persona belied his intelligence and his roots in Guilford, Connecticut — hometown of the inimitable Kevin Maher. Slado was probably the best player Wesleyan University put forward the last two years I was there: technically excellent, not super fast but big, strong and fearless — the kind of attacking midfielder whose confidence and vision on the ball got better when the standard of opponent got better. I remember running into him in 1989 or thereabouts at some Wesleyan alumni function. He regaled me with stories of his itinerant futbol life in the AISA and his team, the Hershey Impact — surely one of the most unfortunate franchise monikers in American sports history, especially at the height of the AIDS crisis.

I’m not the guy to write it, but the story of MISL, the AISA and U.S. indoor soccer in general deserves a whole separate book — maybe a Triple-A cross between Ball Four, Jim Bouton’s irreverent baseball classic, and Loose Balls, Terry Pluto’s stellar, somewhat squalid history of the upstart American Basketball Association. Slado’s Impact, for example, came into being thanks to the immortal Larry Samples, a 45-year-old veterinarian from nearby Hummelstown. Samples lined up 20 local investors to make the franchise a reality. The club proved viable for just three seasons, never filling more than half of the 7,200 seats inside Hersheypark Arena (site of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game — March 2, 1962, Philadelphia Warriors vs. N.Y. Knicks). In 1991, the AISA rebranded — the National Professional Soccer League would operate through 2001 — and the Impact folded. Much of the roster, according to Slado, simply moved 15 miles west to play for the newly cobbled-together Harrisburg Heat.

We romanticize the ABA, and the AISA, and the NASL, and the old World Football League because they failed, of course. For some reason, all these years down the road, their initially grandiose, ultimately hapless dreams add nebulous elements of romance and charm to American soccer’s modern Creation epic.

But there was something else going on at this time, something more pertinent to our story: In a professional soccer landscape so devoid of outdoor successes, there was the inkling, post-NASL, that indoor soccer had the potential to scale, in America specifically. Some believed that perhaps this was how the game would finally find a broader U.S. audience, not just live and in person, but on the golden goose of startup requisites: television. This view made some actual sense. A league season contested during the winter months, indoors, meant MISL need not compete directly with baseball or American football. Goals were more plentiful indoors. No draws, either. The game’s hockey-influenced format worked better on television, which was just another way of saying, “The indoor game can be seamlessly jiggered to accommodate commercials, while the outdoor game cannot.”

A goodly portion of this would-be conventional wisdom proved nothing more than speculative marketing perspectives and outright propaganda served up by MISL itself, by league broadcasters, by assorted futbol haters and media contrarians, not to mention soccer impresarios made truly desperate by the grim state of the professional outdoor game in the mid-Eighties.

Under their breath, however, in vaguely conspiratorial tones, even staunch backers of traditional outdoor soccer whispered an even more somber point of view: Perhaps American sporting consumers would never respond to soccer. In any form. Ever. No one knew for sure whether that heretical belief was accurate. Not in 1986 or ’87. But this much seemed obvious: The longer the professional outdoor game remained on hiatus, the more MISL grew in stature. By default.

“At the time,” Trittschuh explains, “having grown up in St. Louis, playing for the Steamers was the thing to do. They’d pull in 15,000 to 20,000 a game sometimes, and I was like, ‘This is what it is — if you’re going to play soccer professionally in this country.’ It was really the only thing available at the time.”

USMNT striker Bruce Murray never played professional indoor soccer, but he recognizes MISL’s prominent, mid-decade role and influence: “MISL came in and rescued things a bit, rescued a lot of careers. Some of those teams were really successful. MISL was actually an incredible option for players and fans. It was big business at that time — in certain cities. Ask Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls owner. He said as much during that recent Jordan documentary [The Last Dance]. In the mid-Eighties, the Chicago Sting were outdrawing the Bulls by a mile.”

Three years and counting from the collapse of NASL, as an impossibly young USMNT showed its first signs of life, the overarching prospects for American professional soccer had never been quite so bleak. The new national standard-bearer, the Major Indoor Soccer League, did prove successful in several markets. It was also four short years from folding its own tent. A new outdoor circuit, The A League, had been scheduled to launch in 1988, but why would that low-budget venture succeed where NASL had failed?

The hard truth was, there existed during the troubled mid-Eighties no identifiable path forward for professional soccer in the United States, indoor or outdoor. The urban/ethnic club infrastructure endured. It would always endure. But never would it even aspire to a form of professionalism useful to players, to the Federation, to broadcasters and their corporate partners. As a result, despite the country’s first Olympic qualification since 1972, it was impossible to envision how any of these broader professional inadequacies could be overcome. If we had a time machine that traveled us back to the fall of 1987, and we informed a gathering of staunch American soccer fans that the U.S. would not only qualify for Italia ’90 but host the 1994 World Cup as well, they’d look at us stone-faced — then ask what we’d been smoking. If we further informed them that Major League Soccer would celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2021, by which time 31 states would have legalized or decriminalized marijuana, they’d surely dismiss us as cranks.