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On December 22, 1978, 10,386 fans piled into Nassau Coliseum on Long Island to watch the hometown New York Arrows take on the Cincinnati Kids in the first Major Indoor Soccer League match; in keeping with the spirit of the occasion, baseball legend (and Kids co-owner) Pete Rose kicked out the first ball.
Those in attendance viewed indoor soccer played under rules different than those under which the NASL exhibitions had been played. While most of the NASL indoor rules had been retained, Tepper and Foreman (who was now the MISL Commissioner) met with a few friends in a Philadelphia apartment before the season to try to add scoring to the game. As a result, the game was divided into four 15-minute periods, as opposed to the three 20-minute periods used by the NASL. More importantly, the size of the goals was enlarged, to both allow for heading in the inside game and increase scoring. When asked how high the goals should be, Tepper stood in a doorway at the apartment and indicated they should be as high as the door frame; as a result, the goals stood 6’6’’ high by 12’ wide, as compared to the NASL’s 4’ by 16’. Tepper, predictably, was excited by their "new" sport: "Bringing soccer indoors provides all the speed and scoring lacking in the outdoor game," he said. "And they are ingredients the American fans look for in a sport-and indoor soccer has them."
Initial fan reaction to the game showed that Tepper might have been right: all of the six clubs drew respectable crowds to their openers, with Philadelphia drawing a capacity 16,529 crowd to its home debut on December 30. The league’s inaugural season consisted of a 24 game schedule; it averaged 4,453 per game. The Philadelphia Fever, made up mostly of players from the city’s amateur United League, paced the circuit at 8,500 per game.
The sides themselves came from a variety of sources. As noted, Philadelphia’s club was made up of local amateurs, with seasoned pros like goalkeeper Woody Hartman (the 1976 American Soccer League save leader) and New York Cosmos’ cast-offs Joey Fink (by way of Tampa Bay Rowdies) and Fred Grgurev. The Pittsburgh Spirit took this approach one step further, hiring a local high school coach named Bruno Schwartz and assembling a team of college players whose average age was 23. On the other extreme were Houston and New York, who imported the NASL’s Houston Hurricane and Rochester Lancers, respectively.
While MISL rules called for at least 10 Americans on each side’s 14 man roster, the number of native-born Yanks per team varied greatly, as "American" essentially included both native and naturalized Americans and Canadians, as well as "permanent resident" green card visa holders. While Philadelphia and Pittsburgh featured local talent, for example, New York only had three natives on their squad (although, to be fair, the Arrows had a few Canadian players). In spite of these disparities, many more Americans had an opportunity to play in the MISL than had outdoors. By the late 1970s, the United States had already produced a fair number of capable goalkeepers and defenders, and this was reflected in the MISL, as goalkeepers Shep Messing (New York), Keith Van Eron (Cincinnati), and Woody Hartman (Philadelphia) and defenders Jim Pollihan (New York) and Ed Sheridan (Philadelphia) performed impressively. However, as was common at the time, the number of creative, talented American scorers were few and far between: Joe Fink (Philadelphia) and John Stemlau (Houston) were the only natives to crack the top ten in scoring. Nonetheless, the league did introduce scorers to soccer fans who would remain dominant throughout the next decade: Steve Zungul (New York), Kai Hasskivi (Houston), and 17-year old Canadian sensation Branko Segota (New York).
On the field, Houston, with its polished NASL vets, emerged as the class of the league behind the scoring of Haaskivi and solid goalkeeping of Paul Hammond, easily winning the regular season crown, and compiling an 11-1 home record in the process. Philadelphia and New York recovered from poor starts to scramble into the playoffs with Cincinnati--also dominant at home, posting a 10-2 mark--and Houston. The playoffs found the heavily favored Houston side fall at home to Philadelphia, while New York, riding the production of scoring sensation Zungul, easily defeated Cincinnati. The MISL’s first finals found the experienced Arrows sweeping the Fever in the best-of-three series.
The second game of this series revealed all of the MISL and indoor soccer’s promise. Played before 6,096 fans in Philadelphia, the Arrows were down 2-0 in the first half, spotting the opposition an early lead as they had done all season. Their defense shut out the Fever offense the remainder of the half, however, and rallied to tie the score and then win the match outright. The goal of the season was scored in the second half, when Arrows defender Jim Polihan headed a ball to young forward Pat Ercoli. Ercoli, seeing that the ball was too low to head and too high to volley, chest-trapped the ball, then flipped it and drilled it past Philadelphia keeper Dan Brennan from twenty-yards out. "I thought of Pelé when he did it," offered Messing, who was outstanding in a 26 save effort, earning the playoff MVP award. Steve Zungul won the first of many regular-season MVP awards. Philadelphia’s Fred Grgurev scored a hat-trick in the team’s first match, followed that up with a four-goal effort in the Fever’s home opener, and rode the momentum from those performances to the league scoring title.
"My conservative estimate is that the league teams spent $3.5 million to establish themselves," John Luciani, owner of the Arrows, told Soccer Digest. "If there is any consolation in saying we lost money, I think we hit our projection of $500,000 to $600,000 right on the button. If we wake up five years from now and see we're doing that and still just drawing 4,000 people, then we would have to say we're in trouble. I honestly feel we can convert fans."
During the season each MISL team hosted the Soviet club Moscow Spartak for an exhibition. Led by scorer Georgij Jartsev, Spartak plowed through its opposition, with only a loss to Houston preventing a sweep of the league.
All told, the MISL’s first season was a success--none of the franchises ended the year in financial trouble, and attendance had increased steadily through the season. "What we have," said Commissioner Foreman, "is an exciting sport and a greatly growing number of people who enjoy it. What we have to do is bring the two together." Plans were made to expand the number of franchises and the number of teams for the next year.
"I'm totally convinced," said Luciani. "Prior to our opening game on December 22, not only did people not know about us, but their reactions to us were negative. I don't know of any sport that started--we began operations in October, 60 days before the season started--and finished with the support we had. Considering that, I feel we have been totally successful."
Houston Summit Soccer
New York Arrows
New York defeated Cincinnati 9-4
Philadelphia defeated Houston 6-3
New York defeated Philadelphia 14-7, 9-5
After the season, Cincinnati folded.
Leading Scorers GP G A TP Fred Grgurev, Philadelphia 24 46 28 74 Steve Zungul, New York 18 43 25 68 Kai Haaskivi, Houston 22 39 25 64 Branko Segota, New York 21 25 22 47 Doug Wark, Cincinnati 22 29 16 45 Joe Fink, Philadelphia 22 30 14 44 Ian Anderson, Houston 21 29 13 42 Stewart Jump, Houston 21 21 18 39 John Stremlau, Houston 24 16 21 37 Alberto Alves, Philadelphia 24 20 16 36 Sid Nolan, Pittsburgh 23 21 13 42 Gerry Morielli, Houston 19 20 13 33 Dave Darachan, Pittsburgh 23 23 9 32 John Dolinsky, Pittsburgh 22 16 15 31 Pat Ercoli, New York 21 18 13 31 John Smillie, Cincinnati 20 14 17 31 LEADING GOALKEEPERS (Min. 800 minutes to qualify) GP Min. Svs GA Record GAA Paul Hammond, Houston 17 1010 301 70 13-3 4.16 Keith Van Eron, Cincinnati 23 1237 400 104 15-7 5.04 Shep Messing, New York 22 1236 537 107 14-7 5.19 Woody Hartman, Philadelphia 22 1237 469 120 10-10 5.82 Pete Mannos, Pittsburgh 16 880 311 102 5-9 6.95 Most Valuable Player: Steve Zungul, New York Arrows MISL Scoring Champion: Fred Grgurev, Philadelphia Fever Coach of the Year: Timo Liekoski, Cleveland Crunch Goalkeeper of the Year: Paul Hammond, Houston Summit Soccer Championship Series Player of the Year: Shep Messing, New York Arrows MISL Pass Master (most Assists): Fred Grgurev, Philadelphia Fever All-MISL team: G - Shep Messing, New York Arrows D - Fred Grgurev, Philadelphia Fever D - Ian Anderson, Houston Summit Soccer F - Kai Haaskivi, Houston Summit Soccer F - Steve Zungul, New York Arrows Moscow Spartak exhibition series 2/2/79: Moscow Spartak 8, Pittsburgh 2 2/4/79: Moscow Spartak 9, New York Arrows 7 3/5/79: Moscow Spartak 5, Houston Summit Soccer 7 2/8/79: Moscow Spartak 11, Philadelphia Fever 4 2/10/79: Moscow Spartak 7, Cincinnati Kids 3 2/12/79: Moscow Spartak 20, Cleveland Force 2
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