Major Indoor Soccer League (1986-1987)
Born: May 15, 1986 – MISL expansion franchise
Folded: February 17, 1987
Arena: Nassau Coliseum (16,251)
Team Colors: Orange & Blue
The New York Express, Shep Messing told Newsday in October 1986, will be “better run as a business than any team in the history of professional soccer.” Bold words from the former New York Cosmos star, who brought a Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) expansion franchise to Long Island in the fall of 1986 with the help of two novice sports investors and an unlikely financing scheme.
The MISL granted a franchise to Messing and his partners Stan Henry and Ralph McNamara on May 15th, 1986. Messing would play the role of local hero and front man. At the age of 37, he also appointed himself the presumed starting goalkeeper for the Express. Henry and McNamara were the money men – sort of. They expected the bulk of the team’s operating capital to come from a sale of public stock. Henry ran an empire of Pennysaver advertising circulars on Long Island, and served as Board Chairman of the Express. McNamara was a managing principal at the Long Island brokerage firm of MacPeg, Ross, O’Connell and Goldaber. He took the title of CFO of the Express and his firm marketed the financial scheme behind the enterprise – a $5.3 million public stock offering intended to finance operations of the club for its first three seasons.
As the broker of record, McNamara had a legal obligation to be more cautious in his forecast for the Express than Messing’s best-organization-in-the-history-of-soccer antics. “Public offerings are calculated risks,” McNamara told Newsday, “We are going to make an effort to field a team and see what the community will bear. We think it will work.”
In an effort to differentiate themselves from the MISL’s previous Long Island entry, the bankrupt & heavily Slavic New York Arrows, the Express came out of the gate with the slogan Soccer…American Style and a commitment to build around American players. Tops on their list was the U.S. National Team captain and former Cosmos star, Ricky Davis, then a free agent after playing out his contract with the MISL’s St. Louis Steamers.
“The whole plan for franchise success was built around Ricky Davis,” recalled Express PR Director Micah Buchdahl, “Not the greatest player at that point, but the one with the great American-born name, demeanor and name recognition. A few days before the media event to introduce him, I was told he had changed his mind. 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.
“What happened was the Steamers told Ricky that we had no money and would go bankrupt before the season was out (crazy, right?). They had convinced him to stay in St. Louis. At the same time, the Steamers had problems of their own. They did not have a lease for their arena and there was a “secret memo” regarding an alternate arena and dates. Someone contacted a writer at The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and leaked the memo – which put the stability of that franchise into question. Ricky came to New York. The President of the Steamers called me at my aunt’s house and was none too pleased.”
After two road losses to open the season, the team debuted at home on November 21st, 1986. An announced crowd of 10,570 watched them lose to the Kansas City Comets and drop to 0-3. The match up for the debut on Long Island may have been a bad omen – Comets majority owner David Schoenstadt owned the New York Arrows in 1984 when the club plunged into bankruptcy.
The Express kept losing into December. When the club reached 0-10, the axe fell on Head Coach Ray Klivecka. Messing turned to his former Arrows coach, Don Popovic. Popovic arrived in late December and began supervising training sessions, but seemed in no hurry to sign a contract.
“After being with two clubs in two years, I want to be sure this team will be here longer than one year,” Popovic told The Pittsburgh Press.
Unwilling to sign but also unwilling to leave, Popovic continued to run Express training sessions. But by league rule, Popovic could not be in the team bench area unless he was under contract. On one night, Popovic sat in the stands, attempting to orchestrate the match from the front row.
“<Popovic> sat behind the glass and relayed changes to one of the players and sometimes directly to me,” recalled interim Head Coach Mark Steffens. “He didn’t change a lot of things, just a player switch or two.”
Eventually, Popovic descended to the bench for a single match, despite never signing a contract. He resigned the same night.
Meanwhile, the stock sale was a bust.
“Let’s just say the money never really existed and the ‘game plan’ for selling stock was less than stellar,” says Buchdahl. “Before the season even started, I think many people knew there was a little smoke and mirrors happening with the financing. But I also think Shep thought he could convince someone to give us the money we needed.”
In January, Express GM Kent Russell and Assistant GM Joel Finglass bolted for front office roles with the MISL’s Dallas Sidekicks. 24-year old Micah Buchdahl became acting General Manager, presiding over remnants of a staff that no longer received paychecks. The Express missed their $75,000 player payroll on February 1st, 1987, forcing the league to draw down the club’s $250,000 letter of credit to cover it.
“<Sometime> in the middle of December or January the fella <Stan Henry> called me and asked me to come out on the Island to dinner,” recalled MISL Commissioner Bill Kentling. “Mitch Burke, the deputy commissioner, and I drove out on a snowy night and had a lovely dinner. We sort of kept waiting for the reason for the dinner and we got the check and we were paying and he said to us ‘Oh by the way, I’m not sure I can make payroll this week.’
I said “I’m sorry…perhaps we should sit at the bar for a moment and talk about this.” And he was just out of money or chose to be out of money, you’re never sure.”
Messing announced the immediate dissolution of the team and the initiation of Chapter XI bankruptcy proceedings on February 17, 1987 just days after the MISL All-Star Break. Although the Express finished with a record of 3-23, they did manage to win their penultimate game, a 6-5 overtime victory against the Los Angeles Lazers at the Forum on Valentine’s Day 1987. The Express drew an announced average of 5,212 fans to their 13 home dates at the Coliseum, numbers that Micah Buchdahl admits were routinely fudged. For their three victories, the Express lost a reported $3 million during nine months of operation.
Buchdahl expropriated much of the club’s office equipment and held it hostage in his aunt’s garage in a failed effort to receive his final five weeks of missed paychecks. Read his highly entertaining behind-the-scenes account of the Express here.
Express defender Andranik Eskandarian, the former Iranian World Cup and Cosmos star, delivered the final judgement to The Chicago Tribune: “This team should never have been let in. I don’t think the league is going to last long if it’s going to be like this.”
Express co-owner Ralph McNamara’s firm closed in the wake of the October 1987 stock market crash. His broker’s license was revoked in 1991. In the late 1990’s he reappeared in Clearwater, Florida operating a fake venture capital scam under the alias Ralph Deluise. McNamara was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison in 2007.
Shep Messing plead guilty and received probation in 1991 in the wake of a securities probe into an investment scam that targeted NBA players represented by agent Harvey Lakind, including Darryl Dawkins. He remains a soccer icon in New York and has enjoyed a long career as a soccer commentator and broadcaster for ESPN, NBC and MLSNet.com among other outlets.
Rick Davis was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2001.
Former Express Assistant GM Joel Finglass married Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Kelli Finglass (nee McGonagill), who is now the Director of the cheerleaders and a star of the long-running CMT program Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making The Team.
The original Major Indoor Soccer League folded in July 1992.
New York Express Video
Expresss at the Minnesota Strikers on February 8, 1987.
New York Express Interviews
1986 New York Express Stock Offering Circular (57MB – download only)