Cleveland was long a hotbed of professional indoor soccer. The city’s original Cleveland Force (1978-1988) was the model franchise of the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL), attracting huge crowds to the Richfield Coliseum in the mid-80’s. The Force folded in 1988, but were quickly replaced by the Cleveland Crunch (1989-2002) indoor squad.
By the early 2000’s, the fortunes indoor game were in sharp decline. The premier indoor league at the time was the National Professional Soccer League, whose membership included the Crunch. In 2001, the NPSL re-branded itself as the Major Indoor Soccer League, in the hopes of scaring up some nostalgia for the long-defunct indoor brand of the 1980’s.
Crunch management followed suit in August 2002. The franchise dropped the Crunch identity after 13 seasons in favor of reviving the Force name and colors. Team President Paul Garofalo, a former executive with the original Force franchise of the 80’s, predicted the name change alone would increase team revenues by one million dollars annually.
Garofalo’s optimism was misplaced. Force attendance muddled along at the 4,000 – 5,000 per game level – basically unchanged from the later years of the Crunch. Majority owner Richard Dietrich gave up hope during the third season of the Force re-boot, announcing the club was for sale in March 2005. With no takers, the team folded following the 2004-05 MISL season.
As far as the team on the carpet, Force 2.0 were decent. Indoor soccer’s all-time leading scorer, Hector Marinaro, played for the Force from 2002-2004. Marinaro was a holdover from the great Crunch indoor teams that won three championships during the 1990’s. But the Force let Marinaro go in the MISL expansion draft in the summer of 2004.
The Force made the MISL playoffs in each of their three seasons. The final Force team made it to the 2005 MISL Championship Series where they lost in a two-game sweep to the Milwaukee Wave. The club never played another game.
The Force in their retro Reflex Blue & Yellow unis, on the road against the Chicago Storm. March 19th, 2005
The Philadelphia Kixx were a long-running indoor soccer team that enjoyed strong popularity in the City of Brotherly Love for a few years during the late 1990’s. The club was originally founded as a National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) expansion franchise in 1996 by local businessman Ed Tepper.
Tepper was one of the pioneers of the sport of indoor soccer. He more or less stumbled across the sport during a brief stint as owner of the old Philadelphia Wings box lacrosse team that played at the Spectrum in 1974 and 1975. Captivated by the potential of the indoor game, Tepper quickly sold off the Wings to focus on soccer. He was a co-founder of the first pro indoor league, the Major Indoor Soccer League, in 1978. But Tepper had been away from the sport for more than a decade when came back to form the Kixx in 1995. Tepper kept the team until 2002, when he turned over primary ownership to local attorney Jeffrey Rotwitt. Rotwitt would support the club until its demise in 2010.
The Kixx were the top box office draw in the NPSL for three straight years from 1998 to 2000, averaging over 8,000 fans per game. But the team’s fortunes dipped in the 2000’s as Major League Soccer and the rapid growth of the outdoor game relegated a succession of indoor soccer leagues to irrelevance and disarray. The Kixx were further marginalized in 2009 when the Spectrum, their home of 13 years, closed it doors and the team was exiled to the Liacouras Center on the campus of Temple University. The club went on a hiatus at the end of the 2009-10 season, which turned out to be just a euphemism for going out of business.
The Kixx won two league championships during their fourteen-year run, capturing Major Indoor Soccer League titles in 2002 and 2007.
The Kixx host the Baltimore Blast at the Spectrum, March 24, 2007.
The Kixx claim their second and final MISL championship against the Detroit Ignition, April 2007.
The Harrisburg Heat were a long-running indoor soccer franchise in central Pennsylvania. Technically an expansion franchise in the National Professional Soccer League in the fall of 1991, the club was in some ways a successor to the region’s previous NPSL entry, the Hershey Impact (1988-1991), which folded shortly before the Heat were organized in July 1991. Heat founder Dr. Rex Herbert was a team doctor for the Impact and put together a new investor group to keep pro indoor soccer going in the area. While the Impact played at Hersheypark Arena in Hershey, the Heat moved into the State Farm Show Arena in Harrisburg.
Key players for the Heat included:
Trinidadian striker Richard Chinapoo (1992-2000)
Canadian midfielder Gino DiFlorio (1998-2002)
American defender Bob Lilley (1992-1997)
American forward Mark Pulisic (1991-1999)
The Heat’s finest season came in 1994-95. The team advanced to the NPSL Championship Series, where they were swept in four games by the St. Louis Ambush.
After a slow start at the box office in their inaugural season (3,114 average attendance in 1991-92), the Heat became a popular draw in Harrisburg during the mid-to-late 1990’s, usually averaging 5,000 – 6,000 fans per game each season. By the early 2000’s though, the entire sport of indoor soccer was in a state of decline. From 15 member franchises in 1996-97, the NPSL had only six viable clubs by the summer of 2001. The league re-branded itself as the Major Indoor Soccer League that summer.
The Heat played to declining crowds for two further seasons in the MISL, folding in the summer of 2003.
In 2012 the Harrisburg Heat brand name was re-booted for a new team in the obscure, low-budget Professional Arena Soccer League. The “new” Heat play in a smaller building at the Farm Show Arena and former Heat star Richard Chinapoo signed on as Head Coach.
Former Heat defender Todd Smith died of leukemia on December 31, 2003 at age 38. Smith was General Manager of Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution when he was diagnosed in March 2002.
The Dallas Sidekicks seemed perpetually on the edge of death during their 20-year run in North Texas, but they were revived on the operating table numerous times. For a brief period from 2001 to 2004, the Sidekicks were actually the longest continually operating professional soccer franchise in the United States. The team survived the implosion of four different leagues before finally meeting its maker once and for all in 2004 after nineteen seasons.
The club was founded in June 1983 by Dallas Mavericks owner Donald Carter, who bought the dormant MISL membership of the New Jersey Rockets (1981-1982) out of bankruptcy court. The team drew poorly during Carter’s first turn at the helm and the Mavs’ owner lost $5 million running the Sidekicks for two seasons from 1984 to 1986. The club’s demise was announced in June 1986, but angel investors stepped in the next day and rescued the team. This would become something of a tradition and Donald Carter himself would return in the early 1990’s to rescue the team during another financial crisis.
The Sidekicks greatest season was their third campaign during the winter of 1986-87. After nearly folding a few months earlier, the team went 28-24 under Head Coach Gordon Jago and made it to the best-of-seven MISL Championship Series against the favored Tacoma Stars. The series was absolutely thrilling and witnessed by huge crowds in both Dallas and Tacoma.
Tacoma held a 3-2 series lead as the series headed to Dallas for Game 6. 16,824 fans packed a sold-out Reunion Arena and exploded when Dallas’ Mark Karpun scored in the 21 minutes in double-overtime to send the series back to Tacoma for a decisive Game 7. 21,728 fans packed the Tacoma Dome for the finale. To this day, it is still the largest crowd ever to witness an indoor soccer game in the United States. Once again, the game went to sudden death overtime. And again it was Mark Karpun who scored the clincher, giving the Sidekicks a 4-3 victory and their first league title.
Many great indoor players suited up for the Sidekicks over the years, including Karpun, David Doyle, Godfrey Ingram and Krys Sobieski. But the figure who became indistinguishable from the franchise itself was the 5′ 6″ Brazilian striker known simply as Tatu. Tatu arrived in Dallas at age 22 for the Sidekicks first season in 1984-85 and stayed for the next 19 seasons. He previously played for Sidekicks coach Gordon Jago with the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League. He became one of the most prolific scorers of all-time in the indoor game, scoring 857 goals in 21 seasons.
Tatu was a great showman as much as a thrilling attacker. He became the league’s most recognizable star, thanks to his tradition of stripping off his jersey and firing it into the Reunion Arena stands after each goal he scored at home. Growing up in Boston in the 1980’s, there wasn’t an indoor soccer team for hundreds of miles. But I knew about Tatu thanks to tape delayed broadcasts of MISL games on ESPN and SportsChannel America. He was the face (and torso, I suppose) of the league. In 1989, despite never having seen a pro soccer game in person, I mailed Tatu a copy of Soccer Digest magazine and asked for an autograph. He mailed a whole package of Sidekicks goodies, including the autographed picture at right.
Tatu retired as a player from the Sidekicks after the 2002-03 season, but returned the next season as the team’s Head Coach. However, with the face of the franchise now confined to the bench, Sidekicks attendance plummeted by nearly 30% to the club’s lowest figure since the first season nearly 20 years earlier. At the end of the 2003-04 season, the Sidekicks were again on their deathbed. This time, at last, there was no savior and the club folded in September 2004.
In 2012, Tatu led a revival of the Sidekicks name, helping to launch a club in the Professional Arena Soccer League. Tatu coaches the new Sidekicks, who play at the Allen Event Center in the suburbs of Dallas.
==Dallas Sidekicks Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
Goalkeeper Antonio Cortes (1997) was shot to death in his office in Puebla, Mexico on New Year’s Eve, 2001. According to Alan Balthrop of the Dallas Sidekicks Historical Archive, his murdered has never been apprehended.
Forward Kyle Owen died in car accident on April 11, 2003 at age 29.
Assistant Coach Keith Weller succumbed to cancer on November 13, 2004.
The Cleveland Crunch formed in early 1989 as an effort to revive indoor soccer in Cleveland, Ohio after a one-year hiatus. Cleveland was one of the hottest markets in the U.S. for indoor soccer during the sport’s boom years in the early-mid 1980’s. The Cleveland Force (1978-1988) of the Major Indoor Soccer League attracted huge crowds to the Richfield Coliseum in the Eighties, often outdrawing the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, who shared the building during the winter. The Force even achieved indoor soccer’s elusive Holy Grail – they turned an annual operating profit on a couple of occasions. But by the end of the decade, Force owner Bert Wolstein grew pessimistic about the outlook for the faltering MISL. He folded his franchise in July 1988, despite the fact that the Force still drew strong crowds and were considered the league’s model franchise.
Akron stockbroker George Hoffman negotiated with Wolstein to buy and revive the Force, but ultimately failed to strike a deal. Instead, he approach the MISL and applied for an expansion franchise for Cleveland. The league awarded a new franchise to Hoffman and business partner Stuart Lichter in February 1989, seven months after the demise of the Force. After one winter without indoor soccer, the MISL returned to Cleveland in the fall of 1989. The new team would be called the Cleveland Crunch.
Hoffman and Lichter made several moves to try to connect the Crunch to the popular legacy of the Force. Former Force GM Al Miller, who presided over the old club’s boom years from 1984 to 1987, returned in the same capacity with the Crunch. Kai Haaskivi, a popular former Force All-Star, was hired on as player-coach for the 1989-90 MISL season.
But the indoor soccer moment in Cleveland was over. The Crunch struggled on the floor with a last place 20-32 record under Haaskivi. The storyline at the box office was worse. Average attendance of 5,543 was worst in the eight-team MISL and less than half what the Force drew in their final season just two years earlier. A lone bright spot during the Crunch’s inaugural season was the mid-season acquisition of Yugoslavian forward Zoran Karic in a trade with the San Diego Sockers. The trade set the table for the Crunch to dominate indoor soccer during the 1990’s, as Karic paired with Crunch forward Hector Marinaro to form the most formidable offensive duo in the sport for the next ten years.
Prior to Crunch’s second season in 1990-91, the MISL re-branded itself as the “Major Soccer League”, removing the word “Indoor”. The name change was subtle (and ignored by most fans and media), but portrayed a league with an identity crisis and a group of beleaguered owners losing faith in their core product. The Crunch continued to struggle as the season opened. Attendance dropped further, beneath 5,000 fans per game (the Crunch would finish last in the league again). Haaskivi was relieved of his coaching duties after a 9-18 start.
But under new coach Trevor Dawkins the Crunch caught fire in the season’s second half and made an improbable run to an MSL Championship Series date with the San Diego Sockers. The Sockers took the series in six games for their fourth straight league championship. Dawkins was named Coach of the Year for his turnaround effort while both Karic (2nd) and Marinaro (5th) finished among the top five scoring leaders in the league.
The winter of 1991-92 proved to be the 14th and final season for the MISL. The Crunch failed to get back to the final, but attendance shot up 52% to over 7,000 per game at the Richfield Coliseum. When the MISL folded in July 1992, Crunch owner George Hoffman accepted an invitation to join the league’s former rival, the lower-budget National Professional Soccer League, for the 1992-93 season.
The terms for entry into the the NPSL were severe – the Crunch were only allowed to keep six players from their roster and NPSL rules limited teams to only two foreign players. That choice was easy – Marinaro (Canada) and Karic (Yugoslavia). With the move to the new league, the Crunch also abandoned the suburban Richfield Coliseum and moved downtown to the CSU Convocation Center.
The Crunch would enjoy their greatest success in the NPSL. Karic and Marinaro simply dominated the league. Marinaro won every NPSL scoring title from 1993 to 2001, with the exception of 1994 – when Karic won. Marinaro won six league MVP awards during the 1990’s and Karic added one of his own. Goalkeeper Otto Orf, who wore #00, of course, was one of the league’s best goalkeepers. The Crunch won three league championship in the NPSL in 1994, 1996 and 1999.
The NPSL had radically different scoring rules than the MISL, including 2-point and 3-point goals. During the MISL years, final game scores often looked like high scoring ice hockey games – 4-3, 6-5, 8-6. Once the Crunch joined the NPSL, scoring lines looked more like American football results – 16-10, 24-17 and so on. In 1997, the Crunch set the all-time NPSL record for single game scoring, dropping 52 points on a terrible Columbus Invaders team. The modified scoring rules turned off some long-time indoor fans who grew up watching the MISL, but it didn’t seem to harm Crunch attendance too badly. The team never did approach the status enjoyed by the Force in the 1980’s, but attendance (announced, anyway) stayed in the 7,000 – 8,000 range for the rest of the 1990’s.
The Crunch’s fortunes began to decline at the turn of century, as the did the outlook for the sport of indoor soccer as a whole. After more than a decade of ownership and three championships, George Hoffman sold the Crunch in December 1999 for a reported $1.75 million. It was the highest sale price in the 15-year history of the NPSL. The new owners included Paul Garofolo, the former VP of Marketing for the Force during the 1980’s, and his financial backers, Richard Dietrich and Michael Gibbons.
The NPSL folded in the summer of 2001 and six teams, including the Crunch, re-organized as the “new” Major Indoor Soccer League. Nostalgia was the rule of the day, as struggling indoor owners across the country rushed to reclaim brand identities from classic indoor teams of the 1980’s.
In 2002, Garofolo obtained the rights to the Cleveland Force name from the Wolstein family, with whom he had remained close. The Crunch was re-branded in August 2002 as the new Cleveland Force playing in the new Major Indoor Soccer League. Garofolo boasted to the press that the revival of the Force brand name alone would boost team revenues by one million dollars a year. But Clevelanders didn’t seem to be nearly as nostalgic for the glory days of the Force as Garofolo himself was. By 2003, the club was in serious budget cutting mode and in 2005, the franchise that began sixteen years earlier as the Crunch shut down for good. Garofolo was later sentenced to six months in prison for tax fraud related to his employment with the Force.
Despite a good run in the 1990’s, the Crunch never replicated the popularity or influence of the original Cleveland Force. But they did actually manage to outlast them, playing 13 seasons to the Force’s ten.
Cleveland Crunch Memorabilia
1989-90 Crunch Media Guide
Crunch vs. Baltimore Blast. April 20, 1990
Crunch vs. Wichita Wings. April 22, 1990
Crunch vs. Tacoma Stars. March 22, 1991
Crunch vs. San Diego Sockers. May 17, 1991
Crunch vs. San Diego Sockers. March 15, 1992
Crunch vs. Tacoma Stars. April 3, 1992
Crunch vs. Wichita Wings. April 4, 1992
Crunch vs. Buffalo Blizzard. January 22, 1993
Crunch vs. Kansas City Attack. February 24, 1996
1997-98 Crunch Media Guide
1998-99 Crunch Media Guide
2000-01 Crunch Pocket Schedule
2001-02 Crunch Program
Cleveland Crunch Video
The Crunch beats the St. Louis Ambush in double OT to clinch the 1994 NPSL championship at the CSU Convocation Center:
Grainy action from the Crunch’s debut season in the Major Indoor Soccer League. December 1989: