Major Indoor Soccer League Programs
A quiet, downbeat ending to two proud American soccer franchises on a spring Saturday night in suburban Chicago. The St. Louis Steamers hung a 4-3 overtime defeat on the host Chicago Sting in what would prove to be the final game for both franchises. As the Sting’s Chicago Tribune beat writer, the late John Leptich, put it the next morning: “The term sudden death never had more applications.”
The Sting, at the time, were the longest continuously operating pro soccer club in the United States. Founded on Halloween 1974 by commodities Lee Stern, the Sting won two outdoor soccer championships in the North American Soccer League in the early 1980’s before moving permanently indoors in 1984. The team drew huge crowds at Chicago Stadium for indoor soccer early in the decade. But a 1986 move to the suburban Rosemont Horizon coincided with a loss of form on the field. Attendance cratered from over 10,000 per match during the 1984-85 campaign to fewer than 6,000 two years later. By the spring of 1988, ever a stalwart backer like Stern was exhausted and a possible sale and relocated to Denver or Milwaukee was rumored.
If the Major Indoor Soccer League itself survived, that is. As this final weekend of the 1987-88 regular season calendar approached, the MISL was at loggerheads with its Players’ Association over a new collective bargaining agreement. League owners wanted to slash the salary cap from the existing $1.25M to $898,000 per season. The owners held all the leverage. On April 5th, 1988, league officials threatened to cancel the 1988 MISL playoffs and fold the league if the players didn’t capitulate. The union signed off on the new deal just before midnight on April 14th, 1988. The playoffs would happen after all, but that mattered little to Chicago or St. Louis, who had each clinched last place in their respective divisions.
The St. Louis Steamers, founded in 1979, were in worse shape than the Sting in April 1988. Once the MISL’s model franchise, the Steamers outdrew the NHL’s St. Louis Blues every winter from 1980 through 1984. Their 1981-82 season average of 17,107 fans per game remains the highest in the history of indoor soccer. But ownership turnover and questionable trades eroded the club competitively and at the box office in the mid-1980’s. The day before this match, the Steamers failed to make payroll and the team arrived in Chicago clutching IOUs.
On “Fan Appreciation Night” at the Horizon, many of the Sting’s fan favorites were in street clothes. Pato Margetic, Frank Klopas, Frantz Mathieu, Heinz Wirtz and Chris Vaccaro watched from the Chicago bench. Nevertheless, the hosts carried a 3-2 lead into the final quarter. With eight minutes to go, St Louis’ Boki Bandovic beat Chicago’s reserve goalkeeper Jay McCutcheon to know the match at 3-3 and send it to overtime.
Four minutes in, Poli Garcia of the Steamers struck for his 50th goal of the season to give St. Louis a 4-3 sudden death victory.
“I guess the way to win games is not to pay the players,” Lee Stern remarked to The Tribune afterwards, noting the Steamers’ two-game winning streak after their final paychecks bounced.
Poli Garcia’s golden goal ended not just the game, but the season and the existence of both clubs. The Steamers were booted from the MISL two months later and the Chicago Sting closed up shop in early July 1988. Indoor soccer would soon return to both cities. The Chicago Power (1988-1996) of the lower-budget AISA started up in the fall of 1988 with a collection of ex-Sting players. The MISL expanded back into St. Louis with the St. Louis Storm (1989-1992) a year later. But neither club would recapture the following of the Sting or the Steamers in their early 80’s prime.
Chicago soccer trivia from the Sting’s final match that only Peter Wilt may care about:
- Match referee Bill Maxwell also called the Sting’s final outdoor match, the club’s NASL Soccer Bowl victory on October 4, 1984
- Pato Margetic was the only player on both the Sting’s final outdoor roster in 1984 and final indoor roster in 1988.
- Brazilian forward Batata, a four-time MISL All-Star, scored the final goal in Sting history.
- Ernie Buriano (Sting ’86-’88) appeared on the cover of the final Sting game program (top right).