Cleveland-Pittsburgh isn’t just a great rivalry in the NFL. Back in the early 1980’s, the two cities had a fierce rivalry in indoor soccer, of all things. The Pittsburgh Spirit, owned by Pittsburgh Penguins boss Edward DeBartolo Sr., were relatively popular, claiming similar crowds to the pre-Lemieux Pens. Meanwhile, after several glum years at the box office, the Cleveland Force became a late-blooming hit, packing huge crowds into the Richfield Coliseum by 1983.
The Spirit-Force rivalry burned hottest during the 1983-84 season. Both clubs were virtually unbeatable at home and the two teams stayed neck-and-neck in the Eastern Division of the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) throughout the winter. Together with a third Eastern Division foe, the Baltimore Blast, the trio were easily the three best clubs in the MISL.
The standing room-only crowd of 19,048 was a regular season record for the Cleveland Force and the 5th largest crowd in history for the MISL at the time. The home town fans would go home disappointed. Ian Sybis netted a hat trick for Pittsburgh and Polish defender Adam Topolski added a goal and three assists en route to a 6-4 win for the visitors.
The Force would take their revenge in the postseason. The clubs finished with near identical records. Pittsburgh in 2nd place at 32-16 (19-5 at home) and Cleveland right behind at 31-17 (18-6 at home). But in the quarterfinal playoffs, the Force easily dispatched the Spirit 3 games to 1 in a best-of-five series.
The Cleveland-Pittsburgh soccer rivalry dissolved when the Pittsburgh Spirit went out of business in April 1986. The Cleveland Force followed two years, shutting down in July 1988.
Cleveland vs. St. Louis. Two of the great hotbeds of indoor soccer in the early 1980’s squared off in this January 1984 match at Cleveland’s Richfield Coliseum. The Cleveland Force and the St. Louis Steamers ought to have been a great rivalry. Both teams were Midwestern clubs, both were wildly popular in their moment, and both clubs were among the league’s best at the time. But Cleveland was in the Major Indoor Soccer League’s Eastern Division and St. Louis was in the Western group and as a result they rarely met in the regular season (and never faced each other in the playoffs). This Friday night match was the Steamers’ only visit to Cleveland during the 48-game 1983-84 season.
The Force came into this match as the MISL’s hottest team. They were 13-2, thanks to an early season 11-game winning streak. Clevelanders leapt onto the band wagon. This was the sixth season of Force soccer and all of the sudden crowds more than doubled over their previous highs. A huge crowd of 14,173 turned out for this match and for the season the Force claimed an average of 13,692 for their 24 home dates. By contrast, the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers pulled only 5,075 per game in the same building that winter.
The Steamers were off to a slower start at 8-8, but their headline-making October signing of U.S. National Team midfielder Ricky Davis was starting to pay dividends. Davis was arguably the best American soccer player of the early 1980’s. At a minimum he carried that perception thanks to the Warner Communications marketing machine behind his former club, the New York Cosmos of the outdoor North American Soccer League. The October 1983 defection of Ricky Davis from the Cosmos to the MISL was as sure a sign as any of the shifting fortunes of pro soccer in the U.S. in the early 1980’s, as the outdoor game foundered and indoor soccer enjoyed its moment. Warner was cutting way back on the Cosmos in the fall of 1983 (they would unload the club altogether the following summer). Davis reached the end of his contract on September 30th and balked at the Cosmos’ request for a pay cut. That opened the door for the Steamers, a club whose commitment to fielding a championship-caliber team with American players was central to its brand. They signed Davis to a three-year deal worth a reported $117,000 per year, which made the 24-year old one of the highest paid players in the MISL.
Davis came into the Force match hot with 10 goals in his previous five games. He added a hat trick on this night to lead the Steamers to a 5-2 victory. The result bumped the Steamers over .500 (9-8) and dropped Cleveland to 13-3. St. Louis would go on to win the Western Division and appear in the MISL Championship Series, losing to the Baltimore Blast. The Force never quite regained their invincible form of the season’s first two months. They finished with a respectable 31-17 record, but were swept by the Blast in the semis, 3 games to none.
The Cleveland Force were a tremendously popular indoor soccer franchise during the 1980’s at the peak of the sport’s popularity. Formed in 1978 as one of six founding franchises in the upstart Major Indoor Soccer League, the team’s success was slowing in developing. Attendance was low in the team’s earlier years. It wasn’t until the 1982-83 season when the team’s popularity boomed and began to far outpace the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, their co-tenants at the suburban Richfield Coliseum. (It helped that the Cavs were in the death grip of Ted Stepien in this era, widely reviled by Clevelanders as one of the worst pro sports owners who ever walked the Earth.)
There were other MISL clubs that drew great crowds during this era, notably the Kansas City Comets and St. Louis Steamers. But the Force are frequently cited as the only MISL franchise ever to turn an annual operating profit. In addition to drawing large crowds, the team also had a strong sponsorship base, a booming camps program and a strong merchandise business.
While the Force were doing well, the same could not be said for the rest of the MISL. Franchises came and went so quickly that fans and sponsors could barely keep track. Between 1985 and 1987, the league endured the embarrassment of seeing two New York franchises go out of business at the mid-season All-Star Break. The league engaged in bruising annual battles with the Players Association. After long-running franchises in Chicago, Minnesota and St. Louis pulled out of the league in the summer of 1988, Force owner Bert Wolstein shut down the team in July 1988, seeing no viable way forward for the league.
The MISL, loathe to lose one of its few proven markets, quickly expanded back into Cleveland in the fall of 1989. The Cleveland Crunch brought back a number of Force players and front office execs, most notably the Force’s popular perennial All-Star Kai Haaskivi. But it wasn’t the same and the big crowds and corporate support of the Wolstein era didn’t return.
Although the Crunch never re-created the buzz of the Force, the new team actually lasted longer, playing 13 seasons from 1989 to 2002. In 1999 a new group which included former Cleveland Force front office executive Paul Garofolo bought the Crunch from original owner George Hoffman for a reported $1.75 million. In 2002, the new owners re-branded the team anew as the Cleveland Force. (The “New” Force also played in a “New” Major Indoor Soccer League, which had no connection to the original league, which folded in 1992.) The retro/nostalgia angle didn’t take. Crowds remained small and the new Force folded in 2005.
==Cleveland Force Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
Vintage indoor soccer program from the old Cleveland Force (1978-1988) for a January 1983 match against the Los Angeles Lazers. The Lazers were an expansion franchise that winter, owned by Dr. Jerry Buss. (The Lazers name and yellow/purple color scheme were a riff on the NBA’s Lakers, also owned by Dr. Buss).
Lazers goalkeeper Gary Allison is featured on the cover of the evening’s MISSILE Magazine game program. Kind of an esoteric choice for the cover – Allison was a journeyman who played for five different clubs during his five-year career in the MISL, never spending more than a year in the same place. By this point in the Lazers’ inaugural season, he had lost the starting job to rookie Kirk Shermer.
On this night the Force handed the Lazers an 8-5 loss at the suburban Richfield Coliseum, thanks to four goals from Finnish forward Kai Haaskivi.The Lazers were notably awful during this winter of 1982-83. Their 8-40 record and .167 winning percentage under Head Coach Peter Wall were the worst full-season marks in the fourteen-year history of the Major Indoor Soccer League.
Dr. Buss was remarkably indulgent of indoor soccer, and other fringe sports ventures such as Team Tennis, WNBA basketball and professional roller hockey. He bankrolled the franchises and delegated them to his children to manage. Daughter Jeannie Buss ran the Strings (tennis) and the Blades (roller hockey). Son Johnny took on the Lazers and later the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks. The Buss family kept the Lazers going for seven seasons, despite consistently poor crowds at the The Forum, mediocre records and millions of dollars in losses. The Lazers finally folded in June 1989.
Four years later, Jerry Buss helped former Lazers executive Ron Weinstein start the Continental Indoor Soccer League and bankrolled another indoor team at The Forum, L.A. United. Like the Lazers, the team drew poorly and Buss got out of soccer once and for all after the CISL’s first season ended in 1993.
This late season Major Indoor Soccer League match between Eastern Division rivals the Cleveland Force and Baltimore Blast drew a huge Sunday night crowd of 18,267 to the old Richfield Coliseum. Hard to believe today, but the sport of indoor soccer really was a huge draw in a handful of cities in the early 1980’s. The 1983-84 season was the year that attendance for the Cleveland Force really exploded. The team averaged 13,675 per match and outdrew their Richfield Coliseum co-tenant – NBA’s sad sack Cleveland Cavaliers – by 120,000 fans.
With that kind of atmosphere the Force were tough to beat at home. They went 18-6 at the Coliseum en route to a 31-17 record in 1983-84. The Force featured two of the top three scorers in the league in Kai Haaskivi and Craig Allen. But the Baltimore Blast were even better. Captain Dave MacWilliams (pictured on the night’s game program) led the Blast to a league-best 34-14 record. Serbian forward Stan Stamenkovic nudged out Allen and Haaskivi for the league scoring title.
The Blast would frustrate the Force and the big crowd on this night, as they would all season. The Force got on the board first on a Peter Millar goal and outshot the visitors 29-16. But the Blast made their shots count, with goals from cover boy MacWilliams, Stamenkovic and Pat Ercoli to eke out a 3-2 victory.
The teams would meet again a month later in the MISL playoff semi-finals with the Blast sweeping the Force in a best-of-five series. It was the second of five straight seasons from 1983 to 1987 that the Force went deep into the playoffs, only to be eliminated in the semi-final series (three times at the hands of Baltimore). The Blast, meanwhile, went on to win their first and only MISL championship in the spring of 1984, defeating the St. Louis Steamers in the finals.