When the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) debuted in December 1978, the sport of indoor soccer was basically a new invention. A few previous leagues had tried and failed to get off the ground. The outdoor North American Soccer League (NASL) had experimented with a few weekend tournaments and one-off exhibitions over the years. But no one had truly tried to market the game to American sports fans until MISL founders Earl Foreman and Ed Teppergot their league off the ground in the winter of 1978-79.
By 1981 - just three years later – an indoor soccer glut had descended on the metropolitan NYC market. The Brendan Byrne Arena opened that July in the Meadowlands Sports Complex in north Jersey. With the MISL heading into its fourth season and firmly in expansion mode, co-founder Ed Tepper took the opportunity to finally launch his own franchise, bringing the New Jersey Rockets to the brand new 19,000-seat arena. Tepper wasn’t the only soccer investor with his eyes on the new building. The NASL launched its own wintertime indoor league in 1979. But for two years the NASL’s most famous club looked down their nose at the indoor game and declined to participate. In 1981, with Byrne Arena opening right next to their outdoor home at Giants Stadium, the New York Cosmos finally got off the sidelines and fielded a indoor side. Between the Rockets and the Cosmos, there were 31 indoor soccer dates at the Byrne in just five months. The Cosmos fielded a half-hearted last place team but the added competition still drove Tepper’s Rockets into bankruptcy and oblivion by the end of the season.
But the oldest and most successful of the New York indoor teams was the New York Arrows, who played out on Long Island at the Nassau Coliseum. The Arrows were a dynasty and they’d won the first three championships of the MISL. They had the league’s best player in Yugoslavian scoring wizard Steve Zungul, who was to indoor soccer in the early 80′s what Wayne Gretzky was to ice hockey. Branko Segota wasn’t far behind Zungul and the Arrows also had one of the few well-known American stars in soccer, former Cosmos goalkeeper Shep Messing. As good as they were, the Arrows were something short of a sensation out on Long Island, never ranking among the league’s top draws despite their virtual invincibility.
This match was the Arrows fourth season opener against the expansion Rockets. Their dominance was on full display for the large crowd at Nassau Coliseum, as the Arrows raced out to a 9-0 lead before easing off the gas pedal late. As usual, Zungul led the way with four goals. Argentinean forward Luis Alberto added a hat trick as well. The Rockets picked up two garbage goals late for a 9-2 final.
At the end of this 1981-82 season, the Arrows won their fourth straight MISL crown, which would also be their final hurrah. The following season, Zungul was shipped out in a midseason budget-cutting move and by the summer of 1984 of the Arrows were no more.
The New York Arrows were the original dynasty franchise in the sport of indoor soccer in the United States. One of six founding franchises in the Major Indoor Soccer League in 1978, the Arrows won the first four MISL championships from 1979 to 1982. The team was virtually unbeatable during this stretch, posting a regular season record of 114-26 under Head Coach Don Popovic.
Arrows owner John Luciani was also an investor in the Rochester Lancers of the outdoor North American Soccer League during the late 1970′s. Luciani was only involved with the Lancers for a short time and would ultimately ended up embroiled in contentious lawsuits with other members of the Lancers’ sprawling and unwieldy ownership consortium. But Luciani was involved with Rochester when the MISL formed in the fall of 1978 and this allowed him to essentially make the Arrows into a sister club of the Lancers and stock the team with talent from the outdoor club. Don Popovic came over from the Lancers, as did the teenage scoring prodigy Branko Segota and goalkeeper Shep Messing, who was one of the few recognizable American-born stars of the era, thanks to his years with the glamorous New York Cosmos of the NASL (and perhaps also his centerfold shoot for Playgirl magazine in 1974).
But the biggest find for the Arrows was the Yugoslavian striker Steve Zungul. A budding superstar for Hajduk Split in the Yugoslav First League, Zungul became embroiled in a dispute with club management and was concerned they would send him off to compulsory military service. In December 1978 – the same month the MISL kicked off its inaugural season – Zungul defected to the United States and signed with the Arrows. He planned to eventually sign with an NASL club and play outdoor soccer, but Yugoslavia successfully petitioned FIFA to ban Zungul from all FIFA-sanctioned leagues until his 28th birthday in 1982, citing a Yugoslavian rule that players could not play overseas prior to age 28. The NASL was sanctioned by FIFA, but the upstart Major Indoor Soccer League was not. Thus through a quirk of Cold War politics, the Arrows found themselves in sole possession of the indoor game’s first great star – the man who became known as “The Lord of All Indoors”.
Zungul would win the MISL’s Most Valuable Player award in each season from 1979 to 1982, matching the years that the Arrows won the league title.
The Arrows played at the Nassau Coliseum out on Long Island. Despite their dominance, local interest in the team never match the enthusiasm for indoor soccer in Midwest hotbeds like Cleveland, St. Louis and Kansas City. Announced attendance peaked for the Arrows during their third season at 8,083 fans per game and then dropped steadily through the early 1980′s.
John Luciani sold the Arrows for an undisclosed amount in November 1982 just as the Arrows fifth season got underway. He cited $10 million in losses during the Arrows’ first four season. The new owner was Dr. David Schoenstadt, who also happened to be the owner of the MISL’s tremendously popular Kansas City Comets club. The purchase created a competitive conflict of interest within the MISL, but allowed the young league to maintain a foothold in the vital New York media market. Carl Berg, owner of the Golden Bay Earthquakes, who played in the MISL that season, was also part of the new investment group.
Schoenstadt and his management team were not able to replicate the success they had in Kansas City. The ownership transition of 1982 marked the end of the Arrows dynasty and the beginning of the club’s rapid decline. The Arrows early dominance was fueled largely by foreign – particularly Slavic – stars (with the exception of Shep Messing). The new management promoted a process of “Americanization”, believing that American players would be more relatable and better suited to the club’s aggressive grass roots marketing strategy of promoting the Arrows through clinics and community appearances. Other observers believed “Americanization” was a cover for cost-cutting and pointed to the departure of Steve Zungul as Exhibit A. Zungul, who earned a reported $150,000/year at his Arrows peak, was traded to the Golden Bay Earthquakes in the middle of the 1982-83 season for Gary Etherington and Gordon Hill in a cost-cutting move which effectively ended the Arrows run as an elite team.
The Arrows final season came during the winter of 1983-84. Schoenstadt complained about the lease terms at Nassau Coliseum while attendance declined to 5,478 per match. Efforts to sell and relocate the team to either Charlotte or Cincinnati fell through. During the summer of the 1984, the Arrows folded and went into bankruptcy.
In early 1986, former Arrows goalkeeper Shep Messing assembled an investor group and successfully applied for an MISL expansion club to replace the Arrows on Long Island. The New York Express joined the MISL for the 1986-87 season, but lasted only until the All-Star Break before folding with a record of 3-23. The original MISL folded in July 1992.
The New York Sets/Apples were a pro tennis franchise active in Manhattan from 1974 to 1978. The club was active for all five season of World Team Tennis (1974-1978), a funky little organization that attempted to graft the classic tropes of American professional team sports (team scoring, standings, cheerleaders, booing and cheering) onto the hushed, snooty atmosphere of the pro tennis tour. The league was founded in 1973 by serial sports entrepreneur Dennis Murphy in partnership with the game’s greatest female star, Billie Jean King, her husband/business partner Larry King, and a few others investors.
Jerry Saperstein, son of Harlem Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein, originally held the New York franchise but quickly sold it off to Sol Berg. WTT owners were inexplicably enamored with team names relating to the rules and equipment of the game. Loves, Nets, Racquets and Strings were among franchise monikers. New York ended up with one of the dullest and least imaginative – the New York Sets.
The Sets debuted on May 7, 1974, losing to the Hawaii Leis before an announced crowd of 4,990 at Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum. Under WTT’s novel scoring system, each match consisted of five sets – one each of men’s singles and doubles, women’s singles and doubles, and mixed doubles. There were no love or advantages – each game of a set was simply scored zero, 1, 2, 3, game. Match scoring was simply the cumulative games won from each of the five sets.
The Sets finished in the cellar in 1974 with a 15-29 record. Fans were largely indifferent – the club drew an average of just 2,869 for 22 home dates during the summer. But the Sets’ fortunes changed in February 1975 when the Sets traded for league founder Billie Jean King, whose Philadelphia Freedoms franchise was about to go under. King, still a formidable player at age 31, made the team an immediate contender. The Sets made the playoffs in 1975 and won the World Team Tennis championship in 1976, sweeping the Oakland-based Golden Gaters. The decisive match drew 5,730 to the Nassau Coliseum in late August.
In 1977 the club moved into Manhattan, splitting dates between the 17,800-seat Madison Square Garden and the more intimate 3,700-seat Felt Forum tucked inside the Garden. To celebrate the move, the club also re-branded, dropping the dreadful “Sets” nickname and becoming the New York Apples for the 1977 season.
The Garden was favored for bigger matches, such as a June 6, 1977 match against the Phoenix Racquets which showcased the two biggest stars of the women’s pro tour: Billie Jean King of the Sets and Chris Evert of the Racquets. The match drew a league record 13,675 fans. The Apples repeated as WTT champions in 1977 and attendance surged 38% with the move to Manhattan, topping 100,000 for the season and an average of 4,939 per match.
For the 1978 season, the Apples added a male superstar to pair with King, adding 23-year old Vitas Gerulaitis, who ranked as one of the top five males in the world at the time. The Apples also added a 21-year old rookie out of Douglaston, New York named Mary Carillo. Carillo would go on to become one of the great broadcasters of tennis and a highly respected reporter on HBO’s Real Sports and NBC’s Olympics coverage in the 1990′s and 2000′s.
There would be no third straight title for the Apples in 1978. The New Yorkers ran into another star-studded team in the playoff semi-finals – the Los Angeles Strings led by Evert and the temperamental Romanian Ilie Nastase. Here JoAnneRussell of the Apples takes on Evert in the decisive August 24th, 1978 semi-final match:
The Strings ousted the defending champion Apples on this night and went on to win the final championship of World Team Tennis in September 1978. This televised match turned out to be the final one the Apples franchise ever played. Team owner Sol Berg shutdown the Apples on October 27, 1978 in tandem with Boston Lobsters owner Robert Kraft. Berg and Kraft cited an inability (or unwillingness – it wasn’t totally clear) of WTT owners to sign the biggest stars of the men’s and women’s game as their reason for withdrawing.
The inspiring story of Kurt Warner, who rose from supermarket stock boy to Super Bowl Champion and MVP over the course of five years, is one of the great legacies of the original Arena Football League (1987-2008). Warner, undrafted out of college and later released in training camp by the Green Bay Packers in 1994, famously signed on with the Arena League’s Iowa Barnstormers in 1995. He led the Barnstormers to the Arena Bowl title games in 1996 and 1997, before finally earning his shot at the NFL with the St. Louis Rams. By 1999, he was the NFL’s MVP and quarterback of a Super Bowl championship team in his first season as a starter. Warner’s fame briefly made the Iowa Barnstormers an object of cult fascination, if not quite a household brand name.
So what became of the Barnstormers?
The Barnstormers started out as an Arena Football expansion franchise in the spring of 1995. Jim Foster, founder of the Arena Football League in 1987, owned the club, which played in the 11,400-seat Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines, dubbed “The Barn”. Head Coach John Gregory was a long-time Canadian Football League coach. Gregory brought in CFL vet Willis Jacox to play the role of Iowa’s Offensive Specialist – most AFL players played “Ironman” football in this era, meaning they played both offense and defense. The offensive specialist was akin to the DH in baseball, playing offense only and returning kicks. Gregory also plucked Warner out of the Hy-Vee grocery store aisle prior to the Barnstormers’ first season in 1995.
The Barnstormers glory years came in 1996 and 1997, when Warner and Jacox led the Barnstormers to back-to-back Arena Bowls. In 1996, the Barnstomers hosted Arena Bowl X before a national cable TV audience but lost to the Tampa Bay Storm 42-38. The following year, the Barnstormers fell to the Arizona Rattlers 55-33 in Arena Bowl XI in Phoenix, in what would prove to be Warner’s last AFL game.
Warner headed the Rams and Jacox retired after the 1997 season. But Gregory and the Barnstormers uncovered more great players in WR-DB Carlos James, offensive specialist Mike Horacek and, especially, quarterback Aaron Garcia. Garcia would go on the set every major career passing record in Arena Football over the course of the next decade plus.
On November 1st, 2000, after the conclusion of the Barnstormers’ sixth season in Des Moines and nine months after Warner’s historic Super Bowl performance, Jim Foster sold the team to New York Islanders owners Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar. The franchise relocated to Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum as the New York Dragons for the 2001 Arena Football League season.
The move to New York was in keeping with Arena Football’s growing ambition to become a “5th Major League”, as the league began favoring major markets over cities like Des Moines and Grand Rapids, Michigan. In the course of a decade, Arena Football franchise valuations ballooned from $125,000 in 1990 to $7 million – the price paid by Wang & Kumar for the Barnstormers, and for another AFL franchise, the New England Sea Wolves, which also changed hands in the autumn of 2000.
Several top Barnstormers made the move from Iowa to New York, including Head Coach John Gregory and All-AFL quarterback Aaron Garcia. In New York, the franchise also produced another future NFL star, as it had with Kurt Warner in Iowa. In 2002, the Dragons signed WR-DB Mike Furrey, a refugee of World Wrestling Entertainment chief Vince McMahon’s defunct XFL. Furrey became the favorite target of Garcia in 2002 and 2003. Furrey left the Dragons partway through the 2003 season – he was leading the AFL in receptions at the time – to sign with the St. Louis Rams. Furrey went on to play both wide receiver and defensive back in the NFL, leading the NFC in receptions in 1996 with 98 catches for 1,086 years as a member of the Detroit Lions. In a bizarre coincidence, Furrey played college football at Northern Iowa University, just like Warner.
Back in Des Moines, a new Iowa Barnstormers expansion team was issued to play in AF2, a small market minor league spinoff of the AFL. The new minor league Barnstormers were not able to re-capture the interest of area fans and this version of the Barnstormers folded after a single season in 2001.
The Dragons were never one of Arena Football’s top draws and the Nassau Coliseum was typically regarded as one of the league’s worst venues, much as it was in the National Hockey League. Announced attendance averages peaked in 2005 at 11,922 per game. By 2008, announced attendance dipped to 9,072, the second lowest figure in the 17-team league.
In July 2008, Wang sold the Dragons to Steve and Shanna Silva for an estimated $12 million. This would prove to be the last time a franchise changed hands in the original Arena Football League. By this time, the league was struggling under $14 million in accumulated debt. A postseason attempt to sell a $100 million controlling stake in the league to leveraged buyout firm Platinum Equity and re-organize the league as a single-entity structure fell through in late 2008. The league suspended the 2009 season in December 2008 and ultimately filed for bankruptcy in August 2009 after owners failed to come together on a way forward.
The Silvas were left with nothing for their unfortunately timed investment. Another Arena Football investor who bought into the league late at the peak of the bubble – Dr. Robert Nucci who bought the Tampa Bay Storm for approximately $18 million in 2007 – later filed a lawsuit claiming that the late-era Arena Football League was little more than a debt-laden ponzi scheme that relied on constantly rising expansion fees to finance its existence. The Silvas, for their part, got as far as announcing a new logo and color scheme for the Dragons in September 2008. The new green-and-black color scheme would have been used for the 2009, but the league collapsed first:
A group of former Arena Football League owners and officials called Arena Football One purchased the assets of the original Arena Football League out of bankruptcy for $6.1 million in December 2009. It was a long way down from the proposed Platinum Equity purchase of the AFL just a year earlier, which valued the league at approximately $250 million.
A much more budget-conscious (and non-union) reinvention of the Arena Football League debuted in 2010, with many franchises returning under their old names and, in some cases, their old investors. The New York Dragons and the Silvas were not among them. But the Iowa Barnstormers were. A third incarnation of the Iowa Barnstormers joined AF2 for the 2008 season as an expansion team playing in the new $99 million Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. The team retained the old logo of the original Kurt Warner-era Barnstormers and still practices in The Barn – venerable Veterans Memorial Auditorium. When the Arena Football League went dark in 2009, AF2 kept playing. In 2010, the new Barnstormers took a leap up to rejoin the new Arena Football League.
Kurt Warner retired from the NFL in January 2010. He led two different franchises to Super Bowl appearances, starting in three and winning one. As of 2011, he holds one of the top ten passer ratings in NFL history.
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.
Express All-Star Chris Whyte
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.”
1986-87 Express Game Program
Messing announced the immediate dissolution of the team and the initiation of Chapter XI bankruptcy proceedings on February 17, 1987 during the MISL All-Star Break. Although the Express finished with a record of 3-23, they did manage to win their final 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.
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.”
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.