The Canton Invaders began play in the winter of 1984-85 as one of the original franchises in the American Indoor Soccer Association. In the beginning, the AISA was an Upper Midwestern bus league, with a handful of clubs knocking about in minor league hockey rinks and agricultural exposition centers in places like Kalamazoo, Columbus and Toledo. Canton, Ohio and its tiny 4,200-seat Civic Center fit right in. The Invaders dominated on the carpet, appearing in each of the AISA’s first six championship finals and winning five of them.
By the end of the 1980′s, the AISA grew more ambitious and became an air travel league with an expanded footprint across the United States. In 1990, the league re-branded itself as the National Professional Soccer League and began playing in big city arenas like Atlanta’s Omni and Denver’s McNichols Arena, among others. Canton became a small market anomaly within the league and crowds – never great to begin with – began to dwindle as the Invaders’ championship-contending form receded sharply after 1992.
In the summer of 1996, Moh Hassan purchased the Invaders and moved the club 125 miles south to Columbus. The Columbus Invaders proved to be a shadow of what the Canton Invaders once were. The team was inexperienced and overmatched in the NPSL, relying heavily on young players from a local 3rd division outdoor team called (absurdly) the Ohio Xoggz. After a 4-18 start, Hassan fired original coach Drago Jaha and replaced him with player-coach Solomon Hilton, who was one of the few experienced indoor veterans on the team. That hardly improved matters, as the team fumbled away 17 of its remaining 18 matches to finish with a league worst 5-35 record.
The Invaders’ humiliations included a March 1997 home loss to the Cleveland Crunch by a score of 52-18. (The NPSL had a wacky scoring system consisting largely of 2-point and 3-point goals). It was the most vicious beating in the 17-year history of the league.
Owner Moh Hassan barely promoted the club and the Columbus soccer diehards who might have sought the Invaders out on their own already had the brand new Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer to get excited about in 1996. The Invaders’ proclaimed averaged attendance of 1,588 per at Battelle Hall, a sterile downtown convention center, was also the worst of the NPSL’s 15 clubs. To no one’s surprise, the Invaders folded in the summer of 1996.
Doomed indoor soccer club that muddled through a single season in upstate New York during the winter of 1990-91 before lack of community interest and investor litigation conspired to wipe the New York Kick off the map.
A group of nearly forty small investors led by George Keleshian and Afrim Nezaj labored for nearly two years to bring an American Indoor Soccer Association franchise to Albany. (By the time the club was purchased in September 1990, the league had changed its name to the National Professional Soccer League). While the bid was in progress, Albany opened the $69 million Knickerbocker Arena in January 1990. On February 18, 1990, the expansion backers promoted an AISA regular season game between the Chicago Power and the Memphis Rogues at Knickerbocker Arena to test community interest. The game drew an announced crowd of 8,150, which was considered quite encouraging.
The summer of 1990 came and went. The NPSL finally awarded the Albany franchise in September, leaving the unwieldy and inexperienced owners less than a month to prepare for the 1990-91 league opener. The late start also meant that the Kick could not secure 20 home dates at Knickerbocker Arena, so the team had to augment their schedule with dates at the Glens Falls Civic Center, located 45 minutes away.
The season was a disaster from the start. Attendance at the 15,000-seat Knickerbocker Arena was less than 2,000 per match. On the carpet, the team was completely overmatched under Afrim Nezaj, a former minor league player and member of the Kick’s ownership group. Nezaj was relieved of his coaching duties midway through the year, but the change didn’t help. The Kick would finish the season with a 3-37 record and the club was outscored 646-284. Many of the team’s experienced indoor veterans walked away when the undercapitalized owners demanded a 50% pay cut in midseason.
In February 1991, with the team on the brink of failure, Albany-based sports investor Joseph O’Hara stepped into rescue the Kick. Over the past two years, O’Hara had built a small empire of capital region sports properties with partner Glenn Mazula. The pair owned the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association and the Albany Firebirds of the Arena Football League, both of which also played at Knickerbocker Arena. (Mazula would not be involved with O’Hara’s Kick bailout, presumably to his eternal relief).
O’Hara helped the Kick finish out the remainder of the season, although he never did enjoy a Kick win, as the club last it’s last 13 matches after he took over. O’Hara quickly got into a dispute with the previous ownership over terms of the sale, and by summertime the two sides were headed for court. Facing litigation and a projected mid-six figure loss, O’Hara pulled out of the NPSL in late September 1991, just weeks before training camp, forcing the league to re-work it schedule. The league eventually sued O’Hara as well.
The litigation over the New York Kick stretched in the mid-1990′s, far outliving the brief 12-month life of the soccer club itself.
Kick forward Carlos Salguero died of cancer on December 28, 2006. He was 51.
The Thunder shared the MetroCentre during the winter months with the more popular Rockford Lightning of the Continental Basketball Association. Local real estate executive Mike Kelegian founded the team as an expansion franchise in early 1990. Former Chicago Sting star Heinz Wirtz served as Head Coach. The Thunder had an in-state rival in the NPSL – the Chicago Power – who were coached by another former Sting star, Karl-Heinz-Granitza.
During the Thunder’s second season in the winter of 1991-1992, the club had the worst attendance in the nine-team NPSL, claiming only 1,613 fans per game for a 20-match calendar. In September 1992, Kelegian moved his franchise to Colorado where the team was known as the Denver Thunder.
Kelegian ran out of money and stopped meeting payroll within weeks of his arrival in Denver. The former Illinois Thunder wobbled through its one and only season in Denver as a ward of the league before folding quietly in 1993.
Indoor soccer returned to soccer two decades later when the Rockford Rampage (2008-2010) played two seasons at the MetroCentre to equally meager crowds.
1999-2002: Richard Dietrich, Michael Gibbons & Paul Garofalo
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.
Garofolo and Dietrich talked a big game about returning indoor soccer to the glory days of the 1980′s. The duo made dismissive and condescending comments about Hoffman’s management of the Crunch in Cleveland’s business press. 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 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.
The Florida Thundercats were an indoor soccer team in Sunrise, Florida that resides on our One-Year Wonders file. The Thundercats failed despite a deeply experienced management team of pro soccer investors and operators.
Financial backer Milan Mandaric owned soccer clubs in both the United States and Europe dating back to the 1970′s. He also had previous experience in the indoor game as a club owner in the defunct Major Indoor Soccer League and the Continental Indoor Soccer League. Mandaric paid a reported $400,000 expansion fee to the NPSL for the rights to the Florida franchise in May 1998 (Sports Business Journal, 10/26/1998)
Head Coach Fernando Clavijo was a long-time indoor star of the 1980′s and played in the 1994 World Cup for the United States. In 1997, Clavijo coached the Seattle Seadogs to the championship of the Continental Indoor Soccer League.
The Thundercats played in the brand new National Car Rental Center in the suburbs of Fort Lauderdale. They shared the 19,000-seat building with the NHL’s Florida Panthers and sold seats only in the 8,500-seat lower bowl. The arena opened with a Celine Dion concert in October 1998 and the Thundercats followed just over a month later with their home opener, an 11-5 win over the Kansas City Attack before 6,217 fans on November 13, 1998.
Attendance plummeted quickly from there. For the season, the Thundercats averaged fewer than 2,500 fans announced for a 20-game home slate. Coach Fernando Clavijo told GoalIndoor Magazine in 2006 that Mandaric soon recognized he had been sold a bill of goods by the NPSL and Clavijo himself advised the owner to shut the team down. Midway through the 1998-99 season, the Thundercats held a fire sale of the team’s best (and most expensive) players and finished out the season with journeymen players earning $50 a game.
The Thundercats disbanded at the end of the 1998-99 season. For Mandaric, it was his third and apparently final strike with indoor soccer. At the time of this writing in 2013, Mandaric is Chairman of Sheffield Wednesday football club in England.
Collins brought in a top-flight coach in Kenny Cooper, who was also a minority owner of the team. Cooper had great success as manager of the popular Baltimore Blast club in the Major Indoor Soccer League from 1980 to 1992, winning a title in 1984. The Terror also went the nostalgia route by signing a popular former Rowdie, Perry Van Der Beck, as a player/assistant coach.
The Terror finished a disappointing 14-26 under Cooper during the winter of 1995-96. Van Der Beck replaced Cooper as Head Coach for the team’s second and final season in 1996-97. It didn’t help. The Terror finished 15-25, but made the playoffs thanks to the NPSL’s generous playoff system. The Cincinnati Silverbacks eliminated the Terror in the first round of postseason action.
The Terror’s draw at the box office was even more dismal. The club claimed an average of 1,828 fans per match in 1995-96 and 2,073 in 1996-97. The figures were among the worst in the NPSL, which averaged over 5,000 fans per game league-wide in those years.
The Terror seemed like an odd distraction for team owner William Collins III. Collins, a Virginia-based wireless communications executive and former minor league baseball player, was a baseball fanatic. His great passion was to bring Major League Baseball to Northern Virginia and he lead a decade long (and ultimately fruitless) effort to secure an expansion or relocated franchise for the region. Collins’ group spent $13 millon on the Major League effort between 1994 and 2004. During the time Collins owned the Terror, he also owned two minor league baseball clubs – the Greensboro (NC) Bats and the Michigan Battle Cats.
The Terror folded quietly in 1997 after two seasons of play.
The Bayfront Center was demolished in 2004 and is now the site of the Salvador Dali Museum.