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.
The Cleveland Thunderbolts were a bottom-dwelling Arena Football League franchise that played for three seasons at the suburban Richfield Coliseum from 1992 to 1994. The Thunderbolts originated an expansion team in Columbus, Ohio in 1991. After a winless (0-10) campaign playing in small agriculture fairgrounds arena in Columbus, the team was sold to Ohio insurance salesman John Kuczek in late 1991 and he moved the T-Bolts to Cleveland.
The T-Bolts were one of the weakest entries in the Arena League in the mid-1990’s, posting an 8-26 record during their three seasons in Cleveland, including back-to-back 2-10 campaigns in 1993 and 1993. During their brief run, the team signed two big names from the world of college football. Quarterback Major Harris, a holdover from the 1991 Columbus team, played for the T-Bolts in 1992 and 1994. Harris was a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist (1988 & 1989) at West Virginia. He never played in the NFL and his Arena Football career was not ultimately that distinguished. He was one of the league’s premier rushers as a scrambling QB, but the ground attack was not a major factor in the indoor game.
The other big name, at least locally, was head coach Earle Bruce, formerly of Ohio State University. Bruce was hired to turn around the team in 1994, but ultimately produced an identical 2-10 last place finished as his predecessor Dave Whinham did in 1993. Bruce resigned shortly after the 1994 season.
The Thunderbolts were run as a family business. Team owner John Kuczek was an insurance broker from Boardman, Ohio. His son Jeff was the team’s General Manager. Early in the T-Bolts short existence in Cleveland, John Kuczek was implicated in a federal securities fraud case in Florida. Prior to the team’s second season in 1993, the elder Kuczek divested himself of ownership in the club and placed it in a trust for his grandchildren. Son Jeff continued as the front office leader of the organization. Kuczek was ultimately convicted on one count of the indictment. The day before he was due to begin serving his sentence in February 1995, he committed suicide in a Salem, Ohio hotel room.
The Cleveland Thunderbolts did not return for the 1995 season. Arena Football returned to Cleveland in 2008 with the arrival of the Cleveland Gladiators, a transplanted franchise from Las Vegas. The Gladiators continue to play today under the ownership of Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.
==Cleveland Thunderbolts Games on Fun While It Lasted==
The Arena Football League hobbled into its third season in July of 1989 having barely survived an offseason civil war that pitted founder Jim Foster against a group of limited partners who bought into the league’s first round of expansion in 1988.
Foster emerged with control of his baby, but without most of his local market investors, save for Little Caesar’s Pizza founder (and future Detroit Tigers owner) Mike Ilitch in Detroit. With its franchises rudderless and in disarray, the 1989 Arena Football League season was a stopgap effort, featuring just five league-managed teams and a total of 13 games.
Although teams represented Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Maryland and Pittsburgh in name, Arena Football made only one appearance in each of those cities in 1989. The remaining five regular games were played in neutral cities to showcase the sport to potential expansion investors.
This particular game between the Detroit Drive and the Pittsburgh Gladiators was staged at Cleveland’s Richfield Coliseum. The game was a strong example of Arena Football’s pass-happy offenses and non-stop scoring (Detroit won 61-34), but as a sales promotion, it was a bust. The event drew an announced crowd of only 3,412 curiosity seekers to the 17,000-seat Coliseum. Of the 13 Arena Football exhibitions staged around the country in the summer of 1989, only a neutral site game in Baltimore drew a smaller crowd.
Despite the fact that none of the five 1989 test markets signed on for expansion franchises in 1990, the league did manage to add new investors and grow to six franchises in 1990. That was the start of a fifteen-year surge in Arena Football growth which saw expansion fees grow from $125,000 in 1990 to $18 million in 2005. The expansion bubble burst soon afterwards and the league folded and sought bankruptcy protection in 2009.
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 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.
==Cleveland Crunch Programs on Fun While It Lasted==