The Major Indoor Soccer League’s long-running Southern California rivalry in action here in this game from March of 1988. Actually, it wasn’t much of a rivalry. The San Diego Sockers won the MISL championship five times during the seven seasons that the Los Angeles Lazers existed. Meanwhile, the Lazers only had one winning season in their history.
But this was that year. The 1987-88 Lazers were pretty damn good, led by Ecuadorian forward Chico Borja, pictured on the cover of the evening’s MISSILE Magazine game program. Borja set the Lazers’ franchise record for scoring with 47 goals and 51 assists in 54 matches.
The best indication of how strong the Keith Tozer-coached Lazers team was this year was the damage they did to the Sockers. This was the seventh and final regular season meeting of the clubs and the Lazers ripped San Diego 8-2. It was the Sockers’ worst loss in four years and gave Los Angeles a 4-3 series victory for the season. The Sockers (42-14) lost only 10 other matches-to the entire rest of the league.
Borja scored a goal and an assist. L.A.’s big star on the night was Cha Cha Namdar, a former Socker who notched two goals and added three assists.
The playoffs brought both clubs back to their traditional roles in the league. The Lazers flopped badly, losing to the Kansas City Comets in a three-game first round sweep. The Sockers won the championship, launching a run of five straight league titles.
After the 1987-88 season the MISL nearly folded (the Sockers went into bankruptcy, but emerged somewhat miraculously). Lazers owner Dr. Jerry Buss hung in, but dumped many of the club’s larger salaries, including Borja who departed after a single exemplary season.
This rare MISSILE Magazine program comes from the heyday of the old Major Indoor Soccer League (1978-1992). Indoor soccer reigned supreme on the U.S. soccer scene in 1985. There was no outdoor professional league in the entire country at the time. And the greatest indoor player of them all was Steve Zungul, the “Lord of All Indoors”, pictured on the cover of the evening’s game program.
Zungul was the all-time leading scorer in the sport in 1985, and winner of the league’s MVP in five of the six seasons he had competed in. Zungul was also the straw that stirred the drink for two different indoor dynasties. The New York Arrows won four consecutive MISL titles with Zungul as their leader from 1978 to 1982. When the cash-starved Arrows dealt Zungul away for financial relief in 1983, their hegemony came to an immediate end.
The San Diego Sockers had already captured three indoor titles in the MISL and its defunct rival the North American Soccer League when Zungul arrived in 1984. He made the team even more dominant (a team-best 37-11 record in the 1984-85 campaign) and led them to a fourth title in 1985, picking up his 5th MISL MVP award along the way.
The Wichita Wings hosted Zungul and the Sockers for this early season clash in November 1985. A near-sellout crowd of 9,051 packed the Kansas Coliseum for the Wings’ second home game of the year. The Wings had never beaten San Diego in eight previous tries, which included losing a three-game sweep in the 1983 MISL playoffs. That didn’t seem likely to change, as the Sockers jumped out to an early 4-0 lead.
But the Wings defense managed to contain Zungul, holding him to just one goal on the night. Wichita’s Danish striker Erik Rasmussen led the comeback, tying a team record with 5 goals and adding two more assists. The two clubs combined for 20 goals – the most in a Wichita game all season – but the Wings got the best of it, beating the Sockers for the very first time 11-9.
Two months later, Sockers owner Bob Bell sold Zungul to the Tacoma Stars for $200,000 in midseason. Zungul finished the 1985-86 season in Tacoma as the league leader in both assists (60) and total points (115) and won his sixth Most Valuable Player Award. Erik Rasmussen of Wichita led the MISL in goals with 67.
Unlike the Arrows dynasty, however, the Sockers did not collapse after selling off the greatest player in the sport. The Sockers won their fourth straight indoor title in 1986 and would add another in 1988 before Zungul rejoined San Diego for the 1988-89 season.
This 1982 North American Soccer League match pitted the early season front runners in the NASL’s Eastern and Western Divisions. San Diegans and NASL officials could only hope the game would be a preview of Soccer Bowl ’82: the hometown San Diego Sockers, already tabbed to host the league’s title game in late September, and the New York Cosmos, the league’s sexiest box office attraction and biggest media market.
San Diego was a risky choice to host the league’s signature event. The Sockers were a mediocre draw at best, despite fielding a competitive club most years. For the past three seasons in a row, the Sockers had been eliminated in the playoff semi-finals, one step short of the Soccer Bowl. The NASL’s best bet for a sold out Soccer Bowl at 50,000-seat Jack Murphy Stadium would be for the Sockers to finally take the next step in 1982.
The Cosmos defeated the Sockers in both of the clubs’ previous matches, including a 5-0 shellacking at Giants Stadium in 1980. That streak wouldn’t change on this evening. New York got first half goals from Steve Moyers and Giorgio Chinaglia which was enough to hold off the Sockers 2-1. Polish World Cup veteran Kaz Deyna scored for San Diego in the second half.
New York and San Diego would meet again in the postseason, but the clash came in the semi-finals rather than the Soccer Bowl. The Cosmos pulled off a two-game sweep and the Sockers went home one round too early for the fourth consecutive year. With the Sockers on the golf course, ticket sales for Soccer Bowl ’82 suffered accordingly and the final between the Cosmos and the Seattle Sounders on September 18, 1982 was played before an embarrassing crowd of 22,634.
This match was broadcast nationally on the USA cable network and locally back in New York on WOR-TV.
American goalkeeper Arnie Mausser of the Jacksonville Tea Men is pictured on the front of the evening’s KICK Magazine game program. It was the only time the middling Jacksonville club earned a cover story during the club’s brief (1981-1982) existence in Florida.
A huge Monday night crowd of 39,623 braved chilly September weather at Comiskey Park to cheer on the Chicago Sting in the decisive Game Three of the 1981 NASL playoff semi-finals. It was the largest home crowd in the Sting’s seven-year history. The New York Cosmos were already through to the final in the other bracket. They awaited the winner to decide Soccer Bowl ’81 at Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium five nights later.
The match had a good storyline The San Diego Sockers never quite could find their way into the Soccer Bowl. The past two seasons they’d lost in this same semi-final round. The Sting couldn’t quite solve the Sockers, who’d eliminated Chicago in the playoffs during those same two seasons. San Diego took Game One of the series 2-1 at Jack Murphy Stadium and held a 1-0 lead in Game Two at Comiskey, but allowed the Sting to rally with a 2-1 victory of their own and force this rubber match.
The game was scoreless through regulation and two sudden overtime periods, but a thriller nonetheless. Goalkeepers Dieter Ferner of Chicago and Volkmar Gross of San Diego were brilliant. Sting fans were elated during the second sudden death period when referee Toros Kibritjian awarded Chicago a penalty kick, but Gross made a diving save on Derek Spalding to keep the Sockers’ season alive.
At the end of the second overtime, the match came down to a Shootout, the NASL’s novel method of settling ties. One-by-one, six shooters from each side dribbled toward the goal from 35 yards out. They had five seconds to get a shot off. The Sockers went first and Juli Veee slotted a ball past Ferner for a 1-0 advantage. Pato Margetic evened it at 1-1 on the next kick. Polish star Kaz Deyna put the Sockers up 2-1 in the second round before the next four shooters failed to convert. Dave Huson tied it at 2-2 at the end of the fourth round. Neither team could score in the fifth.
The match game down to the sixth and final round of the shootout. Martin Donnelly toed the line for the Sockers and then bore down on Ferner. He missed. The crowd erupted…and then groaned when field officials ruled that Ferner left his line too early. Donnelly got a second chance. And missed again. Sting Head Coach Willy Roy sent out Frantz Mathieu to take the sixth kick. Mathieu had never participated in a shootout before. For the season, Mathieu had one goal in 31 matches. The Haitian sweeper charged in one Volkmar Gross, juked one way and cut back the other and put the red, white & blue NASL ball in the back of the net, touching off a wild celebration at Comiskey. The famed exploding scoreboard installed by the great Bill Veeck exploded. Fans rushed the field. Sting officials hustled champagne into the locker room. Sting owner Lee Stern was among the revelers:
“Anyone who tells Lee Stern 0-0 soccer is dull is going to get a punch in the nose from me,” Stern proclaimed amidst the locker room celebration, according to Tribune scribe Mike Conklin.
Five nights later, the Sting traveled to Toronto and felled the mighty Cosmos for the third time that season to win Soccer Bowl ’81. The Sting would win that match, once again, in the Shootout.
The greatest indoor soccer dynasty of all time started out as an outdoor soccer team that couldn’t find a home. The franchise that became the San Diego Sockers formed in Baltimore in 1974 as an expansion club in the North American Soccer League. The Baltimore Comets (1974-1975) played two seasons before moving across the country to become the San Diego Jaws in 1976. After one season in San Diego, the team moved to Nevada and played a single season as the Las Vegas Quicksilvers in the summer of 1977.
The team finally acquired stability when Robert W. Bell bought the Quicksilvers and returned the team to San Diego to begin play as the San Diego Sockers in the spring of 1978. Under Bell’s ownership, the Sockers played seven seasons of outdoor soccer in the NASL at Jack Murphy Stadium from 1978 to 1984. The team peaked in the years 1979 to 1982, reaching the playoff semi-final for four consecutive seasons, but always falling one game short of the Soccer Bowl title game.
The Sockers’ outdoor popularity crested in 1981, when average crowds reached 14,802 for 16 home matches. But attendance crashed badly in the following seasons. In 1982, San Diego was chosen as the host of Soccer Bowl ’82, a risky choice given the Sockers modest attendance history. For the fourth consecutive year, the Sockers lost in the semis, further reducing ticket sales interest for the final between the New York Cosmos and the Seattle Sounders on September 18, 1982. The announced attendance of 22,634 was termed “a disaster” by NASL CEO Howard Samuels.
By 1983, Sockers average attendance was down to a league-worst 4,685, a crash of 70% in just two seasons. During the late 1970’s, the New York Cosmos occasionally drew single game crowds that were larger than the Sockers’ total annual attendance for the 1983 and 1984 outdoor seasons.
But Bell kept the Sockers going, in part because of the club’s terrific success in the indoor game. The NASL began experimenting with a winter-time indoor season in 1979-80 in response to a threat from the rival Major Indoor Soccer League, which began play in 1978. Only a few clubs participated at first – NASL teams were slow to embrace the indoor game due to philosophical issues and labor issues with the league’s player association. The Sockers played their first indoor season at the San Diego Sports Arena in the winter of 1980-81.
The Sockers won their first title in the winter of 1981-82, winning the NASL’s indoor season. That kicked off an amazing run of ten indoor titles in the next eleven years, as the Sockers became one of the all-time great American soccer dynasties. The financially troubled NASL opted not to put on an indoor season in 1982-83, so the Sockers temporarily joined the rival Major Indoor Soccer League that winter and won the 1983 MISL title. In 1983-84, they returned for the NASL’s final indoor campaign and won that too, marking their third straight championship.
The NASL went out of business after the 1984 outdoor season and the Sockers joined the MISL on a full-time basis in the winter of 1984-85. The Sockers continued their dominance, winning the MISL Championship every year from 1985 to 1992, with the lone exception of 1987, when they lost in the semi final series.
On the financial side, Bell continued to take a beating despite the team’s on-field success. The Sockers never turned an annual profit and Bell lost an estimated $9 million during his seasons as the Sockers’ managing general partner. In 1980, Bell owned 95% of the team. In 1984, with big losses from the outdoor game, he started taking on limited partners and was diluted to less than 20% ownership in the club. By 1987 Bell was gone, handing the reigns to one of his limited partners, Ron Fowler.
Under Fowler, the team continued to dominate the MISL, but the club’s finances failed to improve. The Sockers filed for bankruptcy in April 1988, just as the MISL contracted from 11 to 7 clubs. Fowler re-purchased the team out of a contentious bankruptcy filing, which may also have saved the league itself. The Sockers went on to win another four titles after this brush with death. In June 1991, Fowler finally gave up, selling the club to a group led by Oscar Ancira, Sr., a frozen foods entrepreneur. Under Ancira, the team would win its tenth and final indoor championship in the spring of 1992.
In July 1992 the MISL, known by this time as the “Major Soccer League”, folded after fourteen seasons. The Sockers accepted an invitation to join the new Continental Indoor Soccer League, set to begin play in June 1993. The big change from the MISL was that the CISL would play in the summer time. Many CISL franchises were owned and operated by arena management companies and NBA/NHL ownership groups who were looking to fill empty building dates during the summer months. The move to the CISL meant that the Sockers had to take a full year off between May 1992 and the debut of the new league in June 1993.
The Sockers made one last run at a championship in 1993. In the CISL championship series they faced the Dallas Sidekicks, a long-time rival from the MISL days who had also made the jump to the new league. (The Sidekicks were also the only team to interrupt the Sockers decade-long dominance in the 1980’s, winning the MISL championship in 1987.) The Sidekicks won the best-of-three series two games to one.
By 1994, the charismatic foreign stars like Steve Zungul, Kaz Deyna, Juli Veeeand Branko Segota who fueled the Sockers’ dynasty during the 1980’s were all gone. So was Head Coach Ron Newman, the architect of all ten of San Diego’s titles during his tenure from 1980 to 1993. Newman left after the first CISL season. San Diegans showed little interest for indoor soccer in the summer time. Attendance at the Sports Arena for all four Sockers season in the CISL was less than 6,000 per match, the worst figures since the team’s first season of indoor soccer back in the winter of 1980-81.
In December 1994, the Ancira family offloaded the Sockers to Arena Group 2000, the management corporation for the San Diego Sports Arena. The arena operated the Sockers for two more unremarkable seasons in the CISL in 1995 and 1996. The team quietly folded following the 1996 season after nineteen years in business. At the time, that made the Sockers the oldest continuously operating soccer franchise in the United States.
The Sockers brand name has been revived in San Diego on two occasions. Both low-budget reincarnations have been pale imitations of the original Sockers and have attracted minimal fan or media interest.
San Diego Sockers Memorabilia
Kaz Deyna, a former Polish Olympic gold medalist who was part of five indoor championship with the Sockers between 1981 and 1987, died in a single-car DUI accident in San Diego on September 1, 1989. He was 41.
Keith Weller served as an assistant to Head Coach Ron Newman during the Sockers’ 1988-89 MISL season, before getting the Tacoma Stars head job the following year. Weller died of cancer at age 58 on November 13, 2004.
Haitian striker Manu Sanon, who played for the Sockers from 1980 to 1983, passed away on February 21, 2008 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Sockers vs. New York Cosmos at Jack Murphy Stadium. NASL playoff semi-finals, September 13, 1982.
Sockers vs. Cleveland Force in MISL action at San Diego Sports Arena. December 11, 1987.