Posts Tagged ‘Milan Mandaric’
St. Louis, Missouri was a hotbed of indoor soccer in the early 1980’s. The city’s St. Louis Steamers of the Major Indoor Soccer League claimed higher average attendances than the NHL’s St. Louis Blues for five straight years from 1980 to 1984. The club had local celebrity ownership in minority partner Stan Musial. At their third season peak in the winter of 1981-82, the Steamers averaged more than 17,000 fans per game and played for the MISL championship for the second straight year.
The Steamers began a sad decline in the mid-1980’s, accelerating when original owner Ben Kerner sold the club in July 1984. By the spring of 1988, the club was insolvent – reportedly $1 million in debt and unable to meet payroll. Just 4,839 turned out at St. Louis Arena to watch the Steamer’s final match on April 15th, 1988. A white knight investor group led by San Jose, California businessman Milan Mandaric poked at the carcass, but ultimately passed. The MISL formally terminated the rudderless Steamers on June 22nd, 1988. Mandaric’s interest hadn’t entirely cooled, however.
From 1979 to 1984, the MISL engaged in aggressive expansion throughout the United States. But the league’s fortunes peaked around the same time as the Steamers. From 1985 to 1988, the league added just one expansion franchise and that club, the New York Express, imploded midway through its debut season, causing national embarassment for the league. During the same period, the MISL lost eight franchises, including the Steamers and the profitable and popular Cleveland Force, whose owner Bart Wolstein pulled out of the league in July 1988 in sheer frustration.
“(The MISL) was on a roller coaster downhill,” Wolstein told The Los Angeles Times in November 1988. “I don’t think it will survive, No.1, and if it does survive, I don’t think it will be of any quality.”
The MISL, beset by union bickering, declining fan & broadcast interest and red ink, had little going for it by the end of the 1980’s. But it did have the siren song of nostalgia in cities like St. Louis and Cleveland, tempting investors to try and recapture the brief moments when the Steamers and the Force had been the hottest ticket in town. Re-enter Milan Mandaric.
Serbian-born Milan Mandaric built separate fortunes in socialist Yugoslavia (auto parts) and later as a naturalized citizen in Silicon Valley, California (circuit boards). Always a soccer lover, he first invested in the outdoor North American Soccer League, as owner of two Bay Area clubs in the 1970’s – the San Jose Earthquakes (1974-1978) and the Oakland Stompers (1978), both of which he later sold. Mandaric quickly lost interest in the Steamers’ mess in 1988, but soon turned his attention to an expansion team in the city. A clean slate. On July 6th, 1989 the MISL approved Mandaric’s expansion bid and indoor soccer returned to the Gateway City after a one-year absence in the form of the St. Louis Storm.
Mandaric hired Don Popovic as the Storm’s Head Coach. Popovic, a fellow Serb, had built the MISL’s first dynasty as Head Coach of the New York Arrows from 1978 to 1983. Popovic’s Arrows were built around a core of fellow Yugoslav and Hungarian emigres such as Steve Zungul, Branko Segota, Fred Grgurev, Juli Veee and Zoltan Toth. The Arrow won the MISL’s first four titles from 1979-1982, defeating the Steamers in the championship series in both 1981 and 1982. The years since had been leaner for Popovic. Gigs with the MISL’s Las Vegas Americans (1984-85) and Pittsburgh Spirit (1985-86) ended after a single season when those clubs folded. He lasted only a single game as Head Coach of the New York Express in 1987.
The 1989-90 Storm team, assembled on three month’s notice, was short on Slavs by Popovic standards (only three). The core of the team was built on players from the former Los Angeles Lazers franchise, which folded two weeks before St. Louis joined the league. To stock the team, the Storm were awarded the first five picks in the Lazers dispersal draft. Daryl Doran, a long-time Steamer favorite (1982-1988), returned to St. Louis by way of the Lazers draft. Also returning from the Steamers’ glory years was poopular goalkeeper Slobodan Ilijevski, known to local fans simply as “Slobo”, who played eight seasons with the Steamers from 1980-1988.
The Storm finished 24-28 in their debut season, posting the weakest record of any postseason qualifier. The eventual champion San Diego Sockers eliminated the Storm in the first round of playoffs. Off the field, the Storm lost a reported $1.5 million during the 1989-90 season, which Mandaric had to absorb himself as the sole owner. This led Mandaric to publicly speculate about folding the club after a single season. But in July 1990, Mandaric secured ten local limited partners and agreed to continue, possibly saving the MISL as a whole, as the Sockers had threatened to follow suit if the Storm shut down. The league lived on for a thirteenth season under a new name – the Major Soccer League (MSL).
With the team’s future settled for now, Popovic added some Slavic firepower, signing the 1989 MISL MVP Preki (Predrag Radosavljevic) in August 1990. The Yugoslav midfielder was in his prime at the age of 27, having led the league in cumulative scoring over the past five years. He became available to the Storm as a free agent due to a salary dump by his former team, the perenially low budget Tacoma Stars.
“Preki is the Michael Jordan of the MISL, he’s that good,” said Storm VP & General Manager Dan Counce announced at the time.
During the 1990-91 season, the Storm surged ahead on the field, posting a 32-20 record, second best in eight-team MSL. Preki lived up to the hype, scoring 68 goals and adding 53 assists, many of those dished out to Thompson Usiyan who added 64 goals. Hungarian Zoltan Toth – a Popovic holdover from the New York Arrows dynasty of the early 80’s – handled the bulk of the goalkeeping duties, posting a 25-10 record.
During the season, the Storm travelled to Switzerland and won the FIFA-sanctioned Zurich International indoor soccer tournament. In the spring, St. Louis defeated the Tacoma Stars in the playoff quarterfinals before falling again to the arch-rival Sockers in the MSL semis.
In the front office, the news was even better. Announced attendance rose from 6,400 to a league-high 7,772 fans per game. Running on a $2.5 million annual expense budget, the Storm projected to lose $350,000 for the year, a 70% reduction from the staggering first year loss. For the first (and only) summer in Storm history, Mandaric did not threaten to fold the team.
Heading into the 1991-92 campaign, Popovic added another high-scoring Yugoslav to his stable. Like Toth, Branko Segota was a key member of Popovic’s early 80’s championship teams in New York. To pry him away from the San Diego Sockers, the Storm had to part ways Thompson Usiyan and his 64 goals.
It turned out to be a poor trade. Viewed as a top contender, the 1991-92 season quickly went sideways for St. Louis. Beset by injuries, goalkeeper Toth unexpectedly retired two games in to the season. In early March, with the club mired in last place at 12-20, management fired Don Popovic. Defender Fernando Clavijo finished out the season as player-coach. In April 1992, the Storm’s third season, which had begun with sky high expectations, ended in a 7th place (dead last) finish with a 17-23 record. Remarkably, despite the on-field disaster and lame duck ownership, the Storm led the MSL in attendance with an announced average of 10,748 at St. Louis Arena, up 25% from 1990-91.
By early 1992, Mandaric was reportedly more interested in the $162 million new arena planned for his adopted home city of San Jose than in continuing with the Storm in St. Louis. He placed his 80% stake in the team up for sale early in the 1991-92 season. Throughout the season’s second half, negotiations lurched along for a group led by limited partner Dr. Abraham Hamatweh to purchase the Storm. Hamatweh, a former Steamers and Storm season ticket holder, acquired a minority stake in the club in the summer of 1990, when Mandaric first considered folding the team. The negotiations stalled throughout the spring as Hamatweh’s group continually failed to generate enough capital to conclude the transaction.
The St. Louis negotations took on more urgency once the eternally shaky Tacoma Stars gasped their death wheeze on June 5th, 1992. Two weeks later, a potential savior expansion franchise in Buffalo declined to join the MSL in favor of its lower-cost, non-union rival, the National Professional Soccer League. That left the Storm as the MSL’s sixth franchise and several owners went on record saying they wouldn’t continue with only five teams.
The five remaining franchises of the MSL voted unanimously to fold on July 10th, 1992 after Hawatmeh’s group gave up trying to raise the necessary funds to continute as the league’s sixth franchise. The group reportedly raised $850,000 – more than enough to post the league’s required $350,000 letter of credit for the 1992-93 season – but felt it didn’t have enough to continue in the MSL, despite the league’s continual cost cutting over the previous four years.
One month after the MSL folded in July 1992, Storm minority owner Dr. Abraham Hawatmeh and his group purchased the Tulsa Ambush of the lower-budget National Professional Soccer League. The NPSL’s lower cost model allowed Hawatmeh’s group to move forward with the financial commitment they deemed insufficient for the MSL just a few weeks earlier. The St. Louis Ambush played at St. Louis Arena for eight more seasons before folding in 2000.
Milan Mandaric took two more cracks at indoor soccer. In 1994 and 1995, Mandaric operated the San Jose Grizzlies of the Continental Indoor Soccer League in his adopted hometown. In San Jose, Mandaric reunited with Preki, who earned CISL MVP honors for the Grizzlies in 1995. The Grizzlies folded in 1995 after two seasons. Mandaric entered the expansion Florida Thundercats in the National Professional Soccer League in the fall of 1998. Former Storm defender Fernando Clavijo coached the Thundercats. The club folded after one season of dismal attendance at the National Car Rental Center in Sunrise, Florida. Mandaric has sinced turned his attention back to Europe, where he has owned Portsmouth, Leicester City and Sheffield Wednesday in England.
Preki became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1996. He debuted for the U.S. National Team the same year, earning 28 caps between 1996 and 2001 and representing his adopted country in the 1998 World Cup. Preki also played for the Kansas City Wizards and Miami Fusion of Major League Soccer from 1996 to 2005, winning MVP honors in 1997 and 2003. He retired at age 42 in 2005 and later served as Head Coach of both Chivas USA (2007-2009) and Toronto FC (2010) of MLS.
Long-time St. Louis Steamers and St. Louis Storm goalkeeper Slobo Ilijevski passed away on July 14th, 2008 after suffering a ruptured aorta while playing soccer for an amateur team. He was 58.
“Major Indoor Soccer League Preview: Slimmed Down League Will Try To Regain Credibility – and Fans”, Pete Thomas, The Los Angeles Times, November 4, 1988
“MISL Withstands One More Storm”, John Geis, The Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1990
“MISL Storm signs Stars’ Preki” United Press International, August 14, 1990
“Storm soccer team cuts losses by 70%”, Rob Moore, The St. Louis Business Journal, May 27, 1991
“Segota Doing Well, But Storm is Losing”, John Geis, The Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1992
“MSL owners to huddle on league’s future today. Buffalo joins NPSL.” Sandra McKee, The Baltimore Sun, June 19, 1992
“Owners To Discuss Future of MSL in Call Today”, John Geis, The Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1992
“Soccer league fizzles, extinguishes city’s Blast. Last minute talks to replace teams fail.” Mike Preston, The Baltimore Sun, July 11, 1992