Posts Tagged ‘MISL 1978-1992’
Remember that Churchill line about the Russians that Oliver Stone lifted for JFK? It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. It’s a sentiment often shared by fans and observers trying to discern the money men and financing schemes behind the kind of pro sports outfits that swim in the weird end of the pool.
When I ran the Boston Breakers in Women’s Professional Soccer in 2010, the St. Louis Athletica franchise abruptly folded in midseason when Heemal and Sanjeev Vaid – a couple of shady Subway and Papa John’s franchisees in London – stopped making payroll. The collective reaction of WPS officials and St. Louis fans was: “Who the f**k are the Vaid Brothers?” Nobody ever heard of these clowns. We all thought another guy owned the club – you know, the guy who actually owned the club the year before and still liked to refer to himself as the “Chairman” and take part in league conference calls. Turns out he sold it, but forgot to tell anyone.
The Vaids may have been poorly vetted absentee deadbeats, but they weren’t scary. Not scary like the reputed backers of the Major Indoor Soccer League‘s Phoenix Inferno, a blackbox franchise whose personable front man Rick Ragone turned out to have little equity, but plenty of silent partners back in Scarface-era Miami.
Ragone’s story begins in Miami, where as a young man he worked as a PR assistant with the Miami Dolphins. In the early 1970’s Ragone hooked on in the front office of the Miami Toros of the North American Soccer League, where he became an early proponent of the hybrid game of indoor soccer, played on carpeted hockey rinks. At the Toros, Ragone crossed paths with Scottish-born executive Norm Sutherland. The two men kicked around the NASL for a few years and then teamed up to announce the formation of the indoor Major Soccer League in August 1975. Ragone and Sutherland envisioned their league as a summer time rival to the outdoor NASL and claimed they had franchises “90% sold” in six major markets. The project never made it off the drawing board, similar to other efforts that the young entrepeneurs tried to get off the ground in the late 1970’s, including Ragone’s effort to put an NASL team in sleepy Spokane, Washington and Sutherland’s role in another abandoned indoor start-up, 1978’s Super Soccer League.
Nevertheless, Ragone and Sutherland were not the people sold on indoor soccer in the Seventies. Two other men, Ed Tepper and Earl Foreman succeeded in launching the first indoor the league, the Major Indoor Soccer League, in December 1978 with six teams in major East Coast and Midwest cities. Rapid expansion followed and the MISL announced Phoenix, Arizona as the league’s 12th franchise on May 30th, 1980 to begin play that November. Ragone would be the President and purported owner and he tabbed Sutherland as the Head Coach & GM of the club, dubbed the Phoenix Inferno.
The Inferno debuted at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum on November 21st, 1980, losing 5-4 to the San Francisco Fog before an announced crowd of 11,098. Sutherland last only half the season in the Head Coach role, posting an 8-19 record before being replaced by player-coach Adrian Webster. But Ragone didn’t jettison his old colleague – Sutherland retained his GM role in the front office. The Inferno finished their first season at 17-23, good enough to squeak into the playoffs, where they lost in the first round to the defending champion New York Arrows. At the box office, the Inferno claimed attendance of 152,309 for 21 dates for an average of 7,253.
Barely a month into the Inferno’s second season on December 22, 1981, tragedy struck when Ragone perished along with his father in a four-car accident in Paradise Valley, Arizona. After Ragone’s death, a San Francisco real estate investor named Irv Berger stepped in and assumed control of the franchise in January 1982.
Under Berger, the financial fortunes of the Inferno swiftly plummeted. By December of 1982, just 11 months into his ownership, the Inferno owed more than $110,000 in back payroll taxes to the federal government and another $26,000 to the Arizona Department of Revenue. On December 13th, 1982, IRS agents raided the Inferno offices, seized all the cash on the premises and padlocked the office shut. A bankruptcy court sold a controlling stake in the club to Arizona cable television pioneer Bruce Merrill in January 1983 for $175,000. Under Merrill’s financial stewardship the once-bankrupt Inferno were able to complete the 1982-83 MISL season.
After getting out from under his Inferno financial woes, Irv Berger gave an interview to The Arizona Republic in February 1983 revealing more details of the Inferno’s financial history and ownership structure. Despite Ragone’s public representations, the majority ownership in the club during Ragone’s (and later Berger’s) tenure was held by a group of Cuban exiles in and around Key Biscayne and Hialeah, Florida.
The group included the Reverend Manuel A. Espinosa, a controversial right wing radio host in Miami with ties to the anti-Castro paramilitary leader and accused terrorist Dr. Orlando Bosch. Espinosa was profiled in Soldier of Fortune magazine in 1980. Two other Inferno investors, Rogelio “Roger” Novo and Emilio Palmar co-owned Roger’s-on-the-Green, a golf course restaurant and lounge in Key Biscayne, Florida. In 1982, Ricardo “Monkey” Morales was shot in the head and killed there during an argument with another patron. During the 1960’s and 1970’s Morales was involved with violent anti-Castro mercenaries, while simultaneously working as an informant for the CIA, FBI and DEA. By his own admission, Morales was part of the October 1976 bombing of Cubana Air Lines flight 455 in the sky off Barbados, an act of terrorism for which Dr. Orlando Bosch was arrested and tried in Venezuela. The bombing killed 73 people on board including all 24 members of Cuba’s Olympic gold medal fencing team. Conspiracy theorists have speculated on Morales as a possible participant in various Cuban exile scenarios of the JFK assassination.
The Arizona Republic article cited accounts from Inferno staff members that Ragone would periodically fly off to Miami and return with “suitcases full of cash”. For his part, Berger came off as somewhat rattled by the experience. Noting that he only met one of the Cubans (Novo) one time, Berger told the paper: “I hear this group is very dangerous. You better watch your step. They’re very heavy people.”
Meanwhile, back in Phoenix, Bruce Merrill set about re-branding his formerly bankrupt club. He fired Sutherland and replaced him with former San Diego Clippers (NBA) GM Ted Podleski. Podleski, a conservative Christian, blanched at the Inferno name and replaced it with the dullest identity imaginable: for the 1983-84 season, Arizona’s MISL entry would be known as the Phoenix Pride. Podleski also dispensed with the Inferno’s flashy yellow, red & black color scheme and substituted coloring more suitable to his bland new vision: beige.
The 1983-84 Phoenix Pride campaign was an unmitigated disaster for all involved. The club finished in 6th (last) place in the MISL’s Western Division with an 18-30 record. Merrill, for his part, lost $2.2 million operating the Pride, a figure that United Press International sportingly referred to as “a league record”. In June 1984, Merrill announced the club would fold if he could not find a Greater Fool buyer within one month. Failing to do so, he terminated his membership in July 1984.
At least some members of the group of Cuban exiles behind the Inferno were, in fact, “very heavy people”, as Berger had warned.
Rogelio Novo, the Inferno investor and restauranteur who witnessed Morales’ killing, met a gruesome end of his own in January 1985. He died of a shotgun blast to the head and his body was dumped in an undeveloped area in Pembroke Pines, Florida.
Another Cuban exile Inferno investor, Reverend Manuel Espinosa, was politely asked to move out of his Hialeah, Florida housing unit when components for an unexploded bomb were discovered beneath his car in 1983. He died of natural causes in the late 1980’s.
After the Pride folded in 1984, pro indoor soccer returned to Phoenix with the Arizona Sandsharks of the Continental Indoor Soccer League in 1993. That club lasted five years from 1993 to 1997.
Several former Inferno staff members have gone on to business careers of great acclaim. Former broadcaster Marc Middleton is the CEO of Growing Bolder Media Group and host of the Growing Bolder television show syndicated on PBS channels nationwide.
Former Vice President of Sales and Marketing Tim Pearson later became Chief Marketing Officer for consulting giant KPMG and is a New York Times best-selling author of several business marketing and branding books.
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
If you can’t buy a championship calibre team, rent one. It’s an unusual approach in American sports, to be sure, but not unprecendented, particularly in the world of soccer. Faced with a hurried 1967 launch to keep pace with a competitor, Jack Kent Cooke and Lamar Hunt’s ironically named United Soccer Association (USA) consisted of twelve imported European and South American club teams who spent their offseasons playing under pseudonyms in American cities. In October 1978, Earl Foreman, the former owner of the USA’s Washington Whips, announced the formation of the six-team Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL). With only two months to assemble rosters before the MISL’s December 1978 launch, two clubs – Houston Summit Soccer and the New York Arrows – elected to lease rosters from nearby North American Soccer League (NASL) outdoor clubs.
Of the two, the Houston Summit took the more fully outsourced approach, striking a lease deal with the NASL’s Houston Hurricane for 15 players to stock the entire opening day roster, plus the Hurricane coaching staff of Head Coach Timo Liekoski and assistant Jay Hoffman. The Arrows made a similar arrangement with the NASL’s Rochester Lancers, but unlike the Summit, the New Yorkers also signed a few players on their own, including the league’s eventual MVP Steve Zungul.
Summit Soccer took its unusual name from its home arena, the $18 million Houston Summit, constructed in 1975. The team’s original owner was the Arena Operating Co., the private management company formed to operate the city-owned building by Summit developer and Houston Rockets NBA owner Kenneth Schnitzer. Arena Operating Co. reportedly took an interest in the start-up MISL to fill winter time dates at the Summit after the shut down of the Schnitzer-controlled Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association during the summer of 1978. Summit arena President Burrell Cohen served a dual role as President and General Manager of Summit Soccer.
The rent-a-team model worked wonders for both Houston Summit Soccer and the New York Arrows during the 1978-79 MISL season. The Summit finished the regular season in first place among the MISL’s six clubs with an 18-6 record. The Arrows tied for second place at 16-8 and went on to win the championship after the Philadelphia Fever upset the Summit during the semi-finals. Summit forward Kai Haaskivi finished third in the league in scoring in 1978-79 with 39 goals and 64 points, and was joined in the MISL’s top ten by Ian Anderson, Stewart Jump and John Stremlau. Goalkeeper Paul Hammond posted a 13-3 record and a league-best 4.16 goals against average to earn 1978-79 MISL Goalkeeper-of-the-Year honors. Liekoski was named Coach of the Year.
In the spring of 1979, the NASL moved forward with plans for a full-fledged winter indoor league of their own, to head off the threat from the MISL. The Houston Hurricane announcced their intention to play NASL indoor soccer in Houston and that they would therefore terminate their agreement to loan players to Houston Summit Soccer for the 1979-80 season. But the Summit was the only suitable site in Houston that met NASL standards and Arena Operating Corp. controlled it. When the 1979-80 NASL indoor season kicked off in November 1979, only 10 of the 24 NASL clubs participated. The Hurricane sat out the season.
Meanwhile, Arena Operating Corp. got out of the professional soccer business. New York developer Bernie Rodin, a part owner of the NASL’s Rochester Lancers, purchased the Houston Summit Soccer in 1979 for a price reportedly between $500,000 and $1,000,000.
Liekoski departed as Head Coach and Rodin replaced him with former Dallas Tornado Kenny Cooper. On the field, Houston Summit Soccer didn’t miss a beat under Cooper. The club finished the 1979-80 season in first place in the MISL’s Central Division with a 20-12 record. Haaskivi once again finished third in the league in scoring. Sepp Gantenhammer replaced the departed Paul Hammond in goal and, like Hammond the year before, earned MISL Goalkeeper-of-the-Year honors. In the playoffs, Summit Soccer faced the expansion Wichita Wings in the semi-final series:
The Summit swept Wichita in the best of three MISL semi-final series to earn a spot in the title game against the defending MISL champion New York Arrows at Nassau Coliseum in March 1980. The Arrows defeated Summit Soccer 7-4.
Off the field, the Summit ranked near the bottom of the ten-team MISL in attendance in 1979-80 despite two seasons of winning soccer. Rodin pegged his operating losses in Houston at $750,000 for the season. In late March 1980 as the Summit advanced through the playoffs, team and league officials acknowledged that Rodin intended to move his club to the Baltimore Civic Center for the 1980-81 season.
On March 27th, 1980 the Houston Hurricane of the NASL filed suit against Houston Summit Soccer, seeking to block the move until Rodin made payments of $94,560 in unpaid player loan fees and other claims. The suit delayed the move only temporarily and the club’s arrival in Baltimore was made official on May 1st, 1980. The relocated club took on the new name “Baltimore Blast” and became one of the most enduring and successful indoor soccer teams of the 1980’s.
Bernie Rodin sold the Blast in February 1984 to Nathan Scherr, a man who had never seen an indoor soccer game, for $2.9 million.
The franchise that began life as the Houston Summit in 1978 lasted until the original Baltimore Blast folded along with the rest of the MISL in July 1992. Kenny Cooper moved with the team from Houston and coached the original incarnation of the club for its entire existence in Baltimore. The name has subsequently been revived by a successor club that also plays at the Baltimore Civic Center.
“Indoor soccer draws attention” United Press International, April 12, 1979
“Summit Soccer May Leave for Baltimore”, The Associated Press, March 24, 1980
“Houston Files to Stay in Town”, The Associated Press, March 28th, 1980
“Soccer owner, team hit town with a ‘Blast'”, Bill Free, The Baltimore Sun, May 30, 1980
“Nathan Scherr buys Blast for $2.9 million”, Bill Glauber, The Baltimore Sun, February 10, 1984
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.”
There was little evidence to support Messing’s irrational exuberance or McNamara’s meaured optimism. The MISL had a few great success stories in the early-to-mid 1980’s, but its adventures in New York City were not among them. The New Jersey Rockets and the late era New York Cosmos had both failed after short runs at the Brendan Byrne Arena in the Meadowlands sports complex. Most troublesome for the Express was the legacy of the New York Arrows. The Arrows were one of the league’s founding franchises in 1978. Like the Express, they played on Long Island at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Under Yugoslav Head Coach Don Popovic, the Arrows became a dynasty, winning the first four MISL championships from 1979 to 1982. Messing starred in net for the Arrows, while a collection of Slavs and Hungarians including Steve Zungul, Branko Segota, Juli Veee and Fred Grgurev provided the offensive firepower. Despite the championships, the Arrows were never a success at the gate. The Arrows filed for bankruptcy and folded in the summer of 1984, leaving behind a pile of unpaid bills and a community skeptical of the MISL brand.
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.
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.”
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.
Buchdahl expropriated much of the club’s office equipment and held it hostage in his aunt’s garage in a failed effort to receive his final five weeks of missed paychecks. Read his highly entertaining behind-the-scenes account of the Express here.
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.”
Express co-owner Ralph McNamara’s firm closed in the wake of the October 1987 stock market crash. His broker’s license was revoked in 1991. In the late 1990’s he reappeared in Clearwater, Florida operating a fake venture capital scam under the alias Ralph Deluise. McNamara was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison in 2007.
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.
1986 New York Express Stock Offering Circular (57MB – download only)
The Major Indoor Soccer League launched in December of 1978 with six franchises playing a winter schedule in major market hockey arenas. Buoyed by consistently large crowds in Philadelphia and strong showings in several other cities, the MISL began to market expansion franchises for the 1979-80 season. Buffalo, New York received the first MISL expansion club on March 22, 1979.
The principal investors in the Buffalo Stallions were a group of local executives from Tops Markets, the largest supermarket chain in Western New York, led by Tops CEO Armand J. Castellani and Vice President Michael Geraci.
The Stallions would fill winter dates in the city’s Memorial Auditorium, which was down to one primary tenant (the NHL’s Sabres) after the 1978 departure of the Buffalo Braves NBA franchise. The team attracted 11,028 to its home debut at the Aud against the Philadelphia Fever on December 7, 1979. The Stallions remained a popular draw for the rest of the 1979-80 season, claiming average attendance of 8,556 per match for the 16-game MISL schedule.
Two of the great legends of international soccer briefly wore the Stallions colors. In early 1980, midway through the Stallions first season, the club signed Eusebio, the famed Mozambican-born Portuguese international. By this point, the 37-year old was in state of acute physical decline. He spent most of the late 1970’s moving bouncing around between lower-division Portuguese clubs and obscure American teams such as the Las Vegas Quicksilvers and the New Jersey Americans. Eusebio suited up for five games for the Stallions, scoring one goal. These marked the final pro games of his remarkable career and his only indoor professional experience.
In October 1980, the Stallions signed the banned Italian striker Paolo Rossi. Earlier in the year Rossi, a veteran of the 1978 Italian World Cup team, became embroiled in the Totonero match fixing scandal, resulting in a three-year ban from Italian soccer. Rossi appeared in one pre-season exhibition match for the Stallions on October 30th, 1980, but never appeared in the regular season. Rossi’s three-year suspension was later reduced to allow him to represent Italy in the 1982 World Cup. Rossi scored six goals in the tourament, leading Italy to victory and earning the 1982 World Cup’s Golden Boot award.
Stallions attendance peaked during the club’s second season in 1980-81. During a span of two weeks in March of 1981, the Stallions drew the two largest crowds in what would turn out to be the club’s five-year history. A record (announced) crowd of 16,103 turned out for a regular season match against in-state rivals the New York Arrows on March 7th, 1981. Two weeks later, the Stallions announced a new record with 16,329 on hand for a March 21st, 1981 MISL playoff game against the St. Louis Steamers. For the 1980-81 season, the Stallions claimed 189,742 fans for an average game attendance of 9,472.
Stallions attendance began to drop precipitously in 1982. Average attendance dropped from 9,214 (1981-82 season) to 7,422 for the 1982-83 campaign. The Geraci/Castellani ownership group decided to pullout in the spring of 1983, selling to minority investor Frank Deni in June 1983.
Attendance continuted to plummet under the Deni regime, dropping to a franchise low of 5,183 per game during the 1983-84 season. This was nearly a 50% drop in just two seasons. By July of 1984, the Stallions owed $94,000 in back rent to the Memorial Auditorium. Stallions President & General Manager John Bellanti owned 16% of the club and made an offer to buy controlling interest in the club and keep the team in Buffalo. But Bellanti and Deni could not agree on terms.
Adding insult to injury, Auditorium manager George Gould interrupted Stallions officials trying to remove office furniture from their arena offices under cover of darkness. Gould padlocked the Stallions out of the building and the story was picked up by national wire services, after Gould drew a comparison with the recent midnight depature of the NFL’s Colts from Baltimore.
The following week, at annual league meetings in Los Angeles, the MISL granted a request for the Stallions and the Phoenix Pride to suspend operations and withdraw from the league for one season to financially reorganize. The move had precendent within the league, as the MISL’s Pittsburgh Spirit franchise withdrew from the league prior to the 1980-81 season and then returned under new ownership for the 1981-82 season. Unlike the Spirit, however, the Stallions and the Pride were never heard from again.
Professional indoor soccer returned to Buffalo in the fall of 1992 with the Buffalo Blizzard of the National Professional Soccer League. The Blizzard played at the Aud until it closed in 1996. Former Stallions goalkeeper Jim May served as the Blizzard’s General Manager and John Bellanti, a former Stallions minority partner and President/GM, owned the team during its final seasons. The Blizzard folded in 2001, lasting four seasons longer than the Stallions had in Buffalo.
Bellanti, along with original Stallions investors Armand Castellani and Michael Geraci, have all passed away.
The Major Indoor Soccer League folded in July 1992. Thirty-two franchises came and went during the league’s 14-year existence.