Pre-Modern Indoor Soccer
It is common knowledge that indoor soccer was a creation of the seventies and eighties. The sport was the inevitable result of the U.S. soccer fan’s need for a faster-paced, higher-scoring version of the game. When the old NASL self-destructed, indoor soccer was there to take its place as the only form of the game that Americans would find palatable.
But, that anecdotal version of the sport is woefully near-sighted. The history of indoor soccer stretches back into, at least, the early part of the 20th century. Other than cup ties, the winter months are usually a slow time on the soccer calendar. That was especially the case in the northeast during the early years of the game due. Inclement weather often made play impossible on snowbound or icy pitches. Even back then, clubs and owners looked for ways to fill open dates and indoor soccer was one of the experiments.
A Boston Globe article from December 30, 1909 notes that Amos Alonzo Stagg, at the time coach at the University of Chicago, planned to try indoor soccer. The notion was that professors and students could try out the relatively new sport indoors during the winter months.[“Stagg to Try Indoor Soccer”, The Boston Globe, Dec 30, 1909, page 7]
On May 1, 1926, an indoor soccer doubleheader was held by the Empire State Football League in Manhattan. The first match was between picked teams from the Empire State and German-American leagues. The second match was between Vasco F.C. of the International League and Galicia F.C. of Spanish Leagues. A reported crowd of 1,000 was on hand to watch Vasco defeat Galicia 3-1.
The first indoor night soccer game staged in St. Louis was held at the St. Louis Arena in late December of 1929. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that it was the first time an attempt was made to play indoor soccer with 11 players on each side. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle later opined that, while there was plenty of action, the small size of the field led to a “mob scene”. The article notes that the indoor game could not sold the cold weather problem because there were no fields of standard size in the U.S. to play pro and cup soccer matches. It also states that Cleveland had held an indoor soccer tournament “with some success” but that the game was played seven-a-side. A final quote is prescient: “But that is a strictly American product, for the Old Country boys would turn up their noses at anything so radical as seven-man soccer.” [“Indoor Team Is Soccer Problem”, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 29, 1932, page 2C]
On March 31, 1932, two American Soccer League clubs, Boston S.C. and Pawtucket Rangers, played an six-a-side match at the Rhode Island Auditorium in Providence. At the time, both clubs were already out of the National Challenge Cup. And, with only four teams in the league due to the withdrawal of three New York-area clubs, the ASL itself was at the tail end of a shortened six-game spring schedule. The two New England clubs attempted to shore up their schedules, and bottom lines, by taking the game indoors.
The exhibition had three 15-minutes periods with no corner kicks and unlimited substitutions. Boston took the match 6-5 with inside forward, Johnny Ballantyne, scoring a hat trick. The Boston Globe noted that the game was the first ever indoor match staged in Rhode Island.
The endeavor was successful enough for Pawtucket to hold another six-a-side indoor match. On April 20, a few days after then end of the ASL spring season, the Rangers hosted the New Bedford Whalers at Rhode Island Auditorium. After three 20-minute periods, Pawtucket prevailed 11-10 over New Bedford. Robella scored six goals for the losing side.
In the late 1930s, indoor soccer was popular enough in New York that the State Football Association began sanctioning a six-a-side indoor tournament during the winter months. Following the association’s lead, other metro leagues put on their own indoor soccer tournaments. In January 1939, 40 teams took part in the annual New York State Football Association’s six-a-side indoor championships held at the Second Naval Battalion Armory.
On February 10, 1941, indoor soccer made its debut in Madison Square Garden when the four New York clubs of the American Soccer League played a tournament. The first two games were played with 20-minute halves. The winners of the opening bouts played in the final that evening. That game had 15-minute halves.
In the first matches, Brooklyn Hispano defeated the New York Americans 3-1 and Brookhattan beat Brooklyn’s St. Mary’s Celtic 2-0. In the final, Brookhattan and Hispano battled to a 1-1 draw. Nearing midnight, a five-minute overtime was unable to break the tie.
The 10,000 fans in attendance were presented with a helping of soccer combined with hockey when the Brookhattan and Celtic match broke out to a scrum. Brookhattan’s goalkeeper, Johnny Bryndza, got the worst of it coming out of the tussle with a swollen eye and needing four stitches before he could resume the match.
The biggest culprit wasn’t the players but the playing surface. The matches were literally played on the terrazzo concrete surface of the Garden’s floor. Players were constantly slipping, sliding and falling. Fergus Hunter, the Celtics goalkeeper, broke a finger sliding for a ball and needed hospitalization for that and other arm injuries. Brookhattan’s center forward, Rudie Kunter, limped off after a bad kick to the leg and was out of the lineup for weeks. More seriously, Mike Briscoe, Brookhattan’s left halfback, needed to spend the night in hospital due to concussion sustained during a scrum.
These games were a real success and a double-header between ASL clubs was held the evening of May 6 at Madison Square Garden. Brooklyn Hispano took on St. Mary’s Celtic which was followed by the ASL champions, Scots-Americans of Kearny, N.J., meeting an all-star team made up of the New York Americans and Brookhattan clubs.
The clubs learned their lesson from the winter exhibition and installed a rolled dirt surface over the Garden’s hard flooring. In addition, padded walls were added for further protection. Competitive rule changes were also made. The penalty area and offsides were removed and unlimited substitutions were allowed.
Celtic defeated Hispano 4-1 in a game marred by a three-minute fight. In the second match, the Brookhattan-New York Americans aggregation defeated the Scots-Americans 3-2. Around 9,000 were in attendance to watch the festivities.
While smaller indoor soccer tournaments continued, big-time indoor soccer never took hold in the mid-twentieth century. But it wasn’t lack of interest that caused the downfall. Experiments to come up with a coating for the Madison Square Garden flooring were unsuccessful. And, plans were indefinitely put on hold because rubber matting was unobtainable due to war-time rationing. Without an answer, American Soccer League clubs were not willing to play on the hard surface because of the risk of injury.
The popularity of the indoor game wasn’t limited to New York. In spring of 1950, the amateur National Soccer League of Chicago held a 13-week indoor soccer season between the six top Chicago clubs. Three games were played each Sunday afternoon and were televised on channel 4 by WBKB, the local CBS affiliate.
While other amateur leagues held indoor tournaments or leagues, the NSL’s competition was the most successful indoor soccer league at that point in the history of the game and regularly drew crowds in the 1,000 to 2,000 range. After the first couple of years, the number of clubs grew to over a dozen and the league was split into two divisions with promotion and relegation between them. Games continued to be broadcast Sundays on WGN-TV. The NSL’s indoor league lasted at least through the mid-1960s.
It wasn’t until March 1971 that the old NASL got into the indoor soccer game when they held the “1971 Hoc-Soc Tournament” at the St. Louis Arena. Four clubs took part: Dallas Tornado, Rochester Lancers, St. Louis Stars, and Washington Darts. The fifth active club at that time, the Atlanta Chiefs, did not join. The league called their variant of indoor soccer “hoc-soc” due to the combination of hockey and soccer rules. The arena’s NHL hockey rink, including surrounding dasher boards, were the dimensions and the surface was covered in AstroTurf surface. With 5,060 in attendance, Dallas defeated Rochester in the final 3-0 with the St. Louis Stars taking the third place game 2-0 over Washington.
A few years later, in February 1974, the Soviet Red Army of Moscow club took part in three exhibition games with NASL clubs: a NASL All-Star team; the St. Louis Stars; and the then-champion Philadelphia Atoms. While the Red Army clubs crushed their opponents, the interest in the game was high with crowds close to 12,000 for each games.
These matches against the Red Army team are commonly seen as the stimulus for the modern age of indoor soccer. The next year the NASL launched the first league-wide indoor soccer tournament and held three more smaller tournaments over the next four years. It was then in the 1979-80 offseason that both the NASL and the newly-formed Major Indoor Soccer League began holding full indoor soccer seasons.
While received wisdom might tell us that indoor soccer in the US began with those two eighties leagues, a deeper understanding shows that the sport stretches back well over a century. Those modern leagues didn’t arrive out of the ether but were the next evolution of a long-standing game.
- Dan Creel