What can only be described as “Soccapocalypse”
One of the great things about digging into the history of U.S. soccer is that there is so much there to uncover. Because it’s not a well-trodden path, hidden gems are always just waiting to be uncovered. But, if you do it for any amount of time, an underlying theme occurs over and over again no matter the era.
U.S. soccer has seemingly never been able to build a stable and substantial club league system. Time and again soccer in this country has swung from a patchwork system of under-resourced grassroots organizations to a top-heavy setup where one big league controls the entire sphere of influence. Club league soccer in the U.S. has always historically been in a tenuous situation and it is easy to name all the leagues and clubs who failed from not building things the “right” way. But, we shouldn’t also assume that all these failures are based entirely on the incompetence of those league and club leaders because succeeding in an unsound system is sometimes next to impossible. The original United Soccer League is a textbook example of a league trying to find a better way but ultimately failing due to the circumstances they found themselves in. The outdoor professional game after the 1983 season was in dire straits. The North American Soccer League was down to nine teams; less than half of its size in 1980. And many of those teams were barely hanging on. The American Soccer League continued to be the only lower league.
Formed in the early 1930s from the ashes of the first major U.S. pro soccer league, the ASL spent most of its history as a semi-pro regional league made up of ethnic clubs from the northeast. In the 1970s they followed the lead of the NASL and went through an era of rapid expansion and “Americanization” to, by 1976, become a national league with clubs spanning the country. But, for a league with severely limited resources, this over-expansion was unsupportable and, just a few years later, the league was back to being only made up of teams based in the eastern U.S.
In the winter after the 1983 season, the ASL was down to six active teams and one team, the Rochester Flash, planning on re-activating after spending the prior season inactive. Going into the January meetings in Atlanta, league officials, based on inertia if nothing else, planned to continue for another season in 1984. Early on at the meetings, the Pennsylvania Stoners decided to go “dormant” for the 1984 season with club president, Dr. Bill Burfeind, also resigning as league president.
Things quickly went from bad to worse as a dispute over the league’s expansion franchise rights in Fort Lauderdale sparked a revolt. Ingo Krieg, owner of the Jackson Tea Men (who jumped to the ASL after the NASL’s 1982 season) and chairman of the league’s expansion committee, granted a local group, led by former Fort Lauderdale Striker, Ronnie Sharp, the Fort Lauderdale ASL franchise. But the rights to South Florida, belonged to the owner of the dormant New York United franchise and the dormant Miami Americans franchise, Jimmy Sorrentino.
By this point in time, the ASL was plagued not only by chronic underfunding, but also by a league structure that kept power in the hands of members who no longer had active teams in the league. The league had a mechanism that enabled clubs to go “dormant” but still allowed owners of those clubs full privileges like any active club. During the league meetings in January 1984, two active clubs went dormant: the Stoners; and the Oklahoma City Slickers. That brought the total number of dormant teams to 11 (including the technically still-dormant Flash) and only four active teams considering continuing for the 1984 season: the Tea Men; the Carolina Lightnin’; the Dallas Americans; and the ASL version of the Detroit Express.
Seeing a broken situation, Krieg and the Bob Spears, owner of the Dallas Americans, took their clubs and established the United Soccer League over the weekend during the ASL meetings. Sonny Van Aarnem, the owner of the Express, and David Fraser, former owner of the Slickers, quickly joined the new league along with the new Fort Lauderdale Sun franchise owned by Sharp. The new league also hoped to add a franchise in El Paso and was in talks to convince the Tampa and Tulsa NASL franchises to join. All this left the ASL with one returning franchise (Carolina), one returning from dormancy (Rochester), and four expansion franchises (New York, Fort Lauderdale, Cleveland and Orlando).
By late February, with the writing on the wall, Bob Benson, owner of the Carolina Lightnin’, bowed out and new Charlotte-based club joined the USL. The Charlotte Gold had basically the same operations as the Lightnin’ but under different ownership. Similarly the USL’s Oklahoma City Stampede, owned by David Fraser, was in effect the old Slickers organization transferred to a new club. The Flash also soon fled the ASL for the new league along with three new franchises: the Buffalo Storm; the New York Nationals; and the Houston Dynamos. In April, the Express ultimately decided against joining the USL due to its being unsanctioned by the USSF, but the club never rejoined the ASL and quickly dissolved after not finding a home in an indoor league. The ASL, without any active teams, never launched their 1984 season and faded into history.
The USL began its inaugural 1984 season with nine teams in three divisions: Northern; Southern; and Western. The league’s philosophy was based on financial austerity and slow growth. While club budgets were higher than those in the ASL they were much lower than the NASL’s rampant spending. The season ran from mid-May to mid-August with teams playing a 24-game schedule. Playoffs were held at the end of August.
The league had a similar shootout and points system as the NASL. Although the Sun and the Stampede ended the season with similar 15-9 records, the Stampede edged out top honors with 127 points, 5 more than the Sun. But, the Stampede was knocked out of the playoffs in the semifinals by wild card winner Houston. On September 1, the Fort Lauderdale Sun took home the first USL championship by winning a shootout in the third game of the finals against Houston. When all was said and done, the first USL season was a success. With crowds in the low four figures, a modest success to be sure, but in 1984, any successful season for a professional outdoor soccer league was something to be proud of. All nine teams completed their full schedules and none of the franchises had folded before the league’s winter meetings.
Two big changes occurred after the season. In September, the Sun’s owner, Ronnie Sharp, was forced to sell the team to a group of local investors due to the consequences of his involvement in a drug smuggling operation. And, in December, Fraser moved the Oklahoma City club to Tulsa and renamed the team the Tulsa Tornadoes. But massive changes were soon to come.
During February 1985, the USL and NASL held discussions of a possible merger. The NASL’s financial situation was desperate and only a handful of teams were interested in fielding an outdoor season in 1985. The USL was interested in the financial backing the NASL owners were able to offer. The merger talks ended unfulfilled and, in early March, the Buffalo, New York, and Rochester clubs had not met the USL’s financial requirements and dropped out of the league. Rochester went dormant yet again, but never returned. At the end of March, the NASL suspended operations. In quick succession, Jacksonville folded. Charlotte, who had been trying to join the NASL, also folded. And Houston withdrew from the USL and decided to play as an independent club in 1985.
With the addition of the expansion El Paso/Juarez Gamecocks, the USL was down to a four-team league. And with little time before the start of a new season, the league had to quickly come up with a new game plan. In a fascinating parallel to the 1969 NASL season (where the number of teams in the league had plummeted from 17 to 5), the USL decided to split the 1985 schedule into two parts. The first part was the exhibition USL Cup series where each team would play a home and home series against each other for a six-game series. The USL Cup series would from mid-May to late June. The second part was the regular season USL Championship which would start a week later. In the Championship, each team would play home and away twice for a 12-game regular season. Other reports had the clubs playing three additional games versus non-league teams that would count in the standings for a 15-game regular season. Playoffs were scheduled for the week of August 19 where the top two teams would meet in a best-of-three game series.
The rebranded South Florida Sun added an additional wrinkle called the Invitational Cup. This cup was a series of eight (later cut down to six) home exhibition games to be held on off dates during the USL Cup and championship series, against touring international teams and possibly the Toronto Blizzard and Minnesota Strikers; the two remaining inactive NASL teams. The known scheduled opponents at the beginning of the season included the Strikers, the U.S. Men’s National Team, the Bermuda Men’s National Team, and a team of Strikers All-Stars when the season started.
The Sun took the USL Cup series with a record of 4 and 2 by winning their final game of the series 1-0 against the Tornadoes on June 15 before a sparse 2,324 crowd at Lockhart Stadium. The Tornadoes had to forfeit their previous week’s cup game at Dallas (as well as an exhibition game against Dallas at Tulsa scheduled to be held two days before that game) when coach, Brian Harvey, and the players refused to play due to not receiving their prior week’s paychecks. In addition, the team had fallen behind on its payments to use University of Tulsa’s Skelly Stadium. Ownership was transferred to new investors who provided the resources to keep the team afloat for the final game of the cup. The Sun never received the actual cup at the game and interim league commissioner Kalman was not on hand to congratulate the Sun. Csapo was the former head coach of the Stoners and joined the USL at its vice president. He was named interim league commissioner when Burfeind resigned just as the cup series got underway.
“There ain’t no cup”, said the Sun’s player-coach, Keith Weller, after the game.
“There is a cup, I saw it,” said Jeff Sarkin, the Sun’s general manager who said that the team would receive the USL Cup from Csapo at their next home game. The Sun’s next home game would be June 22, the opening games of the league’s regular season. That day the Sun beat Dallas 3-1 at Lockhart Stadium to take the first game of the regular season. It’s not known if the cup materialized. The other opening day match scheduled for that that night in Tulsa with the Gamecocks was postponed due to a dispute between the Tornadoes’ new owners and the stadium. Unknown to most outside league officials, the Gamecocks’ team president and owner, Pedro Meneses, had dissolved his relationship with the club a few days before opening day of the regular season. Meneses had paid all the club’s bills, including salaries, through the end of the month and released his players. The league attempted to find new investors for the club while the team continued to get ready for the season opener. Also around this time, the Dallas Americans needed to give the team’s players a stock participation program in order to pay overdue salaries and have enough finances to keep the team going.
The next scheduled league match was a June 26 mid-week game between the Gamecocks and the Sun at Lockhart Stadium. On June 25, the game was postponed indefinitely and that evening, with the El Paso/Juarez and Tulsa franchises in severe financial difficulties, the league voted to suspend the rest of the 1985 season with hopes of putting together another tournament for the clubs able to continue. The Gamecocks were disbanded with Tulsa and Dallas following soon behind.
With no league, the South Florida Sun continued as an independent club and decided to play its scheduled exhibition games along with more hoped to come. In the short term, the exhibitions were needed in order to make up the club’s overdue payroll. But, in the long term, the club desperately wanted to keep professional outdoor soccer alive both in South Florida and the U.S.
The exhibition against the U.S. Men’s National Team on July 2 was replaced by a match against the Topez-Haitian All-Stars of Miami on July 4. The Sun beat the visitors 4-3. But, this was destined to be the last game played by the Sun. A day before that match, the exhibition scheduled for July 6 against the Minnesota Strikers was cancelled because the Sun was unable to raise the $6,000 necessary to pay for the Strikers’ airfare and hotel accommodations. A week later the owners of the Sun shut down the club due to its ongoing financial difficulties. Keith Weller attempted to continue to arrange exhibition matches for the former Sun players who remained in the area, but to no success.
While the United Soccer League ended up having little to no legacy on the future of U.S. soccer we can point to two things that the USL can hang its historic hat on. First, while the Houston Dynamos left after the 1984 season, it managed to continue after the league itself folded (the only USL club able to do so). The team survived two seasons as an independent club before becoming the primary founding member of the Texas-based Lone Star Soccer Alliance, one of the handful of regional outdoor soccer leagues that formed in the late eighties. The Dynamos lasted in the LSSA until 1991 and spent their last season known as the Houston International. The club folded after the 1991 season and the league itself folded after the following season. And, you can’t escape the fact that the name of the MLS’ Houston Dynamo is in some ways based on the Dynamos.
But the second, and much more important, point of pride for the USL must be that during the first half of 1985 it was the only U.S. professional outdoor soccer league in existence. The Western Alliance Challenge Alliance began that summer just after the end of the USL Cup series and didn’t become a fully-fledged league itself until the following year.
The USL is relegated to a discouraging footnote of U.S. soccer history and, in comparison, it truly does not have the pedigree of other, more well-known lower-level leagues. But, I think the league should not be forgotten as it represents an important part of the transitional era of the mid-eighties.
- Dan Creel