By Clemente Lisi – BOSTON, MA (Sep 18, 2015) US Soccer Players - The history of pro soccer leagues in this country is an alphabet soup of acronyms. ASL (three versions), NASL (two versions) and MLS are just a few of them. That doesn't include the indoor leagues like the MISL (also three incarnations), NPSL and WISL.
Major League Soccer is the country’s current Division I circuit and the North American Soccer League was the big league from the late 1960s until the mid-80s. In between the NASL's collapse and the rise of MLS, there's a long-forgotten, but very important, contributor to the growth of American soccer in the early 1990s. The American Professional Soccer League.
The APSL operated for seven years starting in 1990. It started in the winter of 1990 following a merger between the American Soccer League (which started in 1988 on the East Coast) and the Western Soccer Alliance (started in 1985). The ASL’s Clive Toye, the same man who had helped bring Pele to the New York Cosmos more than a decade earlier, and the WSA’s Bill Sage, came together to broker the deal.
Although the leagues had announced a merger in April 1989, they still operated independently and ran separate schedules with the ASL operating as the East Conference and the renamed Western Soccer League as the West. The winner of each league would play each other for the APSL title. The partnership was reminiscent of the early days of the Super Bowl – which helped propel football into the spectator sport it is today – and two separate leagues joining to prove which was best.
In a 1989 press release, Toye and Sage, in a joint statement, said the merger was part of a plan to help in the “promotion of the game, the development of the American player and the wise management of big-league soccer.” Those are the same buzzwords used today whenever anyone wants to make grandiose statements about the future of the game.
At the time, the goal of the merger was to become US Soccer’s sanctioned first division league, something the federation was working on as a FIFA prerequisite to hosting the 1994 World Cup. The APSL, however, was anything but big-league, although it featured some storied franchises such as the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Tampa Bay Rowdies. It also had many new franchises, notably the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks, bankrolled by deep-pocketed real estate lawyer Dan Van Voorhis.
Van Voorhis, who died in 2005 at age 65, once told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was willing to spend $1 million of his own money on a soccer club because it presented "challenges." “I'm the kind of person that will probably never retire," he said in that 1989 interview. I like working with creative people, and I like challenges. Soccer and the Blackhawks certainly present all those to me. I also think it's kind of fun, for a change, to give my times, energy and money to something where making money is not a priority.”
Van Voorhis had the right attitude. Making money was not something APSL teams were doing. The league's 22 teams played in their separate conferences - a way to cut down on travel costs - and played games to relatively small crowds. Although the Blackhawks played at Spartan Stadium and had a decent following (the team featured US standouts Eric Wynalda, Marcelo Balboa and Dominic Kinnear), overall the league averaged just fewer than 2,000 fans that year.
“I think the talent level in the league was very high,” recalled Maryland Bays coach Pete Carnigi, who led his team to the title that year. “The San Francisco Blackhawks were filled with US National Team players. I also remember playing in some of the best stadiums at that time in Tampa, RFK, Orlando, and Miami. There is no doubt in my mind that the league in 1990 was at its peak with the level of players, the venues and its owners.”
The result was the championship game played on September 23 between the ASL champion Bays vs the WSA champion San Francisco Bay Blackhawks at Boston University’s Nickerson Field. The game featured the best of American soccer of the time. Maryland striker-duo Jean Harbor and Phillip Gyau against San Francisco's defense, anchored by Troy Dayak and Balboa. Man-to-man, the contest between Maryland defender Joey Barger and Wynalda would be key to the Bays success.
The game ended 1-1 in regulation. When overtime failed to produce a winner, the game went to a penalty-kick shootout with the Bays winning 4-3 under a torrential rain before 4,881 fans. Maryland’s goalkeeper Steve Powers was the hero of the game, punching away Steve Petuskey’s kick to win the title. While Maryland had kept possession of the ball for most of the game, it had been San Francisco who produced the most scoring chances.
“It meant a lot because we had a group of players that were extremely talented, played as a team and approached every game with a very professional attitude,” Carnigi said. “I think it was some of the most attacking soccer I have seen in all of my years of being involved with the sport. It would have been great to see us stick around and have the opportunity to play in MLS because I really think that team would of done real well.”
It would have been interesting to see if the Bays could compete with a team from its same market, early MLS dynasty DC United. However, the league did not stick around much longer. The APSL was never granted Division I status, although it had officially applied for it in 1993. It eventually lost out to Major League Soccer. In its final two seasons, the APSL changed its name to the A-League and was later absorbed by the then-emerging USISL, the precursor to the United Soccer Leagues.
Despite what appeared to be a defeat for the APSL, the league had managed to be the country’s de facto pro league for the years prior to the arrival of MLS. Furthermore, it gave American players a place to get games and improve their skills ahead of the 1994 World Cup, where it reached the Round of 16.
In 1992, the Blackhawks, playing in the CONCACAF Champions' Cup (the forerunner to the current CONCACAF Champions League), lost to Club America 4-3 on aggregate in a two-name series that will forever be remembered for how close it played the famed Mexican club.
Twenty-five years after that inaugural APSL season, the question remains: Why is the APSL and its contributions all but forgotten? Carnigi has a theory.
“I think it's forgotten because we don’t do a great job of honoring leagues and teams that helped form what we have today, the MLS, USL, and the NASL. The rich history and tradition of some of the teams and leagues that have put us where we are today gave players an opportunity to play at the highest level," he said. "From the 70s through the 90s, if you had an opportunity to play in the NASL or APSL that was our highest level and I think any player that played during that time appreciates what we had and thinks of what it would have been like to have some of the soccer-specific venues we have in this country today.”
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