By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Apr 27, 2016) US Soccer Players – The New York Cosmos, the team led by Pele that conquered the original NASL in the late 1970s, is remembered as one of the most-successful teams in the modern era of American soccer. One could argue the Cosmos deserve a place alongside New York’s other famed sports franchises like the Yankees and Knicks. But there’s another Big Apple soccer team lost to history. The New York Arrows dominated the MISL nearly 40 years ago, but faded into obscurity.
The Arrows were one of the Major Indoor Soccer League’s founding franchises in 1978 and the embodiment of the league in those early years. Both flashy and star-studded, the Arrows were practically unbeatable. The team featured goalkeeper Shep Messing, famous for his time with the Cosmos, defender Fernando Clavijo, who would go on to play for the USMNT, and the goal scoring duo of Steve Zungul and Branko Segota. Both Zungul and Segota would go on to win indoor soccer championships as part of the San Diego Sockers dynasty.
The Arrows played at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which had a capacity of 16,000 and at the time also housed the NHL-dominating New York Islanders. While hockey fever caught on in the New York City suburbs of Long Island, indoor soccer never did. It certainly wasn’t an issue of access. Arrows games were available nationally on USA Network and locally on WPIX/Channel 11. It was one of those Arrows game that inspired the creation of the Arena Football League, which exists to this day.
Messing said sharing a building with the Stanley Cup-winning Islanders had been good for the Arrows even though the team’s fan base never grew to what it was in other markets like Baltimore and St. Louis.
“It was just as passionate and a loyal one,” Messing recalled.
That passion and loyalty lives on today in the form of nostalgia as MISL fans remember the league – and it’s iconic black-and-orange ball – they so loved by posting grainy YouTube videos from that era or recalling their favorite moments on message boards. This past March 29 marked the 35th anniversary of the Arrows’ third championship. That title is of note because it was the second and final time a single game decided the MISL championship. In that game, the Arrows defeated the St. Louis Steamers 6-5 on the road before 17,206 fans. Zungul scored four goals that day, including the game-winner in the fourth quarter.
At the time, Arrows owner John Luciani had also been an investor in the NASL’s Rochester Lancers when the MISL was formed by Earl Foreman and Ed Tepper. As a result, the Arrows practically became the Lancers’ indoor franchise. The Lancers’ Don Popovic was coach, while a virtually unknown Yugoslavian striker would become the team’s biggest signing. Following a dispute with his club Hadjuk Split in Yugoslavian first division, Zungal defected to the United States with the hope of signing with an NASL team. FIFA, following a petition from the Yugoslav FA, banned the striker from playing abroad with any club until 1982.
The MISL didn’t have FIFA sanctioning. That allowed Zungul to sign with the Arrows. In time, Sports Illustrated would call Zungul “The Lord of All Indoors.” Zungul’s partnership with Segota turned the Arrows into an offensive juggernaut. Zungul was the only pro player in this country not registered with the US Soccer Federation. A temporary court order ruled that no sporting body could deny him the right to earn a living. He eventually won his case at the Supreme Court, which ruled the FIFA ban wasn’t enforceable on US soil.
Segota has lots of great memories of playing alongside Zungul in New York.
“(Steve) took me under his wing,” Segota said. “And as our relationship grew, our understanding on the field became as one. Sometimes we didn’t have to look (at each other). We knew where one or the other was going to be. He is one of the best finishers I have ever seen.”
In goal, the Arrows had Messing, who was arguably the best American-born keeper at the time. Nonetheless, Messing had to adapt to what he called the “fast, exciting and furious” indoor game after his time in the NASL and National Team.
“Playing the position outdoors required 90 minutes of concentration and eight or nine moments of action. Indoors required 60 minutes of non-stop action and facing 30 or 40 shots, caroms, collisions and fast breaks,” recalled Messing, who would also serve as interim coach when Popovic lost the job in February 1983. “Goalkeepers want action and indoor soccer gave you that.”
After winning the title in 1979, the Arrows went undefeated at home during the 1979-80 season and compiled a 27-5 regular season record. The team won the last of its four championships at the end of the 1981-82 season, compiling a 36-8 regular season record and Zungul notched 103 goals and 60 assists. Over four seasons, from 1978 to 1982, the Arrows compiled an astonishing 114-26 regular season record and went 17-4 in the postseason.
“I think the best part about the Arrows was we were one unit. Everyone knew what their role was” said Segota. “There was no jealousy and everybody liked each other.”
In 1982, Luciani sold the Arrows on the eve of the MISL’s fifth season. At the time, he claimed the team had lost $10 million in its first four years. The new owner, David Schoenstadt, was also a majority investor in the Kansas City Comets, an MISL team that would go on to achieve some success and enjoy large crowds. The success the league had in the Midwest was not to be in New York. New ownership also marked the conclusion of the Arrows dynasty. The team's dominance – highlighted by foreign players – came to an end when the team's new management ushered in an “Americanization” process. The aim was to better market the game to children through summer camps.
The ambitious marketing plan called for the signing of American players – preferably from local colleges – since it was something that had worked in Kansas City and St. Louis. Critics charged it was an attempt to sign cheaper talent (Zungul was one of the highest-paid players in the league, pocketing a salary of $150,000 a year). Zungul eventually joined the NASL’s Golden Bay Earthquakes during the 1982-83 season.
Another championship for the Arrows would never materialize – and neither did the support the team had so yearned for. The Arrows new strategy failed to energize fans, while hurting it on the field. Attendance plummeted to an average of just 6,000 during the 1983-84 season and an effort to move the franchise fell through. By comparison, the Comets averaged 12,000 fans. In the summer of 1984, the Arrows folded.
“The Arrows legacy,” Messing said, “is Long Island-centric and one of fun and championships. Long Island sports fans – boys and girls who were then 10 years old and are now 45 – probably knew and loved the New York Arrows.”
Based in New York City, Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He covers all topics relating to American soccer, including Major League Soccer. He has covered the last two World Cups for the site. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Clemente began writing for our site in July 2007. Find him on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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