By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Jan 29, 2018) US Soccer Players – The United States is a country that has had a lot of attempts at making pro soccer work over the years. That’s not limited to attempts at establishing a topflight league. The once mighty North American Soccer League dominated the pro landscape in the 1970s, but it wasn’t the only game in town. There was a lower division, a version of the American Soccer League that faced financial and relevancy problems that are oddly familiar. Playing a league or two down in this country has never been easy, something the history of the United Soccer League demonstrates.
In 1991, the USL had just rebranded as the United States Interregional Soccer League. They were trying to answer the lower division problem on a nationwide level. Stabilizing the game in the aftermath of the original NASL was the challenge. That topflight failed following the 1984 season. What would become the USL started as an indoor circuit in the Southwest two years later. By the early 90s, several groups were trying to take the NASL’s spot. The World Cup was coming. With it was a promise for a first division. With what would become MLS barely on the drawing board, several groups saw an opportunity.
The USISL came into its own starting in 1993 when it realigned itself, doubling in size to 38 teams and becoming national in scale. The league, for the very first time, stretched from New England to the West Coast. The Atlantic Division was made up of nine teams – all new to the league that season – with the Greensboro Dynamo finishing in first place with a 14-2 record at the end of the 16-game regular-season schedule.
Soccer was a sport that was growing in the ‘90s, boosted by the excitement and growth potential ahead of the 1994 World Cup. More children than ever had started playing the game and the USISL had become a place where many youth players, largely college graduates, flocked to. It was soccer’s version of minor-league baseball. With Marcos as its commissioner, the league brought high-level amateur soccer to dozens of small and medium-sized markets.
Francisco Marcos, a former Tampa Bay Rowdies executive during its NASL days, founded the USISL. Marcos was involved in the formation of the APSL a few years earlier. The USISL, during its genesis as an indoor league, had been formed to help develop players for the MISL and by 1989 Marcos was hoping to position itself as part of the soccer pyramid in this country when it added an outdoor league to its portfolio.
In 1992, the league had been renamed and was an outdoor circuit cut up into regional divisions based on geography. It was an astute business decision. This helped teams with small budgets cut down on travel costs. By keeping costs down and salaries low (some players made as little as $100 per game, plus bonuses), the league grew. With the ‘94 World Cup and MLS still on the horizon, the USISL was a league that was financially stable at a time when so many soccer leagues, such as the MISL and eventually the APSL, failed. The USISL may have been played largely without the enthusiasm of a national TV audience, but it had the sponsorship dollars of adidas and later Umbro, the English-based soccer manufacturer, to keep it afloat. Umbro would eventually purchase a majority stake in the league.
In 1993, the league featured only wins and losses, draws were settled by a shootout. A win in regulation was worth six points, a shootout victory was four points, and a defeat in a shootout was 2 points. The league’s five divisions also offered an additional bonus point per goal for up to a maximum of three points per game. Two divisions, the Northeast and Midwest, also received a point per corner kick for each game.
That season also brought with it a unique, and convoluted, playoff system. Three of the five division winners were expansion teams – Greensboro, San Jose Hawks, and the East Los Angeles Cobras – along with the defending champions Orlando Lions to what was called the “Sizzlin’ Six.” Greensboro and Orlando reached the title match that summer. The championship game, played on August 13 at Municipal Stadium in Daytona Beach, where the Dynamo defeated Orlando, 2-1. The Lions were forced to play the game with 10 men after goalie Warren Russ saw red in the 37th minute after colliding with the Dynamo’s Gabe Garcia and handling the ball outside the penalty area.
The Dynamo, whose logo resembled that of Nottingham Forest because the owners had a family connection to the English club, were typical of the time. The team had a connection with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, with many graduates playing on the team. The team’s legacy lives to this day as the Carolina Dynamo in the Premier Development League, a fourth-tier league.
“By the letter of the law, the call was perfectly correct,” Greensboro coach Michael Parker told The Orlando Sentinel following the 1993 championship game. “But this was a championship game. Once we got the equalizer, I felt that we were in control.”
Dynamo striker Jason Haupt, a UNC graduate, scored the winning goal in the 70th minute. Greensboro’s Ed Radwanski, who had played in the MISL, was named league MVP. He would go on to earn five caps with the USMNT in 1985.
“The large number of players coming out of America’s scholastic system has produced so many young players, that virtually any community in the USA could start a team and become competitive in a hurry,” Marcos told Soccer America in 1999.
While the league helped to develop talent, the USISL never did become a first division league. However, its various incarnations and ability to stretch itself into various tiers – including the A-League (after the USISL merged with the APSL in 1997), PDL and W-League – into the present-day USL.
The United Soccer League’s Pro Division features 33 teams and has partnerships with MLS teams. It’s a relationship that has helped nurture American talent over the years and prepare players for MLS and the National Team. It was 25 years ago that the importance of developing youth talent came to the forefront. It was Marcos’s vision and the proliferation of minor-league teams across the country that helped sow the seeds for the success we see today in this country.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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