The tired line that Americans can't get into soccer because of the low scoring is refuted with two simple words: Indoor soccer.
The game has everything American fans and advertisers supposedly love -- lots of goals, no ties, physical play, loud PA systems, commercial breaks, etc. But while the World Cup captures national water-cooler attention and Major League Soccer sails through a second decade of stability, indoor soccer has become America's most turbulent sport.
Like The Terminator (or a cockroach, if you prefer), the sport won't quite die, a couple of decades after its glitzy heyday. And while traditional soccer rides the World Cup wake, more investors have popped up with an interest in turning the lights back on the indoor game.
Facilities are plentiful, as young soccer players and weekend warriors alike are willing to put down a few bucks to kick around in a confined space. Yet the gap between participating and watching, which is significant in outdoor soccer, is immense in the indoor game.
Even when an indoor league appears stable, that can change in a hurry. Just ask the young USA TODAY online columnist who hailed the NPSL's stability back in 2000.
The NPSL had been stable, but within a couple of years of that piece being written, the league changed management and dropped from 12 to six teams. The league claimed the name Major Indoor Soccer League, a bit ironic because rivalry with the NPSL was a factor in the old MISL's demise. (See David Litterer's excellent overview and year-by-year glance.) Then the league picked up the remnants of the CISL/PSA/WISL, bringing the San Diego Sockers and Dallas Sidekicks back into the fold. The league expanded to nine teams on a couple of occasions but kept shedding teams between and sometimes during seasons.
Everything exploded in 2008-09. Four MISL teams formed the Xtreme Soccer League. Three more stayed together to form the NISL. One moved to the PASL, an amateur league opening a pro division. The XSL lasted one season. The NISL kept that name for one season, then reclaimed the MISL name once more.
So that leaves the MISL and PASL on two different paths.
The MISL, which has added a sixth team for the 2010-11 season, uses the nontraditional multiple-point scoring (2 points for most goals, 3 points for goals shot from outside a basketball-style arc). The league has been in and out of U.S. Soccer's umbrella, though it's far removed from futsal, the FIFA-approved indoor game sans walls. (That said, Spain's giant clubs happily play in an American-style indoor league.)
The PASL is affiliated with FIFRA, not FIFA. That's the Federaction Internacional de Futbol Rapido, not Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. "Futbol rapido" is another name for soccer played with hockey-style dasher boards, reflecting the fact that it's not always played indoors. The powers that be are trying to establish futbol rapido as its own global sport on its own terms, and the PASL overlaps with leagues in Mexico and Canada. That's ambitious, but as a whole, the league is content for now playing in small venues and keeping costs way down.
Ready to get really confused?
The USL, which has its roots in the indoor game, is going back inside and reviving the I-League. One goal of the league is to give outdoor clubs a chance to operate year-round. That hasn't worked very well in the past in Montreal and Milwaukee, but perhaps coordination on a league level might help. USL plans to have this league affiliated with U.S. Soccer.
That's three. Ready for four?
The powers behind the NPSL -- president Steve Paxos, PR VP Chuck Murr and business director Sally Rodgers -- are getting back in the game after a decade away. The Arena Soccer Association is aiming for a 2011 launch in mid-America.
"There's no limit to the extent of expansion," Paxos said in a press release. "The only criteria for ownership is to stick with the plan, support fellow owners, and let the sport sell itself."
American soccer history is littered with leagues that couldn't survive the in-fighting between competing visions and personalities. Whether these leagues survive depend on whether they can take a live-and-let-live approach.
Peter Wilt, the president/CEO of the MISL's Milwaukee Wave and a veteran indoor/MLS/WPS executive, is doing just that.
"More the merrier!" Wilt told me. "Good sign for indoor!"
That would be the first good sign in a while.
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