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They appear, running, out of a swirling cloud of steam, like minor gods in an Aristophanes comedy, to be greeted by a hysterical ovation from 15,000 hyped-up fans in the St. Louis Checker-dome. The rock group Kiss? The hockey-playing St. Louis Blues? Neither. The disco-punctuated, foot-stomping entrance is the specialty of the St. Louis Steamers, indoor soccer's best-drawing franchise and exemplars of this winter's most startling sports phenomenon.
Indoor soccer—six men to a side, on a surface of artificial turf laid out in a hockey arena, utilizing rebounds from the boards and featuring staccato action and a ton of scoring—may be a nightmarish aberration to soccer purists who love the rhythmic classicism of the outdoor game. But this winter, the indoor variety, as offered by two rival 10-team leagues in 19 cities, is packing a lot of arenas and causing a good deal of head-scratching among those attempting to explain its sudden popularity.
How, for instance, can the Steamers draw sellout and near-sellout crowds for Major Indoor Soccer League games when the old St. Louis Stars of the North American Soccer League, playing outdoors, were driven by yawning apathy from this venerable breeding ground of American soccer two seasons ago? The Steamers' average crowd is 13,523, even though their record is 8-13, the second-worst in the MISL. And in the NASL's version of the indoor game, the Memphis Rogues, who finished last summer's outdoor season with a miserable 6-24 record and drew a paltry 7,137 fans per game, now routinely pack the Mid-South Coliseum with crowds of 8,300 and are close to the lead in their division. Last season's Soccer Bowl runners-up, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, not long ago put 5,858 fans in the 5,548-seat Bayfront Center, a standing-room feat.
Bob Rigby, a seven-season NASL goalkeeper now with the Philadelphia Fever of the MISL, is ecstatic. "Some crazy must have invented this sport," he says. "It's a zoo, a circus. I can't believe anybody takes it seriously, but they do. It's a human pinball game."
Indeed. Attackers flood the area in front of the 12-foot-wide by 6'6"-high goal and pepper shots bumper-pool fashion off the boards, off each other and straight on, trying for a score. The action is accompanied by disco sounds, flashing lights and eight-foot-tall mascots like the Fever's Socceroo, whose costume is wired for electric lights and who throws Frisbees into the crowd.
Deputy Commissioner Ed Tepper, whose brainchild is the two-year-old MISL, would like to make one thing perfectly clear. "It's not the world's most popular game, soccer, that we're playing indoors," he says. "It's athletic show business, an entertainment."
MISL Commissioner Earl Foreman, a former owner of the NBA Bullets, the ABA Squires and the NFL Eagles, says, "What we've done is capture the speed and artistry of the outdoor game and added some distinctly American flavors. There's high scoring and time-outs. Our game is broken into four 15-minute periods, while the outdoor game has two 45-minute halves of continuous action. We have body contact and the rules are very simple. Anyone can enjoy it."
Deep-think strategy is not a big part of the indoor game; fast break on offense, get four guys back on defense is pretty much it. For fans accustomed to the outdoor version, goals seem to come with dizzying frequency. An outdoor game may end 1-0 and leave the crowd delighted. In indoor soccer the score is more likely to be 10-8. And while an outdoor goalie may consider as few as half a dozen saves a day's work, indoor goalkeepers routinely face more than 45 on-goal shots per game. The current record for two teams in a 60-minute game is 165, the highest total score 14-8.
The Rogues' success is partly attributable to the high-speed action of their game and partly to the fact that they have a new owner. Avron Fogelman, a 39-year-old Memphis real-estate magnate, bought the sagging franchise from a disgusted out-of-towner, Harry T. Mangurian, who also owns the Boston Celtics. Stressing his hometown credentials, Fogelman began to apply proven techniques and hard cash to selling the Rogues. "Memphis is like my living room," says Fogelman, who also owns the Memphis Chicks, a Double-A baseball team that also draws uncommonly well. "I know where all the power switches are." And Fogelman promised his fans the sort of non-stop hysteria that seems to be a big factor in indoor soccer's success. "They won't sit on their hands. Anytime there's a break in the action we'll have music or something going on."
Indoor soccer has been around for a while. In Europe, it has long been a gymnasium game in the winter, though there the goals are the standard 8' x 24' outdoor ones and there are no hockey boards. The sport attracted professional interest in the U.S. in 1974 when Philadelphia played a Russian squad at The Spectrum and drew a crowd of 13,700. After that, the NASL backed and filled, never scraping together more than a few teams to play a few games each season.