To the purist, indoor soccer is a mustache on the Mona Lisa, the Blue Boy done in Day-Glo. With its miniature goals, wrinkled AstroTurf and bright orange ball, it's a ridiculous sport to look at, a folly worthy of the darker recesses of Charlie Finley's arcane imagination.
To the fan of a good circus, it's a natural, a sport that engages the surface senses with loud noises, bright colors and immediate gratification. No hidden strategy to distract. What you see is what you get: goals.
To the nuetral observer, it's one of those games kids are always inventing in the schoolyard, where you make up the rules to fit the size of the ball and the playing field and the number of kids who show up. Of course, these are grownups.
A mutant offspring of the illicit marriage of hockey and soccer, the Major Indoor Soccer League began its third season this week. The local franchise, the Baltimore Blast, nee the Houston Summit, will travel to Hartford, Conn., Friday night for its first official game -- it was 4-0 in the preseason -- in the fluorescent red and yellow Blast heraldry.
Encamped for the season in a newly painted Civic Center whose outlandish colors do justice to the game, the Baltimore franchise features local Diplomat riches-to-rags story Sonny Askew, a left-footed Scot with a shot from the point named Doug Wark, a Nigerian dart named Ade Coker, Coach Kenny Cooper, a 10-year NASL veteran and coach of the second-place Summit last winter, and an owner from New York named Bernard Rodin who asks for a low profile while admitting to "extensive real estate holdings in the Baltimore area."
Before its 40-game season has ended, the Blast will have dueled the likes of the Fog, the Inferno and the Fever.It will have scored more goals than its co-tenant, the Baltimore Clippers of the Eastern Hockey League. And Rodin, who noted the winter-long sports lull in Baltimore before pulling the franchise out of Houston last year, figures the team will be back to do it again. He has a two-year lease with a one-year option.
The MISL is not to be confused with the North American Soccer League's indoor league, which opens Friday. For one thing, the NASL is sticking with the traditional red, white and blue ball. For another, the NASL has 19 teams, using the names of their outdoor counterparts, while the MISL has 10, most named after catastrophes.
The MISL is the league with a collective bargaining agreement. The NASL is the league with the labor difficulties. Ed Garvey, NASL Players Association president says the league can't go ahead with its indoor season. NASL legal representative Bob Rolnick says it can, and will. In brief, Federal District Judge Constance Baker Motley issued an injunction saying the NASL couldn't proceed without an agreement of what is termed a good faith impasse. The NASL claimed an impasse and will go ahead, operating on its last contract proposal. Garvey questions the impasse and says the league isn't complying with the injunction. Rolnick says it is. Both sides have filed affadavits with the NLRB.
Meanwhile, with no labor problems to speak of, a number of the country's good indoor arenas -- the Spectrum, the Checkerdome, Nassau Coliseum, Richfield Coliseum, McNichols Arena -- and a midseason all-star game in Madison Square Garden, the MISL has its selling points. But none, figures the league, to rival its hole card: Americans. Because whatever the MISL game will feature (thrills! action! no more 1-0 games! trumpets the public relations advance guard), the league is also 81 percent American (counting holders of green cards and Canadians, who will be considered aliens next year). It also provides a refuge of sorts for a number of players -- particularly Americans -- who feel they have been crossed up, messed up or sent up by "The Outdoor League" -- the NASL.
In the MISL, the term "blackball" -- as in, "The NASL blackballed him after he signed with the MISL" -- comes up in conversation as often as "injury," of which there are many, It's a league with more axes to grind than a Visigoth raiding party. And it's a league where an American player can earn more in six months than he would in 12 in the NASL, and delight in guaranteed chances to handle that orange ball, slam it off those hockey boards with a satisfying thwack, pick up his own rebound and do it again.
To hear the Baltimoreans tell it, the grass, albeit artificial, is definitely greener on this side.
"You get treated like a foreigner in your own country in the NASL," said one Blast player. "Here, they treat you like a countryman."
"I'd say 90 percent of the Americans here feel that way," said a teammate. "It's criminal the way they (the NASL) treat their players. This league never would have had a chance if the players (in the NASL) had been treated fairly."
"What the two leagues ought to do is merge," said a third. "But then the owners of this league would be able to get back at some of the owners in that league for the stuff they've pulled."
"The NASL does not want its players in the splinter league. The MISL feels the NASL has no say in the matter. The MISL is more than happy to lend players to the NASL in the outdoor season. The NASL is less than enthusiastic about accepting any.
And there's the blackballing, alleged by a number of players, confirmed by a MISL coach and denied by NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam -- all part of the ongoing cold war between the leagues.
"Unfortunately," Cooper said, "while we're having these battles, it'll never progress. It's just unfortunate that politics and people's egos get in the way. The players are caught in the middle."
"But don't forget," another player said, "that anyone who's here and not in the outdoor league is not going to speak well of the outdoor league."
One thing is certain: there isn't room for the two indoor leagues, for 29 teams playing pseudosoccer. By virtue of its bargaining agreement, and the American way, the MISL would seem to have the upper hand. Perhaps Cooper's turning down of the Dallas Tornado head coaching job last week -- he played for the team 10 years, too -- is a fair indicator of the MISL's strength.
Of course indoor soccer, even in the Garden, is still indoor soccer, which means half a soccer team playing the most incongruous game since box lacrosse. With none of the fluidity of ice hockey and no room for the players to exhibit the grace that is the outdoor game's essence, the indoor version often seems an exercise in being cramped. The low boards allow the ball to fly into the stands every few seconds, like popcorn escaping the automatic popper.
When the ball stays in play, most of the game is rebounds. A common offensive play: a forward smacks a pass off the corner boards, picks up the ball in front of the goal and kicks it 38 rows into the stands.
The scoring is high. The rules are simple; no offsides, but three-line passes -- hockey's lines -- are illegal. Pushing, striking, kicking, charging, boarding and 'jumping at' deserve two-minute penalties and free kicks.
There are four 15-minute quarters, player names that are easy to pronounce, line shifts, penalty shots, still penalties for fighting, corner kicks out of round corners, and hard floors.
But mostly, it's a good way to pass an offseason.
"It's fun," said Askew. "But give the outdoor game up for this one? No way."