As tempestuous as minor league outdoor professional soccer has been over the years, that turmoil looks tame in comparison to the recent history of the professional indoor game.
At the current time there are two indoor soccer leagues that refer to themselves as “professional.” The more prominent of the two is the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL), which was restructured and came under the auspices of the United Soccer Leagues in May of 2011. Professional Arena Soccer League (PASL) boasts affiliation with the Federación Internacional de Futbol Rapido (FIFRA), for what that’s worth, and is a professionalization of the Premier Arena Soccer League.
During the summer of 2010, United Soccer Leagues (USL) announced intentions to create an indoor league. The proposed league, named I-League, failed to find prospective franchises beyond Rochester, Syracuse, and Norfolk. In May 2011, USL and MISL announced a merger that combined clubs and operations into one league under the USL umbrella for the 2011-12 season.
PASL was formed in 2008 as a professional offshoot of a national amateur indoor league. The league has more clubs, draws fewer spectators, and generally employs less skilled or experienced players than MISL. PASL’s organization still features the amateur league and thus the potential to operate an increasingly flexible two-tiered system.
Both leagues recommend a playing field 200 feet long by 85 feet wide. The two leagues have largely similar rules with minor differences. For example, PASL’s rulebook dictates that “All goals shall be of equal value, 1 point each goal. The team scoring the greater number of goals during the game shall be declared the winner.” This is in contrast to MISL’s rule that “All goals scored are worth two points a piece, except those goals scored on shot attempts from on or beyond the 45-foot arc surrounding the goal, which will be worth three points.” There are also small discrepancies in the penalizing process and foul accumulation within the game.
Looking at last season’s geographic footprint:
The two leagues have been in a near constant expansion process in since their recent foundations. MISL added Chicago to its list of teams for a total of 7 teams competing last winter. PASL had been boosted to 19 teams despite losing 2 clubs in the off-season by adding a plethora of teams for 2012-13.
The two leagues’ 2012-13 geographic footprint looked like this.(You can’t really tell, but there are two pins near Chicago representing a team from each league that played just down the road from each other)
Coming into the 2013-14 season:
PASL made a number of minor internal tweaks between this past season and the one coming up. The league instituted a 1,000 seat minimum requirement for each team’s facilities and will not be shy about encouraging teams that under-perform on and off the field to “self-relegate” to the amateur/semi-professional PASL-Premier. In the same vein, Cincinnati Saints and Bay Area Rosal will be joining the professional league after performing well in the amateur league for the past few years.
PASL-Pro expanded quite aggressively ahead of this winter’s season. The league added 7 teams, 4 of which are brand new organizations. Up to date, there will be 20 teams competing this winter in three geographic divisions in the PASL.
In MISL, Wichita Wings folded after two years in the league and Chicago Soul ceased to exist after a one-season experiment. The league run by USL has added a club in Reading (Pennsylvania Roar) and one in the St. Louis area (St. Louis Ambush) for the 2013-14 season.
Let’s update the map for the upcoming 2013-14 season:
Looking at this map, the inner-fanboy in all of us would like to see Syracuse Silver Knights and Baltimore Blast have the opportunity to play against Harrisburg Heat (Harrisburg, PA) or for Rochester Lancers and Milwaukee Wave to travel to Detroit Waza or Cincinnati Saints in order to reduce travel costs and long bus rides.
MISL has stated that they are looking at establishing a widespread but solid basis for steady league expansion in the coming years but they’ve still dealt with a significant degree of turnover while the league’s geographic footprint is rather limited to the East and Midwest. PASL is more of a carousel of clubs but presents new communities with a chance to support an indoor team quickly. Surely, there is nothing wrong with different business models or employing different entrance processes but neither league has so far been particularly adept at vetting potential franchises or establishing stability in the sport.
And so what?
It is hard to think about indoor soccer without wondering about its role in relation to the outdoor game in this country. Does indoor soccer contribute to the development of better players? Is it viable as a stand-alone business? Does the sport have a sustainable future?
The national Development Academy has introduced futsal as a crucial aspect of the u13/14 division but that bears little onto the two professional leagues. However, Jamaican national team starter and Portland Timbers forward Ryan Johnson was playing professional indoor soccer in New Jersey just five years ago. Handfuls of lower division players spend the winter playing indoor like Harrisburg’s Yann Ekra who was just signed by Philadelphia Union.
There are significant differences aside from the game itself. Indoor soccer allows older guys like USL Hall of Famer Doug Miller (aged 44) to continue to play at a high level. A pocket of fans exist who genuinely prefer the indoor game to outdoor or don’t like traditional outdoor soccer at all. The pace of the indoor game and often high scoring matches in addition to the environment of the arena lead to a very exciting product for spectators. Outside of MLS markets, the outdoor game doesn’t come close to the thrill that a good indoor match can provide.
Newly “promoted” PASL club Cincinnati Saints will also be fielding a team in the summer outdoor amateur National Premier Soccer League. In addition, the Saints have started a youth set-up for local kids as part of a full club structure. If this is relatively successful for Cincinnati Saints, perhaps other organizations will adopt a similar approach.
Both MISL and PASL lose clubs during each off-season, which suggests that a lot of ownership groups don’t create long-term operation plans. In a positive light, though, because the two leagues also add teams every year there are new owners who commit to providing an indoor soccer club in their communities despite the rather troubling retention rate and the risk to their own finances.
The indoor game has a unique place in American soccer history and should be better organized and governed. I would like to see a concerted effort to provide the stability that has so far been absent in order to create a vibrant national league for high quality indoor soccer in this country while also providing for a lower cost amateur option on a more regional basis.