As the ball is dumped into the corner of the angled hockey style boards, Tarik Walker holds the ball up with a defender climbing on the 6’3” target, who is holding sturdy despite the immense pressure. The ball is struck off the boards, redirected into the mess of players in front of the goal where Bill Becher pounds in a full volley for a two point goal. A packed Pennsylvania Farm Show Arena erupts as the jock jams soundtrack is on full blast as the players celebrate. It is 1996, and the Harrisburg Heat had just gained a two point advantage over the Cleveland Crunch on a cold winter night in the Pennsylvania capitol. Young fans like myself packed the arena, witnessing elite level players applying their trade in an action packed microcosm of traditional soccer.
Arena soccer, a 6 v 6 version of the beautiful game played in turfed over ice hockey style pitch was one of the most popular attractions for families and soccer fans in cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, Montreal, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia in the 1990s. When the harsh miserable winters forced soccer players to forge alternative versions of the game, arena soccer became a popular Saturday night out in markets full of soccer hungry fans. The game evolved in the 1980s and throughout the 1990s as an outlet for some of the top talent in the country to apply their trade. Names such as David Bascome, Danny Kelly, Richard Chinapoo, Mark Pulisic, Peter Pappas, and many others become stars of the indoor game. These big names were able to take the indoor league, which changed names numerous times throughout its prime, to large TV deals and sold out arenas. The game provided a popular outlet for players to continue their playing careers when the then outdoor A-League season would come to a close for the year.
Arena soccer is played at an absolute rapid pace and requires an extremely high level of technique and precision from its participants. The sport is extremely physical and with such a limited amount of space and time, not to mention boards surrounding the pitch that can be used to both advantages and disadvantages, players must think extremely quickly and be highly punctual both on offense and defense. With unlimited substitutions and shifts that last ideally for about a minute or less, the game rarely slows from an all out sprint. Being able to play accurately with one touch and constantly moving off the ball are two important aspects of playing the indoor game at the elite level. Concentration levels from the players must be high at all times as the game moves at a rapid pace, a lapse in concentration for a second defensively can be very costly in indoor. Any space given, especially to some of the veterans of the game, will undoubtedly be exploited to their advantage. The most impressive aspect of the indoor game in my mind is the finishing you see from the top strikers in the league. With most goals coming from rebounds off of the boards surrounding the goal, it is not uncommon to see some very spectacular first time finishes from some of the very talented strikers in the league. The league also allows for 1v1 situations to happen regularly, allowing for a lot of the futsal and street soccer influence to come alive during the games.
The indoor game has survived through some very rough times in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the now established Major Arena Soccer League has 20 teams in the league. With a few of the original teams from the past such as the Baltimore Blast, Milwaukee Wave, and the Harrisburg Heat still fielding teams. The league is a long way from the large salaries, tv contracts, and packed arenas of the 1990s, but the skill level and talent in the league remains very high. The current league is full of foreign influence applying their futsal and street backgrounds, and talented domestic products looking to advance their professional playing careers.
The MASL is succeeding in smaller markets like Flint, Michigan, Las Vegas, St. Louis, and Syracuse, with a set a new set of entertainers aiming to take the league back to the peak popularity it once saw. Waza Flo, a MASL franchise now located in Flint and formerly in Detroit, is owned and operated by the entertainingly brilliant, soccer free-styler Dominic Scicluna. Scicluna, who possesses a very unique style and apporach to the game, is one of the league’s famous personalities, along with former greats who still coach and play in the league. Tarik Walker and Danny Kelly still coach teams in the MASL and numerous veterans of the past have made appearances recently for various teams in the multiple leagues for the past 5 years. The former Reading, PA based Pennsylvania Roar saw famous Philadelphia Kixx keeper Peter Pappas return in net for the expansion franchise. The league supplies a top class entertainment value along with a superb technical display from the players, matched with a grassroot passion for the game.
Last season the Baltimore Blast fell to the Monterrey Flash in the Newman Cup final, the first year of the new league structure in the MASL. With strong franchises in Dallas, San Diego, Missouri, Chicago, Syracuse, and various other cities across the USA, Mexico, and Canada, the league has continued into the 2015/16 season with a strong backbone. With walled in arenas becoming rare as new facilities prefer touchlines and nets as boundaries, it is great to see the game continue to thrive in North America. The indoor game may find competition from futsal and other minor leagues that form in the future, but for now the MASL reigns as the dominant small sided professional league.
The MASL continues to be an outlet for aspiring professionals to get experience at the elite levels of the game. I highly recommend supporting your local indoor team by getting out to the games and enjoying the entertaining fast paced and physical indoor games. Drag the biggest soccer critic you know who complains about the lack of action and goals in soccer games, with games ending with combined scores close to 15, it is very hard to leave games dissatisfied. Arena soccer is a great version of the game, the pace is rapid, the technique is top class, and the fan support for the various franchises is second to none. You can find more about the MASL here , I strongly encourage you to get out and support your local teams this winter and support the players attempting to spark careers in the game.