Gordon Jago on indoor Soccer

The following article originally appeared in GoalIndoor magazine in 2005

Of the many people who contributed to the growth and development of professional indoor soccer, Gordon Jago and Ron Newman stand out as the two pivotal innovators whose contributions made the indoor game the success that it is today. Both were with the game from its professional beginnings and played a key role in the establishment of coaching techniques and the refinement of the rules. My interview with Ron Newman appeared here several months ago; now it is Gordon Jago’s turn.

Gordon Jago had his first taste of American soccer when he coached the Baltimore Bays of the North American Soccer League in 1968 and 1969. He returned to England after the Bays folded, managing Queens Park Rangers of the English 1st Division and Millwall of the 2nd division. In 1978, he was tabbed to coach the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies, where he had his first experiences with the indoor game remaining through 1982, and In 1984, he took the coaching job with the expansion Dallas Sidekicks of the original MISL, remaining with the team through 2003 (as head coach till 1999, then as general manager, vice president, and briefly as league commissioner). During this time, the Sidekicks won four championships (1986-87, 1993, 1998 and 2001).

Gordon’s introduction to indoor soccer came with the Rowdies. In fact, his first coaching task was to guide the Rowdies through the league’s 1978 indoor winter tournament. “We played 7 exhibition teams, against Washington, Tulsa and the like. I had no experience of the indoor game as such. We had indoor soccer in England, but it was without the boards; this was a completely different game.” But it was different than the game we know today. “there were a lot of very skillful players in the NASL at the time, and the indoor game was much slower paced, based more on individual skill. We weren’t very clever tactically in the early stages, but it was quite an experience. I coached seven games before I ever did an outdoor game.”

Gordon worked to develop his indoor coaching style when the NASL launched their indoor league seasons in 1979. The Rowdies won the inaugural 1979-80 NASL season, and lost to Ron Newman’s San Diego Sockers in 1981-82. By that time, the NASL was beginning to crumble, and Gordon concluded his tenure with the Rowdies in 1982.

His first season with the Sidekicks was a challenging one. At that time, the MISL was very strong, with a bevy of successful players, many having come over from the NASL. “It was very difficult for a first-year team, because of the high level of skill and experience. I arrived in Dallas when the players had already been drafted,. So I had no input into their selection. We went 12 and 36 that year; we really didn’t know how to play , and I had to learn MISL tactics. But then you gradually learn the game – how to use the boards, how to manage the substitution, developing special teams for power plays, handling man-up and man-down situations, when to pull your goalkeeper. The quality of play at the time was extremely high. Roy Terlicki, Steve Zungul, Branko Segota, Karl-Heinz Granitza, Julie Veee, unbelievable players. Tatu was just getting started, and Marinaro. I’d rate Zungul as the top player, with Tatu and Marinaro sharing 2nd. The team had a lot of ups and downs during this past 20 years. We changed ownership 5 times. Sometimes we wondered if we’d survive. Other times we were doing well, but the league was failing. The CISL was the best league for us; at one time they had 16 teams, most backed by NBA teams.”

The top teams drew very well, 12,000 per game, even 15,000 per game. Tacoma set a long-standing indoor record with a crowd of 21,000, and the Dallas-Tacoma 85-86 semifinal series drew 120,000 fans for the 7 games.

Coaching and Training

“It was a completely different type of fitness training. Not for endurance. You trained for short bursts of high speed, high intensity. It’s like ice hockey. Not a 45 minute half before you get a breather. A player doesn’t stay on much more than 2 minutes.”

The coaches had to work much harder during the game – There was much more contact with the players – after each line change the coach could go into nuts and bolts on the player’s performance, the strengths and weaknesses, rather than just some general strategic talk during halftime. “With indoors, you’d have the time to get into details constant feedback, changes (positional and technical) with the players. The players also worked much more closely as a unit, and got to know each other much better, their playing styles, and strengths and weaknesses. You had good team chemistry.”

Playing Strategies

The two most important adjustments: learning to play off the boards and managing the player substitutions. “you don’t have to make the passes straight; you can play them onto the boards and go past the player, and you had to play off the ball – get rebounds. You deliberately play it into the boards so one of your teammates can get the rebound and shoot. The balls were coming in at all angles.” Many times it was more profitable to forego a shot at the goal, and rebound it off the boards to a teammate who may be in a better scoring position. The key was getting into a man-up situation – 2-1 against the goalkeeper, or 3-2.

There was less room for specialization. Players had to be able to shift to defense when the other team got the ball; and switch back to setting up plays once possession was recovered. “Outdoors you can have a wing forward, a tall center-back, but in indoors they’ve got to be all-around players. Defenders, in particular had to be alert. “Those rebounds off the boards could kill you because you couldn’t predict them. It was very important not to let people turn, as in outdoors, to shoot, since they’re so close to the goal. Marinaro and Zoran Karic were a deadly duo. A long pass up to Karic who would hold the ball and Marinaro would make a run, with Karic setting it up. They were brilliant with it.”

Effective substitution is a technique that still seems to elude novice coaches to this day. The key was to teach the players to come off one side of the bench, and enter the field from the other. “If you’re on the right hand bench and defending the left hand goal, you can’t get players off effectively because they’ve got to come off a long run to get off, so it’s imperative to come off at the right time. You have to teach the discipline of when and when not to come off, and when to come off to gain a man-up advantage. If you come off to one bench and I come out the other end, I make ten yards, and I can get behind the opposition players, in a better position.”

“We would have set plays with goalkeepers. When someone makes a shot, the tendency is for their forward to watch it fly or even follow it in. Our defenders would merely glance at the keeper, and once he was sure the keeper would save it, he’d spring to the bench. Their forwards are still watching the ball, and our player is already past them. Everybody near our bench would run to the other side, out steps another player near their end, the goalkeeper throws it down the field, and the other team is completely and utterly out of the game. They don’t have any chance to recover and prevent us from having a man up.” The whole secret of indoor play was creating man-up situations, 2-1 and 3-2. “Ron Newnan’s Sockers were the masters of man-up situations. Their power plays were simply awesome. We all learned from them and raised our standards. Ron spent more time watching tapes than any of us. He was the #1 tactician.”

Often a brilliant forward may be inexperienced at defense, and the team would need to “hide” him – prevent him from being on the field when the other team had the ball. “Ronnie Newman beat us many times by having the man marking Tatu break in from the bench into attack, and making that man up. Because he knew that Tatu would not run back, and even if he did, he wasn’t a good defender. The Sidekicks capitalized on a botched substitution during the 85-86 playoffs. Preki came off the field at the wrong time and gave Dallas a man-up situation, which gave them the winning goal to take it to game 7.

The midfielders had the largest burden of adjusting to dual roles. “If you went forward, you’d better get back. The whole secret of indoor soccer is getting a man up on the keeper. If you go forward as a midfielder and get ahead of your forward, someone has got to get back when you lose possession. When you lose possession, you get right into defensive mode. That’s the key.”

Eventually the teams would develop lines of players who worked well together; these players would go on and off en masse, often with the goalkeeper setting up a situation to give them time to make the substitution. Sometimes this involved pushing the limits of the rules. The NPSL allowed substitution on the fly at any time in the game. The goalkeepers would exploit this on a goal kick or free kick situation. Since the team was allowed only five seconds to kick the ball once it was placed, the keeper would kick it away or do anything to delay things until the players had made their line change. “The referee was having to chase after the ball which made it a total farce. We made sure that the CISL banned substitution during free kicks and corner kicks, but the MISL has not implemented that rule yet.”

League rivalries

The NASL and MISL were often at odds with each other. After the MISL won that battle, they were soon at odds with the ascending NPSL. Through both of these fights was the battle for control over players, usually fought with salaries as the ammunition. “The salaries are what killed the leagues. We had salaries of 120,000, 160,000 and 200,000. The highest paid teams, like San Diego and Baltimore, had payrolls over 2,000,000. But it was all the competition to get the best players. It was tragic because if we had all joined together in 1 league, it would have done so much better. But the rivalry was so intense, the egos of the owners and commissioners. They wouldn’t budge an inch. Foreman and Paxos wanted their own leagues. There was also a difference of attitude, and the rules and regulations were different”.

“A major issue was the claiming of players, who had the right to players. If a player had signed to an NPSL team, he wouldn’t be allowed to play for a MISL team and vice versa and some players had come from outdoors to indoors and wanted to move across. It wasn’t very pleasant. Neither side would deal with the other, and there was a kind of a real anti-aspect of who was the better. Earl started the MISL, and Mr. Paxos started the AISA. When the AISA started to grow bigger, it because who’s going into who’s city. A number of cities had teams in both leagues, which caused a great deal of concern. Detroit was one, Chicago, so there was all these rules and regulations as each league intended to protect itself from the other, particularly over players. That was where there wasn’t any joy.

MISL and the election of Alan Rothenberg

The MISL played an unexpectedly major role in the election of Alan Rothenberg as president of the USSF in 1992, possibly the most important election in the history of American soccer. Some years earlier, the voting power in the USSF was apportioned between amateur, youth, professional, Olympic and other representatives. The professional ranks (then consisting of the NASL and MISL) were apportioned 25% of the voting power. By the time the 1992 elections came around, the NASL was defunct, the MISL (by then down to 7 teams) retained the full 25% of the voting shares. The MISL’s decision to vote for Rothenberg over Werner Fricker was the deciding factor in the election. Gordon Jago reflects on how the events transpired:

“Werner Fricker had come to the MISL meetings in Baltimore to talk with Earl Foreman and he had persuaded Earl to direct us to vote for him. We went into the USSF meetings, and I got a phone call from FIFA indicating that if Fricker was re-elected, the USA would probably lose World Cup 1994. Fricker had upset FIFA during the 1990 World Cup in Italy; he had not gone to some meetings, and so forth. As the president of the federation that was hosting the next World Cup, he had really upset some people. So now they’re telling us that Rothenberg’s the man. So we go into the meeting, and I represented the Dallas Sidekicks ownership at that time. Mr. Foreman called us all together and said “Okay, we’ve got to vote as a bloc and we’re going to vote for Mr. Fricker. And Ronnie and I said “woah!” We said, “Look, I have instructions from my owner and I will vote accordingly and it will not be for Mr. Fricker.” And we had a long discussion, and one by one we turned them to voting for Alan Rothenberg. The Earl came back into the meeting and said okay we would vote en bloc for Rothenberg. When we went into the vote we had already talked North Texas and Florida (amateur associations) into voting with us, and were well on the way to getting the necessary votes. “

“After the vote, Ronnie and I took so much criticism from certain people with USSF who had backed Fricker, because they had lost their jobs. It’s like the government when the One party takes back the White House. And one person came down to me after the vote, and did she give me an earful! She called me uphill and downtown because we had voted for Rothenberg. But Rothenberg was the man for the job. With his abilities and vision and his contacts, especially on the west coast, he made the World Cup happen and did a superb job. “

The MISL then worked out a deal with the USSF for a pair of outdoor exhibition games pitting the US National Team against a MISL all-star team. The games were in Kansas City and St. Louis, and were very successful. They raised money to help support the St. Louis team which was experiencing financial difficulties at the time.

The CISL was probably the best home for the Sidekicks in Gordon’s view. The league played in summer, and was not in competition with the NPSL, and they had changed some of the more unusual rules. First off was not allowing substitution on a free kick, or goal kick. This eliminated the “hide the ball” routine as teams switched their lines. The 2 and 3 point goals were eliminated also (as they have been in the MISL II.) They also eliminated the ‘over and back’ rule. “I could never understand that – once you’re over the yellow defensive line, you couldn’t play the ball back behind that line. It complicated things for everyone. Some of the referees would have to make a decision, was he in that line or on it. Was it 3 points or one? Of course the camera would show it wrong. Now you’ve for a situation where a team has lost 2 points and that could be the difference between winning and losing. It made it much more difficult for the referees and for the players. That was one of the big arguments we had before the amalgamation [NPSL-WISL], and it was supposed to have been changed and wasn’t changed. After one season, the MISL got some sense and changed the rule.”

Pizzazz and Promotions

Perhaps surprisingly for someone coming from a traditional soccer country, Gordon Jago felt fine about the promotions and entertainment spectacle aspect of the indoor game. “There’s a place for it provided you keep it balanced and under control. Don’t let it take away from the game itself.” The spectacles can provide a good entertainment value for the family. “Do it during the breaks and timeouts, but don’t detract from the game. Teams like St. Louis, Dallas, Sacramento put on some great entertainment and kept a good balance between it and the game. But I’ve been to some NBA games recently, where the entertainment is just non-stop. Every timeout there’s fifteen things going on, dancing girls, guys shooting shirts into the crowd. It got to the point that us guys sitting up there didn’t have a chance to talk about the plays we just saw because there’s something else loud happening there during the break. That becomes too much. And we’re losing the 18-29 males in the audience – that’s our core constituency and we’ve got to get them back.”

Mr. Jago was somewhat reserved when talking about the future prospects for indoor pro soccer: “I don’t think the new MISL has a good business plan. The league clearly hasn’t learned from the mistakes of the past. And it annoys old timers like Ronnie and I when they dismiss our concerns by saying (oh well what do you know? You were in those leagues and they still folded!”. But we knew what they did wrong that made them fold! They still haven’t learned yet.”

“First off, you can’t play 40 games in a season. It’s simply too much. The average family can’t afford a season ticket anymore. And with so many games, you can only do back-to-backs on weekends, which is disastrous. The players are beat to hell after 2 games and 2 inter-city flights in 48 hours. And you split the sales. A typical soccer parent will bring out the schedule and say “okay, which game do you want to see?” Not “let’s see both games this weekend” but “which one of the two”. They’re all soccered out from practice and games all week. And can’t afford both games anyway. Weekday games won’t sell because the families are too busy, unless it’s a sponsored event worked out with the school systems. “

“The scheduling is a nightmare because you’re extending the season, and bumping up against March madness, the Stanley cup and NBA playoffs. If you’re in a big city, you’re sharing with those major leagues, and they have a lock on all the dates because of their playoffs, so you never know when you’ll be able to play, you get what spots are left over. There’s no season ticket base to speak of and you’re relying on group sales. If you’re going to play on Sunday and you don’t know if you’re going through to the next round, or you go in ahead 2-2 (out of 5) and you don’t know if it’ll be tied up , you may suddenly have a Wednesday night game. And attendance will be very low. It really only works if you own the arena, and this year, only Baltimore owns their arena. The others have rent to pay, and little or no revenue from parking and concession sales.

“They need to get back that 18-29 male crowd. That’s the core soccer audience. And they need to drop the roster size from 16 down to about 12. With sixteen players on the bench, coaches go to developing three lines. That creates a lot of confusion, with the shorter shifts and constant shift changes. There’s no time to think out strategy and setting up plays. It’s just bombarding the goal with shots. A lot of frenetic action and miscommunication, it’s what they call pinball soccer. With two lines and longer shifts, you’d settle down to a slower speed, which would allow for more creativity, especially with the defense. It would be a more skillful, more entertaining form of soccer, a better entertainment value.”