What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been! Ron Newman’s history of Indoor Soccer

This article originally appeared in GoalIndoor Magazine in 2004.

In 2002, Ron Newman was invited by the second MISL to take part in their all-star game, and was astounded to hear them stating that indoor soccer started in 1978 (with the advent of the original MISL). Having been intimately involved with the indoor game in America since 1971, Ron knew something was awry. But this type of incident occurs all too often in this country, where soccer history is often overlooked, or forgotten about entirely.

Ron Newman has been closely involved with indoor soccer since the salad days of the NASL, not only as its most successful coach, but as an active builder and innovator. Throughout the years of the original MISL and CISL, Ron has played a major role in the development of indoor rules and refinement of coaching strategies. His involvement since the beginning of what could be called the modern indoor era gives him a unique long-term perspective on the development of the game from a part-time practice regimen to the major force it is today.

In 1971, Newman, then coaching the Dallas Tornado, was asked by the general manager of the St. Louis Stars to take part in an indoor tournament in St. Louis. This would be the first indoor tournament held by a professional league. Ron thought the idea was intriguing. The team often practiced indoors, he was familiar with the rules, so why not? So he brought the Tornado up to St. Louis.

Approaching the St. Louis Arena, he was struck by the announcement on the Marquee: “Hock-Sock Tournament”. “I thought that was a strange name, but I figured it was a game between hockey and soccer. And then I walked into the arena and this was the first I had seen of an ice hockey rink with artificial turf on it, and I said wow, that looks like a great place to play. And I remember the goals were four feet high and sixteen feet wide, which was very typical because the indoor game was always used as a method for improving your passing during training.”

Early in the tournament, it occurred to Newman that fatigue would be a major concern. With the exception of the back defenders, he rotated players in and out quite frequently, a trick not picked up by the other teams who tended to substitute as if this was an outdoor game. This played a major role in the Tornado winning the tournament. The tournament was fairly low key, but the fan response was good enough for the league to try next year. Coach Newman fell in love with the indoor game right then and there.

Over the next few years, the NASL held more tournaments, in different cities throughout the United States. Newman was soon advocating for the NASL to set up a full-fledged indoor season. “I thought it was very attractive for the fans, we could make money from it and we could keep the players employed for 12 months of the year. This was my biggest concern because we had to either find jobs for the players for the off-season or send them back to Europe.” But it was a frustrating endeavor. “It was always getting to the point where everybody was keen on forming a league, but then a club would fold or move, a coach or a general manager would get fired or something else would happen at the end of the season and they’d just hold a tournament and hold off on the league until next year.”

This was still a new game to many. At the first tournaments, the end-zone boards were not removed to accommodate recessed goals; they had constructed false ends with the goal in the middle and shelves along each side. Before the high hockey boards became commonplace, some fields were enclosed with checkered wire along the sides. “If you’re running around and throw up your arms to protect yourself, they could go through the wire mesh, and if somebody hit you, you might just leave your fingers in the mesh!” Fortunately, this was soon remedied.

Newman was soon at work modifying the rules and procedures. When an American NASL investor asked why the goals were so low, Ron got to thinking. “I said to him that’s all they use for indoor soccer, but he pointed out that heading is such an integral part of the game, and the rule limiting kicked balls to head height effectively took that out of the game. So I asked myself ‘well, WHY do we have it this way?’ Well, we had those rules because indoor soccer had been a training regimen designed to improve one’s passing, and not so much a spectacle. We discussed it and decided it was quite ridiculous, and we changed the goals to six feet in height.” With the three red lines preventing end to end kicks, it made logical sense to bring heading back into the game. Shortly after this change, the goals were recessed into the end of the rink.

The tournaments improved in popularity, particularly those from 1975 to 1977. But it was not until 1978 that the indoor league became a reality. But it was not NASL’s doing. Ed Tepper and Earl Foreman had beaten them to the punch launching the MISL in late 1978, forcing the NASL to play catchup; they launched their first ten team edition almost eighteen months later, many teams not yet having been convinced.

There were soon arguments about whether the NASL or MISL was playing a better indoor game. “Well, the NASL had the best players without a question because they were paying all the money. The MISL players were playing more games, because that was the only league they had, whereas the NASL was playing tournaments [until 1979-80], which is not the best way to improve your knowledge of the game because you only play the tournament and then go back outdoors. The more you play indoors, the more scientific you get, but the NASL clearly had the best players.”

In 1980, Ron Newman left Ft. Lauderdale to take the coaching reins with the San Diego Sockers. Bob Bell, the Sockers’ owner was still unsure of the indoor game, and had not taken part in the NASL’s debut season. He was worried about players getting injured, and the Sockers had several major stars Sanchez, Cuellar and others), so he paid the league $25,000 to NOT participate in the indoor season. But Newman was persistent and Bell agreed to try it on an experimental basis for 1980-81, but they wouldn’t use any of their expensive stars, just the local players. That was fine with Newman. “I noticed that all the teams used their assistant coaches to coach the teams. The head coaches were all over Europe recruiting players, but I didn’t want to do this because I felt there was something unique about the game, and I wanted to learn more about it, and needed a lot of hands-on involvement – seeing what rules worked and what didn’t, what I could or couldn’t do.”

That season was a learning experience; the team went 6-12, being denuded of their best players, but it was an invaluable experience. Players didn’t get injured, and owner Bob Bell loved the experience, the fans were excited, and very importantly, the media was enthusiastic. Next year the Sockers went into the indoor season full tilt and won their first championship against a Tampa Bay Rowdies team that included Hugo Perez and Tatu.

“I began to realize the different nuances of the game. And it became fascinating to tinker with the rules. When I talked to an NHL coach one time, I was amazed at how little he did with line changes and realized I was way ahead of him. Defensive runners, players coming off one end of the bench, going on at the other end, things he hadn’t even thought of. So it became a sophisticated game from then on.”

The next big step was the following season, 1982-83. The NASL dispensed with their indoor season, and three top teams participated in the MISL. For the first time, the top indoor talent played in one league. San Diego adopted easily to the longer season, going 32-16 and winning the championship. There was some good and some bad from that season. There was a great deal of jealousy between the two leagues at the top level. The playoffs went on endlessly as games were postponed to the following weekend to maximize the gate. This led the championship series to extend beyond the start of the NASL season. The Sockers had to open their NASL season against team America on a Saturday, play the final MISL championship game on Monday, celebrate & meet the major on Tuesday and play Toronto outdoors on Wednesday. The team was simply exhausted after the grueling indoor season (48 games plus a long playoff series), and they opened their NASL season with 2 wins and 12 losses.

“I counted how many games I coached in a 12 month period, it game to 102 games. Nobody wanted to get up in an airplane, and neither did I. I couldn’t face another road trip. I had to and did, but we were worn out something terrible. The two leagues wouldn’t get together and organize it. I realized then that you could be successful at indoor or outdoor but not both. Somehow we WERE successful at both. But it was just one game after another and the knocks became a problem; we were pretty banged up”.

Newman felt strongly that the indoor and outdoor games had to be merged for both to succeed. A single league, running 12 months a year with a month off between seasons. Newman feels that if the USSF had taken the reins and orchestrated a merger, or at least cooperation between the indoor and outdoor entities, a year-long playing schedule could have been arranged which would have kept fan interest going throughout the year and greatly built interest in the game. “Ideally, you would have a 48-game indoor season, and a 30-game outdoor season. With the proper training, the players could easily handle three indoor games per week. But it would be essential to have at least 1 month between seasons, to give players time to readjust their conditioning for the upcoming season.” But the two leagues were fighting each other tooth and nail, and neither the USSF or FIFA took the opportunity to try and orchestrate some cooperation between the leagues that would allow this to happen. Through the next decade, the indoor game would prosper with large crowds, great spectacle and a lengthy reign as the top professional game in town. But the continuing rivalry between indoor and outdoor entities, as well as between the various indoor leagues, would take its toll, and eventually lead to setbacks down the road.

Through the 1980’s, Ron Newman was the most successful coach in the Major Indoor Soccer League, leading the San Diego Sockers to regular championships. He accomplished this by continually developing innovative coaching strategies geared towards the indoor game.

By the mid-1980’s, the Sockers had developed their indoor game to a point that they were competitive against major world powers on the indoor field. In 1985-86, the Sockers played Dynamo Kiev, which were not only the Soviet Union champions, but were also the European champions, and some of their players played for the National Team in the World Cup at Mexico City that year. “I had to tell the boys to keep from scoring too much — didn’t want to embarrass them, because we were so much better than them at the indoor game. We beat them 6-4 or 7-4, something like that. They had no idea how to get off the field. They couldn’t play an instinctive game because they didn’t know what was coming next; they had no idea the indoor game could be perfected to the extent that the Sockers had done at that point.”

Newman was asked by the USSF to evaluate the United States national team’s preparation for the 1986 World Cup. An exhibition game at the LA Coliseum saw the USA defeated badly by an English squad. The huge accompanying British media were surprised at the poor quality of the US squad and asked Newman if this was the best soccer players in America.

Newman who had been against selecting a virtual college team to go against a world power informed the media that the best players were playing the indoor version of the game and were so good they could beat anyone in the world. He then threw the gauntlet down and challenged the media to bring any English team to San Diego to try and beat the Sockers at their game. 25 thousand pounds sterling would go to the winners. Unfortunately there were no takers.

Newman continued to innovate in his coaching and game management strategies. And the MISL would keep changing the rules to counteract his inventions to try and maintain parity. “The way we got players on and off the field, the way we used our goalkeepers, the ways we killed the clock, things that had never been seen before.“

One of his most successful moves was to pull the goalkeeper during power plays. Newman saw that when the team was on the power play with the extra man, the goalkeeper did little more than pick up balls that were kicked from the other end to send them back. An additional player could contribute much more than that. He put his new theory to the test in a final regular season game against San Jose. San Jose was already eliminated and the Sockers were just playing for position. “I said to the players that I needed to test whether this would work under the pressure of a real game, so I told them every time we had a power play, we would always take the goalkeeper out and put a field player in. Well, they were not sure about this, but we did it and I think we had six power plays and scored five goals on the power plays. Then I heard the TV announcer say ‘well, that’s one of Newman’s tricks, but he wouldn’t dare use it in a big playoff game.’ But that’s exactly what I was doing it for. I wanted to see whether it would work.”

In the final game of the 1982-83 championship series against Baltimore, San Diego got so beat up that in the final game (best of 5) Ron was worried about their fortunes. San Diego was leading 1-0, but the Blast had kicked them to pieces, and a couple more injuries would leave them without enough players to make a game of it. So when the power play opportunity came, he called for the goalkeeper to come out. “The players faces went white; I could see they weren’t in the right mood, so I relented, and we didn’t score. Had I lost the only chance? Well into the third period I realized we might not get another opportunity, so when we finally got another power play late in the period, I didn’t even look at the players; I yelled ‘Quick! Change the goalie!’ And I remember Ade Cocker scored in six seconds to put us up 2-0, which was enough of a cushion for us to win the championship. Later on we didn’t use it as much because it lost the element of surprise. Eventually people would realize you don’t just have to slap it to the other end; you can take time and aim more carefully.”

The NASL and MISL both ran into financial troubles early in the 1980s. The problems extended beyond a mere rivalry between the leagues, but in the ways that the owners approached the business, and both leagues were guilty of this. In the heady NASL days “Everybody wants to win, wants the best players. So at the start of the season, the owners are willing to pay the extra 100 thousand, extra million because they think if they win the championship, more people will come. But then if they don’t win the championship, then they realize how much money they lost and they’re not so interested in the game anymore and the moved or folded franchises and damaged the image of the league.”

Another big factor in the NASL was the players going on strike in 1979, leading to huge legal fees, further financial losses and a disruption of the season. The same mistakes were repeated in the late 1980’s by the MISL as it began to feel competition from the rising American Indoor Soccer Association. The AISA like the MISL had started as a minor league, with low expenditures, but later in the 1980s, they had loftier goals in mind, and soon expanded out of their Midwestern stronghold. When the two leagues began competing for franchises and the salary pressures rose, the MISL in 1988 publicly announced that they would fold the league if the players didn’t agree to a salary cap.

Newman was astounded by the announcement. “It was a terrible mistake on management’s part, coming from the meetings during the all-star game. I thought ‘oh my God, that’s suicide!” You can’t threaten to fold the league just to get what you want, it’s got to be done behind closed doors.” The league got their salary cap, but the public relations damage hurt them so badly that attendance dropped to the point that they lost almost the same amount of revenue as they saved from the salary cap. And lost several teams at the end of the following season. “…So they reduced the salary cap AGAIN! And attendance dropped an equal amount. It was just a domino effect and confidence began to sag”.

The MISL was also hurt by the lack of a major network television contract, and ultimately folded in 1992. The AISA (renamed NPSL in 1990) benefited in the short term from the influx of Baltimore and Cleveland, but by next summer the nations two top indoor teams –the Dallas Sidekicks and the San Diego Sockers along with Los Angeles Phoenix and Monterrey Mexico formed a summer league, the CISL. The NPSL and CISL coexisted uneasily for a number of years, no longer being in direct competition, but the economical sharing of player never got off the ground so neither league could reach the levels of the MISL in its glory years.

Ron Newman was involved at the outset of the CISL, but felt they made a major mistake by playing in the summer. He and Gordon Jago had been convinced by the owner of the NBA’s Lakers Jerry Buss to join the nescient group which had already put together several franchises. The major attraction was the large arenas full of open dates during the slow off-season months.

But it was tough going; as Ron felt the people running the league seriously lacked experience. “It was left to Gordon and me, really, to straighten the thing out all the time. And the great playing dates never came about because Arena Football league started that same year, and Roller Hockey made major inroads, and later women’s basketball. In Vegas the owner of the CISL team also owned an Arena Football team and had to contend with a Canadian Football League team that started the same year. And we couldn’t really go back to winter, because as soon as the MISL folded, all their playing dates had been gobbled up by minor league hockey; the system was always whoever’s been their longest gets their choice of dates. So the CISL was pretty much a disaster from the financial point of view.”

On the field things were somewhat better. Newman played a major role in formulation of the game rules for the CISL. He put back a number of rules from the FIFA Futsal system. “We made it more like the FIFA rules, with a new differences. We didn’t need the square penalty area, we used the rounded one. Zoran Savic, he’s seen the game, he thinks the game we played in the CISL was usually the best, and he has been trying to get the MISL II [the current indoor league of 2003] to copy the rules, and he’s gradually succeeded.”.

“For this year [2003-04], they have gotten rid of the stupid 1, 2, 3 point goals system I was dead set against that from the start. It’s a lot harder to score in front of the box than from behind the red line. If you’re awarding points for difficult goals, what comes next, four points for a scissors kick? And when you see the score like 24-17, you wonder what the real score was.”

One of the major developments in US soccer in the early 1990s was the election of Alan Rothenberg as head of the United States Soccer Federation in 1990. Ron Newman played a major, if largely unheralded, role in that election. By 1990, the Major Indoor Soccer League was the only active top-division pro soccer league in the country, and as a result controlled the votes allocated to Professional leagues at the USSF annual convention, which was almost 1/3 of the votes. At that time the league consisted of seven teams.

Ron Newman was dispatched to the convention by the Sockers’ owner Oscar Ancira to vote his conscience for the new president. Gordon Jago had been given the same mission from Dallas. Newman was surprised to find that their seven teams actually controlled such a large bloc of votes. This was a result of the NASL’s demands back in the early 1980s that the professional leagues be given a larger bloc of votes (the NASL had 24 teams at the time, and the MISL was growing rapidly). Despite the demise of the NASL, and the shrinking of the MISL, the seat allocation had never been changed.

“So Gordon and I had an incredible amount of power over there, representing the two top indoor teams. We talked to the other MISL owners and eventually decided to vote as a collective group where we could have a lot more power. We [Newman and Jago] actually controlled a third of the votes in the nation. This was HUGE! The politics were incredible. We were getting notes under our doors, people trying to get to us. The main argument against Alan Rothenberg was that he didn’t know much about soccer (outside of the Olympics). That he was using soccer to step up the ladder of his career. I said ‘What’s wrong with that? If he wants to do that, he’ll have to take soccer up with him. We need somebody with the know-how, the contacts and the desire’.”

“The people we were trying to push out, the group up in New York, were great soccer enthusiasts, great big-hearted people who loved the game, really didn’t have the know-how; people were doing what they wanted to do, not what was good for the game in the country. We said ‘if Rothenberg wants to go to the top, let him take soccer with him. He cannot afford to fail’. So we went to the task to make sure he was elected. He was, and the 1994 World Cup was one of the most successful cups in history.”

Ron was thoughtful in his prognosis for the future of indoor soccer in the United States. “I believe very strongly that the future of the indoor game is its recognition by FIFA.” Meaning the recognition of the US-style indoors, rather than the currently recognized Futsal. And the US-style game was very nearly recognized by FIFA in the mid 1980s — until politics intervened.

Joao Havilland, president of FIFA at the time, had witnessed the large growth of the indoor game in the US and Mexico, and of Futsal in Brazil and various other leagues and tournaments in Europe and stated he would check out the action and decide if FIFA should recognize a particular form of indoor soccer.

“Well, it was a setup. He wanted Futsal from the start, and made arguments like ‘well, there are countries like Bermuda or Peru that couldn’t possibly host an indoor world cup because they don’t have the facilities like in America’. Well, I thought, those countries wouldn’t get an outdoor world cup either, and this was a stupid argument. But that’s just the way they talked about it.” Another proponent of the US-style game was a member of the Mexican Futbol Association who had influence within the FIFA high circles, who pushed the American game based on its similarity to Futbol Rapido (The Mexican game, very similar, but usually with the arena situated in outdoor settings), but he died suddenly, costing the American game its major sponsor.

Newman feels that if the American form of the indoor game had been adopted, it would be much bigger than Futsal is now, given the existing strength of the US and Mexican indoor leagues, which now sit on the sidelines in the world scene. “It is possible that FIFA may extend recognition in the future, but it’s all up to the politics. Not a matter of which game is better, but who has the power. “I really believe that its worth trying to get indoor and outdoor soccer merged together in this country, but for now, the United States Soccer Federation is spending most of their efforts promoting Futsal.“

As for the immediate future, Newman feels the best the new MISL can do is keep going the way its going now, building on its history, bringing the rules closer to FIFA standards, and bringing in more leadership people who have a deep appreciation for what’s happened before so the league does not repeat past mistakes. If they can do this, then the league has a chance for a better future.