By Michael Lewis
As all-star games go, the 1981 Major Indoor Soccer League’s certainly was one unique event, to say the least.
After all, there hadn’t been an indoor soccer game in the world-famous venue for decades and MISL was looking to make inroads the city. It already had a franchise on Long Island, the New York Arrows, who were en route to winning their third league championship in as many seasons.
The contest was the first MISL game at the Garden, which would be followed by three Arrows games over the next several weeks.
Not surprisingly, the Eastern Division was dominated by the likes of Arrows stars Steve Zungul, Branko Segota and Shep Messing, but as we all know, the team with the most talent doesn’t always win and that was demonstrated on Feb. 11, 1981. The Arrows were 27-3 at that time.
The Western Division, behind MVP Adrian Brooks’ two goals in the fourth quarter and Paul Kitson’s short-handed score, pulled off an 8-5 upset in front of 13,170.
“The West wanted it more,” said Segota, who collected a goal and two assists. “The East didn’t want it as much as Popovic did.”
That would be Arrows and East coach Don Popovic. “The best players don’t always fit together best,” Arrows defender David D’Errico said. “Our individuals were better, but the West’s blended together.”
National Soccer Hall of Famer Joe Machnik, a Brooklyn, N.Y. native and a long-time New York Rangers hockey fan who sat in the MSG stands rooting on his favorite team, realized a dream when he worked the middle of that game.
“I was a hockey fan, the Rangers. Crazy,” Machnik told me three years ago. “I went to my first game in 1953. It was at a time when you could go with a high school G.O. [government organization] card for 40 cents to the old Garden.”
As it turned out, that led Machnik to discovering soccer.
“I had nothing to do in the afternoons waiting for the Sunday night game,” he said. “They always played Sunday night at seven. I would go out to the park [McCarren Park] and watch soccer. That was my first exposure to the game.”
An couple of interesting side notes:
Sonny Werblin, the president of Madison Square Corporation, told the New York Times’ Alex Yannis afterwards that the paying crowd was 9,073.
And about the credentials that are pictured above this story. Yes, media members needed two of them. One was a giant pin that we had to wear and an actual ticket to tell the media where to sit in the press box.
In case you were wondering, the third rendition of MSG, located at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street, unveiled indoor soccer to NYC on Feb. 10, 1941, almost 40 years to the day of the all-star game. According to a Garden press release, four teams with seven men on each side played a pair of 20-minute halves with the winners meeting in a game of two 15-minute halves on the arena’s marble and concrete floor.
In what the New York Daily News called “a riotous debut,” at the old Madison Square Garden, a crowd of 8,000 witnessed a doubleheader on Feb. 10, 1941. In the opener, the Brookhattan Truckers shut out St. Mary’s Celtics, 2-0, “a mixture of feet and fists which was enlivened by a three-minute free-for-all just as the first half ended.”
The quality of play, or lack thereof, was hampered by a rather slippery floor that was made up of cement and cork as many players had problems keeping their balance. Three players were carried off with injuries. Oh, and case you were wondering, Joe Boyle scored the first goal and set up the second by Joe Skiba.
The field was 250 by 125 feet with the goals seven feet high and 14 feet wide.
New York Herald Tribune columnist Richards Vidmer wrote: “Apparently, the Garden has hit upon the perfect game for indoor sports enthusiasts … in soccer.”
In a doubleheader that was held at the garden May 6, officials made changes, using a dirt floor left over the circus, and the penalty area and offside was abolished in an attempt to limit fighting. Little did that help in the second game. In the opener, a team made up of players from the New York Americans and Brookhattan players defeated the Scots Americans, 3-2, as Boyle tallied two late goals to ice the game.
In the second game, St. Mary’s survived a 4-1 victory over Brooklyn Hispano, 4-1, as a fight broke out five minutes after the opening kickoff. How bad was it, the Daily News reported that the match “was nearly completed at the Polyclinic Hospital.”
There were reports that the crowds were so encouraging that an organized league might be formed the next winter. It never happened because there were outside forces to strong to stop, such as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II that curtailed many plans.
It was almost 30 years before another major indoor tournament was held, this one in St. Louis during the winter of 1971. Since the game was a hybrid of hockey and soccer, the North American Soccer League tournament was called Hoc-Soc.
But that’s another story for another time.