By Michael Lewis
The new leadership of the Major Arena Soccer League certainly brings a unique look and new outlook to the indoor soccer league.
Not one, not two, but three soccer icons with strong ties to the indoor game will run the show: would be commissioner Keith Tozer, chairman Shep Messing and president of communications/media JP Dellacamera.
They were named to their positions Thursday will assume their responsibilities June 15.
“It’s definitely a wow factor,” Messing said in a phone interview. “We’re all so excited. Our love for the indoor game has never left us. You know the opportunity to drive this league and take control and try and get it to where we believe it should be. This is a labor of love for us, because we believe in the sport so much.”
Tozer, 64, is on the on-field genius, having recorded more than 700 wins in a professional career that has spanned more than three decades. He coached the Louisville Thunder, Los Angeles Lazers, Atlanta/Kansas City Attack and most recently the Milwaukee Wave. Tozer also was the U.S. futsal national team head coach from June 1997 to June 2017.
Messing, 71, backstopped the New York Arrows to the first four Major Indoor Soccer League titles. A member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic soccer team, the Roslyn, N.Y. native played with Pele on the Cosmos’ 1977 North American Soccer League championship team. He is currently the analyst on Red Bulls’ broadcasts on the MSG Networks.
Dellacamera, 69, was the voice of the Major Indoor Soccer League game of the week on ESPN during the early days of the league. He has worked 15 World Cups. Among the countless matches and championships that he has announced, Dellacamera probably is best known for his work on the U.S. men’s national team’s 1-0 win in Trinidad & Tobago that clinched a berth in the 1990 World Cup and the U.S. women’s national team’s shootout victory over China in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final. Most recently, he has worked for FOX Sports. In 2018, he was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame as he was honored with the Colin Jose Media Award.
“We wanted to make sure that the league was ready for us, and vice versa. We each have different backgrounds,” Messing said. “Professional indoor soccer is the common denominator, but JP certainly in media, television and streaming and promotion. Keith is boots to the ground, doing it daily; competition, rules, regulations. … He’s been in the game at every level as a player as a coach. Mine is what I call the big picture.”
Messing’s duties include bringing in money, sponsors, investors and new franchises that have owners with the right vision.
“I’m out there looking to increase the level of play, to increase salaries,” he said. “What’s the three-year plan? What’s the five-year plan? So, mine is really as any chairman of a company would do. Mine is growth in the future. How do you do that? You do that by bringing revenue in by bringing sponsors in, by landing and television deals. By expanding, not just for the sake of expansion, but with a direction.
“Look, [commissioner] Don Garber in Major League Soccer is the best example of how to grow a league.”
Messing said any potential new owners and expansion teams will be closely vetted.
“We have to look at what the financial requirements are,” he said. “We want to raise the level of the league from top to bottom. So, the plan for next year right now tentative.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic ended the 2019-20 season prematurely just before the playoffs were scheduled to kick off, the MASL had 16 teams. Only seven franchises – the champion San Diego Sockers, Florida Tropics, Orlando Fury, Kansas City Comets, St. Louis Ambush, Tacoma Stars and Dallas Sidekicks – participated in a truncated 2021 season. Many clubs could not play due local crowd restrictions and their venues being used as vaccination centers.
The nine teams that did not compete this past season were the Baltimore Blast, Harrisburg Heat, Milwaukee Wave, Rochester Lancers, Utica City FC, Mesquite Outlaws, Turlock Cal Express, Monterrey Flash and Sonora Soles.
The triumvirate needs to figure out how many of those 16 franchises will return for the 2021-22 season.
“Sixteen teams. How many are in, how many are out?” Messing asked. “That’s the basic number for the league that has been playing 16 starting sometime towards the end of November.”
The weekend of Nov. 26 is the tentative starting date for next season, he added.
“That’s our first job,” Messing said. “How many of the 16 teams are viable, ready to play, have arenas and are ready to go at the start of the season? Obviously, everybody all over the world is getting through a COVID year. But that’s the plan for us to dig down over the next month or two or three: Who’s with us, who’s not, who’s in as the 16?”
The threesome’s exact goals of a three-year and five-year plans have not been cemented quite yet.
“The general plan is to build up the level of play, build up the revenue, build up the salaries and make this really what the original Major Indoor Soccer League was, which is in many cities like St. Louis, Wichita, Cleveland, Kansas City, Buffalo, sold out arenas,” Messing said.
“I tell people that I played with Pele in the [North American Soccer League] championship I played in America in front of 100,000 people. The most electric atmosphere I ever played in was St. Louis at the Checkerdome in the finals in front of packed house [in 1981]. We want to get the league back to where it once reached in the 80s: Attendance, sellouts in many arenas across the country, national television deal. That’s the general three-to-five-year plan. We haven’t dug down any deeper than that but that’s the goal.
“We were not doing this and not interested in doing it, unless the owners had the same vision. They could stay just the way they are and be happy with how the league was doing. We had much greater ambitions than that, and we found out that they do, too.”
There are several challenges to tackle, big and small.
One appears to be the name of the league, the Major Arena Soccer League. No doubt the game is played in an arena, but it is indoor soccer.
Tozer, Dellacamera and Messing have strong ties to the original Major Indoor Soccer League, which ran from 1978-92. Messing indicated that the trio would look into the league’s name.
“We’re going to be known as an indoor soccer league. That’s what we are,” he said. “It’s going be a main topic over the summer.”
To many soccer fans in the 21st century, Messing has been best associated with the outdoor games, specifically with the Red Bulls as their analyst for two decades. He said the indoor game still was close to his heart.
“I never gave up on indoor soccer, he said. “I can’t tell you how many times over the years, people had come to me, including the Brooklyn Nets when they renovated the [Nassau] Coliseum a few years ago about partnering with them.”
That was in 2015, about having the resurrected New York Arrows play at their venue.
“I’ve been dabbling in resurrecting this, talking to NBA owners, NHL owners,” Messing said.
“It’s never left my mind. So, this opportunity to join MASL and try and really ramp them up. I’ve been looking for a long time. So, together with our three different backgrounds, we think we’re right for the league. We think the league is right for us.”