Anyone who was out of the country for the summer might not recognize the Major Soccer League when its 13th season begins tonight.
The league -- formerly the Major Indoor Soccer League -- has a new name; the goals are 2 feet wider and 1 foot higher; glamour boy Preki is in St. Louis instead of Tacoma, Wash.; Dale Mitchell is wearing a Baltimore Blast uniform instead of a Kansas City Comets uniform; and former Blast captain Carl Valentine is in Kansas City, Mo.
In other words, the eight-team league survived another midsummer crisis.
The St. Louis Storm, losers of $1.5 million as an expansion franchise last season, nearly folded.
When it looked as if Storm owner Milan Mandaric were going to ceaseoperations, San Diego Sockers owner Ron Fowler said he would pull his team out of the league if St. Louis didn't return for the 1990-91 season.
But Mandaric was bailed out of his financial problems July 23 by a group of St. Louis investors who put $500,000 into the franchise.
For the first time in league history, all of the same franchises will be returning for another season. That is a sign of stability after the tumultuous years from 1986 to 1989 when the league went from 12 teams to seven to eight.
All eight coaches also are returning to the same teams.
But the failure to land a major television contract and expansion delays remain problems for MSL commissioner Earl Foreman.
Foreman had hoped to escalate last season's nine-game tape-delay ESPN contract into a live contract this season. But a deal never came off, and Foreman had to settle for a 15-game live contract with the cable station SportsChannel America.
Expansion is considered to be critical to the future of the league, and Foreman said in February that he hoped to have at least one new team for this season.
The leading contender to join the MSL was Charlotte, N.C., but prospective owner George Shinn, who also owns the Charlotte Hornets in the National Basketball Association, couldn't find an arena in time to commit for the 1990-91 season.
Foreman is still optimistic about the league expanding into Charlotte or Greensboro, N.C.
"Our target date for an announcement on expansion into North Carolina is the All-Star Game in February," said Foreman. "We'd like to have two [N.C.] teams for the 1991-92 season."
Four other sites for expansion teams are Minneapolis-St. Paul, Anaheim, Calif., Buffalo, N.Y., and Sacramento, Calif.
Six of the eight teams will open their seasons tonight, with the six-time MISL champion San Diego Sockers playing the Comets at Kansas City, the Dallas Sidekicks meeting the Stars at Tacoma, and the Wichita Wings facing the Storm at St. Louis.
The Blast will open its 11th season at Wichita, Kan., tomorrow night at 8:35 p.m.