Showmanship suffers in MSL as ex-players pine for old days

February 13, 1992|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Staff Writer

Maybe the Major Soccer League needs to go through mid-life crisis.

Get rid of the three-piece suits and let down the hair. Increase the salary cap and import more foreign players again. Dust off the ZZ Top, and go back to fancy player introductions. And try to lure some of the old passionate owners back into the game.

The MSL, in its effort to grow up, has lost some of its personality. Grown-up or not, the league's 13th All-Star Game will be played tonight at the Baltimore Arena at 8:05.

"No color, no gimmicks, no villains, no characters, nothing anymore since the late 1980s" said Juli Veee, possibly the league's most flamboyant and certainly most quotable player in the 1980s, who is now retired and a painter in San Diego.

"Who do they have now?" said Veee, who was once fined $2,000 after being caught running naked outside a Wichita, Kan., hotel after fellow players locked him out of his room. "Tatu is their biggest star. He tears off his shirt. Big deal. The guy is only 4 feet tall. Billy Ronson, colorful? He is only 2 feet tall. It's an embarrassment. The league has become Mickey Mouse."

Actually, league attendance has increased 25 percent from a year ago and base attendance hasn't changed much in the 14-year history of the sport.

But even MSL officials concede the showmanship that was once a major part of the league has diminished.

"There's no question . . . that some of the leagues have emulated the MSL," said league commissioner Earl Foreman, who with Ed Tepper founded the league in 1978. "Back then, it was considered bush league and the media had a negative attitude about it."

When Bill Kentling was named commissioner in 1986, the league yielded to the pressure from the media as well as the league's board of directors and changed its image.

The choice of Kentling was ironic. Years before, as Wichita's general manager, he was one of the most controversial figures in the league. Once he came close to inciting a riot, when he and 22 Wings players chased Minnesota goalkeeper Tino "Parrot Man" Lettieri around the Wichita arena.

Regardless, Kentling the commissioner leveled fines against outspoken players, and outlawed certain gimmicks. Lettieri could no longer put his toy parrot on the goal cage. Cleveland and later Baltimore forward Keith Furphy was not allowed to dance like Michael Jackson after scoring a goal. Preki, Steve Zungul and Mike Stankovic had to stop spitting on players.

Lettieri, now owner of a food processing plant in Minnesota, said: "Every team had one or two players who were drawing cards and the entertainment was great. That's what people come out to see. Then the league started putting a barrier between us and the fans."

But the game itself, after six years, was also starting to change. The era of specialization had ended. More teams went to an all-out assault offense and no longer needed scoring wizards like Stan "The Magician" Stamenkovic or Zungul, "Lord of All Indoors".

Additionally, the league has always had financial problems as the owners and players struggle to find a mutually acceptable salary cap. In 1987-88, it was $1.275 million; this year, it is $550,000.

The financial squabbles have also resulted in numerous changes in ownership. In the league's early days, owners seemed to be loyal to soccer first, business second. Bernie Rodin, who owned the Blast in the early years, was a fiery competitor who frequently traveled with the team. He once dumped ice on an official after a game, and offered incentives such as appliances and cash for victories.

Former Cleveland Force owners Bart and Iris Wolstein were just as competitive and for years had a running feud with the Blast front office. They were known to ridicule the team about "the dumpy Baltimore arena which had bad food and roaches."

The most competitive owner was Lee Stern of the now-defunct Chicago Sting. Once, after an 8-7 loss to Kansas City in 1988, Stern said he would sell his team for a nickel. "Those people had a passion for the game," said Kentling. "I can't speak for the present owners, but there was extreme loyalty by the owners to succeed and put a lot of money into their product."

Foreman, though, said the MSL still has a good product and dynamic personalities like Preki, Ronson and Cris Vaccaro. Foreman hopes to add two cities to the league next season and sign a network television contract.

He also noted that some of the teams still have electrifying pre-game introductions: Tacoma uses a laser show and St. Louis uses steam.

But there is nothing today like the pre-game scene in Dallas in 1987 when an ambulance pulled into the arena, and Victor Moreland was brought out in a stretcher. A voice over the public address system shouted: "You thought we were dead, didn't ya. But we're alive and kicking."

Those are the days former players like Veee, Lettieri and Lawson would like to see back again in the MSL.

"There's one way to do that," said Veee. "Make me commissioner."

MSL ALL-Star Game

What: 13th Annual MSL All-Star Game and Seventh Annual USAir College Indoor Soccer Shoiwcase

Where: Baltimore Arena

When: Showcase at %:05 tonight and MSL All-Star Game at 8:05 tonight

Radio: WCAO (600 AM) will broadcast MSL All-Star Game at 7:50

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