December 2, 2007
Ironmen off to a good start
NEWARK, NJ---Itís been a long time since there has been an indoor soccer opening night around here.
The New Jersey Ironmen pulled off a major publicity coup by having soccer legend Pele attend their home opener.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
More than 20 years, and that was for the short-lived New York Express, which didnít finish their first and only season in the old Major Indoor Soccer League.
Thatís been the thing about indoor soccer around here. The teams tend to come and go. Iíve been to the openers of five different teams. The New York Arrows back in 1978, the New Jersey Rockets, the Cosmos in two different leagues, the MISL and the NASL, and the aforementioned Express.
And Saturday night, the New Jersey Ironmen.
Letís hope this is the last indoor team whose inaugural game I attend. From a lot of indications, this one might be able to grow some roots.
The team is owned Jeffrey Vanderbeek and Michael Gilfillan. They also own the New Jersey Devils of the National Hockey League, and the beautiful new $364 million Prudential Center in downtown Newark.
The team is making an effort to be involved in the community, and the owners have a partnership with the city to develop and renovate soccer fields throughout the city.
For their opener Saturday, they pulled out all the stops and brought in Pele as an honorary captain. Thatís akin to bringing Moses down from the Mount to read the commandments to your Sunday school.
The very first indoor soccer opening night ever, hosted by original MISLís New York Arrows in December,1978, featured Pete Rose, he of baseball and gambling infamy. Rose was a minority owner of the Arrowsí opponents, the Cincinnati Kids, so the league trotted him out for publicity any time they could.
The Ironmen are more than a step ahead by bringing in Pele, who told the gathered media before the game that long before he led Brazil to World Cup glory, as a 14-year-old he was the leading scorer in an indoor tournament near his hometown in Brazil.
The attendance for those long ago openers escapes me, but the crowd at the Pru easily was as large as any of them. So this team is off to a good start. Maybe better than most.
And, for an expansion team, they are good, already winning four of their first five games. They made sure the product on the field would be competitive when they hired Omid Namazi to coach the team. Namazi has had a string of successes in the indoor league, coaching teams into the championship game in Philadelphia, Cleveland and St. Louis. He also coached the San Diego Spirit of the Womenís United Soccer League to their first- ever playoff appearance.
Only problem for Namazi has been that most of the teams have folded out from under him. Thatís probably not going to be a problem with the ownership backing the Ironmen.
The team also made a great pr move in bringing in Tony Meola as goalkeeper/ticket sales agent. While Meolaís best days as a player may be behind him, he has played pretty well in the early going. Heís also done a pretty good job of selling tickets, moving about 1700 for the teamís opener.
Saturdayís crowd at the Pru offered more atmosphere than a typical Red Bull game, and even a marriage proposalóshe said yes.
Sure, there have been successful clubs and well-heeled owners involved in soccer before. But this year could be a watershed year for the MISL. The league added two other expansion clubs besides the Ironmen, the Orlando Sharks and Monterrey LaRaza, and for the first time since the league was formed in 2001, the league is returning all its teams from the previous seasons.
Not a success yet by a long shot, but at least this time, the soccer gods have smiled on the effort.