Sockers to Now Focus on Signing Players, Luring Fans to 'MSL'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Major Indoor Soccer League on Tuesday said at league meetings in Baltimore that it will be phasing the "Indoor" from its title as a precursor to an agreement with the U.S. Soccer Federation.

That agreement is likely to lead to a limited outdoor schedule by MISL teams, satisfying the requirements of FIFA, soccer's world governing body, that the United States field a professional outdoor league before it plays host to the 1994 World Cup.

But with all that going on, the Sockers' interest remains mostly on indoor play and how they will go about charting a course for a ninth title in 10 years.

At Monday's press conference to announce that the league will go forward with eight teams, Socker owner Ron Fowler said plans for his team had been on hold the past month while the league concentrated efforts on keeping alive the St. Louis franchise.

As a result, the Sockers have yet to: 1) begin a season-ticket sales push; 2) fill two vacant front-office positions, director of sales and vice-president of marketing, and 3) work out radio and television deals.

Oh, yeah, they need to sign some players. As of now, only forward Branko Segota is under contract for next season.

With a new collective bargaining agreement ratified by owners at Tuesday's league meetings in Baltimore, almost all league players become free agents. That's because the new agreement reduces the salary cap by $140,000 to $630,000 per team. Players insisted they be allowed to negotiate league-wide.

(Segota has one more year left on a guaranteed contract that keeps him from having to go the free-agent route. He will earn $102,000, $30,000 above the new maximum of $72,000.)

Fowler and Coach Ron Newman said they should be able to retain the nucleus that helped the Sockers in June claim their eighth title in nine years.

"Obviously a lot of other teams are taking shots at (our players)," Fowler said. "But I would expect that 10 of our top 12 players will be back for sure."

Still, gathering that many signatures won't be easy.

"I think trouble is going to come from every different direction," Newman said. "These guys won another championship, and I think their value increased throughout the league, and each one naturally expects that if there is going to be a special case, that they are going to be that special case. But the trouble is, there's 18 of them, and we can't justify increasing all their salaries across the board."

Some, however, will have to be increased:

-- Midfielder Wes Wade last year was on a six-month developmental contract that paid him just $1,000 per month. This year, he must be signed to a professional contract that calls for higher minimums: $2,000 per month for first-year players, $2,250 for second-year players and $2,500 for third-year players. It is not known whether Wade will be considered a first- or second-year player, but it may not matter. Because he became a main contributor to the team, he will likely get more than the minimum of $2,500 for a second-year player.

-- Forward Rod Castro made $22,500 in his first indoor season. It was announced Tuesday that he had finished third in newcomer-of-the-year voting (with 18 votes) to Claudio De Oliveira of St. Louis (42) and Ron Fearon of Baltimore (30).

-- Paul Wright came back to the Sockers midway through the season in a trade with Cleveland and was credited with jump-starting an idle season and getting the team into the playoffs. He made $25,000 last year and made it known after the season he wouldn't mind going back to Cleveland if that's where the money is.

--George Fernandez earned $30,000 during a year in which he came into his own, being named most valuable player at the All-Star game and most valuable defender for the Sockers. He is expected to get a raise.

Veteran defender Kevin Crow, who made $60,000 last year, said Monday he will take a pay cut. Others who may be in line for reductions include goalkeeper Zoltan Toth ($68,000 last year), midfielder Brian Quinn ($60,000), midfielder Waad Hirmez ($54,000) and forward Damir Haramina ($45,000).

Players are not the only unsigned talent the Sockers must worry about. Fowler said "it was too late a month ago" to hire a new director of sales and a vice-president of marketing.

He said both positions likely will be filled within seven days. The preferred candidates are now employed, and Fowler said he didn't want to hire them until he was sure the league was going to be around.

Season-ticket sales also must be addressed. Last year, there were 3,200 sold. The goal this year is 3,500. But Fowler said, "To be honest with you, I would actually like to see 4,000."

He later added, "With the league stability and a stronger, more dynamic sales force, we expect to do better with corporate sales than we have in the past. I'm hoping the majority of the increase will come from corporations."

He and president Ron Cady are also talking to a number of radio stations and two TV stations about carrying Socker games. He would not identify them.

MISL Notes

The name change to Major Soccer League will be done gradually as lawyers are consulted over copyright, trademark and licensing questions. . . . The league also filled a post that had been vacant for five years. Ellen Erhman will be the new director of marketing. . . . The regular season has been reduced from 56 games to 52, with the opener scheduled for Oct. 19. The season ends April 17. The playoff format remains the same, with one minor adjustment. The first round will be a three-game series rather than five games. . . . The league also announced a three-year deal with Bike Athletics that calls for that company to supply all uniforms and practice supplies. . . . Socker Donald Cogsville finished third in rookie of the year voting with 16 votes. Terry Brown of St. Louis was the overwhelming choice with 78 votes, and Angelo Panzetta of Baltimore received 17 votes.

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