The New York Arrows run of four straight Major Indoor Soccer League titles started in 1979, one year before the Islanders Stanley Cup dynasty began.
When you think about the 43-year pre-renovation history of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the Islanders’ run of four straight Stanley Cups from 1979-80 through 1982-83 is certainly one of the first things that come to mind. That team was loaded with superstars like Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, Billy Smith, Clark Gillies and Billy Smith.
But the Islanders weren’t the only dynasty that called the Coliseum home during that era.
A year before the Islanders first championship, the New York Arrows of the brand new Major Indoor Soccer League commenced play during the 1978-79 season.
The Arrows arrived on the New York area sports scene while the Cosmos were in the middle of their glory days in the original North American Soccer League playing in front of huge crowds at Giants Stadium. So the concept of soccer being played indoors on top of a hockey rink was new to local fans.
“Indoor soccer at the start of the MISL was a monumental shift in the landscape of professional soccer in this country,” said former Arrows goalkeeper Shep Messing. “We had played an exhibition game in front of a sold-out crowd in Philadelphia the previous year, a USA all-star team against the Russian Army team.”
After that successful showcase game, the Major Indoor Soccer League was born and Messing, who had previously played with the Cosmos and won a Soccer Bowl with Pele in 1977, jumped at the chance to return to New York. The league needed a name player that would help spark interest, especially in the biggest market in the country.
“I became the first player signed to join the league,” recalled Messing who left the Cosmos to join the Oakland Stompers in 1978. “The Arrows meant coming home to New York after playing in Oakland and joining a new league that I believed in.”
Messing was already a familiar name to local sports fans but he would soon have company in that category. The Arrows named Don Popovic as their first ever coach and he put together one of the greatest clubs in American soccer history with players like Messing, Steve Zungul and Branko Segota.
The Arrows made their debut against the Pete Rose-owned Cincinnati Kids on Dec. 22, 1978, in front of 10,386 fans at the Nassau Coliseum. With the Islanders on the precipice of being a championship team, the Arrows fit right in on Long Island and finished the regular season in second place with a record 16-8. They would go on to beat the Philadelphia Fever in the finals to win the league’s first championship.
Zungul quickly became the Arrows’ version of Mike Bossy with a scoring touch second to none. He was the league’s best player and an unstoppable scoring machine. Sports Illustrated would later call him “Lord Of All Indoors” and when he was on the field, you paid attention to number seven like you would have when Pele graced the outdoor pitches all over the world.
He was simply amazing.
“Zungul was a gifted player with all the physical tools to become the best player ever to play in the MISL,” said Messing. “Quick, smart, left and right foot, good in the air and instinctual goal scorer.”
Zungul was a quiet superstar but certainly lit up the Coliseum scoreboard and was considered a great teammate. However, after that first championship win over Philadelphia, Zungul was not named the finals MVP. That honor went to Messing and Zungul was furious. In fact, things got pretty heated on the bus ride home to Long Island.
“As a teammate, he was competitive beyond belief,” recalled Messing. “Zungul got into a shouting and shoving fight with me saying that he deserved the award. (He was) pretty funny, but a competitor to say the least.”
Zungul provided so many memorable moments for the Arrows but the most exciting was when he scored the game-winning goal in the 1981 MISL Championship Game at St. Louis. His tally with thirty seconds left stunned the crowd and gave the Arrows a 6-5 win over the Steamers for title number three.
It was one of Messing’s favorite moments along with the first championship and any road game that the Arrows played against their biggest rival.
“Championship in Philly, Championship in the Checkerdome in St. Louis and every game against the Blast in Baltimore,” said Messing regarding the moments he will remember most.
Messing also cherishes the fact that he had Popovic as his head coach. He was to the Arrows what General Manager Bill Torrey and Head Coach Al Arbour were to the Islanders. He was the architect and leader of one of the greatest soccer teams ever assembled.
“Don Popovic was a genius and the perfect man to lead the Arrows to four consecutive MISL championships,” said Messing.” “He understood the game and created systems to benefit from the rules including changing players on the fly.”
The nucleus of the Arrows was mainly intact during their run of four straight MISL titles but they also tweaked the roster each year. After the second title, the Arrows were fortunate to add a gifted forward in Frantz St. Lot, now an assistant men’s soccer coach at NYIT on Long Island. A veteran of the NASL, the talented Haitian was excited to join what was already a championship club.
He also had a feeling that the NASL wasn’t going to be around much longer.
“I knew the league was going to be going under because the money that I wanted I couldn’t get it, said St. Lot. “Coach Popovic spoke with my agent and the next thing you know he says listen they are very very interested in you to play for the New York Arrows. That team was one of the best teams that money can buy.”
The Arrows also would hire a former Cosmos executive who actually tried to get the two local championship soccer teams to square off against each other.
In 1981, Krikor Yepremian, the brother of former NFL kicker Garo Yepremian, resigned as the Cosmos Vice-President and General Manager and a week later joined the Arrows as President and General Manager. After Yepremian joined the Arrows, there was a proposal made for the two local clubs to play a home and home series, one game at the Nassau Coliseum and one game on Cosmos turf, presumably at the Meadowlands Arena.
“We challenged them,” said St. Lot. “If they want to play us, we got the building. We could play one game at home and one away. There was no response to that.”
The Cosmos would eventually dabble in the indoor game but there was never a head to head matchup with the Arrows who simply focused on winning games and championships. They combined with the Islanders to spoilsports fans on Long Island with eight titles over a five-season period between 1979 and 1983.
While the Coliseum was known as “Fort Neverlose” because of the Islanders’ success there, you could have said the same thing about the Arrows time in the barn. It’s not often that two sports teams playing in the same building can enjoy so much success at the same time.
But the Arrows and Islanders enjoyed dynasties at just about the same time.
“In that building, what we achieved and what the Islanders achieved I don’t think there could ever be two championship teams like this ever,” said St. Lot.
One of the neat things about that era was that you could see players from both teams out and about in the community. You might be having dinner at a restaurant and see one of the players from either team or you might run into one of them just walking down the street because they might have lived in your neighborhood.
As it turns out, the Arrows and Islanders spent some time interacting with fans in the community but also the players from both teams did so much winning and shared so much in common that they forged plenty of friendships along the way.
“The Islanders and Arrows dominating at the Nassau Coliseum those years was one of the greatest times for Long Island pro sports,” said Messing. “I became friendly and trained with many of those great Islanders like (Bryan) Trottier, (Mike) Bossy, (Clark) Gillies, (Bobby) Nystrom, and Billy Smith. Several of us competed in the ABC “Superstars” competition in the Bahamas after the season and some of those friendships are lasting today.”
Overall, the Arrows played six seasons in the Major Indoor Soccer League, but their last two campaigns weren’t nearly as successful as the first four.
After the fourth championship in 1982, the team was sold and then in January of 1983, the cash-strapped franchise traded Zungul to the San Jose Earthquakes. The Arrows finished in fourth place during their final two seasons and they folded in 1984.
Two years later, indoor soccer returned to the Coliseum for the 1986-87 MISL season with the expansion New York Express. Shep Messing was a co-owner of that club and he also played but the Express didn’t produce the same magic as the Arrows. They began the season 0-10 and they were 3-23 when they folded at the All-Star break because of financial problems.
Over three decades later, maybe it’s time to give indoor soccer another shot on Hempstead Turnpike.
“I would be the happiest person,” said St. Lot. “I would love to see soccer get back.”
It’s not crazy to think it could happen.
After the Islanders left the Coliseum for Brooklyn in 2015, the old barn went through a massive renovation and the arena reopened in April 2017 as “NYCB Live, home of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The renovated Coliseum has hosted concerts and family shows, Long Island Nets basketball games, one Islanders pre-season game, college basketball and college hockey.
There’s been some chatter about the Islanders returning to play some if not all of their games over the next few seasons while the Belmont Park Arena is built. It’s also possible that an AHL franchise eventually calls the Coliseum home and there are rumors of an Indoor Lacrosse team coming to Long Island.
If Messing has his way, there will be another indoor soccer team as well.
“I am still looking to resurrect an indoor pro team on Long Island,” said Messing. “Stay tuned.”
Indoor soccer is just the type of sport that could work at NYCB Live. It would be affordable family entertainment and the sport is already part of the Coliseum’s DNA. If and when a new team arrives, it would be cool to have a retro night to honor the Arrows and maybe even retire a few numbers like “Messing-1,” “Zungul-7,” and “Segota-20.”
Here’s hoping the rocket red ball or any color soccer ball eventually makes its way back to the Coliseum.