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The offseason prior to the 1991 American Professional Soccer League season was one of massive change. The biggest may have been the league's contraction from 22 teams for the 1990 season down to nine active for the 1991 season. A number of factors were part of this issue including individual team finances to the general unsettled nature of the professional game in the U.S.
In October of 1990, majority owner Art Dixon put the Portland Timbers up for sale. The team lost $600,000 during his two-year tenure. The team had debts of about $10,000 owed to players and coaches in back salaries. The team folded after new investors or owners where not found by the November 1 deadline.
The Arizona Condors were terminated from the APSL due to lack of adequate financing after owner Tony Koleski did not post a $30,000 performance bond by November 1, 1990 in order to keep the franchise. The Washington Diplomats suffered the same fate.
At the same meeting, the APSL approved a merger of the Maryland Bays and Washington Stars franchises. John Koskinen, owner of the Stars, merged his organization with the Bays with the merged team to be called the Maryland Bays. Koskinen served as chairman of the franchise under the new organization and John Lipariri, Bays' owner, acted as president.
The Boston Bolts, New Mexico Chiles and California Emperors also folded. The latter club folded, per president Dean Foley, due to the indecisiveness of the league as to its future in 1992. The USSF was planning on launching its national professional league that year and teams would be asked to put up a $2.5 million bond and have an annual budget of at least $1.2 million to take part. During 1990 the APSL West Conference teams only had to post a $30,000 bond and many spent as little as $200,000 to play. Foley's father, Dan, bankrolled the $175,000 purchase of the California Emperors' franchise and the $300,000 losses during the 1990.
The L.A. Heat also disbanded after failing to post a $20,000 performance bond by the end of December 1990. The pullout of a key investor and the general economic downturn led to the decision. The team had a budget of $360,000 in 1990 but spend about $560,000. The San Diego Nomads also dropped out of the league and attempted to schedule as series of games against western semi-pro teams that year.
The New Jersey Eagles did pay the required fees to stay in the APSL for 1991 but decided not to play during that season. The APSL executive committee required minimum seating of 6000 starting with the 1991 season. The Eagles former stadium did not meet that requirement and the team could not find a stadium by the necessary deadline. Clive Toye, president of the Eagles, continued on as chairman and acting commissioner of the APSL East Conference. The team released most of its players but kept a few key ones to be loaned to other teams.
Similarly, the Seattle Storm kept its membership in the APSL West but withdrew as an active team for the 1991 season. The Storm planned on returning for the 1992 season when the USSF's professional league was up and running. Like Clive Toye, team president, Bill Sage, continued as co-chairman of the APSL.
In January of 1991, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers merged with the Orlando Lions to form a new club called the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Noel Lemon remained majority owner. Colin Phipps, president of the Lions, became a minority owner and joined vice president and minority owner, Tim Robbie, on the board of directors. Thomas Rongen singed a two-year contract as coach and, a month later, Tony Meola signed a one-year contract with the team on loan from the USSF who owned his contract.
Real Santa Barbara and Salt Lake Sting also posted their performance bonds. The latter also decided to sit out the 1991 season as it tried to get league approve to move to Sacramento. The latter franchise was for sale by the Salt Lake Trappers organization. In addition, Jim Goodmon, owner of the Durham Bulls, was given an APSL franchise but decided not to play until the 1992 season due to the anticipated reorganization of professional soccer. Goodmon wanted to wait until the first year of a new league rather than start in the possible last year of an old league.
Many in the organization believed the APSL had been hurt badly by the way the USSF was attempting to form a major professional league by 1992. More than a handful of teams from the APSL decided to sit out the 1991 and wait to play in the 1992 major professional league. Other teams dropped out due to the uncertainty of the situation including the USSF's continued non-recognition of the APSL as a professional league.
The nine-team APSL would play a 21-game schedule during the 1991 season. During the early part of the season, ach team would play once against a non-league team with the results counting in the schedule. Colorado Foxes, Salt Lake Sting and San Francisco Bay Blackhawks hosted Vancouver 86ers of the Canadian Soccer League. Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Penn-Jersey Spirit and Tampa Bay Rowdies hosted Montreal Supra also of the CSL. Maryland Bay and the Miami Freedom hosted Millonarios F.C. of Bogota. While the Bays continued to use Cedar Lane Park in Columbia, Md. at their home field, it would play the game against Millonarios at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. along with three other regular season matches.
In May, just after the APSL regular season had gotten underway, the USSF upgraded the APSL from its senior amateur division to its Professional Division to become the first outdoor league in the U.S. since the North American Soccer League in 1985 to receive professional status. The APSL joined the indoor Major Soccer League as the only members of the USSF's Professional Division.
The APSL had applied for membership in the USSF's Professional Division in 1989. In October of 1990, USSF president Alan Rothenberg appointed a committee to form a plan for a national professional outdoor league to start in 1992. The APSL had five members on the 18-person committee. When FIFA awarded the World Cup to the U.S. it said a national outdoor league should be in place by 1992. USSF considered starting its own league but found that overly ambitious which made accepting the APSL a viable alternative.
The APSL's membership was still provisional. It would become an official member in September if it, and its member clubs, posted $100,000 performance bonds at that time. Professional Division requirements for teams included a fully staffed, year-round front office, eight to twelve players under full-time contracts, and stadiums that could accommodate 6000-10,000. During the 1991 season, many teams did not have true front offices and most players were part-timers with contract that paid in the range of $200-$1000 per game.
With only nine clubs, the APSL completely merged the competition. The league had hoped to slowly implement cross-scheduling but the process was speeded up by a lack of franchises for the separate conferences. While most of the eastern teams were placed in the American Conference, the Maryland Bays were placed in the Western Conference to even out the competition as much as possible.
That proved little difficulty to the defending champions and their new coach, Gary Hindley, former coach of the Orlando Lions. The Bays lost only two matches and boasted the league's most dominant offense.
A number of APSL franchises suffered financial hardships during the season. The Penn-Jersey Spirits narrowly averted a team strike by paying its players literally minutes before a June 15 home game against the Salt Lake Sting at Trenton State College. Players, and coach David MacWilliams, had been paid for their season opener but had not received checks for the seven other contests. The team was in debt to players for about $30,000. MacWilliams went to the league for help and players were paid on the spot for two games by management. The game on June 15 went on as scheduled and eventually the players were paid their back wages. But, Spirit team president, Hugo Nuziale, fired MacWilliams on July 1 stating that the coach did not have control of his players.
The Miami Freedom had the lowest player budget in the league at $80,000 which was about $60,000 below the league average. Even given that, management failed to pay players for a two-week period in late June. Their coach, David Irving, asked the league for help. Players were paid but the team fired Irving and unloaded most of its proven players. The team then hired a local amateur league coach and filled out its roster with local amateurs. Freedom general manager Norb Eksl left the team at that time and was replaced by Emily Ballus. Even the Strikers acknowledged in late August that some checks for players had bounced earlier that month.
But the Salt Lake Sting had the biggest financial difficulties in the league. During the offseason, the Salt Lake Trappers organization attempted to sell the franchise. Failing that, in early March of 1991, the consortium that owned the Trappers "donated" the Sting franchise to a nonprofit organization called the Salt Lake Sting Foundation. The foundation was led by Michael Silva and Brad Duckworth.
After only two games, the Sting were in financial trouble. The club had run up a $30,000 deficit and missed a payroll. Unable to quickly find new ownership, in late May the APSL assumed control of the Sting and would temporarily run the franchise until a new owner could be found. The league owned the team title, logo and player contracts. During this period it was learned that the Sting Foundation had never formally posted the necessary $50,000 performance bond.
The league attempted to find a new ownership group to take over the franchise. But, in early July, without finalizing a deal, the club terminated the Sting franchise. The team had played 11 games and the remaining scheduled games would be forfeit victories for the Sting opponents counting seven points each.
After a dominating regular season, the Maryland Bays were huge favorites to defend their APSL title. But the Albany Capitals pulled off a major upset, beating the Bays in the semifinals. Each team won a game but the Capitals won 1-0 in a mini-game to beat the reigning champions.
The Capitals would meet the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks in the 1991 APSL championship. The series also went to a final mini-game. Neither team was able to score so the championship would hinge on a shootout. The Blackhawks would win the shootout and the 1991 APSL title on September 28, 1991 before 12,411 at Spartan Stadium in San Jose.
At the end of the season, the APSL activated their entry into the USSF's Professional Division for the 1992 season. Both the league and seven of the eight clubs reaffirmed their commitment to post the necessary $100,000 bonds by the November deadline. The Strikers were the only league member to abstain due to the club needing new ownership to make the necessary requirements for membership.
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