American soccer writing, history & data.
Having accepted their status as the USSF's formally sanctioned Division II professional league, the A-League had a stable offseason before the 1996 season. in January, the struggling New York Centaurs merged with the New York Fever of the USISL. The merged organization would continue the A-League franchise and take the New York Fever as their official team name. The organization would play at Barrett Stadium on the campus of Westchester Community College in Valhalla, N.Y. Jim Kilmeade, former general manager of the USISL's Long Island Rough Riders, was named to the same position with the Fever.
The only other big change was the addition of the Rochester Raging Rhinos as an expansion franchise. The Rhinos would become the most successful A-League franchise. The Rhinos played their first four home games at Fauver Stadium on the campus of the University of Rochester. The team was a hit averaging over 5100 fans per match. On July 12, 1996 the Rhinos played the first sporting event at the new Frontier Field in a match against the Montreal Impact. The crowd of 14,717 was an A-League attendance record. The Rhinos would regularly pull in over 10,000 fans per match for the rest of the season.
The A-League regular season began in mid-May and ran through mid-September. In late June, Atlanta Ruckus owner Johnny Imerman began cutting costs. He let go nine players, six of them starters, via trade, release, and waiver. The moves were part of a major restructuring of the team's $500,000 operating budget caused by severe financial strains. That number was half of what Imerman spent in 1995. Imerman also dismissed assistant coach Bruce Murray along with the only two full time employees in Atlanta's front office.
On July 1, Imerman dropped his ownership interest in the Ruckus franchise. The league assumed management of the team on condition a new owner could be found within a short period of time. Imerman had defaulted on his ownership of the team before he severed all financial ties. Former employees said that Imerman failed to pay the final $25,000 of the league's $150,000 franchise fee. Just over a week later the corporation that Imerman created to run the Ruckus franchise, Peninsula House Soccer, was disbanded as a league member.
In mid-July, the league canceled two exhibitions and two A-League matches with the Ruckus due to the reorganization and stabilization of the team. The Ruckus then played five matches between July 21 and July 28 as the league looked for a new owner. As time wore on without a new owner for the Atlanta franchise, the league again canceled five matches for the team between August 7 and August 17.
The Ruckus finally played a match against the New York Fever on August 18. The club returned because the organization was restructured under new ownership. Vincent Lu had acquired the Ruckus franchise. Lu supplied more than $100,000 to finish the 1996 season and planned on spending an estimated $750,000 to refurbish the old Roswell High School stadium that he owned. Lu leased the field to the team for free as its practice facility. Lu installed Gabe Pascarelli as the new general manager to replace Charlie Morgan, and planned to increase the team's budget to around $1.2 million for the 1997 season.
The Montreal Impact ended the 1996 season in first place but lost to the fourth seed Rochester Raging Rhinos in the semifinals. The Rhinos beat their own attendance record when 14,809 fans were on hand for the second of the three-game semifinal series on September 21 at Frontier Field. The third seed Seattle Sounders also upset the second seed Colorado Foxes in the other semifinal. The Sounders won their second straight A-League title beating Rochester 2-0 in the championship match at Memorial Stadium on October 6.
After a dismal showing in the 1995 U.S. Open Cup, the A-League redeemed itself in the 1996 competition. The A-League teams received a First Round bye. Colorado, New York, Rochester, and Seattle entered the Second Round with only New York losing. Four MLS teams entered in the Quarterfinals. The Colorado Foxes were scheduled to face the Kansas Ctiy Wiz on September 15, but scheduling issues hit the A-League team. The Foxes were coming off a two-game road trip that ended two days before the USOC match and the Jamaica national team called up five players from the Foxes for a World Cup qualifer on the same day of the match. The Foxes had to withdraw from the USOC and were replaced by the Colorado Rapids.
While the Seattle Sounders lost 3-2 to the Dallas Burn in the Quarterfinals, the Rochester Raging Rhinos pulled a major upset. On September 7, Rochester beat the Tampa Bay Mutiny 4-3 off an overtime goal by Chris Kessell before 12,428 at Frontier Field. The dream run continued in the Semifinals as the Raging Rhinos blanked the Colorado Rapids 3-0 on October 12 at Frontier Field before 12,179.
That put Rochester in the USOC final against D.C. United. The match was played at RFK Stadium in Washington on October 30. The upset streak ended there as D.C. United beat Rochester 3-0 to win the 1996 U.S. Open Cup.
For the 1996 season, the USISL created a Select League as a higher division for its top professional teams. While the Select League was officially sanctioned as a Division III professional league, in April the USSF gave provisional approval to upgrade the USISL Select League to Division II status in 1997.
In early May the USISL began merger talks with the A-League. A month later, the two organizatiokns agreed to merge the next season and form one single Division II league. Umbro, a major sponsor of both leagues, would become majority owner of USISL. It would own 60% with Francisco Marcos, the current owner of USISL, retaining 40%. Under a new arrangement, Marcos would be given a four-year contract as commissioner of the new USISL A-League subject to renewal or dismissal as Umbro saw fit.
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