Soccer Almanac

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USISL Pro League 1996 season

Jan. 25, 2023 |  Categories:  USL  

During the summer of 1995, the USISL decided to create a new professional division, the Select League, that would be made up of the top 24 teams in the league. For consideration, teams had to average 1,000 fans per home game, have a strong business and marketing play, and be able to pay $5,000 up frontt with monthly dues of $500.

During the offseason, the USISL signed a seven-figure sponsorship agreement with Umbro and moved its headquarters from Irving, Tex. to Tampa, Fla. The USISL's Select League began play in 1996. The USISL expected the Select League to gain USSF Division II in the near future. For the 1996 season, Select League teams would have a $70,000 salary cap while Pro League teams would have a $50,000 salary cap.

Only a handful of USISL Pro teams entered the USISL qualifying rounds of that year's U.S. Open Cup. The Central Jersey Riptide, Reading Rage, North Jersey Imperials, and Chico Rooks took part in the qualifying rounds. But, none of them advanced to the tournament proper.

During the offseason the USISL made a number of rules changes. The organization implemented a more traditional points system - three points for a win in regulation or overtime, one point for a shootout win, no points for any loss and no bonus points for goals. The USISL eliminated the 60-minute clock and live shootouts after seven fouls each half. It retained optional kick-ins, the 15-yard wall on free kicks, and live shootouts for fouls outside the penalty area when a player had a chance to score.

During the second week of February, 1996 the USISL entered into a working agreement with Major League Soccer to become that league's farm system. The agreement included player movement, coach and referee development, and marketing aspects. Each MLS team had specific alliances with USISL franchises.

In March, a month before the beginning of the USISL season, the USISL Select League Owners Committee passed a resoluation to pursue Division II status for the Select League. Like the USISL Pro League, the Select League was sanctioned as a Division III league by the USSF for the 1996 season. During the 1996 season, the USSF gave provisional Division II sanctioning to the USISL Select League for the 1997 season.

The creation of the Select League practically cut the number of Pro League teams for the 1996 season in half - 27 teams that year compared to 58 in 1995. But the continued evolution of the USISL meant that, while the Pro League was smaller, it was a more stable competition. The Pro League lost seven teams but six expansion franchises joined: Central Jersey Riptide; Houston Hurricanes; New Hampshire Phantoms (replacing the New Hampshire Ramblers); Reading Rage; Worcester Wildfire; and Wilmington Hammerheads.

The 1996 season ran from April through August. Teams played a 16-game regular season with six additional "non-league games" used to fill in any games not played. That year's Sizzlin' Six included the four conference playoff winners (Chico Rooks, Dallas/Fort Worth Toros, North Jersey Imperials, and Wilmington Hammerheads), the host Charleston Battery, and an invitation to the winner of the 1996 USISL Premier League playoffs. The Central Coast Roadrunners of San Luis Obispo won the 1996 Premier League but declined the opportunity to play in the Pro League playoffs. Because of that decision the Pro League team with the highest point total, the Charlotte Eagles, became the sixth team in the Sizzlin' Siz tournament.

Charlotte won Group B and beat the Chico Rooks in the first semifinal. Charleston won Group A and beat the Wilmington Hammerheads in the second semifinal. The two teams played in the final at Stoney Field in Charleston. The game ended 2-2 after regulation with Charleston winning the shootout to take home the USISL Pro League title.

That championship qualified Charleston for the Select League's Select Six tournament held the following week at the University of Richmond Stadium. The Battery fared poorly in the competition losing 6-1 to the Richmond Kickers and 3-1 to the Charleston Battery.

©2024 by Daniel Creel. All rights reserved.