American soccer writing, history & data.
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. While officially an amateur league, the Premier League was practically considered a "pro-am" league. The formal amateur status allowed college players to keep their NCAA eligibility while allowing the individual teams up to four paid professionals on their rosters.
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 Premier League was stable from the 1995 to the 1996 season. The league grew from 27 to 34 teams. A handful of teams dropped out in the offseason but were replaced by over a half-dozen new clubs and other teams dropping down from the USISL Pro League. The teams played a 14-game regular season along with six "non-league games" used to fill out any incomplete schedules.
The USISL Premier League's Premier Six tournament held in mid-August included the four divisional playoff winners from the Central and Western Conferences (Central Coast Roadrunners, Mid-Michigan Bucks, Omaha Flames, and San Francisco Bay Seals). The tournament was hosted by the Cocoa Expos who received an automatic bid into the Premier Six tournament. The final slot was chosen by a playoff among the best teams in the Eastern Conference. The Orlando Lions qualifies for that playoff but dropped out due to many of the team's players returning to college. The Jackson Chargers won the Eastern Conference playoff to clinch a spot in the Premier Six tournament.
The Central Coast Roadrunners (an expansion franchise) and San Francisco Bay Seals (formerly the San Francisco United All-Blacks) topped the Premier Six group stage to make it into the Premier League championship match. On August 18 at the Cocoa Expo Sports Center, Central Coast beat the Bay Seals 1-0 off a goal by Bryan Taylor to win the 1996 USISL Premier League title.
As the winner of the Premier League, Central Coast, located in San Luis Obispo, received an invitation to play in the Pro League Sizzlin' Six playoff tournament to be held the end of that week. The Roadrunners decided to decline the opportunity to take part. Because of that decision the Pro League team with the highest point total, the Charlotte Eagles, took that slot in the Sizzlin' Siz tournament.
Only three Premier League teams entered USISL qualifying for the 1996 U.S. Open Cup. The Cocoa Expos and Cascade Surge were knocked out during their qualifiers.
The third Premier League team was a revelation. The Fort Myers/Naples Manatees was a new amateur team that joined the USISL Premier League in 1996 but which planned on starting a full league schedule in 1997. The team's first-ever competitive games were its USOC qualifiers. On May 26 the Manatees beat the Florida Strikers of the USISL Premier League 2-1 at Cypress Lake High School's Panther Field in Fort Myers. The teams actually played on a 100-yard field. It was 10 yards short due to a nest of burrowing owls near the north goal.
The Manatees pulled a major upset on June 2 by beating the Tampa Bay Cyclones of the Select League 3-0 at Fort Myers High School. In only the second soccer game of their existence, the Manatees had won the USISL Southeast Region qualifying title. The Manatees were scheduled to take on the USISL Select League's Chicago Stingers, winners of the USISL Midwest Region qualifiers, on June 12. The winner of that game would officially qualify for the U.S. Open Cup. The Stingers forfeited the game due to travel considerations meaning the Manatees qualified for the UOSC First Round.
The Manatees easily won their First Round USOC match beating the amateur St. Petersburg Kickers 6-0 at Estero High School Stadium. But, the unlikely run would end in the Second Roundr as the visiting Manatees were beaten 2-0 by the A-League Rochester Raging Rhinos on July 31 in front of 6149 at Frontier Field.
©2023 by Daniel Creel. All rights reserved.