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USISL A-League 1997 season

Feb. 14, 2023 |  Categories:  USL  

In mid-1996, the USISL incorporated in Florida as USISL, Inc. which led to a merger between the USISL and the Division II American Professional Soccer League (aka the A-League) which was completed in October of 1996. The new A-League would be a division of the USISL beginning with the 1997 season. The USISL A-League was sanctioned by the USSF as a Division II professional league and was the highest level of professional soccer in Canada.

The USISL-MLS development agreement was renewed for 1997. It included one MLS vs. A-League exhibition game in each of the 24 A-League cities over the following two seasons. The agreement allowed players to move up from the USISL to MLS and for MLS players to be loaned to the USISL.

The 24 USISL A-League owners would decided all rules related to competition and polities related to the league's schedule. The ten active A-League teams were joined by 14 USISL teams for the 1997 season. Team owners would own a franchise territory that coule be transerred and would manage their own players. There was revenue sharing of television, sponsorship, and promotion income. Prime Sports Network, the APSL's television broadcasting partner, would continue to broadcast 24 live USISL A-League matches of the week on Fridays. Following the merger, the other leagues under the USISL umbrella were renamed and the names "APSL" and "Select League" disappeared following the 1996 season.

USISL founder and owner, Francisco Marcos, was the CEO of USISL, Inc. and commissioner of the new USISL A-League. He had the power to name commissioners for the other USISL leagues. Richard Groff, the interim commissioner of the APSL, terminated his duties in that position by the end of 1996. The new USISL A-League had an executive council of four to six owners elected on a regional basis. They reported to a USISL, Inc. board of directors comprised of five people.

Umbro was a major sponsor of both the USISL and the APSL and brought the two leagues together in negotiation. As part of the merger, Umbro and the USISL completed an agreement where Umbro became a 60% equity partner of USISL. The USISL, Inc. board of directors was formed from three representatives from Umbro, Francisco Marcos, and one person designated by Marcos.

The new USISL A-League would have a maximum of 24 teams for the 1997 season. The composition of teams would be made up of the seven active APSL franchises, all of the three APSL expansion franchises that meet the criteria for the new USISL A-League, and between 14-17 USISL teams. The league was planned to possibly grow to 32 teams by 1999 or 2000 but by no more than four teams per season.

Criteria for membership in the new USISL A-League was established and approved by the USSF board of directors. General criteria included an average annual budget of $500,000, a stadium with seating of at least 5,000, and provisions for minimum full-time front office staff. Player compensation guidelines were also later determined by the USSF.

The USISL also introduced promotion and relegation. Beginning with the 1996 season, the Division III USISL Pro League champions would earn the right of promotion to the new USISL A-League if the club met other criteria for Division II membership. Until the USISL A-League reached a cap of 32 teams or three years had elapsed (the end of 1999) there would be no mandatory relegation. Until that cap was reached, a maximum of four teams per year could be promoted to the USISL A-League. The four teams could be 1) the USISL Division III champions; 2) a selected team from the roster of USISL teams; and 3) the top points-getter during the USISL Division III regular season. Once the new USISL A-League reached the cap of 32 teams the USISL planned for automatic relegation of at least one team. Promoted teams would be guaranteed at least two years at the higher level.

In mid-October of 1996, 19 teams were approved from among the 35 that had applied for admission. The APSL teams were the Atlanta Ruckus, Rochester Raging Rhinos, Seattle Sounders, and Vancouver 86ers as well as the expansion Hershey Wildcats and Toronto Lynx. Admitted teams from the USISL Select League were the Carolina Dynamo, Connecticut Wolves, El Paso Patriots, Jacksonville Cyclones (previously the Tampa Bay Cyclones), Long Island Rough Riders, Milwaukee Rampage, Minnesota Thunder, New Orleans Riverboat Gamblers, and Raleigh Flyers. The 1996 Division III USISL Pro League champions, the Charleston Battery, were admitted along with the Worcester Wildfire from the USISL Pro League. Two teams from the amateur USISL Premier League were also admitted - the Nashville Metros and Orlando Lions. Mark Dillon, founder, owner, and coach of the Orlando Lions, would fold that team and create a new club, the Orlando Sundogs, to be the USISL A-League franchise in Orlando.

Seven teams needed to complete the application process before final approval. These were the Colorado Foxes, Montreal Impact and New York Fever from the APSL, plus the California Jaguars, Hampton Roads Mariners, Richmond Kickers, and Sacramento Scorpions from the USISL Select League.

The APSL's New York Fever would go on hiatus for the 1997 season due to financial constraints while the Hampton Road Mariners would sit out that season while construction on their new venue was underway. The Colorado Foxes, Montreal Impact, California Jaguars and Richmond Kickers were eventually admitted into the USISL A-League. The Sacrament Scorpions were not admitted and played the 1997 season in the USISL Division III Professional League. The 24th team added to the USISL A-League was the expansion Orange County Zodiac located in Santa Ana, Cali.

The USISL A-League played a 28-game schedule in 1997 running from late April through August. The teams were split into two conferences each with two divisions of six teams. Four divisional playoffs were held in September after the regular season with the division champions playing in the best-of-three-game conference finals.

None of the regular season division winners made it to the conference finals. The Eastern Conference final saw the #2 seed in the Atlantic, Carolina Dynamo, take out the #3 seed in the Northeast, Long Island Rough Riders, in two games. The Western Conference final saw the #3 seed in the Pacific, Vancouver 86ers, and the #4 seed in the Central, Milwaukee Rampage, split their first two games. The ensuing mini-game ended in a scoreless draw. And, the Rampage took the conference final via a 3-0 shootout.

The 1997 USISL A-League final was held on September 27, 1997 at Uihlein Soccer Park in Milwaukee. The Rampage went up 1-0 in the 65th off a goal by Dan Stebbins. The Carolina Dynamo tied it at one on a goal by Brian Loftin in the 80th minute. Neither team scored in overtime and the match went to a penalty shootout. The Milwaukee Rampage again won the shootout by three goals to none to win the 1997 USISL A-League title in front of 6381 home fans.

All 21 USISL A-League teams based in the U.S. took part in U.S. Open Cup qualilfying. The league matches held through June 15 were used as the qualification process with the top two teams from each division making it into the U.S. Open Cup. The Seattle Sounders and California Jaguars qualified from the Pacific. The Orlando Sundogs and New Orleans Riverboat Gamblers qualified from the Central. The Rochester Raging Rhinos and Long Island Rough Riders qualified frmo the Northeast. And, the Hershey Wildcats and Richmond Kickers qualified from the Atlantic.

The eight USISL A-League teams entered the U.S. Open Cup in the Second Round of play. The Jaguars were upset by the Central Coast Roadrunners of the USISL PDSL 3-2 in overtime. The Sundogs were blanked 3-0 by the Chicago Stingers of the USISL D3-Pro League. And, the San Francisco Bay Seals of the USISL D3-Pro League upset the Seattle Sounders 1-0. The rest of the A-League teams made it through to the Third Round.

The Long Island rough Riders were the only USISL A-League team to survive the Third Round. The Rough Riders beat the New England Revolution 4-3 in overtime before 2037 at Willow Brook Park in New Britain, Conn. Dahir Mohammed scored the winning goal in the 108th minute for Long Island. On August 26, the Rough Riders were beaten in the USOC quarterfinals 1-0 in overtime by the MetroStars before 1250 at SUNY-Stony Brook. Rhett Harty scored the only goal of the match in the 105th minute.

As the winner of the 1995 A-League title, the Seattle Sounders were the top professional soccer champion in the U.S. for that year. As such, the Sounders qualified for the 1996 CONCACAF Champions' Cup. Matches in that tournament stretched well into 1997.

The Seattle Sounders took park in a U.S./Caribbean playoff to determine which team from the U.S. and Caribbean Zones would qualify for the final group stage. On June 17, 1997, the Sounders beat S.V. Transvaal of Suriname 10-0 before 2153 at Memorial Stadium in Federal Way, Wash.

Four teams (Cruz Azul and Necaxa from Mexico, Comunicaciones from Guatemala, and the Seattle Sounder) took part in a round-robin final group stage to determine the 1996 CONCACAF Cup champion. The matches took place between July 15 and July 20 in Guatemala City. Seattle lost all three games and ended in last place. Cruz Azul won the title by two points over Necaxa.

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