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.
The Long Island Rough Riders, USISL Pro League 1995 season champions, were awarded a Major League Soccer franchise during that season, but the move was put on hold pending a renovation of the team's home venue of Mitchel Park in Uniondale, N.Y. The Rough Riders instead joined the Select League for the 1996 season.
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.
The New York Fever was one of the franchises that moved from the USISL Pro League to the Select League. But, in January of 1996, that organization merged with the New York Centaulr of the A-League. The merged organization took on the New York Fever name, retained the Centaurs' A-League franchise, and vacated the Fever's USISL franchise. That franchise was taken over by Clifton Lupi, president of the Clifton Stallions youth program and New Jersey Stallions amateur program. With that franchise, Lupi began a USISL Select League team in Toms River, N.J. named the New York/New Jersey Stallions.
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.
With that approval in hand, merger negotiations soon began between the USISL and the Division II A-League. In early June, the two organizations agreed to merge and form one recognized Division II league starting with the 1997 season. In addition, it was agreed that Umbro would become a majority owner of USISL. That company would own 60% of the USISL with Francisco Marcos, the original owner, retaining 40% ownership. Under the new arrangement, Marcos would be given a four-year contract as commissioner subject to renewal or dismissl as Umbro saw fit.
The USISL Umbro Cup Select Six tournament was held at the end of August. It included winners of each of the four divisional playoffs: Long Island Rough Riders; Hampton Roads Mariners; Minnesota Thunder; and California Jaguars. The other two teams in the Select Six were the Richmond Kickers, who qualified as hosts, and the Charleston Battery, who qualifed by winning the USISL Pro League title earlier in the week.
Following the round robin group stage, California beat Minnesota and Richmond beat Long Island in the semifinals. On September 1, California and Richmond ended the final 1-1 after regulation and overtime. The California Jaguars won the shootout 2-1 to win the championship over the host Richmond Kickers before 2,500 at University of Richmond Stadium.
Twenty USISL teams, including 13 from the Select League, entered qualifying for the U.S. Open Cup. Those teams were divided into seven regions. Regional winners took part in inter-regional play to determine the four teams to officially represent the USISL in the U.S. Open Cup. Three Select League clubs qualified: Carolina Dynamo; California Jaguars; and El Paso Patriots.
The fourth USISL team to qualify for the USOC was a big surprise. 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 Round 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.
Following the 1996 Select League season, the New Mexico Chiles disbanded. In late August, Players Soccer Corporation, which ran the team since 1991, folded and renounceds its USISL rights to the Albuquerque franchise. The franchise had an estimated loss of about $20,000 in 1996, about 10% of the club's operating budget. The Chiles were the last team in the USISL connected to the league's inaugural 1986-87 indoor season. The organization joined the league in the 1987-88 indoor season as the F.C. Albuquerque Gunners. The Gunners had gained the franchise rights of the F.C. Albuquerque Outlaws which had been expelled from the league during the 1986-87 season.
Unable to compete with the Columbus Crew of the MLS, the Ohio XOGGZ also withdrew from the USISL following the 1996 Select League season. The Hampton Roads Mariners went on hiatus for the 1997 season as the team had no home stadium in which to play. But the Mariners hoped to return the following year. The Virginia Beach City Council approved the construction of a $9 million, 6,000-seat stadium in which the Mariners would be the primary tenants.
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