The story of Steve Zungul and the New York Arrows indoor soccer team is an odd one. However, it's not all that outrageous considering the time in which he and the club played. In 1978, pro soccer was experiencing tremendous growth in North America. The top-level league, the North American Soccer League (NASL), had expanded to a record 24 teams. Average attendance was a respectable 13,000 a game. The following year, it topped 14,000.
It was during this meteoric rise in soccer’s popularity that Earl Foreman, former owner of the Washington Whips outdoor soccer team, got together with Ed Tepper, a real estate developer from Philadelphia. The two came up with the notion of forming a league that played soccer indoors. The NASL had dabbled with the idea a few years earlier via a series of indoor tournaments.
Indeed, the idea of playing soccer indoors had been around since 1930 when Uruguayan gym teacher Juan Carlos Ceriani invented Fustal, which is popular to this day. A few attempts to develop an indoor game in America were tried in 1941 at Madison Square Garden, but the results were not encouraging.
Ceriani’s game was developed on a basketball court. The NASL, and later Foreman and Tepper’s concept, called for the game to be played using a hockey rink covered with artificial turf (sometimes directly over the ice). That also included the use of the boards off of which the ball could ricochet.
Foreman and Tepper christened their circuit the Major Indoor Soccer League, or MISL, and sold six franchises for $25,000 apiece. In December 1978, the Cleveland Force, Houston Summit, Pittsburgh Spirit, Philadelphia Fever, Cincinnati Kids, and New York Arrows debuted. The latter two opened the inaugural campaign at the Nassau County Coliseum in Uniondale, New York.
Baseball great Pete Rose, co-owner of the Kids, kicked out the first ball in a last-minute arrangement. Just before the game, the Arrows agreed to trade one of their players, Mario Garcia, to the Kids in exchange for Rose kicking out the first ball.
While that serendipitous bit of marketing worked in favor of both teams and the league, Arrows GM Mike Menchel had serious concerns before Rose stepped onto the pitch. The astroturf was hastily laid over the ice (the arena was also home to the NHL’s New York Islanders), and he was afraid one or more of the players would trip and suffer a serious injury.
However, the game went off without a hitch. After Rose’s ceremonial kick, the Arrows proceeded to down the Kids 7 to 2 in front of 10,386 fans. The Arrows were led by a man who would become indoor soccer's greatest player, Steve “Lord of all Indoors” Zungul.
Zungul wound up with the Arrows somewhat by accident. A star in his native Yugoslavia, he defected from the then-communist nation in fall 1978. He hoped to play in the NASL, but Zungal’s former team complained to the sport’s international governing body, FIFA. As the NASL was FIFA sanctioned, they complied with the ruling that Zungal could not play for another team. The non-FIFA-sanctioned MISL, however, was under no such constraints. Zungul went to work for his old friend, Arrows, and fellow Yugoslavia native, Dragan Popovic, coach of the Arrows.
The rest of the Arrows roster was made up of players from the NASL’s Rochester Lancers. Both teams were owned by Bernie Rodin and John Luciani, who simply sent most of the outdoor squad to Long Island for the winter. If the players were a little worn out after playing a full season of outdoor soccer, it didn’t show. The Arrows went on to a record of 16 wins to 8 losses. They tied for second in the standings with their opening day opponent, the Cincinnati Kids.
It was Zungal who made all the difference as the Lancers had only managed 14 versus 16 losses in the NASL’s 1978 season. Indeed, Zungal played five seasons in his first stint with the MISL, writing the record books and helping the Arrows capture the league’s first four titles. Eventually, the two teams had separate rosters, and only a few players played year-round.
In 1983, as part of a cost-cutting move, thinly disguised as a way to Americanize the Arrows, Zungal was traded to the NASL’s Golden Bay Earthquakes (based in San Jose), who were also playing in the MISL during the winter. The move allowed him to play outdoors again as his FIFA restriction had expired. He hadn’t lost a step. Playing for Popovic in San Jose, Zungul was an All-Star in 1983 and captured the scoring crown in 1984, the NASL’s final season.
That was also the final year for the New York Arrows. Without Zungul’s scoring prowess, the team folded. The Earthquakes, though, lived on. When the NASL folded, the team, and Zungal, continued to play in the MISL, where he continued to set records and add trophies to his shelves. In 1984, Zungul joined the San Diego Sockers who had moved from the defunct NASL to the MISL fulltime. In 1986, he was acquired by the Tacoma Stars of the MISL but returned to San Diego in 1988. He finished his career with the Sockers, who played exclusively indoors in several leagues after the collapse of the NASL, in 1990.