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When the Stars Came Out at Night

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This was not your dad's idea of soccer. The Tacoma Stars did put on a show for nine seasons, and coming oh-so-close to a title.

If you wanted more -- more music, more lights, more goals and, yes, a little more skin -- then the Tacoma Stars truly were tempting during the '80s and early '90s.

You say you like the Sounders' flame-throwers? They wouldn't hold a candle to the fog, driving disco beat and laser light show when the Stars ran out. Can't get enough Oba goal backflips? Then meet the original Flipper, Gregg Blasingame. And if a no-shirt pose on The Bachelor is your guilty pleasure, then game nights at the T-Dome provided all the reality required.

The Sounders had been all about soccer. In Tacoma it was Welcome to The Show.

Back in an age before the NBA and NFL embraced the gaudy glitz of showbiz surrounding their brand, the Major Indoor Soccer League and its member clubs were serving up the most innovative sports entertainment.

This was the age of MTV, where showmanship and great, feathered hair trumped a good voice and a tune. Soap operas with cartoonish villains came to primetime TV and dominated in the guise of Dallas and Dynasty. And in sports, two attorneys with sports ties from Philly believed they'd finally found a way to package and sell soccer to the American masses.

Ed Tepper and Earl Foreman founded the MISL in 1978 with six teams in the Northeast and a belief that the indoor game, with its fast action and high scoring, was made for a fast-food nation.

"I saw indoor soccer as a form of hockey where you could see the puck," said Tepper. Or course, players were kicking a bright orange ball.

Attendance was modest at first, but by 1983 MISL had surpassed 8,000 per game league-wide and in Kansas City the Comets were out-pulling the NBA Kings, prompting the move to Sacramento. Meanwhile, professional outdoor, 11v11 soccer was dying.

Puget Sound got a front row view to the changing of the guard. Late in the summer of 1983, the Sounders ceased operations after 10 seasons, their fate sealed by the Stars (the mothballed Denver Avalanche) gaining prime tenant status in the Tacoma Dome. Seattle had also put in a bid.

Not Your Dad's Beautiful Game

That first night in the T-Dome it was plain to see this was not your dad's idea of soccer. Out went the lights, in rolled the fog. Down low was a pulsating green light. Above, on the dome ceiling, lasers danced about, depicting cartoonish balls and players. And to the strains of the Star Wars theme, running onto the carpet came the new lads in town, the Stars.

"We'd get there early to see the laser show, and everything about it was cutting edge for the time," recalls Matt Gaschk, then a grade schooler from Gig Harbor who came with his parents and siblings. "You felt you were experiencing something pretty awesome."

"The MISL was definitely more lights and smoke and stuff like that," says Brian Schmetzer, a young, displaced Sounder who would eventually play eight MISL seasons, including two alongside his brothers in Tacoma.

To the disenfranchised Sounders fan, the Stars would suffice. To those who complained that soccer was dull and devoid of scoring, this was family values entertainment, although the kids seldom caught on to the sexy overtures of the presentation. Across the league, women comprised as much as 50 percent of the crowd.

"This size of the uniforms were a bit soft-pornish," claims Neil Megson, a mainstay of the Stars throughout their tenure. "They gave us shorts where half your ass was hanging out, and some of the tightest shirts you've ever seen. You wore your socks down. The bleeding mullets were in then. If you wanted to be a poser, you had a great platform for it."

Sex sells better, however, when the team is winning. That wasn't the case for Tacoma's first two and a half seasons.

It was a minor miracle, said Foreman, the MISL commissioner, that the Stars and 12,000 people came together that first night.

The ownership group, which included Weyerhaeuser family members and executives, had opened offices only three months beforehand. The front office was run by the experienced John Best, the former Sounders coach and GM, and his wife Claudia. They hired several ex-Sounders staffers.

It Can't Be Much Different, Can It?

On the technical side, at first glance it appeared the Stars were well-equipped. Not so.

"We had 18 outdoor players trying to play indoor, and I was one of them," says Megson, then only 21. "I had no idea what it was going to be like. The coaches had been successful, but they'd never coached indoor. It was mainly an outdoor team of players who thought, This can't be much different, can it?' But it was painful."

The Stars started off 1-11. At that point coach Bob McNab was demoted to assistant. Freddie Goodwin took over, although he, too, had never coached indoors.

Tacoma was slow to savvy substitution nuances and consequently was caught with tiring players staying on too long, then being exploited by fresh opposing troops.

"We were always getting beaten at the end of games, so when we were tied with two minutes to go and (McNab) pulled our keeper," Megson remembers. "We all said, What are you doing that for?' He said, We always lose when we have the same numbers, so we'll try it with more (field players).

"We did, we scored and we won our first game," laughs Megson.

Just as players exited and re-entered the fry, so did Tacoma coaches. They were recyclable. McNab would eventually replace Goodwin. Later on, Alan Hinton would be fired, only to return to the helm six months later.

Hinton, however, will forever be associated with the Stars' finest hour, much like he was with the Sounders.

Going for Broke

Midway through the third season, with the club a combined 21 games under .500, Hinton replaced McNab at a point when the owners decided to go for broke. Attendance was lagging; they had yet to entice fans en masse to drive south from Seattle.

That began to change less than a week after Hinton's hiring. Tacoma swooped for five-time MVP and five-time MISL champion Steve Zungul. In effect, ownership had doubled down on its investment. They paid $200,000 to San Diego to obtain the Lord of All Indoors, and they would pay Zungul about the same, making it the single biggest investment by a local club, pre-Sounders FC.

"The club had gone first ticket," asserts Hinton.

Before becoming coach, Hinton had been impressed with the Stars' crafty, 22-year-old Serb known as Preki. "He was wonderful on the ball, but wasn't a good defender," says Hinton. "He didn't speak the language at the time and the other players were blaming him for everything."

Upon his arrival, Hinton told players to back off, and he encouraged Preki to press on. In no time, Preki and Zungul formed a prolific "Yugo Duo." After losing 12 of 15 prior to the moves, the Stars surged down the stretch, averaging over 10,000 fans along the way. In upsetting Wichita in the first round of the playoffs, more than 31,000 came out for the decisive two home dates.

"What made it a great atmosphere was the Tacoma Dome," says Megson. "That was worth a couple goals in the second half of the season, just because it was so loud in there, and the atmosphere was absolutely brilliant."

Fueled by Hinton's combative (mostly for show) challenges to Sockers coach Ron New man, the final game of the 1986 Western Conference finals versus San Diego, Tacoma attracted more than 19,476. The City of Destiny was becoming the destination for soccer fans throughout the region.

"We sold a lot of tickets by having a go at each other, and it became a great rivalry, the Tacoma Stars and San Diego" grins Hinton. "And we conquered Seattle; we got those people coming down to Tacoma, and we had huge crowds."

"We outdrew the Sonics," notes Megson. "And when you put 18,000 in there it was very intimidating, and we used to love it.'

The acquisition of talent continued unabated the following season with Godfrey Ingram and U.S. National Team captain Ricky Davis joining. In their first full season together, Preki and Zungul formed the top scoring tandem in MISL (177 points); Heale and Ingram (151) were No. 3.

"When you get good players used to playing together, good things happen," says Megson. "Then you support them with Joey Waters, Ralphie Black, Gerry Gray-good quality players-and we became really successful."

It was high times along the tide flats. Tacoma was the talk of the league and their playoffs were being televised nationally (albeit on USA Network). Around the Sound, there was a buzz; people were talking about Hinton and Zungul and Preki.

"I had all the posters: the Penalty Killers, The Fab Four and the Megson and Waters (lifesize) growth chart," exclaims Gaschk. "To me, those guys were as big as (Mariners stars) Alvin Davis and Mark Langston, and you could actually get a picture taken with them."

Almost According to Script

Tacoma went wire-to-wire, winning the West by seven games and claiming the league's best mark at 35-17. Only San Diego had ever won more games, and in the playoffs the Stars put a stop to the Sockers' run of five consecutive championships in MISL and NASL. To do so, they won Game 6 in San Diego and Game 7 at home on the strength of Preki's hat trick.

Against the Dallas Sidekicks in the finals, the Stars held serve at home through Game 5, and then appeared to be on the verge of closing out the championship on the road in Game 6. In overtime, Preki was 1-on-1 with the keeper with Zungul wide open on the left; Preki chose to shoot, and missed. The Sidekicks staved off elimination in double OT.

As for Game 7, it's critical details are indelible to any Tacoma fan to this day. A record MISL crowd of 21,728 filled the Dome. Two goals from Heale put the Stars in front, 3-1, with 2:48 remaining. It was pandemonium. Foot thunder was rocking The Wood Shed as never before.

Desperate, Dallas pulled its keeper and scored. Zungul grumbled about taking his normal shift on defensive power play, and Sidekicks then equalized late, sending it to overtime.

In the extra session, Gray nearly won it when his shot caromed off the frame. Dallas countered and scored. Tacoma's dream of a title had been cruelly dashed. Ten minutes earlier, they had one hand on the trophy. Now the Stars and their fans were stunned.

"The place was like a morgue; it was silent," Megson remembers. "There's no way we should've lost that championship. It's the sickest I've ever felt on the soccer field."

"We knocked off the champions, then lose in the final," he laments. ""That wasn't exactly how we drew it up."

Magic Goes Missing

In the aftermath there would be rumors of a rift between Zungul and Preki, but they seemed to effectively coexist the next season, each surpassing their scoring totals of the year before. But the magic that was so much a part of the run up to the final had gone missing.

The Stars still made the '87 postseason, although they slipped below .500 for the first time in three seasons. While attendance peaked at 10,505, just 7,000 showed for each of the home playoffs versus San Diego. Hinton didn't survive the season, replaced by Jimmy McAlister, and Zungul was let go at year's end. The gamble to spend big in order to win big and build attendance had come up short.

It wasn't just in Tacoma. MISL had ebbed most everywhere. Four teams folded after the 1987-88 season, and Stars ownership could see little hope. Less than 400 days after the record attendance and near-miss in Game 7 of the finals-and four days following FIFA awarding the 1994 World Cup to the U.S.-they were pulling the plug.

"I know they were having fun," observes Hinton. "But they were losing a lot of money and they wanted out. They saw the league was going down, and it was."

The Stars had truly put Tacoma on the map. Maybe MISL wasn't exactly major league, but the club had become a community focal point. On that note, in just under four weeks, a group of 30 local investors came to the rescue, resurrecting the Stars.

"I know we saved the league," confirms Hinton, "for a few years anyway."

Hinton, who helped put together the new shareholders, returned as coach. Preki, with his cultured left foot and now the unquestioned star of Stars, went in a season-long scoring tear, leading the league in both goals and assists to earn MVP. Still, once a fledgling league such as MISL begins to slide, there's little to be done to stop it. Despite making the 1988-89 playoffs once more, attendance dropped to pre-Zungul levels.

Breaking Up the Band

Midway through the following season, Keith Weller replaced Hinton en route to a 20-32 finish. Then came the shocker. Preki, who had become synonymous with the Stars, who had married a Puyallup woman, left town. He opted for a fresh start in St. Louis and eventually would embark on a remarkable outdoor career at Everton and later in MLS.

Meanwhile, the situation was getting desperate financially. Seeking to staunch the bleeding red ink, the Stars sought city subsidies on rent and taxes. In the summer of '91, owners stated that unless they got 4,000 season ticket pledges, the jig was up.

It was a situation calling for desperate measures. Weller was hoisted atop a 6-by-12 foot platform standing 30 feet above the Tacoma Mall parking lot. He vowed to stay for five days, or until he'd sold 1,000 season packages. Using a cellular phone only slightly smaller than a corner flag, Weller helped the club get to 3,600. Close enough. Tacoma would play again.

In the end, the Stars and the other seven teams limped to one final finish line in 1992. Tacoma attendance swooned to under 5,000 over a shorter, 40-game schedule. Ironically, the club cut its losses to an all-time low. But the aggregate over four years was $4 million.

Said GM Stan Naccarato: "This group is tapped out."

In the end, fans, players and owners looked exhausted. The last four years had been a grind. The Stars, once the talk of town and American soccer, had faded to black.

Frank MacDonald is a Seattle soccer journalist and historian, this story first appeared on his website and has been republished here with his permission.