Next year, Atlanta will again have a pro soccer team in the nation’s top flight league. Most think this hasn’t happened since the Atlanta Chiefs in the original North American Soccer League in 1981. However, in the year before Major League Soccer launched in 1996, Atlanta was represented by the Ruckus in the American Professional Soccer League, better known as the A-League.
As the MLS bid was failing, Atlanta businessman Sam Chase put his efforts towards his expansion franchise in the American Professional Soccer League. The APSL, soon to be rebranded as the A-League, was recognized by US Soccer as a 2nd Division league and had previously had designs on becoming recognized as a 1st Division. MLS won that battle in 1993, so the APSL tried to build as strong of a product as possible to compete.
In 1994, the Seattle Sounders joined the league as the eighth team and went on to win the Commissioner’s Cup (regular season points champion). Unfortunately, the league did not finish with eight teams because fellow expansion team Houston Force folded after playing one match. The Montreal Impact went on to win the championship over the Colorado Foxes in the playoffs.
As interesting as the drama was during the season, the offseason was about to take it to another level.
The Los Angeles Salsa made its intentions known that it wanted more than just what the APSL could offer. They worked to join the Mexican league. They started playing exhibition games against Mexican clubs after the APSL season ended. What made these actions more interesting was that the APSL chairman William De La Pena was also the owner of the Salsa, his club’s actions put him odds with some of the other teams in the league.
On October 31st, FIFA stated that the Salsa could join the Mexican league. They embarked on a planned 19 game series against Mexican clubs in the 1994-95 APSL offseason called the Estamos Unidos Series. The series ended in November after California voters approved Proposition 187, which cut off services to undocumented immigrants. The Mexican Federation asked to postpone the series and the Salsa agreed. The opportunity for the Salsa to join the Mexican first division eventually fizzled out.
Once the bid to join the Mexican league failed, De La Pena and the Salsa took a leave of absence from the APSL in January of 1995. He ended up taking the Salsa to the USISL and cut the budget to around $350,000/year after losing an estimated $2.5M in 2 APSL seasons. They played the 1995 season before folding altogether.
The 2nd version of the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers folded after the 1994 season after seven years of play. With two teams gone, the league’s status became even more precarious when issues started to surface in Toronto with the Rockets. Toronto brought on some new investors in the offseason, but a major investor bailed out once talk heated up about MLS interest in Toronto. A great deal of work and investment was needed to try to get the Rockets on the field in 1995.
The APSL was fighting on two fronts heading into 1995, trying to add teams to show that it was more viable than MLS while trying to keep struggling teams from folding.
Back in Atlanta, the Ruckus started having some issues of their own. The Life University stadium project was delayed and the team began looking for alternative venues. A January 5th Atlanta Journal-Constitution article reported that the Ruckus would play at the "Sports Academy" in Roswell (a.k.a. the old Roswell High School owned by Vincent Lu and the former home of the Atlanta Magic). Later in the month, Doug Cress of the AJC reported that the Ruckus would either play at DeKalb Memorial Stadium or Atlanta Fulton County Stadium (home of the Atlanta Braves) for the 1995 season. By the end of January, the Ruckus began telling its season ticket holders that it would play at Adams Stadium, a high school stadium off of North Druid Hills Road in DeKalb County.
In more ominous news, Sam Chase also missed his first deadline to post a $100K bond with the APSL.
On January 6th, Doug Cress of the AJC reported on some good news as Lothar Osiander, former US national team coach, was named the Ruckus’ first manager. Some rumored signings for the Ruckus at that point were John Doyle (1990 World Cup veteran for the US), Brent Goulet (American forward who was scoring goals in the lower divisions of Germany), Desmond Armstrong (1990 World Cup veteran for the US), Mike Burns (one of the last cuts of the 1994 US World Cup team), Erik Imler (24 year old former US youth international coming off an injury), and Mike Huwiler (1992 Olympic veteran for the US). Former Atlanta Magic coach Charlie Morgan was Osiander’s assistant.
Rumors started to go public in February about issues with the Ruckus and their financial situation. A proposed $1.5 million budget was rumored to be cut down to $1.2 million. Sources were still saying that the team planned to spend $300K on promotions and were working with the same agency that handled marketing for the successful Atlanta Knights minor league hockey team. Many of the rumored player signings disintegrated, only Doyle and Huwiler of that rumored group ended up in a Ruckus uniform.
When Sam Chase missed his second deadline to post the APSL’s $100K bond, the panic button was hit. Word was starting to get out as Doug Cress reported in the AJC on March 3rd that a "lack of funds puts Ruckus in jeopardy." The APSL made a commitment to run the team during the 1995 season if necessary. They really did not have a choice, it was vital for the league’s survival as the league only had 6 other franchises active for 1995. The league scheduled a hearing on March 18th to determine if they would continue with Chase as a team owner. Cress reported that Atlanta Management Services, Inc. was trying to put together an ownership group of ten investors (at $100K each) to save the team and had reached out to the Georgia State Soccer Association for help. Scott Oki, owner of the Seattle Sounders, headed up the efforts of other league owners to help save the Ruckus.
Later in March, Sam Chase was out as he sold the Ruckus to Atlanta based South African businessman Johnny Immerman. Robert Heller was named President of the franchise. The rumored plans for the team to play their home games at Adams Stadium were finalized. The sale did not include the Atlanta Magic and the proposed club structure that had been trumpeted originally looked much less likely. A plan for the Magic to be sold for $100,000 to a Macon based group was not approved by the USISL.
The new ownership continued with the aggressive marketing plan that was already in motion. In late April, billboards went up across Atlanta (one prominent one was at the intersection of Roswell and Peachtree roads) with the message: "Finally, Atlanta has a professional football team." Radio ads started at the same time, talking about how baseball was a dying sport after the strike of 1994. The ads ended with the message: "Hey, players and owners, while you were away, fans discovered a new pastime. No crybaby players, no prima-donna owners. . . . Atlanta Ruckus soccer, it's the pastime of the future."
Once things solidified in Atlanta, the A-League lost the Toronto Rockets. Finances were getting tight when a majority owner bailed, and the remaining owners cited financial help they provided to Houston in 1994 and Atlanta as the Ruckus were looking for ownership. They pulled out of the league on the eve of the season, forcing some major scheduling issues.
The Ruckus finally hit the field on May 5th, winning a shootout against the Vancouver 86ers at BC Place after a 1-1 draw. Norwegian forward Staale Soebye, coming off back to back All-American selections at the University of San Francisco, scored the franchise’s first goal in the 7th minute. Canadian international Geoff Aunger tied the game in the 68th minute.
If you don’t remember the post-game shootout format used by the A-League, here’s a quick primer. The attacker started 35 yards from goal and had five seconds to shoot on the goalkeeper. The NASL used the shootout starting in 1977 through its final season in 1984. The APSL adopted it, as did MLS from 1996-1999.
The A-League used a 3/2/1/0 system for standings. Essentially, the winner of a shootout received an extra point. The loser of a shootout received the point that they would have received in a traditional 3/1/0 system.
While the trip was successful in the standings, the Ruckus almost lost two players. Goalscorer Soebye and Cato Solberg were stranded in Canada with visa issues. They were traveling on student visas, which had expired, from their time at the University of San Francisco. Luckily for the Ruckus, they figured it out and were able to bring Soebye and Solberg back to Atlanta.
The Ruckus headed to New York to face a fellow expansion team in the Centaurs. One player from that Centaurs’ squad will be especially well known to Atlanta soccer fans, Atlanta United president Darren Eales. The Ruckus did not fare well in their first visit to New York, falling 1-0 in a physical match.
Hopes were high as the Ruckus returned to Atlanta for their home debut. "If the Ruckus don't sell out half their games I'll be shocked," Ed Mooney, chairman of the Georgia State Soccer Association (GSSA), told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Ruckus struck up a unique partnership with GSSA, donating 7.5% of their ticket sales to the GSSA youth development program in exchange for promotional support.
The Ruckus’ home opener was on May 20th at Adams Stadium. The Colorado Foxes were the opponents. I’ll always remember driving up I-85 North from Stockbridge and the huge traffic back-up at the North Druid Hills Road exit due to fans heading to the game. The team did a great job with their merchandise, which sold in great numbers that night. 99X did a live remote from the stadium. For some reason, I specifically remember Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way?" playing during the pregame. Every time I hear that song now, it makes me think of the Ruckus and Adams Stadium.
In a wild match, the Ruckus won another shootout, this time after a 3-3 draw in regulation time. Colorado scored in the 2nd minute as most people were still entering the stadium. Lenin Steenkamp, a NAIA All-American forward from Lynn University, tied it up in the 25th minute before the Foxes’ Ted Eck scored twice before halftime to give them a 3-1 lead. The Ruckus kept playing a 3 man backline, which made sense on Adams Stadium’s narrow field.
Mo Suri, a great indoor player who had come to Atlanta to join the Magic in 1994, came on as a sub and sparked a comeback. He assisted on Soebye’s goal in the 58th minute and Steenkamp tied the game a minute later. 4,132 fans cheered as Steenkamp scored in the shootout as well after Bill Andracki (who was a late sub for starter Mun Young Yi specifically for the shootout) stopped all five Colorado attempts.
Later that week, the Atlanta Magic pulled out of the USISL’s outdoor season. They had played two home games at Fayetteville’s McCurry Park. They still planned to defend their USISL indoor crown in the winter.
Over 2,800 fans came out on a rainy Saturday night to see the Ruckus overcome the Centaurs 2-1 on May 27th. The start was delayed due to lightning in the area. Mo Suri was again the spark, assisting on a Soebye goal in the 22nd. A frantic second half on a wet field was finally settled by Soebye, who chipped New York goalkeeper Jim St. Andre after a nice pass from Michael Araujo. Joining the Ruckus from Glenavon of Northern Ireland, Araujo was a former South African youth international.
The undefeated Montreal Impact came to Atlanta on June 2nd. The Impact had not conceded a goal in their first four games and had the largest payroll in the league. Over 2,500 fans came out on a Friday night to see the Ruckus make a big statement with a 2-0 win. Defender Greg Sheen, another former Atlanta Magic player, crossed to Soebye, who headed in his league leading fifth goal right before halftime. Soebye then assisted on Steenkamp’s goal midway through the second half to seal the big win. Unfortunately, I missed this one as I was graduating from high school that night. Priorities...
Both teams headed north for a return match on Sunday. The Impact got their revenge with a resounded 4-0 win at Claude-Robillard Stadium. "We knew we had to hold them off early in the game to see if we could capitalize on our counterattacks," Ruckus head coach Lothar Osiander told the AJC. "But we simply didn't come out to play tonight, especially in the first half. Montreal is a good team. And if you give them opportunities, you won't get them back."
The road trips in the A-League were brutal. After the two game series with Montreal, the team headed west to do the Pacific Northwest loop. The Ruckus put together a strong performance in Vancouver on Friday night to defeat the 86ers again 3-1. Former US international (and leading all-time goalscorer at the time) Bruce Murray and Mike Huwiler scored their first goals of the season, Steenkamp scored his fourth goal of the season in the second half.
Things did not go so well in the Sunday match in Seattle as the Sounders took a 2-0 win. John Doyle was a beast on the backline for a tired Ruckus team, but he couldn’t keep out the Sounders all day as Peter Hattrup finally broke the deadlock in the 70th minute.
After the long road trip, the Ruckus came home for a Wednesday night home game in the US Open Cup. The game marked the first time a professional team in Atlanta was part of the country’s oldest cup competition. Their opposition was the Tampa Bay Cyclones of the USISL.
There was very little advertising for the match, but I was one of the 810 fans on hand to see the Ruckus advance to the next round after a 4-2 win. Former Atlanta Magic player Brian Moore scored twice. My friends and I were huge fans of Moore since he went to high school near us, we were from Eagle's Landing HS and he graduated from Morrow.
The Cyclones made a furious rally late against the tired Ruckus, but the veteran leadership on the Ruckus roster prevailed.
Injuries were starting to catch up to the Ruckus with the schedule grind they were on. Mo Suri was out with a hamstring and the lineup had to be shuffled a bit. Moore took advantage of the opportunity in the US Open Cup. Bruce Murray starting playing in a more attacking role. He started the season in midfield to provide some veteran experience. Moving Murray to forward opened up a slot for former Atlanta Magic midfielder and St. Pius graduate Richie Richmond.
Two days after the Open Cup win, the Ruckus hosted Vancouver at Adams Stadium. Lenin Steenkamp scored right before halftime to give Atlanta a lead going into the break. A five goal second half kept the 3,116 fans entertained. The 86ers tied the game in the 53rd minute before Atlanta took a 3-1 lead behind Tag Gambatese and Murray goals five minutes apart. Canadian international Martin Nash (yes, Steve Nash's brother) made the score 3-2 with a 82nd minute goal. Moore continued his great run of form with a last minute goal to clinch the win.
The win put the Ruckus in second place, with a shot at first in their next match. After the Vancouver win, the team headed to New York for a Sunday afternoon match with the Centaurs. This would be Atlanta's fifth game in ten days. They would be missing captain John Doyle due to yellow card accumulation, along with three other players due to injury. The game was Downing Stadium, which wasn't in the best of shape when it hosted Pele's first match in the North American Soccer League. Twenty years later, it was even worse. Bruce Murray told the AJC, "You can't even dribble there." In an ugly match, the Ruckus' Michael Araujo put the team into first place with an 89th minute goal to seal a 1-0 victory.
The Ruckus, after nearly folding weeks before the start of the season, had reached the top of the league. With the injuries piling up and the games coming at a fast clip, staying on top of the mountain would not be easy.