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.
It was a long road for the Ruckus to reach the top of the A-League on June 18, 1995. Atlanta pushed hard for an inaugural Major League Soccer franchise in 1994, only to be undone by a lack of a suitable stadium and slow season ticket sales. Atlanta Magic (USISL) owner Sam Chase bought the rights to an A-League franchise, but he defaulted on the team before it reached opening day. Local South African businessman Johnny Immerman saved the day weeks before the season started and salvaged the Ruckus as best as he could. The team reached the top spot in the A-League after a June 18th win in New York over the Centaurs at Downing Stadium.
The Ruckus' struggles to get to opening day were starting to take their toll. The team lacked depth and injuries, along with the A-League's brutal schedule, started to show almost immediately after reaching first place. Coming off a five games in ten day stretch, the games kept coming as the Ruckus and Centaurs headed to Atlanta for a return match on Wednesday, June 21.
A strong midweek crowd of nearly 3,000 turned out to Adams Stadium for the match. The Ruckus controlled much of the game, but couldn't find the net even with nine shots on goal. Bo Oshaniyi, a future Silverbacks goalkeeper, kept a clean sheet for the Centaurs and they scored twice in the second half to win 2-0.
"Things just weren't clicking tonight," Ruckus midfielder Mike Huwiler told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Mark Schlabach. "We didn't play as well as we should have, at home and being in first place. Coming off a win at New York, we should have played much better."
Before heading on a three game road trip, the Ruckus were able to announce some good news. Atlanta was chosen to host the A-League All-Star Game at Adams Stadium in July. UNAM Pumas of Mexico would be the opponent for the All-Stars on July 17th, they would also face the Ruckus two days earlier. "This is a great privilege for us to host these two games," Ruckus president Bob Heller told the AJC. "We want to continue to bring the highest level of soccer to Atlanta."
Atlanta headed to Seattle for two games with the Sounders. These types of scheduling quirks were inevitable with the Toronto Rockets pulling out of the league right before the season started. On Saturday, June 24th, the Ruckus fell 1-0 to the Sounders on a 9th minute goal by Jason Dunn. Future EPL and US men's national team goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann had four key saves in the match for Seattle. Seattle coach Alan Hinton told the Seattle Times, "Marcus Hahnemann played brilliantly. High shots. Low shots. Point-blank shots. Bravery. Strength. Amazing, amazing performance."
The Ruckus were able to get some revenge five days later as they won a shootout over the Sounders after a 1-1 draw in regulation. Staale Soebye's 23rd minute goal was canceled out by former US national team veteran Chance Fry in the 77th minute. One of the Sounders' earliest fan websites, Seattle Pitch, said that it was one of the worst games of the year for the Sounders. Bruce Murray nearly got into with James Dunn, which isn't all that surprising when teams play back to back games. The shootout win put Atlanta back into a tie for first place with the Sounders.
The A-League All-Star team was also announced on July 29th and the Ruckus placed four players on it. Defender and captain John Doyle, midfielder Bruce Murray, forward Lenin Steenkamp, and the league's leading scorer Staale Soebye were chosen by their fellow players for the team.
The Ruckus headed to Denver's Mile High Stadium to face the Colorado Foxes on Saturday, July 1st. In a match televised on SportSouth, two late goals for Colorado gave them a 2-0 win in front of nearly 5,000 fans.
The team limped back home to face the Sounders for the third time in four games, this time at Adams Stadium, on July 4th. It was an ugly game, marred by a controversial John Doyle red card in the 15th minute, that saw the Ruckus fall 4-0 in their worst loss of the year. "I was a little surprised by the call," Doyle told the AJC's Schlabach. "I don't have anything good to say about it; it's the call the referee chose to make. Our guys worked their butts off and I'm disappointed I wasn't out there to contribute. It's tough when you're dropped to only 10 guys on the field."
I remember sitting in the stands in the rain in the second half, just hoping the Ruckus could pull a goal back. Peter Hattrup scored twice to end any hopes of a comeback. The loss gave Seattle a five point lead in the standings.
The scoring slump continued in New York on July 9th, but the Ruckus were able to get a shootout win after a 0-0 regulation draw. The shootout win kept Atlanta in second place behind the Sounders, but Montreal was closing in fast and only one point back.
Atlanta went to Richmond for the quarterfinals of the US Open Cup on July 12th. In a shock result at the time, the USISL's Richmond Kickers upset the Ruckus 2-1. In hindsight, the Kickers were not your average USISL team. They went on to do the double in 1995, winning the Open Cup and the USISL Premier League. Six members of that team went on to feature in MLS in 1996.
Next up was the friendly with Pumas. In a hard fought match in front of a huge crowd at Adams Stadium, Pumas held on for a 2-1 win. Brian Moore scored in the 88th minute, and John Doyle had a great chance denied by Pumas goalkeeper Luis Vallas in the 90th minute. Murray told the AJC, "We just gave away too many balls tonight. When you're playing a Mexican team you can't do that because you'll just chase, chase, chase. We can't give away balls like that."
The next day, I met up with friends for our usual Sunday pick up game at Wade Walker Park in Stone Mountain. As we were pulling up, we saw Lenin Steenkamp and Staale Soebye. They asked us where a specific field. We tried not to freak out and make a big deal about them as we told them. We started to play and then noticed Steenkamp, Soebye, and the rest of the A-League All-Stars watching us. Pretty cool to get some clapping out of them on a nice play here and there. They started their practice for the next night's All-Star game and we went over to watch.
After their practice, many of players stuck around to talk to us. This was the first time we actually had a chance to talk to the pros, it was really cool of them to take the time for us. Steenkamp told us he would leave tickets for us at the gate for the game, and he did. The All-Stars went on to beat Pumas 2-0, we stuck around to thank Lenin for the tickets and struck up a really cool friendship with him. He started leaving us tickets for each game and even called one of my friends on her birthday. The little things like this made us even bigger Ruckus fans.
The second half of the season did not start well for the reeling Ruckus. A 4-2 loss on the road in Montreal on July 19th was followed up by a surprising 3-2 loss at home to Colorado on July 23rd. Mark Santel scored in the 89th minute to give Colorado the win. "It kills you," John Doyle told the AJC. "We give up three soft goals and worked hard to come back and score a second goal. If you're going to be a professional, you've got to play hard for 90 minutes and especially the last 10 minutes - even when you're tired."
The oddities of the A-League schedule makers continued as the Ruckus had a two week layoff after the Colorado match. It actually came at a good time for a tired, beat up team. By the time the New York Centaurs came to visit on August 6, Atlanta was in third place in the standings behind Montreal and Seattle. Staale Soebye told the AJC's Mark Schlabach, "Our biggest problem is that we're not playing as a team. We're not playing offense as a team and we're not playing defense as a team. We're trying to do too much by ourselves." The Ruckus were also missing John Doyle, who had been called in by the US national team for the Parmalat Cup at Giants' Stadium.
Only 1,812 turned out to Adams Stadium for the rare Sunday afternoon match. Lenin Steenkamp scored to level the match and send it to a shootout. It did not happen very often, but the Ruckus actually lost a shootout in this one and dropped some much needed points.
In desperate need of a spark, the Ruckus made their biggest signing of the season. They tried to get Dominic Kinnear after he left Necaxa in Mexico, but he ended up in Seattle. Instead, Atlanta signed 33 year old veteran English forward Justin Fashanu. He told the AJC, "I've been in a situation where I decided to take time off. I've been playing at the highest level of soccer for 16 years and when you do that, you just need to take time off. I could be playing in England, but I just wanted some new challenges."
You have to remember that this was in the pre-internet era of American soccer where mainstream coverage was minimal. My friends and I had no idea about Justin's history, no idea that he was the first openly gay athlete in Atlanta's sports history. If you don't know his story, please read this. 1995 was a much different time, but it is surprising this was never mentioned at the time.
Sadly, Fashanu's career had been derailed by a series of knee injuries and he had been sapped of the explosiveness that led him to score the BBC Goal of the Season in 1980 for Norwich as an 18 year old.
Fashanu made his debut against Seattle in a home game on August 11th. He did not disappoint, nearly scoring on a free kick in the opening minutes and finding the net in the 10th minute against the league leaders. The Sounders' Peter Hattrup tied the game in the 75th minute, but Mo Suri sealed a shootout win in sudden death.
Montreal moved into first place after the Ruckus shootout victory, and they came to visit Adams Stadium the following weekend. The Sunday match was also a test run by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games of Cool Concepts. The system sprayed mist with high-volume fans over the field and claimed to drop the field temperature by as much as 30 degrees without leaving moisture on the field. I don't remember it causing any problems during the game, but I don't think it was used in the 1996 Olympics either so...
With the Ruckus' playoff hopes reeling, Montreal made it a tougher road with a 3-2 win. Doyle returned from national team duty to score in the 5th minute. Nick DeSantis and Lloyd Barker goals gave the Impact the lead. Steenkamp continued his clutch play with a 76th minute to tie the game. DeSantis scored in the 87th minute to give Montreal the three points.
Only three more games remained for the Ruckus. They held a slim two point advantage going into a Wednesday night match at Adams Stadium on August 30th against Vancouver. The 86ers were in third place. The Ruckus' final two matches were against Colorado, who they were battling for the last playoff spot.
Nearly 2,000 fans turned up at Adams Stadium for the Vancouver match. The 86ers struck first in the 5th minute on a defensive mistake by the Ruckus. Bruce Murray leveled the score in the 29th minute with a first time finish off a Michael Araujo chip. Paul Dailly scored his second for the 86ers two minutes later. Desperately needing a result, the Ruckus threw everything forward in the second half. After many near misses, defender Greg Sheen scored a clutch goal to tie the game. Araujo notched his second assist of the night. A frantic finish saw Mun Young Yi make two huge saves, one off the post, the send the game to a shootout. Mo Suri, Staale Soebye, and Lenin Steenkamp converted to give the Ruckus the shootout win and a slightly tighter grip on the last playoff spot. The shootout result gave Atlanta a 7-1 record in the tiebreaker, the critical bonus points from winning these had the Ruckus in the playoff picture.
Greg Sheen told Soccer America, "It's been tough. I know I've aged quite a bit this year. It seems our attitude all season has been that when the chips are downs, the guys find a way to come through."
"The things we can practice, like shootouts, is where we're OK," said Ruckus coach Lothar Osiander. "We always have little shootout tournaments in practice, and it pays off. It's good for the goalkeepers and the players. But I can't take a player and teach him to become a star or a great scorer in 20 games. That takes time."
The Soccer America article went on to look at the business of the Atlanta Ruckus. Owner Johnny Immerman projected a $600,000 loss for the 1995 season, which he said was acceptable.
"I think, overall, things have been just about as good as you could expect," he says. "We always said we're committed for three years here, and nothing's changed. We hope to break even in 1996, and we expect to show a profit the year after that. But overall we're pleased. I wish the team had done better, but that's a human situation you can't control."
Most interesting were the points made late in the article. Osiander admitted that he had been contacted by MLS about coaching opportunities and many players were trying to get their foot in the door with the league as well.
Immerman also said that the club had listened to pitches from MLS and USISL. He said the Ruckus' future was with the A-League. "For me, it's the best option," he said. "But we need to expand as a league to eight teams but no more than 12 by next year, and we need to develop regionally, into eastern and western divisions, in order to cut down on travel costs. That's what's killing us. As for the players and the coaches, I hope we don't lose them. Lothar is a very, very vital part of our future, and we have most of our players under 18-month contracts. But this is a business. And if we can sell our players for a lot of money ... well, that's good business."
Atlanta's final two games of the season came against the Colorado Foxes, the team they were battling for the final playoff spot. First, they traveled to the Mile High city immediately after the Vancouver match for a game on Friday, September 1. The Ruckus were feeling the effects of the travel and previous game and gave up a goal to Kim Roentved in the first minute. Lenin Steenkamp answered in the sixth minute, but Ted Eck put the Foxes up again in the seventh minute. Michael Araujo scored one of the biggest goals of the season for the Ruckus in the 73rd minute to tie the game. The Ruckus did what they do best, winning the shootout to take the bonus point. The shootout win gave the Ruckus the advantage heading into the season finale.
The rematch was set for Sunday, September 10 and the scenario was simple. Colorado had to win in regulation to best the Ruckus for the final playoff spot. An Atlanta win, or a regulation draw, would send the Ruckus into the playoffs in their first season.
Another personal story: I only missed 2 home games during the Ruckus’ 1995 season. One was due to my high school graduation, the other was due to seeing Silverchair’s first American concert at The Roxy (hey, it was a 99X Freeloader show and Silverchair was a big deal that summer). My friends and I had tickets to the first 99X Big Day Out concert at Lakewood Amphitheater for the same day as the regular season finale. With the playoff berth at stake, we knew we couldn’t miss it. We went to Big Day Out, saw the first few bands play (I remember Cake and Blind Melon specifically), then left in time to make it to Adams Stadium for the 7:30pm kickoff.
Both teams came out on fire in the early going. Steenkamp had two headers that narrowly missed high. Colorado's Walter Boyd also narrowly missed, this time from a free kick. For the remainder of the first half, the Ruckus sat back to defend while Colorado tried to find a way through to goal. The first half ended scoreless, which gave Atlanta the advantage in the playoff race.
With the season on the line, the intensity of the second half was amazing to watch. Mun Young Yi made a spectacular save in the 64th minute on Boyd. Fashanu and Steenkamp missed by inches minutes apart. As the second half went on without a goal, the Ruckus retreated into a 5-4-1 formation. Rivers Guthrie nearly gave the Foxes the lead in the 82nd minute, but Yi again rose to the occasion with a save on the twenty yard rocket. Colorado had one more chance in stoppage time, but Yi made one last save to put the Ruckus into the playoffs in their first year.
The Ruckus then went on to win the meaningless shootout, giving them an 8-1 record in the tiebreaker for the season. The shootout format was essential for the Ruckus to make the playoffs. In a traditional format, Atlanta would have missed the playoffs by a full five points in the standings.
Regardless, the Ruckus did not write the rules but they definitely benefited from them. After nearly folding in the weeks before the season kicked off, the Atlanta Ruckus were in the playoffs in their first season. Their reward, a best of three series with the league's regular season leader, the Montreal Impact. Game One kicked off four days later...