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.
When the Atlanta Ruckus returned from Seattle after falling in Game 3 of the 1995 A-League Championship Series, they were already looking ahead to next season. The team took a red-eye back to Atlanta after the Thursday night game in Seattle, and three players (Bruce Murray, Tag Gambatese, Tim Martin) had knee surgery Friday afternoon in Atlanta.
Coach Lothar Osiander told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Wendy Parker:
"We had a good beginning and a good end to the season. We cannot be unhappy. Coming in second is no shame. We'll probably keep two-thirds of the players. We think we have a very good core group of players."
Osiander was named Coach of the Year in the A-League and was mulling an offer to return to Atlanta. Ultimately, he was hired by the Los Angeles Galaxy as their first head coach. Assistant coach, and former Atlanta Magic head coach, Charlie Morgan replaced him.
John Doyle had a career resurgence in Atlanta, he was named the Defender of the Year, and he followed Osiander to MLS and ended up in San Jose. Tim Martin joined him with the Clash and Mike Huwiler went to DC United. Lenin Steenkamp was offered to MLS for $10,000 by the Ruckus, but A-League commissioner Richard Groff told me on the NA-Soccer mailing list that “the guru in LA would not permit any team in MLS to purchase him. This type of thinking is hurting the sport.”
In the offseason, some Ruckus players returned to the Atlanta Magic for the USISL Indoor season. The Magic, who was originally intended to be a reserve team for the Ruckus, folded their outdoor team a few games into the season. They put together a team on a shoestring budget (less than half of previous indoor season budgets) and players got involved in running the team. An undefeated regular season saw them make it all the way to the national championship game, but lost on February 18. The loss ended the Magic’s streak of winning three straight I-League championships. It was the last game the Magic would ever play.
The Ruckus prepared for the upcoming A-League season, which was kicking off in the shadow of the newly launched Major League Soccer. Many of the top players from the A-League left after the 1995 season for the new league. There were also growing talks about a merger between the A-League and the USISL.
The season kicked off with a 3-1 loss to Montreal on May 17 in front of 2,617 fans at Adams Stadium. The largest crowd of the season was on May 27 as 5,027 fans crowded into Adams to see the Ruckus draw 2-2 with the US Olympic Team. Things went downhill quickly after the team drew the largest crowd in its history.
As the calendar turned to June, the crowds kept getting smaller. 1,847 fans came out for the first win of the season on June 1. A nationally televised match on June 14 against Seattle drew 1,611. I went to the game with my Dad and we were hopeful that the team was starting to come together. Tom Wurdack and Lenin Steenkamp scored the goals that night. What we thought was a sign of better things to come was actually the beginning of the end.
Owner Johnny Imerman promised the player that he would do whatever it takes to field a winning team on that day. However, his tune changed after a disappointing 3-0 loss to Vancouver on June 19. Nine players (six starters) were traded or released, assistant coach Bruce Murray (who retired after the 1995 season) and the only 2 full time employees in the front office were also let go.
Imerman told the AJC’s Wendy Parker:
"They're not drastic changes. We just made some very simple business decisions."
He hinted at bigger changes when discussing the team’s budget. The 1996 budget was $500,000, half of what was allotted for 1995.
"It's a matter of what I'm willing to put into it. I'll make no commitments that we will or will not finish the season."
When asked about letting the front office staff go, Imerman said that they “didn't do a bad job, but we didn't get the kind of performance that we needed from them.”
I wrote this on the NA-Soccer mailing list when the news broke:
“Everyone out there with an a pro team, don't take it for granted! I've been to nearly every Ruckus game over the last 2 years and I can't bear to see them fold. Don't turn your back on your local team because you never know how long it'll last.”
The team went into the June 28 game with Montreal with 14 active players. One of those active players was head coach Charlie Morgan.
An unsurprising 2-1 loss was the result, in front of 1,102 fans at Adams Stadium. I was one of those fans who received a flyer from the players that included this:
"This wholesale cut to the team, which may have had some basis in strict business reasoning, is also potentially devastating to team unity and morale, as well as fan loyalty."
Imerman told the AJC’s Parker after the match:
"I've spent nearly $1 million on soccer in Atlanta. I haven't done it on the cheap, but I'm going to do what it takes to keep our doors open."
He tried to hire former marketing director Lorraine Glynn back after firing her, but she turned him down and took issue with his quote in the newspaper about her job performance.
I remember talking to Brian Moore in the stands at the game. He was one of the players let go by Imerman and was hoping to get resigned. Other former players were there as well. Things were a complete mess on and off the field at this point.
A few days later, Imerman pulled out completely. On July 1, he severed his financial ties to the team. The team’s players and coach Charlie Morgan hit the pavement to try to find backers to continue the season. Some of the players had only recently experienced this same situation with trying to find funds to finish the Atlanta Magic’s indoor season. The players spoke with Vincent Lu, who owned the team’s practice facility at the old Roswell High School, and Phil Leone who was a representative from Red Dog beer and the Miller Brewing Company.
The team had games scheduled on July 5 in Montreal and July 7 at home against Rochester. A 2-0 loss in Montreal was followed by a wild shootout loss at home to Rochester. It took 12 rounds to decide the result, Rochester’s Hector Marinaro actually scored twice. Former Ruckus goalkeeper won the game for the Rhinos when he saved Tom Wurdack’s second attempt.
The league began trying to figure what they could do to salvage the team and keep it afloat so they could try to find a new owner. With merger talks intensifying between the A-League and the USISL, maintaining a franchise in Atlanta was becoming increasingly important. Word came out that Imerman actually defaulted on the team prior to walking away by not paying the final $25,000 of the team’s $150,000 franchise fee.
On July 12, the A-League announced that team’s next two games would be postponed while they reorganized the franchise and sought new ownership. The next game on the schedule, July 21, was the first of a four game trip during the Olympics. An answering machine message at the Ruckus’ office said that the team did not have “confirmation on the schedule for the rest of the season.”
The Ruckus did make their dates on the road, but it was not pretty. The played five games in eight days, losing all five and only scoring one goal. The team returned home and waiting another week to see when they would play again.
Their match on August 7 hosting Seattle was postponed while the negotiations with Vincent Lu continued. A-League commissioner Richard Groff told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Wendy Parker:
"The bottom line is that we want local ownership, and we want someone to assume responsibility immediately, for the rest of the season and beyond. We want someone who will commit to it."
The “and beyond” part of that quote is important. Groff said the rest of the league’s owners were adamant about the Ruckus seeing out the rest of the season. The future was also important as Atlanta was desired as a market for the A-League merger with the USISL.
The August 10 match with Vancouver was also postponed, which made everyone wonder if the end had come. Head coach Charlie Morgan told the AJC’s Parker:
"If we play next week, then we will probably make it through the end of the season. If we don't, I don't think there's any way. We can't miss any more home games."
"We feel a little bit like a yo-yo. We just have to take it day-by-day. But the longer we go on, the less time we have to get organized."
The AJC also reported that when the league took over the team’s operations in early July that the players signed new contracts. They were paid on a per-game basis so these cancellations meant they were not getting paid. Two more home games were postponed on August 14 so things were getting bleak. The league announced that the Ruckus would play next in New York on August 18.
Prior to that trip, the A-League finally announced that negotiations were successful with Vincent Lu and his Professional Soccer Management Corp. They bought the team and started discussing plans for a new venue for the 1997 season. He told Parker:
"I feel Atlanta deserves to have a team. It's a shame that the team would have had to fold."
Parker also revealed that Lu nearly partnered with Johnny Imerman when he bought the team in 1995. He supplied $100,000 to finish out the 1996 season and committed to spending $750,000 to refurbish the old Roswell High School stadium to serve as a home for the 1997 season and beyond. He promised that the team’s budget would be $1.2 million in 1997 and that the team would focus on marketing and outreach.
Somehow, after not playing for nearly a month, the Ruckus went up to New York on August 18 and beat the Fever 1-0 on an Alex Bahr goal. New York came down to Atlanta on August 24 and avenged the loss with a 5-0 demolition of the Ruckus. The game’s highlight was a fight between Greg Sheen of Atlanta and Lee Tschantret of New York.
Atlanta finished off the 1996 season with a two game series with Rochester. The Rhinos were an expansion team and packing in the fans into Frontier Field. Over 11,000 fans came out to see the Rhinos destroy the Ruckus 8-2 on August 30. Rochester came down to Adams Stadium to end the season with a 4-0 thrashing on September 1.
Lenin Steenkamp, once a key member of the Ruckus, was now part of the Rhinos and scoring goals against his old teammates. He went on to become a legend in Rochester, playing more games and minutes than anyone in Rhinos’ history and becoming the inaugural member of the Rochester Rhinos Hall of Fame.
Meanwhile, the Ruckus were trying to regroup to make a go of things in the newly expanded A-League in 1997. After all of the promise of 1995, 1996 was like a series of Mike Tyson punches to the gut. I was hopeful at least after meeting the new General Manager at the last game of the season. They seemed to be taking things seriously and had some ideas on how to improve things. Time would tell...