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Indoor soccer making headway; Lakers sitting pretty

If you stop reading now, you will know more about the Major Indoor Soccer League than most people.

MISL (pronounced missle by insiders) exists on the fringes of America's sports establishment -- both literally and figuratively. League headquarters are in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., a tax dodge from Philadelphia.

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But don't be misled, the league is on the move. During the past regular season, the St. Louis Steamers enjoyed larger average crowds (17,107) than almost every pro basketball andhockey team. Three other franchises -- Kansas City, Baltimore, and Buffalo -- drew better than 9,000 a game.

''The whole theory is to get people to just one game and they'll be hooked,'' says public relations man Doug Verb. The MISL game is far different from outdoor soccer -- shockingly different, some purists say. The indoor version utitlizes a smaller field, free-wheeling substitutions, a redish-orange ball, and hockey-style boards. It is played at a furious pace, with far more shots and goals than in regular soccer.

The object has been to develop an entertainment package that will sell to American fans and attract TV coverage, which it did from the USA cable network this season. The game's four-quarter setup allows for adequate commercial breaks, a feature outdoor soccer doesn't enjoy.

Because of league rules, the MISL enlists a large percentage of American players. The Steamers, owned by former baseball great Stan Musial, have played up local loyalties even more. All but a few players were born or raised in the soccer-rich St. Louis area, making the team a special source of community pride.

Checkerdome crowds love the pre-game introductions, when players run through a cloud of steam. Fans are expected to be particularly vocal Friday night, as the Steamers host the New York Arrows in Game 3 of their best-of-five playoff final, which is tied 1-1. The Arrows are the league's dominant team, having won each of three previous MISL championships.

The season began in November, making it much longer than the North American Soccer League's indoor schedule. The NASL season ended in February and primarily tides players over until the separate, outdoor campaign begins in early April.

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