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MISL could make return to Wichita

David Grimaldi was an American forward from Rutgers when he joined the Cleveland Force in 1978. Converted to a defender whose job it was to stop indoor soccer's scoring stars, he became a target for opposing fans.

Including those wearing orange in the Kansas Coliseum.

"The No. 1 thing I remember is the fan support," he said. "They would start booing me when I was introduced."

Now commissioner of the Major Indoor Soccer League, Grimaldi is negotiating with an unnamed group of Wichita investors to bring a franchise back to town — and if the new team is named anything other than Wings, it'll be the biggest soccer upset ever.

"It's looking quite good," Grimaldi said of the Wichita group's application process.

So good that Grimaldi hopes to make an announcement about a new Wichita team in the last half of February.

But while a Wings renaissance is a feel-good story, it's also a cautionary tale. What began as The Little Franchise That Could with household-name players — though "Save the Wings" campaigns were sometimes needed — the franchise also crumbled in the late 1990s and by 2001 had folded.

"I think soccer in the U.S. is terminal. I don't think it'll ever work, indoor or outdoor," said Dave Phillips, the Wings' general manager from 1996-98. "But it'll probably outlive me because it seems like there's always somebody willing to put money into it."

The league

This is not your father's MISL. Gone are the days where players such as Steve Zungul and Kai Haaskivi were talented enough to play in Europe's top leagues but instead became American indoor stars.

"I would say that we're not tapping into the very, very best talent internationally," Grimaldi said. "But at this point we're very capable of getting talented players."

With teams in five cities — Baltimore, Chicago, Independence (Mo.), Milwaukee and Omaha — Grimaldi plans on announcing an additional franchise in early February and ideally would like to double the league to 10 teams by next season.

Grimaldi said the franchises operate at a budget between $1 million to $2 million. Phillips' last Wings budget was $1.6 million 13 years ago.

"We try to be mindful and thoughtful on how we spend our dollars," Grimaldi said. "When I played in the '70s and '80s... the cost structure was very heavy on the expense side. We had to make a lot of revenue to make up for that."

Not so much anymore. MISL teams are playing 20-game schedules this season, far fewer than in the Wings' days. Wichita played 39 National Professional Soccer League games in its final season, 2000-01.

The Wings

Since word of the negotiations became public, Wings fans have taken to soccer message boards and Facebook to reminisce and express excitement about a possible franchise return.

Wichita's soccer team — along with its fan base known as the Orange Army — was once compared to the NFL's Green Bay Packers for its small-town, homegrown franchise feel. The Wings were facing teams from Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles, St. Louis and other major cities.

There was on-field success — though no championships — and players such as Erik Rasmussen, Kevin Kewley, Chico Borja and Kim Roentved were immediately recognizable in Wichita.

But franchise success was a continuing struggle. Telethons, campaigns and season-ticket ultimatums were sometimes needed.

"There's a good soccer community in town, but it's going to be tough," Phillips said of a new venture. "As long as they're willing to weather the storm and understand what the start-up costs are going to be, then maybe."

Forward thinking

One thing's for sure: A new Wings team wouldn't play in the Coliseum. It's been mothballed, but indoor soccer would seem to have two options — Park City's Hartman Arena and downtown Wichita's Intrust Bank Arena.

Hartman Arena, which seats 5,000 for indoor football, is of similar size to four of the five arenas now being used in the league. Arena general manager Eric Blockie referred questions to owner Wink Hartman, who through a spokesman had no comment.

Intrust Bank Arena seats 15,000, but the upper level could be closed and the lower bowl seats 7,000 for hockey. Arena GM A.J. Boleski said he called Grimaldi last week to express interest in housing the team.

Intrust already houses the Thunder hockey game for 32 home games during the same seasonal months of November, December, January, February and early March.

Grimaldi wouldn't express a preference in either arena, but emphasized being mindful on how dollars are spent.

"The local group that we've been speaking with will have to make the decision, but we try to help make recommendations," Grimaldi said. "We want to make it a true value buy on the part of the fans."