There are new wrinkles aplenty in the National Professional Soccer League as it begins its 13th season.
The league has a record 15 teams, up from 13, as the expansion Philadelphia Kixx and Toronto Shooting Stars join the fun. The Canton Invaders have moved to Columbus, Ohio, and the Chicago Power is now the Edmonton Drillers.
Canton won five NPSL championships, but its attendance dwindled last season to 1,625, lowest in the league. The Power's 2,847 was third from last, ahead only of Tampa Bay (1,827) and Canton.
"This is a sad time for me," said Invaders owner Tom Schervish. "My heart wanted me to continue to operate the team in Canton, but with the league growing and moving into larger metropolitan markets, the days of an NPSL team in my hometown were numbered."
The Power was bought by Peter Pocklington, who also owns the NHL's Edmonton Oilers, the Edmonton Trappers of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League and the Hamilton (Ontario) Bulldogs of the American Hockey League.
The NPSL now is divided into American and National conferences, with two divisions in each for the first time. The American's East Division includes Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, making it a perfect fit for the Spirit because its opponents are peppered with names familiar to Baltimore fans.
The Spirit will play each of its division opponents six times and the other teams twice each.
The coaches went on record as favoring Cleveland and St. Louis to win their respective conference championships over Baltimore and Buffalo and to meet in the championship round. They envision the Crunch becoming the first repeat champion since the Invaders captured three straight titles in 1988, '89 and '90.
With expansion and realignment has come an expanded playoff format. Twelve teams, up from eight, will qualify, including the top two in each division and the next two best teams in each conference based on won-lost records. Regular-season division winners will receive first-round byes, automatically gaining the conference semifinals.
"The expanded playoffs will bring more end-of-the-season excitement," said NPSL commissioner Steve Paxos. "With more teams battling for high seeds in the playoffs, the regular season will be even more competitive."
New NPSL alignment
The NPSL will have 15 teams this season, up two from last season, and will have two conferences consisting of two divisions each. Last season, the league had two divisions. Here is the league's new alignment, with last season's records in parentheses and teams listed in predicted order of finish according to a poll of NPSL coaches:
East Division Central Division
Spirit (25-15) Cleveland Crunch (31-9)
Harrisburg Heat (24-16) Cincinnati Silverbacks (14-26)
Tampa Bay Terror (14-26) Columbus Invaders (5-35)
Philadelphia Kixx (1st year)
North Division Midwest Division
Buffalo Blizzard (21-19) St. Louis Ambush (24-16)
Detroit Rockers (14-26) Kansas City Attack (32-8)
Toronto Shooting Stars (1st year) Milwaukee Wave (30-10)
Edmonton Drillers (6-34) Wichita Wings (20-20)
Pub Date: 10/18/96