One of the more intriguing presences at the MISL 40th Anniversary Reunion in Las Vegas earlier this month was Len Bilous, who was one of the first coaches to successfully tame the indoor game in the earliest days of the league.
Bilous was only 30 when the Cincinnati Kids hired him to coach their team in the MISL’s inaugural season. It was Bilous who squared off against Don Popovic on December 22, 1978 when the MISL played its first game.
Born in Germany and raised in Venezuela before coming to the United States at the age of nine, Bilous had a brief professional playing career splitting time with the Delaware Wings and Philadelphia Spartans of the American Soccer League.
While Bilous continued to play in top amateur leagues, he sought out a new career during the height of the Vietnam War. “It was difficult to get full-time employment because I was draft-eligible so I did some substitute teaching and started coaching at a high school in Philadelphia and then I got a call that the guy from Princeton needed an assistant so I took that job. I was an assistant there for a year and then I applied for the head coaching job at Quinnipiac College so I went up there.”
He later signed with the NASL’s Connecticut Bicentennials, but didn’t see the field. “They signed me because the rules were you needed so many Americans, but I knew that I wasn’t going to get an opportunity to play,” Bilous says.
Flash forward to 1978 and something new was on the horizon. “I went to my first national soccer coaches convention in San Francisco and you hear things that there’s going to be this new indoor league and I thought it would be neat to coach professionally and I found out who some of the teams were,” Bilous recalls.
Former US Mens National Team and National Soccer Hall of Fame coach Walt Chyzowych was a connecting resource for Bilous at Princeton and the MISL. “He said give Cleveland a call, but they already hired Eddie McCready,” said Bilous. “I called Cincinnati and told them my background, they consulted with Walt and Walt told them that I would be a good fit and basically they hired me on the scene.”
The NASL was the top soccer league in the country in 1978 and the new MISL made some high profile signings like Shep Messing, but was originally focusing more on signing college players to fill out their rosters. That didn’t take long to change.
“As in any arms race you try to get the biggest guns and we were given this set of rules so that’s where we were searching for players, mostly ex-college guys,” Bilous says. “We hear that New York is getting this guy, that guy, as soon as you step on the field with them you see these are not college guys, they’re seasoned pros. Now it’s men vs. Kids. No pun intended.”
The New York Arrows won the first four MISL championships and were the chief nemesis of all three teams Bilous coached. Still the Kids, featuring players like Keith Van Eron, Ty Keough, David D’Errico, Doc Lawson, and Keith Tozer, finished tied with the Arrows in 1978-79 at 16-8 and went 2-3 against them in the regular season before losing 9-4 in the league semifinal.
“The disappointing piece was that some of the players saw no way that we could beat New York in the playoffs,” Bilous lamented.
“Steve Zungul was very difficult to deal with,” Bilous said, reflecting an experience shared universally by anyone who coached against the Lord of All Indoors. Zungul set the tone from Day 1 by scoring four goals against the Kids in the first MISL game. “One, he just hung out towards the middle of the field and as soon as the ball would be won he would make incredibly well-timed diagonal runs. He’d either take you on or he’d find people joining sometimes behind him, sometimes on the weak side. And they had other guys who were not as good, but were close to his level, guys with a lot of talent and experience.”
It seems almost rudimentary now, but Bilous was one of the first coaches who figured out indoor soccer’s defensive schemes and line changing patterns.
“At the college level you would go to indoor tournaments so the pace was always faster and you’re used to substituting from the college game because that was at one point unlimited,” Bilous explains. “We knew from observing ice hockey it was a very fast paced game. The trick was to learn to shift lines and I had a struggle with it. I would get a little too wrapped up in the game to think of it and then we’re like, ‘You gotta change now!’ Other times you would have to change on the fly and the trick was not to change when you are defending, but change when you attack.”
Defensively, Bilous used high pressure and double teams to force turnovers. “What we did that was successful was we took away the pass to the boards, we took away the lane, so we would pressure and force their player to dribble into the middle and then our other forward would pinch in and jump in and win the ball. But players like (Arrows defender) Val Tuksa you could press him a lot but a lot of times he would just find the goalie on a back pass.”
The Kids folded after that first season, but Bilous was ready to join the expansion Hartford Hellions. “I had been hired over the phone by the Hellions and Technical Director Hubert Vogelsinger appointed Hank Liotart as coach and he had to call me and tell me, ‘Sorry but we owe you one.”’
Another opportunity appeared when the Pittsburgh Spirit got off to a poor start under 30-year old rookie coach Alex Pringle. “I made a call to see if they were looking to change,” said Bilous. “I called John Kowalski who was my assistant in Cincinnati and said, ‘What do you think?'”
Bilous and Kowalski went to Philadelphia on January 14 to see the Spirit fall to 5-10. “These guys have a lot of talent, but they’re playing guys on the field for like five minutes, sometimes longer and they’re playing as if it’s an outdoor game,” Bilous marveled. “The coach was a guy who knew the game but didn’t adapt the nuances that made you more effective so I called (Spirit GM) Jim Mihalke back and said I think we can make a difference here.”
“Alex Pringle came in and he just didn’t have much experience indoors, but who did at that time, so you were taking a chance on a coach no matter who you took,” said Spirit All-Star defender Dave MacKenzie. “We had good players we just couldn’t get it together. We struggled off the bat so the owner decided to make a change and we brought Lenny and John in and everything clicked. Lenny had a lot to do with it, just organizing the players, getting formations, getting systems together, guys playing with each other. It wasn’t haphazard. A lot of teams were haphazard back then. There wasn’t a lot of direction. You had Steve Zungul and then everyone else. That’s the way the league was back then.”
Four days later, after only one practice, the Spirit played their first game under Bilous and won. In fact, the Spirit, who had been a combined 11-28 before Bilous arrived, won their first 13 games after the coaching change, putting the Spirit on the map in Pittsburgh. Their previous attendance record was 5,961, but during the winning streak they topped that number four times, including 9,581 that showed up for the 13th win.
“Lenny did a great job and John,” said MacKenzie. “It was like a good cop, bad cop thing. Lenny was very dry and very direct and pointed and John was the jovial one. He knew his stuff but he had a different way of putting it.
“We lived about an hour from the airport and we had to be there at 6:00am and we got up early and it was snowing so we left about 4:00am and got there at 6:10am,” MacKenzie recalls fondly. “We go to the game that night and we play St. Louis and funny enough, I scored three overtime goals in my life, and that night I got the winner in overtime against St. Louis and the next morning Lenny said, ‘Hey nice goal last night, well done. I’m fining you $25 you were late to the airport.’ That was Lenny.
“After we won a few games, we got stuck in Philly and the place had a stage and a band and Graham Fyfe and Billy McNicol go up on the stage during the break and start singing Jimmy Cagney’s I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy and they get Lenny and John up on the stage singing,” MacKenzie chuckles. “You can imagine the players who have only known Lenny for about 1 1/2 to 2 months and dry as could be and here’s this guy up on the stage doing Yankee Doodle Dandy. It was remarkable because Billy and Graham could get anyone to do anything and it did a lot for our team just seeing Lenny up there as a person. A night like that really opened him up. I’ve seen him at a couple reunions that we’ve done and he is fun to be with, joking with everybody, taking pictures.”
Despite qualifying for the playoffs, the New York Arrows intervened again, going 4-0 in the regular season against Pittsburgh and sweeping their best-of-three semifinals, after the Spirit won their single elimination quarterfinal against the Buffalo Stallions. Bilous was honored by the MISL, splitting the Coach of the Year Award with St. Louis Steamers coach Pat McBride.
The Spirit was sold after the season and sat out the 1980-81 season, but MacKenzie credits Bilous with lighting the spark that allowed the team to play five more seasons when they returned to the field in 1981-82. “It wasn’t just a team that went away,” said MacKenzie, who is thankful for the seven seasons he spent with the Spirit, “it was a good team that people liked and I think Lenny’s success had a lot to do with them coming back.”
Things began to sour the next year when Bilous took over the Philadelphia Fever’s head coaching position. There was a lot of pressure to win, but the owners were frugal in some areas and wasteful in others.
The owners tried to bring in players on tryouts, but rushed them out of town before they could be properly evaluated. Bilous recalls, “My lack of experience there was that I was trying to deal with the pressure from the owners and not say, ‘Hey let this guy be here longer.’ They were always crying, ‘There’s not enough money. Not enough money,’ meanwhile they hired a full-time agent who promised them he was going to get a guy like Zungul. Guys he brought over were so-so.”
Still, the Fever got off to a respectable 13-10 start, but a 4-10 skid ended Bilous’s time in Philadelphia with three games left in the season. If it was any consolation, the Fever went 11-33 the next season without him.
When the Spirit returned they hired Len’s former assistant John Kowalski as their new coach. “I was a little burned out so I wasn’t plugged in,” said Bilous. “John was looking to coach on his own so he was in touch with everybody and he was much better at that than I was. They hired him and he did fairly well. About the same time the NASL was bottoming out and all those coaches now became available. I wasn’t motivated to get back in. My last year with Philadelphia was very, very stressful. I think I aged 10 years. It was good to take a break and then I was able to develop my coaching education program.
“Sometimes I thought about getting back into coaching at a higher level but once I had a family I didn’t want to be schlepping them all over and there wasn’t much stability. Team and leagues came and went.”
In the intervening years Bilous has been able to create a niche for himself in soccer. He co-founded Vision Training Soccer with TJ Kostecky in 1981 and he owns Soccer Magic Discounts retail store in Whitehall, Pennsylvania.
“We have evolved my coaching education programs to where we have five levels of coaching licenses that we provide,” he says. “We’ve made presentations in nine countries around the world, coaching players and professional teams and youth teams and national teams. We’ve made a lot of inroads and we produced a video (Vision Training for Soccer).”
Vision Training Soccer’s philosophy of seeing the whole field and being aware of your surroundings has directly and indirectly influenced well-known players like Claudio Reyna, Julie Foudy, Carli Lloyd, and Mike Petke.
Bilous didn’t completely leave the indoor game behind. In the ’90s he had an epiphany at a Philadelphia Kixx game.
“I really don’t like the round corners because every ball that goes long goes along the boards that the forwards can’t get to end up in the goalie’s hands,” the cerebral coach observed. “The corners are great for ice hockey because the puck can be switched from one side to the other behind the goal, but in soccer the goal is in the wall. So many of the plays never mature because the goalie controls and dominates those passes. I thought you can put a diagonal board in and now you have three surfaces to play the ball off of.”
He even commissioned a study that found it would create 5% more attacking space. When you bring up that they use the existing boards from hockey, he turns that on its head. “The ice is already there so let’s use the ice? Every arena you have to buy astroturf right? This would be a one time investment like the turf.”
The trim 71-year old with a “curious and tinkering mind” still coaches and plays soccer. “I’m always thinking about how you make something better.” His time in the MISL was short, but his legacy is long.
“I owe so much to Coach Bilous,” said Keith Tozer, who was the first player taken in the MISL draft and became indoor soccer’s winningest coach after a long indoor playing career. “He gave me so much confidence as a player and as a human being. To have your coach believe in you as a rookie was a great foundation moving forward as a player then eventually as a coach.”