Shep Messing: “Look, Rochester was special for me. I wasn’t there a long time, but it was very special for me.” (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
By Michael Lewis
Shep Messing won’t be able to attend his induction into the Rochester Lancers Wall of Fame June 30, but the former goalkeeper still has a special place in his heart for the soccer team.
He played there one season in the original North American Soccer League after his stint with the Cosmos and during his tenure with the indoor New York Arrows.
“Look, Rochester was special for me,” he said during a recent interview. “I wasn’t there a long time, but it was very special for me.”
At the time, Messing was two years out from backstopping a Cosmos team that included Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto to the 1977 Soccer Bowl crown. He was a star and signing a personality like Messing was a big feather in the Lancers’ cap.
But there was one little thing that turned into a big controversy.
A Long Island resident, Messing did not live in Rochester. His first child, Manda was born when he had signed a contract with the club. Messing refused to live in Rochester because of that.
So, he practiced at Hofstra University during the week and flew in for games on the weekend before returning home.
“That was unusual,” said Messing, who is scheduled to be inducted during a Rochester Lancers’ National Premier Soccer League game at Marina Auto Stadium June 30. “I flew up my wife and daughter every week. I am laughing, but it put pressure on me because you know how the fans are in Rochester. Once they realized what my deal was, God forbid it’s Saturday night and we’re in overtime and i give up a goal because I want to catch the last flight home.”
Honest, Messing is talking the truth. He isn’t making any of that stuff up.
“I’m a big believer that goalkeepers are really hands for hire,” he said. “You’re a gunslinger. These were teammates I was familiar with — most of them. The two guys I really had to get familiar with were the two center backs — [Nick] Mijatovic [Miralem] Fazlic — those guys were warriors. We had a good friendship, we had a great chemistry.”
Messing, a Red Bulls TV commentator, thought the Rochester soccer supporters were some of the most enthusiastic fans he had encountered.
“You know what? It was special because you know the fans,” he said, rattling off the NASL teams for which he played — the Boston Minutemen, Cosmos, Oakland Stompers, and of course, the Lancers at Holleder Stadium.
“The Rochester fans for me, I don’t know whether to call them European or rabid or hardcore, they were the greatest fans,” Messing said. “Not in the same numbers as the Cosmos, but absolutely the same connections, the same spirit. You felt like you were playing in Europe. I loved the fans there, I loved the city.
“Actually, when I up for the weekends, I lived at the Americana Hotel. I would train the day before the game, I would play, sleep over. I would walk the streets and bump into players from the opposing teams. I loved everything about it up there. It was really special.”
Playing in Rochester was light years away from Giants Stadium, which was considered a state-of-the-art venue at the time. Holleder Stadium was a stadium in the shape of a horseshoe that was built for the Aquinas Institute football team in the late forties. It also had a snow fence that kept the fans from invading the pitch. Well, most of the time.
“I loved it because it felt European,” said Messing, who compared the stadiums at which he played during the 1977 NASL playoff semifinals. The Cosmos filled up Giants Stadium with some 77,000 fans while Holleder held 20,000, tops, and you would have to squeeze the crowd together.
Messing remembered playing with the flu when he performed in Rochester during the summer of ’77.
“I flew on [Cosmos owner] Ahmet Ertegun’s private jet, Pele, Franz and myself because I had been sick,” he said. “I had a great game. It was my first experience really in Rochester, playing in the opposition. The atmosphere was fantastic. When I went back as a Lancer, I just loved having that crowd behind us.”
So, Messing commuted from his home to Rochester for every game. His brother Roy wound up living in the Northwestern New York City and was the backup goalkeeper.
“Every week he would call me and say, ‘Why don’t you miss the flight? Let me play the game.’ ” he said.
Many members of the team played indoor soccer at the time — for the Arrows in the Major Indoor Soccer League.
Messing joined the team in controversy and left the team in controversy as well. In their final home game of the regular season, the Lancers recorded a 2-0 triumph over the New England Tea Men. Because of the NASL’s scoring rules — six points for a victory and a point for every goal scored up until three in a match — the Lancers fell one point of qualifying for the playoffs.
In the game’s waning minutes, Rochester striker Mike Stojanovic ran up to his goalkeeper and told him about an alleged goal-exchanging scheme that supposedly involved New England keeper Kevin Keelan.
“That final game was a controversial,” Messing said. “Stojanovic came to me and he said, ‘You give a goal. I spoke to Kevin: ‘He’ll give up a goal, you’ll give up a goal.’ I said, ‘Get the [expletive] out of here.”
Messing then laughed.
“He was a character,” he said.