By Michael Lewis
It was quite easy for me to remember the 41st anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley — on Aug. 16, 1977.
If you were around at the time, do you know where you were when you heard The King had died?
I certainly know where I was.
I was in a car heading toward Varsity Stadium in Toronto along with Rochester Lancers public relations director Jerry Epstein and Rochester Times-Union writer Gary Jacobson, riding from a restaurant called the Spaghetti Factory for that night’s North American Soccer League playoff game between the Lancers and the Toronto Metros-Croatia.
I was a young sportswriter with the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle at the time, just beginning to understand this game called soccer.
Let me set the scene.
This little Sci-Fi movie called Star Wars had come out. Disco, for better or worse (probably the latter) was still raging. The Yankees were getting as hot as the Bronx, which also was burning. Son of Sam was making the wrong kind of headlines. And Jimmy Carter was president.
The Lancers were a rather ordinary team that season under coach Don Popovic, barely reaching the playoffs with a 11-15 record, good for third place in the Northern Division of the Atlantic Conference of and a post-season berth (despite being four games under .500). Popovic’s given name was Dragan, so you can guess who used his first name as much as possible in his stories. Besides, I didn’t want to let our headline writers miss some classic headlines such as “Dragan breathes fire after loss” or “Dragan slays critics after a comeback victory.”
The ’77 team had plenty of its own problems and characters. It’s leading goal-scorer, the enigmatic Mike Stojanovic, who passed away in November 2010, had been diagnosed with a separated shoulder late in the season and everyone thought he was done. As it turned out, he wasn’t. He came back and helped the team reach the playoffs.
On the eve of the playoffs, however, Stollie was stuck in Canada (he was a citizen of our neighbors to the north). It seemed that his visa had expired and he neglected to take care of it. He got it cleared up and arrived in time for the first playoff game in St. Louis.
The Lancers, who couldn’t but a win on the road, managed to get past the St. Louis Stars at Washington University via a shootout.
That set up a grudge match between them and their archrivals, the defending NASL champion Metros-Croatia (interesting nickname, for many reasons, huh?). The conference semifinal confrontation went beyond soccer. The Lancers had several Serbians, including Stojanovic and Popovic, while Toronto was dominated by Croatians. It certainly gave yours truly a lesson in world politics and history before it was thrust front and center about a decade later.
They played a two-game series in those days and it was two of the most memorable matches I can recall, even after all these years of watching Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Diego Maradona, Juan Pablo Angel, Thierry Henry and David Villa play.
The first game ended in a scoreless tie after extratime as well. Stojanovic missed not one, but two penalty kicks in regulation. The Lancers played with 10 men for a good deal of the match, but managed to outshoot Toronto by a wide margin. They prevailed in the dreaded shootout, although Toronto protested to the league that Ibraim Silva, who converted two winning shootout goals, had shot out of order. In the lead of my story, I called it the “soccer games to end all soccer games.”
Hyperbole? Maybe, maybe not. Little did I know that was the appetizer for the next encounter in Canada.
In the second leg at Varsity Stadium in Toronto, a ground where Rochester had not prevailed in something like eight matches, the Lancers two players red carded in the first half, forcing them to play two men down in enemy territory with so much at stake — a chance to play against the Cosmos in the semifinals.
After the second ejection, Popovic was given a yellow card (yes, in those days, referees awarded cards to coaches, at least in that match, instead of today’s protocol of asking them to leave the bench) and he was egging on the referee to give him another (I heard later that the ref did not award Pops another yellow because he did not want the team to be without a head coach, given the state it was in).
Despite playing two men down, Popovic put together a second-half lineup that would make even the most catenaccio aficionados envious — three central defenders in front of goalkeeper Jack Brand, four players who were going to play mostly defense and a lone player up front, essentially a midfielder — Stojanovic. The Lancers were going to try to play for a shootout. An obvious and smart move when playing two men down on an enemy field.
It worked well beyond the Lancers’ loftiest dreams. The Metros-Croatia rarely got close to the goal. Later in the match, sometime around the 77th minute, Silva found himself alone in the Toronto penalty area and scored. The Toronto players claimed there was a handball, but the goal stood. Thirteen minutes later, the Lancers had earned a rather improbable win.
Hi-Ho Silva, the Lancers ride again, was the headline in the D&C the next day.
The Lancers’ next opponent was the Mount Everest of American soccer, the Cosmos, with the aforementioned Pele and Beckenbauer and this guy up front who could put the ball in the back of the net once in a while, Giorgio Chinaglia. The Lancers’ quest for a rather unlikely championship ended in a two-game series. The Cosmos won the first encounter in Rochester, 2-1, on a defensive blunder before really crashing back down to earth in the rain in a jam-packed crowd of 73,669 at Giants Stadium in a 4-1 trouncing.
While the Cosmos series was incredible, it terms of drama and international tension, the Toronto series stood out even more.
Just how do I remember it? It was the day The King died.