The first of four parts on the history of Rochester indoor soccer
By Michael Lewis
When the Rochester Lancers take to the Dome Arena field for their Major Arena Soccer League 2 opener against the Detroit Waza Flo Friday night, it may be the first game to be held at the Henrietta, N.Y. venue, but it won’t be the first time the sport has been played in the Flower City.
It has been alive and kicking for almost five decades.
In fact, the original Rochester Lancers participated in the first professional tournament in modern times when the sport was known was known as Hoc-Soc.
Then the defending champions of the North American Soccer League, the Lancers were invited to perform in a four-team competition hosted by the St. Louis Stars at the Arena March 19, 1971.
Coached by the legendary Ron Newman — for which the MASL’s championship trophy is named — the Dallas Tornado defeated the Lancers, 3-0, before 5,060 spectators at The Arena and take home the top prize of $1,000.
In the opening match that was played on AstroTurf that was placed on the venue’s ice, the Lancers recorded a 3-1 win over the Washington Darts. John Kerr, who played in the Lancers’ very first game, an exhibition match in 1967, lifted Washington into a 1-0 lead at 5:40 of the opening half before Rochester dominated the first of the encounter, thanks to Manfred Seissler and Eli Durante.
Durante set up Seissler’s goal at 13:08 before he scored the go-ahead goal 37 seconds later. Carlos Metidieri gave the Lancers some breathing room, putting home a Seissler feed at 14:43 of the second half. Rochester outshot the Darts, 23-15.
In the championship game, the Lancers did not fare as well as Dallas dominated behind tournament MVP Mike Renshaw’s two unassisted tallies, at 12:15 of the opening half and 9:08 of the second half. John Best added a third goal at 13:11 of the final half. No shots on goals statistics were not available.
Don Popovic, who went on to coach the Lancers for four seasons (1976-79), recorded a brace in the consolation game, the Stars’ 2-0 victory over the Washington Darts in the consolation game. Popovic, incidentally, was named to the all-tournament team along with the Lancers defender Peter Short and Seissler, the Tornado’s Jim Benedek (a goal in the opening 2-1 triumph over the Stars), and St. Louis goalkeeper Miguel de Lima.
“Certainly our boys showed in their second game they were probably the best conditioned of any of the groups of players,” Stars head coach George Meyer told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Popovic especially seemed to get adapted to hoc-soc after a slow start and put us over the top in the consolation game.”
NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam was encouraged what he witnessed that Friday night and was hopeful he could make indoor soccer part of the league’s DNA.
“I think hoc-soc has a potential as a league undertaking,” he was quoted by Post-Dispatch, “and we will take it up at league meeting in about 10 days. If you can generate this much enthusiasm for mere exhibition games, a league schedule would be much more attractive.”
It took four years before the league decided to hold another indoor tournament. This one, however, involved 16 teams in four venues. The Lancers hosted the Region II tourney at the Community War Memorial as the Boston Minutemen, Hartford Bicentennials and New York Cosmos battled for a berth in the national final four from Feb. 8-10.
On opening night that Thursday, the Cosmos recorded a 6-4 win over the Bicentennials before a crowd of 2,191. Fred Grgurev, who wound up playing with the Lancers from 1979-80, scored two goals for the winners.
In the second game of the doubleheader, Rochester got off to a strong start with a 1-0 edge on an Eddie Jijon goal but could not keep the momentum going in a 4-3 defeat to the Minutemen. Jijon had been purchased earlier in the week from the New Jersey Brewers of the American Soccer League.
The second period was a nightmare for Lancers goalkeeper Claude Campos, who certainly wasn’t helped by his defense as the hosts were caught with only one man back. The Minutemen took but five shots but converted four times. Metidieri, who had signed as a free agent with Boston over the winter, scored a short-handed goal and assisted on the winning goal. Francisco Escos and Frank Odoi scored in the third period.
“I think we gave a little too much in the first period,” said Lancers forward Andy Rymarczuk, who assisted on two goals. “And then we had a letdown in the second period. We might have become a little over-confident after the first period. We finally got our momentum going again in the third period. but it was too late. We should have beat them.”
In their second game that Saturday night, the Lancers rebounded with an 8-7 victory over the Cosmos. Odoi struck twice in that match, including the dramatic game-winner with seven seconds left in the match.
“I was much more tense opening night,” said Odoi, who tallied twice during the 1974 NASL outdoor season. “The team and I wanted to show we could do, so we wanted to score so bad. We rushed our shots. Tonight we didn’t.”
Rochester outshot its foes in both matches, 33-10 vs. Boston and 43-24 vs. New York.
“It was a matter of patience and experience,” Rochester head coach Ted Dumitru said. “I knew that we would eventually score. We were patient.
“But if we’re talking about professionals, it should become a habit for the players to score. But it takes years and years of practice to master soccer. I can do many things with this team, but I can do many things with this team, but the only thing I cannot do is put the ball in the net.”
The game marked the Lancers debut of Nelson Cupello, then a midfielder, and goalkeeper Jim May. Both players showed their inexperience.
May, who made several fine saves, wandered too far out of his net to allow the Cosmos score an open goal. Cupello allowed Jorge Siega to steal a pass from him in front of the Rochester goal. The Cosmos passed to Tony Donlic, who slipped it past May.
“Sure, we made mistakes,” Dumitru said. “Inexperienced players will make mistakes, but that’s the way they learn the game. If it wasn’t for our inexperience, I think the final score could have been wider.”
Before they began their outdoor season, the Lancers had another crack at the indoor game when they host the Toronto Metros-Croatia in the International Soccer Cup. Rochester dropped a 10-7 decision to the Toronto Metros-Croatia before 2,562 at the War Memorial March 29.
“We played a very conservative game,” Dumitru said. “I wasn’t as upset as I was in the first game we played against Boston. It’s obvious we didn’t want to get involved with hard contact play. Everybody is waiting for our next step — the two-week trip to Italy (April 5-21). Everybody knows they have to be in good health or they don’t go.”
Damir Sutevski, who joined the Lancers for the 1979-80 seasons, paced Toronto with three goals and two assists. Goran Peric added three goals.
“Every goal we let in was an easy goal, a sill goal,” said Rochester forward Tommy Ord, who collected three goals and two assists. “That’s the worst thing about it, giving up those silly goals. We lost to Boston the same way.”
Interesting aside: several Toronto players came up to a reporter and complained about the name of their team that had promoted for the event. It wasn’t the Metros, but the Metros-Croatia, instead. During the winter, the team had been purchased by members of the Croatian community. The ownership and nickname lasted for three seasons, with the Metros-Croatia capturing the 1976 NASL title.
Prior to the outdoor season, the Lancers participated in a 12-team indoor tournament with three regional competitions. At the beginning, Popovic, who became head coach several months prior, wasn’t that too happy about the diversion as he was trying to turn around a team that had finished below .500 for three consecutive seasons.
“Indoor soccer is a beautiful game, but now it’s the worst time to play,” he said. “It should be played in the winter time. This is the practice season for outdoors.”
Popovic had planned to run the Lancers through conditioning drills from the start of preseason in early February. Because of indoor soccer, however, he has been forced to speed up his plans, and he didn’t like it.
“Using the ball too much in preseason practice can be harmful,” he said. “Players can get tired of the soccer ball, believe it or not. I’ve seen it happen before. I think there should be two separate types of practice — conditioning and tactics.
“Right now, my real attention is the outdoor season. I’m not expecting any miracle. It won’t be the end of the world if we lose.”
Popovic made the best use of the indoor tournament by surveying several new players, including first-round draft choice Jim Pollihan, Franklin High star goalkeeper Meno Droegmoeller and Craig Reynolds, a midfielder-defender who played in the Rochester District Soccer League.
The Lancers got much more than they bargained for. They won the regional tournament at the Amphitheater in Chicago. In their opener, they registered a 5-2 victory over the Chicago Sting before an estimated crowd of 2,000. Odoi and Mario Garcia, signed for the indoor tourney and on trial for the outside squad, scored within a six-second span in the first period to erase a 1-0 deficit. Garcia added a second goal for a 3-1 lead before Tibor Molnar and Yakubu Mambo found the net in the third period.
“I was surprised at the way we handled the ball,” Popovic said. “We played well on the tartan surface after practicing in a gym that didn’t have a tartan surface.
“We scored more than anticipated.”
In the final, Mario Garcia provided most of the offense and Jim May produced several vital saves to power the Lancers to a 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Stars to capture the regional title March 14. Garcia, who was crown tournament MVP, struck three times in the match to give him four for the tournament. The triumph boosted Rochester into the championship round, scheduled for Tampa, Fla. March 26-28.
Garcia had distinguished himself as an indoor player in Toronto and starred in the German-American Soccer League (now Cosmopolitan Soccer League).
“My experience obviously gave me a big advantage over the other players,” Garcia said. “I’d like to play outdoors with the Lancers, but my plans are uncertain right now.”
May allowed only five goals in two games while making 17 saves.
“I learned a lot from last year’s experience,” said May, who was selected to the all-tournament team. “It was much easier this time around. in the games’ last few minutes, shots were coming from all over the place. We had a couple of mix-ups in front of the goalie, but got by. Wow, we were running around like chickens.”
Pollihan and Reynolds scored the other Lancers’ goals.
“We were all extremely happy with our two victories in Chicago,” Popovic said. “We played far better than expected. It sounds like a cliché, but it was nothing but a team effort in a game highlighted by aggressive, spirited play.”
In the other game of the doubleheader, Chicago defeated Toronto, 6-2.
Despite facing a 65-shot barrage by the San Jose Earthquakes, the Lancers recorded a 6-4 win over the defending champions at the St. Petersburg Bay Front Center in St. Petersburg, Fla. May produced 24 saves before he was forced to leave after getting kicked in the knee with 1:57 remaining before a capacity crowd of 6,000 March 25.
“At the press conference before the tournament, everyone was picking us to place fourth,” May said. “But we all felt that we would do well. That’s the difference this year. We are a much closer group than we were last year.”
Tibor Molnar scored Rochester’s first goal and helped set up two others, including Garcia’s game-winner. John Pedro and Ibraim Silva, two of three Portuguese first division players added prior to the competition, Francisco Escos and Reynolds, also found the net.
The upset, however, wound up to be costly for the Lancers, who fell two days later, to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, 6-4, before another sellout crowd. May and Odoi (ankle) could not play due to injuries.
Derek Smethurst scored three goals for the Rowdies, including the game-winner, which broke a 4-4 deadlock with 3:8 remaining in the game.
Droegmoeller, a Monroe Community College graduate, faced 50 shots and was credited with 12 saves. Escos led the team with two goals and Garcia and Silva added one apiece past U.S. international goalkeeper Arnie Mausser.
Next: Part II: the Lancers’ influence on the New York Arrows dynasty