By Michael Lewis
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — In 1997, the Rochester Rhinos tested the waters here, seeing how much interest there might be in an indoor soccer team.
It turned out to be rather swallow water as fans failed to come out in droves to the Community War Memorial. The average crowd was 2,890 for the three National Professional Soccer League games.
“Overall, we’re not thrilled, but we’re not discouraged,” Rhinos general manager Chris Economides told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle after the third game at the War Memorial that winter. “Maybe Rochester is not an indoor soccer town. But maybe not having a home team for these games hurt.”
Let’s face it, the Rhinos had some high hopes about those three indoor games after they averaged in the neighborhood of 11,000 in their games at Frontier Field the previous outdoor season.
“Maybe we should just appreciate what we have,” Economides told the newspaper.
It wasn’t the first time the indoor game was tried in this city. In 1975, the Lancers was the host venue for a North American Soccer League tournament that included the New York Cosmos, Boston Minutemen and Hartford Bicentennials and then a one-shot deal against the Toronto Metros-Croatia in what was called the International Cup.
Professional indoor soccer stayed away from Rochester, the Buffalo Stallions “hosted” the New York Arrows in a Major Indoor Soccer League preseason match at the War Memorial on Sept. 30, 1983.
The Stallions, under the tutelage of head coach Luis Dabo struck for five consecutive goals — three in a row while playing with a man advantage — to turn a 4-2 deficit midway through the third period into a 7-5 win before a crowd of 3,108 vocal fans.
The result avenged Buffalo’s 1-0 defeat to New York two weeks prior.
“Buffalo had two more weeks to prepare after that game and I think they wanted to win this game more than we did,” said Arrows head coach Joe Machnik, who was voted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2017. “At this point in the season we are not ready to play short-handed or with the man advantage.”
The game’s momentum started to change when Gilmar DeSantana scored an unassisted tally at 7:15 of the third period. Machnik pulled goalkeeper Rainer Kuhn and replaced him with Nick Sakiewicz, who eventually would become president of the MetroStars and then the Philadelphia Union. Some two minutes later, midfielder Michael Collins (Hicksville, N.Y.), one of the founders of the California United Strikers (NPSL Founders Cup) was slapped with a double penalty — for tripping and then for dissent at 8:59.
Dean Kelly and Chris Vrancenau found the net for a 5-4 Stallions advantage. Carlos Salguero tallied his second of the match for a two-goal lead and eventually the victory.
Former Lancers defender-forward Dennis Mepham, a standout at Brighton High School, was held scoreless but played a strong defensive game.
It would take some 14 years before pro indoor soccer found its way back to Rochester as Rhinos were considering adding an indoor team.
Three National Professional Soccer League games were on tap, all involving the Toronto Shooting Stars, who hosted the Cleveland Crunch Jan. 12, Buffalo Blizzard Feb. 15 and Baltimore Spirit March 2.
The games never really found traction among the fans.
In the first encounter on Jan. 12, the Crunch registered a 19-12 victory before 2,132 spectators.
“What with the weather and it being a football Sunday we’re not discouraged,” Economides said. “Also, we’ve had four events here in three days [Hockey, lacrosse, soccer and hockey again]. There is only so much the market can bear. The next soccer game will be better test.”
The 2 p.m. game was the opener of a unique tripleheader at the War Memorial. That match was followed by an American Hockey League encounter between the Rochester Americans and Adirondack Red Wings at 7:05 p.m.
For the record, Cleveland recorded a unique hat-trick by scoring a one-point, a two-point and a three-point goal. Hector Marinaro added a two-point goal, a one-point goal and three assists.
“We did what we had to,” Marinaro told the newspaper. “It wasn’t tremendous, but it was good enough.”
On Feb. 15, Toronto snapped its 11-game losing streak by squeaking past the Blizzard, 16-14, in front of 3,682 fans. It was a dramatic encounter as the Blizzard enjoyed a 14-8 advantage in the fourth quarter. The Shooting Stars, however, had only things on its mind and managed to force extratime on Gus Kouzmanis’ goal with 56 seconds remaining in regulation.
Omar Dalombo connected for the winner off an Adolfo Mella feed nearly four minutes into the extra session.
Economides told the D&C that he had hoped for a larger crowd, but added he was pleased with the game-day ticket sales.
“We’re going this as a way of getting the Rhinos’ name out,” he said. “There’s no negative here. And we get to see some old faces from the summer.”
Several Rhinos played on the Blizzard, including Rene Rivas, Lenin Steenkamp and Fuseini Dauda. The Rhinos’ Doug Miller and Yogi McKay were sidelined with injuries for the Blizzard.
In the third and final match March 2, Branko Segota, the 35, returned to Rochester for the first time since he excited and energized Lancers supporters in the 1979 and 1980 North American Soccer League seasons.
Segota, who had missed 21 games with knee and ankle ailments, scored Baltimore’s second goal in a 24-6 trouncing of the Shooting Stars.
“I still play with a little pain and a little swelling,” Segota said.
The Spirit was paced by Bo Vuckovic, who finished with seven points on the strength of two three-point goals and one power-play score.
Part IV: The second coming of the Lancers