Some four decades ago, Michael Lewis battles Dave Sarachan — yes, the same Dave Sarachan who has been Bruce Arena’s right-hand man in L.A. and with the U.S. national team, for the ball in a Rochester Lancers practice in 1976. (Steve Groer Photo courtesy of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle)
This story originally was posted in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on Aug. 7, 1976, when Michael Lewis did a “George Plimpton,” working out with the Rochester Lancers for two days. This story was used with permission by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (www.democratandchronicle.com).
Back in 1976, to discover what it’s like to be a soccer player and a Rochester Lancer, Democrat and Chronicle reporter Michael Lewis spent two days with the North American Soccer League team that week. Lewis survived what he called “two vigorous and exhausting” days of practice. Here’s his report:
By MICHAEL LEWIS
The Rochester Lancers won’t have me to kick around anymore.
No, I’m not giving them up as a writer, only as a player.
I survived my two-day ordeal with the expected charley horses up and down my legs and a few strained muscles in my rib cage.
I wasn’t trying to prove that Mr. Everyman could keep up with the rigid practice schedule of a professional soccer team. I just wanted to find out how exhausting it was.
I discovered two things: I’m out of shape and Gatorade never tasted so good.
Soccer players must be in top-top shape. According to assistant coach Manny Seissler, midfielders usually run between 12 and 15 miles a game. Add two or three games a week and you’re a part-time marathon run.
I’m a part-time jogger, tennis player and softball player.
My credentials? Not much, but I did receive an A in a soccer class at Nassau Community College five years ago. I scored a goal and had a deadly head shot. With that blind optimism, I entered the venture with enthusiasm.
I started off on the wrong foot. While I was suiting up, I ripped a pair of white socks. That never happened to me before. If I couldn’t put on a pair of socks properly, how could I expect myself to go out and play soccer?
The team holds its daily practices at School No. 40, which is next to Holleder Stadium, home of the Lancers. After a few practice kicks, the “light” workout began. It consisted of jogging up and down the field while whirling your arms, practicing head shots and kicking.
It looks quite simple. It is a also very tiring. Try doing this about 20 times. About midway through these exercises, I sounded like an asthma victim. Jim May, the injured goaltender, who recently began working out with the team, heard my gasps for air and told me to take it easy.
I did. After all, I didn’t want to become a heart attack victim at the age of 24. I dropped out of the exercises until I regained my breath.
About 15 minutes later, I rejoined the workout.
“Remember, said substitute defender Terry Lipman. “Some teams use our warm-up exercises as their entire practice.”
I think he was trying to be kind to me.
Then came the game. It was six against six, making for wide-open soccer. Again, I tired and was taken out for 10 minutes. I returned and played about half the game before retiring for good.
But I nearly scored a goal. Honest. Seissler, playing for the opposition, attempted to clear the ball out of his team’s penalty area with a blast.
I inadvertently stepped in the way of the kick and the ball bounded off my shins toward the open goal. In my haste for glory, I took two quick steps and barely got off a reputable kick. But Nelson Cupello cleared it.
Besides being out of position and out of breath, I blocked and then cleared a shot by rookie forward Dave Sarachan. A little later, another player and I surrounded Lipman and one of us clipped Lipman on the outside of his thigh instead of kicking the ball. He’ll live.
Then came the best part of the 90-minute practice. The finish. After two cups of Gatorade (I never liked the stuff), I showered and took a much needed- five-minute stay in the 100-degree whirlpool.
I slept well Monday night — as many of the players predicted I would and woke up with stiff legs.
I’ve decided that Joe Sirianni is the most underrated trainer in the league. He took a pair of weary, charley-horsed legs and revitalized them with an excellent rub-down.
It was only temporary, as ten minutes of practice revived their agony.
During the pre-warmup drills, I kicked the ball with defender Miralem Fazlic. After a while, I began booting line drives as a soccer style kicker in football might do, He wanted to return the favor in a friendly game of penalty shot, but fortunately I convinced him I didn’t want to be the goalie.
He blooped some passes to me and wondered why I didn’t attempt to head them. I tried to explain that it was difficult for someone who had two eye operations in the last year (torn retinas) to head the ball.
Injuries to several starters forced Lancer coach Don Popovic to change his original game plan. He cancelled a rugged warm-up practice for drills and a game.
The scrimmage was rather uneventful. For the first 15 minutes, I ran around like a chicken without a head and ran out of steam because of it. I asked Popovic to take me out for a while.
“No,” he said. “You stay in the game. You’ll have to learn to pace yourself like everyone else.”
Great. I was useless the rest of the 45-minute game. When my lungs finally caught up with the rest of my body, my legs felt like dead weights. It must have been Popovic’s revenge for some of the critical columns I’d written.
I tried to make myself useful by attempting to challenge each opposing player for the ball by running to them and forcing them to pass it a little earlier than anticipated. I don’t know how much it helped. Our team lost, 5-3.
Similar to the Lipman incident on Monday, I accidentally kneed midfielder Frank Odoi in the groin. That’s all I had to start doing, putting the Lancers out for the season one by one. Odoi survived.
After the second day, I asked Popovic for his appraisal.
He said it wasn’t fair to judge a player after only two days of practice. I was completely out of shape, he said. But he promised to make me into a decent player if I practiced with the team three straight months.
Thanks, but no thanks. For now, I’ll take my lumps behind the typewriter keyboard.
This story was used with permission by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (www.democratandchronicle.com).