Former Lancers president Pat Dinolfo gives his son-in-law Pat Ercoli a hug during a Lancers reunion in 1996. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)
(Note: This story about Renato and Jordan Cila and Pat Ercoli originally appeared in the November, 1999 edition of Soccer New York. It is used with permission)
By Michael Lewis
From time to time, we hear about the importance of leaving a legacy for soccer in this country.
We heard how the 1994 World Cup would leave a legacy for professional soccer in the United States. We have Major League Soccer to prove that.
We also have heard how the success of the 1999 Women’s World Cup would give birth to a women’s professional soccer league in the not-too-distant future. The jury and ultimate decision is still out on that soccer league of their own.
There are other legacies as well — some more on an individual basis but not any less important.
Take, for instance, the legacy of a pair of former friends and midfielders with the Rochester Lancers a generation ago — Pat Ercoli and Renato Cila. They married the owners’ daughters of that North American Soccer League team. Stop that snickering. Their decisions did not really boost their soccer careers, but it certainly started them on a path to make some soccer history and leave a legacy of their own.
Ercoli, who married Karen Dinolfo, the daughter of Rochester Lancers president Pat Dinolfo, and his Rochester Rhinos have been in the national spotlight in the past several months. As coach, he reached the highest of highs of his career on Sept. 14, directing the Rhinos to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championship after defeating four MLS teams, the last being the Colorado Rapids, 2-0, on Sept. 14. He also has tasted the bitterness of defeat as his defending A-League champions lost to the Minnesota Thunder in this year’s title game, 2-1, on Oct. 16.
Cila, who married Sherry Rodin, the daughter of New York Arrows, Rochester Lancers and Baltimore Blast owner Bernie Rodin, hasn’t kicked a soccer ball around in a serious competition in quite some time, but it is someone with his name — his son, Jordan, who is poised to make history with his American teammates at the FIFA Under-17 World Championships in New Zealand starting next week. The team enters the tournament with an optimistic attitude that has been rarely seen on the men’s international level.
Ercoli and Cila were friends and roommates playing for teams in Toronto and Montreal in the Canadian Soccer League before they both discovered professional soccer in the United States. Ercoli took the initial plunge, first with the Lancers and then with the Arrows, perennial champions of the early days in the Major Indoor Soccer League.
Ercoli told Arrows coach Don Popovic about this defensive midfielder and Cila joined the team. They are still friends today. After the Rhinos captured the Open Cup, Cila called Ercoli to congratulate him.
Ercoli met Karen Dinolfo, at one of the many Lancers’ community functions back in 1978. “The ownership was more of a family atmosphere,” Ercoli said.
He went out with Karen, wound up being a tennis buddy with her brother, Vinnie, before the Arrows beckoned. When he returned to Rochester for the 1979 North American Soccer League season, things started to get serious.
“Her parents said that she had to be 21 before he was married,” Ercoli said. “I was fairly young myself and there was a three-year difference.”
They were married in 1983.
Renato (left) and Jordan Cila in 1999 (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com).
Cila noticed Sherry Rodin at the Arrows’ first practice and vice-versa in 1978. It was love at first sight.
“My father said, ‘I just bought this soccer team, meet me at Woodmere Academy,'” said Sherry, who was 20-years-old at the time. “There was this one player. I stared at him. He stared at me. Who was this guy?
“Later, Popovic called my father. One of the players asked the coach to ask my father permission to ask me out. My father was impressed.”
They were married in November, 1979. “I asked him to marry me,” Sherry said. “I couldn’t speak Portuguese and he couldn’t speak English. . . . Twenty years later it worked against all odds.”
Like it or not, some 19 years ago, their relationships were thrown into the spotlight during the Lancers’ tumultuous season of 1980 as warring factions of the Lancers’ owners, Rodin and John Luciani, the New York group, had pumped in fresh money and wanted control of the team. So did Dinolfo, who along with Charlie Schiano and Nuri Sabuncu, the Rochester-based owners who were well-to-do but did not have the millions of their New York counterparts.
A major civil war erupted. The Rochester faction, which controlled a majority of the vote (66 percent), fired coach Ray Klivecka, who was backed by the New York faction, only hours after his team defeated the archrival Toronto Blizzard, 3-1. “They told me I was the greatest coach the Rochester Lancers ever had,” Klivecka said at the time. “They said I was great for the community and great for the public relations aspect of the job. Then they said I was fired. At first I thought they were joking, but after a few seconds it sunk in.”
The New York faction retaliated by refusing to pump any fresh money into the team.
In the Lancers’ first game since the upheaval several days later, Ercoli, who hadn’t been playing regularly under Klivecka, was back in the lineup, while Cila was benched. Cila refused to suit up and quit the team.
“It was a difficult situation,” Ercoli said. “Anybody who has some sort of relationship, there’s got to be tension in a sense. … Klivecka obviously didn’t like me as a player. His decision not to use me I’m sure had nothing to do with those issues, either.”
Ercoli and Cila both went on to pursue indoor careers. Ercoli signed a three-year deal with the Baltimore Blast, which, ironically, was owned by Rodin.
“That was after the incident with the Lancers,” Ercoli said. “There were no issues with Bernie in regard to me.”
Ercoli eventually retired in 1986 to settle down in Rochester, first owning a car wash business and then three yogurt franchises. He had nearly 100 employees.
“Then I went nuts,” he said with a laugh. “It was a little more than I wanted to handle. I’ve always been ambitious. I’ve always wanted to succeed, whether it be the playing level or business level.”
He had kept a hand — or is that a foot — in soccer, first as head coach at Finger Lakes Community College and then as an assistant at Monroe Community College. He wound up coaching the youth soccer teams of his sons on Greece Eclipse and Cobras before fate intervened.
Ercoli had heard about the possibility of an A-League team coming to Rochester in 1995, so he scouted teams to see what kind of players he could use. Meanwhile, one of his sons went to school with the son of one of the Rhinos’ prospective owners, Steve Donner.
“They were on a field trip,” Ercoli said. “My son heard that his father was the possible owner. He mentioned to him that his father [Ercoli] would be interested in coaching. Steve remembered me from the Lancer days. So they called.”
He was named coach, and after a slow start, the Rhinos picked up steam, reaching and losing in both the finals of the U.S. Open Cup and A-League championship game that year. Moreover, they had gained respect, ousting the highly regarded Tampa Bay Mutiny in an Open Cup game and drawing more than 11,000 a match to the newly opened Frontier Field, a baseball park that was converted into a soccer stadium.
“For us to win one of those, I don’t know if we had the right focus or right frame of mind to do that in our first year,” Ercoli said.
Success finally found the Rhinos and Ercoli last year, winning the A-League crown, and then the Open Cup championship in September.
“It  was a great season for us; there were not many injuries,” Ercoli said. “It seemed like everything was falling into place for us . . . This year was more of a situation trying to accomplish both roles. It’s not any easy feat in our league because of the number of games you have to play.
“You play four MLS teams, you play five or six games where it’s a do-or-die situation. When you get several injuries, it becomes that much more difficult because the expectations are higher.”
The Rhinos have made five out of a possible eight finals in their first four seasons.
“I thought our expectations would come to fruition at some point,” Ercoli said. “Having them happen in the first few years is more than probably I would have expected.”
Pat Ercoli (left) with his father-in-law Pat Dinolfo and Charlie Schiano. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)
Cila quit the sport in 1986, going on to work for Rodin’s firm, Grant Court Lifestyle, which builds hotels for senior citizens in Las Vegas and Phoenix. He played in the Long Island Soccer Football League’s Over-30 Division.
On April 11, 1982, Jordan Rodin Cila, the first of three children (Sam and Gabriella are the others) were born to Sherry and Renato.
Not surprisingly, Jordan Cila took to the game. “He was a natural,” said Renato, who coached his son in recreational and travel soccer until he was 13. “I figured it was better someone else coached him.”
Jordan Cila credited his father. “I used to watch tapes of him playing,” he said. “The player I am is all because of him. He told me, ‘I don’t want you to feel the pressure because I was a professional. I will still love you.’ ”
Cila was a defensive midfielder. Jordan is a high-scoring forward.
“I was a different type of player,” Renato said. “I was more physical, more temperamental. They have two or three kids on him and he never loses his temper. They kick him. He gets up and he plays the game.”
At a high level. He was voted captain and MVP of his high school team in Jericho, L.I., where he scored 67 goals and added 38 assists in three years. He was named winner of the Jim Steen Award, given to the best high school player in Nassau County.
“By no means am I a great goal scorer,” Jordan said. “I am still trying to be one.”
He was a great one against El Salvador, connecting three times in a 6-1 victory on May 9 that all but secured a place in the Under-17 world championships (Editor’s note: Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley were on that team).
“Our staff prepared us,” Cila said of the potential hostile crowds in San Salvador. “They threw water balloons at us. They [the fans] make little plastic bags of water, maybe urine, and throw them at the opposing players.”
There are many great expectations of this U.S. team in a first-round group that includes New Zealand, Uruguay and Poland. Many observers feel the Americans can advance deep into the tournament, perhaps win it.
“We’re all optimistic about everything,” Jordan said. “All of our preparation is focused toward the first game.”
There is a sad note to Cila’s story. Rodin will not have an opportunity watch his grandson play in New Zealand. He died of a heart attack during a business trip in Fort Lauderdale on Oct. 25. Rodin was 69.
Yet, Rodin himself left another legacy. Three months ago, he donated $10,000 to the Long Island Junior Soccer League. The league decided to fund a program to scout, discover and train advanced players, not unlike what Ajax does in the Netherlands, scouting players at games instead of at tryouts.
“He gave it to me as I saw fit,” LIJSL president Peter Collins said. “The league has been good to his grandson over the years. He wanted to give something back.”
For Renato Cila’s son, Jordan Cila, there is a whole new world out there. A professional career beckons. Hamburg in the German Bundesliga has showed interest. There has been talk about him going pro in MLS. For now, Cila plans to honor his commitment with Duke and attend school there next fall.
For Pat Ercoli, the story is far from finished as he and his Rhinos have many challenges ahead, which include defending its Open Cup crown and trying to recapture the A-League title. The new challenges include getting a soccer-specific stadium in Rochester, and if that comes to fruition, an MLS team in the city. That might be his and the Rhinos’ greatest legacy.
And who knows? An Ercoli and a Cila might be together again.
“I heard Rochester may play in MLS,” Renato Cila said. “It’s a small world.”
You know what the best thing is? There is plenty of time for both men to pursue their dreams to leave even more legacies.