Piero Prati scored at an incredible 50-percent strike rate during his career. (Photo courtesy of A.C. Milan)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

Former Italian international and Rochester Lancers striker Piero Prati, who connected for a hat-trick for A.C. Milan in the 1969 European Cup final against Ajax and Johan Cruyff, passed away on Monday.

He was 73.

Before he joined the Lancers in 1979, Prati forged a reputation as one of the most prolific Italian forwards. He scored 162 goals in 366 appearances — almost a goal every other game — for A.C. Milan, Salernitanam Savona, Roma, Fiorentina and the Lancers. That strike rate was and is extraordinary. Prati was Serie A’s leading scorer (15 goals) in 1967-68.

He also found the net seven times in 14 matches for the Italian national team from 1968-74.

“He was one of my late dad’s favorite players,” said Lancers owner SoccerSam Fantauzzo, a Lancers fan growing up. “We were lucky to watch the greatest players in the world come through Rochester and the Lancers.”

Prati’s former team and the Italian Football Federation also mourned his passing.

“Goodbye to a true Rossenoro legend,” A.C. Milan said on Twitter. “You were a shining light for us all and shall be dearly missed. Rest in peace Piero.”

“Italian football mourns another great champion,” FIGC president Gabriele Gravina said in a statement. “Prati was an extraordinary footballer, a class striker, a star who shone in all the teams he played.”

As a 22-year-old, Prati forged his reputation by striking three times in the 1969 Euro final, scoring in the seventh, 40th and 75th minutes.

Prati also was a vital part of Milan’s 1967-68 title-winning side and played for the Coppa Italia champions in 1971-72 and 1972-73 and for the European Cup Winners Cup titlists in 1967-68 and Intercontinental Cup champions in 1969.

By the time he joined the Lancers in June 1979, Prati was 32, but he still had some gas and goals left in the tank. In fact, he made an unforgettable impact in his second North American Soccer League game, scoring twice in Rochester’s 2-1 home win over the Seattle Sounders on June 27, 1979 (he had come on as a substitute in the Lancers’ 2-1 victory over Portland on June 22).

“He’s a very experienced player,” Lancers head coach Don Popovic said at the time, “so he can adapt to situations very easily. He’s probably the most experience player we’ve got on the team. I still don’t think he’s 100 percent in shape. Give him a few games. Then you will see the real Prati.”

Only 109 seconds into the match, Prati showcased his predatory scoring instincts by heading home a right-wing cross by Mike Stojanovic.

“It was a beautiful goal,” Stojanovic said. “In Europe, it would be a special goal. They would show it on television as the goal of the week.”

To ensure it was no mistake, less than four minutes later Stollie and Prati almost duplicated their feat. Stojanovic again beat the Seattle defense down the right side before crossing the ball into the middle. Midfielder Luis Alberto, who reached the ball first, fanned on his. The bouncing ball went to Prati, who slotted it home at 5:39.

“He’s a smart player,” Stojanovic said. “We’ve understood each other very well. I’ve paid attention to his running.”

As it turned out, Prati played in only six games for the Lancers, scoring only one more time. That goal helped the Lancers to a stunning 2-1 halftime advantage over the Cosmos at Giants Stadium before the hosts lowered the boom in the second half, behind a four-goal barrage route to a 5-2 result.

An interesting aside to that Seattle game: 18-year-old Branko Segota made his outdoor soccer debut, coming on in the final 11:10. He got off four shots, including his first attempt, a 30-yard blast that could be heard in the press box it had so much power. The ball rocketed to the right of the Sounders net.

“I was thinking about putting Branko in a little earlier, but with just a a 2-1 lead, I didn’t want to risk putting in an offensive midfielder that early,” Popovic said. “That one shot he took off like a bullet. He’s going to be a great one. He’ll be ready for the Cosmos [Sunday in East Rutherford, N.J.]. He’s got to play. We’re going to find a position for him.”

The Lancers did as Segota made life miserable for opposing defenders and goalkeepers by striking for 14 goals in only 13 games, bringing the team to the verge of reaching the playoffs.