By Michael Lewis
Saturday’s chaotic MLS Cup Playoff game and refereeing confusion between Orlando City SC and New York City FC Saturday certainly wasn’t the first time that headaches occurred in a professional soccer postseason encounter.
It happened at least once in the original North American Soccer League.
I should know. I was there as a young sportswriter for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in August 1977.
Let’s set things up.
The Rochester Lancers were preparing to play their archrival, the Toronto Metros-Croatia, in the quarterfinals of the NASL playoffs in a home-and-home series in Rochester, N.Y. Aug. 13. The second encounter was in Toronto Aug. 16 and a possible mini-game if the first two matches were split.
The Lancers were directed by a Serbian coach, Don (Dragan) Popovic, and had several Serbian-born players. Toronto’s nickname explains the rivalry between the sides, which went back to World War II. Matches between the teams were like mini-wars.
Rochester was just coming off an improbable playoff win over the host St. Louis Stars in which goalkeeper Jack Brand starred in a shootout win. To put the result into the proper perspective, the Lancers had won but once on the road the 1977 regular season.
The following is from the Lancermania chapter of my upcoming book, “Alive and Kicking: The Incredible but True Story of the Rochester Lancers.” It is used with permission.
“The game is very important because we must put pressure on Toronto,” Popovic said. “If we win this game, the best the Metros can do on their field is beat us to get even and send the series into [a mini-game].” Unlike goal differential that Major League Soccer used for many years and the rest of the world still uses for home-and-home series today, the NASL counted each playoff game simply as a win or a loss. If tied, the series would be decided by a mini-game. “Toronto would have a slight advantage in a 30-minute overtime in front of their home fans, but I don’t think the Metros would have an advantage over us in a shootout,” Popovic said.
He was correct. Brand was among the best keepers at stopping shootout tries at a 73 percent rate, compared to the league average of 58 percent and the Canadian international continued his streak against the Metros-Croatia before 10,556 spectators at Holleder Stadium to climax one of the strangest games in American professional soccer history. Brand stopped six of eight shootout attempts and Ibraim Silva, the lone Lancer to miss in St. Louis, converted not one, but two shootout goals, an NASL record, as Rochester prevailed in the tie-breaker, 3-2.
But that was only the proverbial tip of the iceberg because the game had so many undercurrents, surprising twists and turns and story lines. The following was this writer’s lead in the Democrat & Chronicle the next morning:
It was a soccer game to end all soccer games. And the Rochester Lancers, somehow, actually won it.
In one of the most incredible North American Soccer league playoff games ever played, the Rochester Lancers defeated the Toronto Metros-Croatia in a shootout, 1-0.
Now you might think that is hyperbole, but this is what also transpired:
* Mike Stojanovic missed not one, but two penalty kicks.
* Rochester used an illegal player (Francisco Escos) and his substitute (Craig Reynolds) for 38:15. The game officials never noticed.
* Henry Landauer, who was the first American referee to officiate a World Cup match (1970), was the same referee who worked the middle of the wild finish against Seattle several weeks prior. In this game, he turned into a human traffic light, doling out four red cards and eight yellow cards.
* Due to the physical game and emotional and unruly crowd, four city police cars were dispatched to the stadium and three Monroe County sheriff cars were in reserve. Some Toronto fans brought a Croatian flag to the game, which they waved proudly in the stands behind the Metros-Croatia bench on the northside of the stadium.
* After the game the Rochester Fire Department was called in to douse a car fire in the parking lot.
The game left many participants speechless, including Brand. “I don’t know what to say about it,” he said in a delirious locker room. “To really analyze the game, I’d have to go home, sit down for two hours and think about it. … As long as we win, that’s okay.”
Added Escos: “I played in the 176-minute marathon against Dallas in 1971 and I’d have to rate this just as incredible.”
Popovic said: “It’s really something. I’ve coached many years of soccer and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
For the record, Landauer awarded red cards to John Pedro and Joao Costa and Ted Polak and Veljko Tuksa of Toronto, but it was a red card he did not flash that might have changed the course of the game. Escos was slapped with a yellow card at 12:45 for arguing with Landauer and a second at 66:45 for more dissent. No red was shown and Escos remained in the game. “They’re supposed to tell you,” Escos said. “They didn’t so I continued play. They said nothing to me.”
NASL director of officials Eddie Pearson, who attended the match, was asked by this writer during the run of play why Escos wasn’t asked to leave. “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s the linesmen’s job [David Socha and Keith Johnson]. If he does have two yellow cards, he doesn’t belong on the field. … Perhaps the officials were caught up in the excitement of the game.”
Popovic, notified of the mistake, eventually replaced Escos with Craig Reynolds.
The Lancers dominated the game and outshot their archrivals, 25-7. In fact, they could have avoided the tie-breaker by cashing in on what seemed to be a myriad of chances. That included Serbian striker Stojanovic hitting the crossbar late in the second half and defender Don Droege smashing the post early in the second extratime. Stojanovic also botched two penalties. He fired his first attempt against the right post at 51:30 before goalkeeper Zeljko Bilecki saved his second try at 80:30.
“I was unlucky,” Stojanovic said. “It was my best game, but I was unlucky.”
Added Popovic: “Stollie psychologically wasn’t prepared for the penalty shots. I was hollering at him not to take the second one and let Fazlic take it, but he told me he was 100 percent sure he could make it.”
In the shootout, former Toronto player Miralem Fazlic converted the Lancers’ other score in the tie-breaker. Damir Sutevski and Roe recorded their attempts for the visitors. Because of the red cards, the Lancers were down to seven eligible players for the tie-breaker. Brand had stepped up to the 35-yard line to take one, but Landauer waved him away.
“I wanted to take a shot, but he said it’s illegal for goalies to take one,” Brand said.
By then, Pearson was on the field, telling the Lancers not to use Reynolds in the shootout, most likely not to complicate matters more. So, Silva got a rare second opportunity and he beat Bilecki. Not surprisingly, the Metros-Croatia protested, claiming that the Lancers used an illegal player, Escos, that Silva should have not been allowed to take a second shootout attempt, that Reynolds should have been the one.
On Monday, Aug. 15, NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam ruled that Rochester’s win stood.
“In investigating precedents in other sports, the protest has been denied because of a result of a referee’s oversight. According to the official rules of soccer: “His [the referee’s] decision on points of act shall be final, as far as the result of the game is concerned,” Woosnam said in a statement.
As it turned out, the first game of the series served as an appetizer for what was to transpire in Toronto three days later.
This was used with permission by the author. Michael Lewis’ book, “Alive and Kicking, The Incredible Story of the Rochester Lancers,” is scheduled to be published in 2021.