By Michael Lewis
Do the names Bruce Arena, Bob Montgomery, Angelo Anastasio, Al Vitiello or Carlo Mazarese ring a bell to you?
These men once played on the same soccer team – the Nassau Community College side that reached the National Junior College Athletic Association final four during Thanksgiving Weekend 50 years ago.
If you are not familiar with these gentlemen, here’s quick tutorial:
* Arena is probably the best known of the bunch. He coached the U.S. men’s national team during two tenures, twice qualifying for the World Cup and reaching the quarterfinals of the 2002 competition. The Franklin Square, N.Y. native has directed D.C. United and the LA Galaxy to five MLS Cup titles, more than any other coach in the league’s 25-year history, and the University of Virginia to five College Cup crowns. His New England Revolution will meet Orlando SC in the Eastern Conference semifinals Sunday.
* Montgomery coached the Adelphi University men’s squad for 29 years, reaching the NCAA Division I tournament seven times. His former players include Mike Windischmann, captain of the 1990 U.S. national team that qualified for its first World Cup in 40 years, and former USMNT midfielder and Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas, the best defensive midfielder of his generation. An East Meadow, N.Y. native, Montgomery was Red Bulls director of player development for 11 years before retiring in 2018. Today, he coaches South Fork United in Suffolk County, N.Y.
* Anastasio played for the Cosmos for two seasons before entering the apparel business. The Glen Cove, N.Y. native has worked for Reebok USA, Fila and adidas, and currently is the owner of ANASTASIO MODA, which produces and sells fashion shoes and accessories for men and women.
* Vitiello, an East Meadow, N.Y. native who played for NCC’s football and soccer teams at the same time, booted a 60-yard field, a junior college record at the time. He transferred to Penn State University and was a reliable kicker for the Nittany Lions, once converting a school-record nine extra points in a game.
* Mazarese guided the Garden City High School boys soccer team for several decades and Section VIII (Nassau County) championships. The high school has named a scholarship named after him.
When you look at it, it is a pretty impressive legacy for a junior college soccer team from five decades ago.
In an interview earlier this week, Montgomery reminisced about that tean.
“I enjoyed my two years there, had a lot of fun,” he said.
The Lions soccer team had players from Italy, Costa Rica, Surinam and of course, the United States.
“It was a hodge-podge, a blend of people,” Montgomery said. “I don’t I don’t go looking through my scrapbooks or looking for all these things are hidden away somewhere ready for my kids to throw them out when I pass on. I have no idea what the record was. We were very good, didn’t lose many games.”
Costa Rican-born George Ramirez of Long Beach, N.Y., was a Region XV all-star, led the team with 20 goals and four assists. He set a school record for striking for five goals in a win at Kingsborough SC Oct. 12.
Leo Markert hailed from Surinam. He was overweight, had pimples, wore a headband with his long hair and looked like a hippie, Montgomery said.
“If you ever saw a bunch of guys standing together and you say that guy was a great player, they’d never pick him out,” Montgomery said.
“He didn’t look like a player but was a great midfielder with precision passing and great ideas and awareness.”
Other players on the team included goalkeeper Ben Alberto, defenders Ken Jensen, Sylvester Congero, Timmy Lawlor, Dennis Carlson and Harvey Beckwith, and midfielders/forwards Tony Rosabianco, Ira Lrner, Dennis Guierro, Jim Lawlon and Peter Amari.
Arena shared goalkeeping duties with Alberto.
“Bruce was a great goalkeeper,” Montgomery said. “I mean, we had a good team in front of them. But he was very aggressive on balls played in the box. There was a lot of times he would be yelling, ‘I got it! I’ve got this one.’ ”
So, this hodge-podge of talent from all over Nassau County blended under head coach Bill Stevenson.
“The strength of the team was probably has to go back to Bill Stevenson, who was a great coach, in terms of putting people together and how we can work for each other, and having us respect each other,” Montgomery said. “Bill was a wrestling coach and track coach. He didn’t have a soccer background. He never claimed to, but he certainly knew how to pick players and put them together and make them work together.”
The team was good enough to lose only four times in 19 matches (unfortunately, the team’s full record could not be ascertained), though it lost twice to its nemesis Staten Island, the second time in the Region XV Tournament in New London, Conn., 2-1, in double extratime. Vitiello scored the lone goal.
Reaching the nationals put Vitiello in a quandary. When he wasn’t scoring for the soccer team, he was kicking field goals and extra points for the football team in a unique double role. During his two years at NCC, Vitiello booted 15 field goals and 63 extra points. His most famous three-pointer was a 60-yard field goal against Baltimore Community College that Sept. 26. He received Sports Illustrated Award of Merit and was featured in the Faces in the Crowd section of the magazine.
“He’ll play a soccer match in the afternoon and a football games at night,” Stevenson was quoted in the Oct. 15 edition of Newsday. “That’s tough, especially, if there is any travel involved.”
The football team had secured a spot in the El Toro Bowl in Yuma, Ariz. the same weekend. Prior to both events, it was determined that Vitiello would start his western journey in Ferguson, Mo. at the soccer tournament and then join the football team for its bowl game.
Stevenson realized Vitiello’s true sporting destiny lied with gridiron football. “It’s obvious his future is in football,” he told Newsday. “The really important thing is that he gives of himself completely.”
Bob Montgomery on NCC: “I enjoyed my two years there, had a lot of fun.” (Photo courtesy of the Red Bulls)
NCC, the 1966 national soccer champions, started the tournament on an optimistic note. In the quarterfinals on Nov. 25, the team blanked Brevard CC (North Carolina), 2-0, as Anastasio and Rosabianco scored goals as the defense conceded only two shots on goal.
The Lions’ next challenge in the semifinals was a mountain too high climb – vs. heavily favored and defending champion Florissant Valley Community College on Nov. 26. That team was coached by Peter Sorber, the father of then future U.S. men’s national team midfielder Mike Sorber.
Florissant recorded a 3-0 win. Denny Vaninger, a two-time All-American junior college forward, scored once for the St. Louis side. He went onto a 10-year professional career in the North American Soccer League, American Soccer League, Major Indoor Soccer League and the National Soccer League of Canada and made three appearances for the USMNT, scoring one goal (in a 3-1 loss to Mexico in Monterrey Sept. 5, 1975).
The Lions also played without Vitiello, who flew to Yuma to play for the football team in its Nov. 26 bowl game. As it turned out, NCC lost to Arizona Western, 36-18 after trailing 14-11 at halftime.
Montgomery had come down with the flu during the tournament but played anyway. He wound up covering Vaninger. Florissant went onto to capture the title, defeating Lorain College of Elyra, Ohio Nov. 28.
“I had my hands full with him on the day,” Montgomery said. “I just know I walked away with not a great feeling afterward, about letting my teammates down.”
Well, so did the rest of the NCC squad with Florissant as Dale Harmon and Tim Smith also found the net. Florissant, 13-0 that season and 58-2-0 over the past three campaigns, went onto to capture the title, defeating Lorain College of Ellyra, Ohio 2-1, in the 11th extratime (at 140:41) Nov. 28.
In the third-place match, NCC dropped a 2-1 decision to Mercer Community College, which needed 10 extratime periods to decide matters. Montgomery scored the Lions’ lone goal. Each extratime period was five minutes long. The first two periods had to be played out, the rest was sudden death. So, Mercer scored sometime between the 135th and 140th minutes. No other details of the match were available.
A defender and center back for his NCC career, Montgomery admitted he didn’t remember goals that he scored during his career. He said he scored six or seven goals, some of them penalties during his sophomore year, others off corner kicks.
One goal, however, did standout – against Mitchell Junior College and its top defender David D’Errico, who went onto to play six years in the NASL and five seasons in the MISL. D’Errico also represented the USA 21 times during an era in which there were not very many international matches.
“Dave and I had a big rivalry,” Montgomery said. “Dave was a tough, tough cookie and we used to go at it. They had homecoming at Mitchell, and I went up on the corner kick. As I got in the box, the guys on the other team were saying, ‘Watch Montgomery watch Montgomery.’ D’Errico turned around and said, “Don’t worry about him he’ll never, he’s never scored a goal.’
“The ball came in I took a run up and I jumped up and I just jumped before Dave. And so when he went to jump I was kind of above him and he would only push me forward. I headed down this ball down right in the goal. My guys were celebrating, and I walked over to Dave and I patted him on the back and said, ‘Dave, let’s make sure we do the marking the same way for the next corner.’ I knew I was getting under his skin.”
NCC was a springboard for many of the players, who went onto attend four-year schools. Montgomery transferred to Adelphi and the rest is history.
Still, there were plenty of lessons learned from that NCC squad.
Montgomery, the first recipient of the Paul LeSueur Ambassador of the Game Award from the Long Island Soccer Player Hall of Fame earlier this year, said he remembered the camaraderie of his teammates on and off the field. He used another team he was a member of – the Lynbrook Over-30 team that competed Long Island Soccer Football League) that secured the national title in 1984. He played with that side for 25 years.
“It was a real family atmosphere and great players,” he said. “We won seven or eight or nine league championships, state cups and indoor tournaments. We had a great bunch of guys. We had a Christmas party. We went to each other’s weddings. Those are kind of the environments that I always felt were very important about the team. Certainly Bill Stevenson, give him credit for putting me in that situation, to understand and value it.”
Especially after five decades.