The Brooklyn Italians prior to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final against the Richardson Rockets. (Photo courtesy of Bill Manning)
Top Row Standing (L>R) – Unidentified Man, Jerry Valerio (President), Dragan Radovich (GK/Croatia), Mr. Casmento, #2 Ronan Wiseman (D/Ireland), #3 Digner Valencia (D/Ecuador), #16 Ernest Inneh (F/Nigeria), Mike Stefano (Vice President), #9 Caesar Silva (F/Portugal), Gilberto Godoy (Asst Coach/Argentina), Mike Ryback (Head Coach/Russia), Tony Noto (GK Coach), Dick Pusateri (Manager)
Middle Row Kneeling (L>R) – Unidentified Man, #5 Bill Manning (D/USA), #10 Carlos Jaguande (M/USA-Peru), Victor Ogunsanya (D/Nigeria), #14 Augustine Igbinobaro (M/Nigeria),
Bottom Row Crouching (L>R) – Unidentified Man, Unidentified Man, Unidentified Boy, #8 Osidis Machado (M/Brazil), Lucio Russo (M/USA-Italy), #12 Jesus Herazo (M/Columbia), #15 Jean Yves (F/Haiti), #6 Junior Superbia (M/Brazil), #11 Camillo Freitas (F/Brazil), #4 Manny Udoh (M/Nigeria), #7 Jean Yves (M/Haiti), Mike (GK/Columbia)
Tuesday, Aug. 10 is the 30th anniversary of the Brooklyn Italians winning the 1991 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title. This story relives relives part of the season and the game. No area team has worn the coveted crown since then.
By Michael Lewis
The true measure of a team isn’t just whether it wins championships – although there is nothing wrong with that – it is how the coach and players handle adversity, disappointment and defeat.
It is how do they deal with it and bounce back after an excruciating loss or a stunning red card in a match.
During the early years 1990s, the Brooklyn Italians experienced the agony of defeat and ecstasy of victory in two separate Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup finals.
First, some agony.
Center back Ronan Wiseman played a vital role in the Italians’ success. (Photo by Michael Lewis)
So close, yet so far
With the score knotted at 1-1 apiece in the waning minute of the 1990 Open Cup in Indianapolis, Ind., Pitor Modrezejewski of the AAC Eagles (Chicago) ripped a 20-yard shot that goalkeeper Dragan Radovich got a hold of.
Brooklyn right back Ronan Wiseman was confident his keeper had the ball. After all, Radovich had played in 48 games with the Washington Diplomats, Portland Timbers and Chicago Sting over four seasons in the old North American Soccer League and had plenty of experience.
“Dragan was one of those goalkeepers that gives a defender confidence, that solid springboard for everything else,” Wiseman recently said. “He is Mr. Reliable.”
The ball went through Mr. Reliable’s hands.
“Almost before it got into his hands, I was already turned and running out to the sideline for him to distribute the ball to me, to start our attack,” Wiseman said. “So, my back was turned, and as I turned to run, turned backwards, just see what was happening. It was almost like its slow motion, the ball in his hands. It just popped up over his head and just dropped behind him. It was just surreal because he was Mr. Reliable.”
“I believe I was jinxed last year the way the game turned out,” Radovich said in 1991.
Radovich, who also played for Greek-American Atlas in the 1989 finals in a 2-1 loss to the HFC Kickers (St. Petersburg, Fla.) was devastated.
“I think he’s going to remember the goal all his life,” Italians head coach Mike Rybak said at the time.
Three decades later, midfielder Antonio (Junior) Superbia certainly remembered it.
“It was very disappointing,” said Superbia, the current Italians director of coaching. “I really, really felt for him. We’re very close-knit group. And to lose in that manner was really was tough, mentally was exhausting. You go to a game like that you play your heart out and the last minute you lose it. It saps your whole energy.”
Antonio (Junior) Superbia (Photo courtesy of Antonio Superbia)
As disappointed the Italians were, the defeat made them more resolute to reach the final again. With so many talented amateur and semi-pro teams in the country, let alone in the Eastern New York State Soccer Association the task became even more challenging.
The Italians had plenty of motivation.
“We picked our heads up the following year,” Superbia said.
“We knew we were probably the best team in the country and the results show that. Fortunately, we were able to keep the core of the 1990 group, again, eight started in 1990. There was a major motivational factor coming to the game in 1991. We just knew we were good enough to win the cup., which you don’t want to miss that opportunity.”
A little history, first.
Founded in 1949, by John DeVivo, an Italian immigrant, the team competed in the Metropolitan Soccer League in the early 1950s. The Italians moved to the American Soccer League and eventually to the German-American Soccer League (now the Cosmopolitan Soccer League) and then to the Northeastern Super Soccer League while becoming one of the dominant amateur sides.
The Italians celebrated an Open Cup championship once before – in 1979, when the team was known as the Brooklyn Dodgers. With a new talented generation of players competing during what many observers felt was the golden age of local amateur and semi-pro soccer, the Italians certainly enjoyed their share of success.
The NESSL lived up to its name as it essentially was a super league of the best teams from the best leagues from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Every game was a battle. There were few walk-overs, which was a perfect way to prepare for such a contested competition as the Open Cup.
“I loved those games,” said Wiseman, who is the director of training of the East Islip Soccer Club.
Against the likes of G-A Atlas, Inka, N.Y. Pancyprians, Macedonia, the Polish-American Eagles, Glen Cove Xara and N.Y. Hota Bavarians, among others.
“Just the environment that they would create around the game,” Wiseman said of the various teams. “It was fantastic.”
It was prior to the United Soccer League making inroads in 1995 and the start up of Major League Soccer the next year.
“It was five years before MLS,” said center back Bill Manning, who is the Toronto FC president. “A lot of these guys were MLS caliber players just not playing in a professional league.”
What better way to prepare for going deep into national cup games, on the fields such as the Met Oval or Con Edison Field.
“Every problem that you experience is a learning opportunity,” Wiseman said. “It’s an opportunity to become better to overcome that obstacle when you’re successful or not, you try and do it for us as players being in that environment, whether its happening outside the field. Tactical battles that you have on the field in the individual battles that you have, the physical challenges.
“We had That self-belief in ourselves. We can do this. We can go play in some city park field in the South Bronx with no grass against teams that just want to kill you. We could handle it and we did.”
The United Nations of Brooklyn
While the team was named the Italians, the roster had more of a United Nations fell, with about a dozen nationalities represented. That included players from or with backgrounds from Croatia, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Nigeria, Brazil, Ecuador and the United States, among others. The team also had players from Colombia and Trinidad & Tobago, and a Russian coach.
“It was such a diverse group,” Manning said. “We came from all corners of the earth, and we came together. It was a fierce desire to win. And there was a lot of competition on that team. That was a team that was you know, good 14-15 deep. Back then if you didn’t play well, you sat the next game. So, fierce competition but it was a camaraderie, and that just brought this group together. I came very close with Ernest Inneh, who’s from Nigeria. I remember driving him home.”
Manning added that he still was friends with many of his former teammates today, as are other players.
Getting teammates from the same nationality on the same page could be difficult enough, let alone various languages, cultures, etc.
The Italians made it work.
“That was magical,” Superbia said. “I don’t really know if I have an explanation for it. It necessarily doesn’t work like that all the time. But during the late 80s, and 90s, it just did. Look at what the club accomplished, locally and nationally. It’s proof of that.
“There was the magic of that was that particular quality of the best of many different countries just happened to be here in Brooklyn. The game is universal, right? You don’t need to speak the same language. You do need to speak a soccer language.”
Added Wiseman: “The common thing was that we all loved to play. Whether it’s by chance or was done on purpose, we all had the same desire to play in the same way. We just kind of kept together like a jigsaw puzzle, just kind of fit. We say okay, ‘This is how we all like to play it. It all came together. … It was a joy to play with all these guys.”
Rybak was impressed with the quality of his players, on the field and off it.
“It was a very, very good team,” he recently said. “Everybody was united. Everybody tried their best. Everybody came to practice. I didn’t have any problems with them. Everybody listened. Everybody knew what to do. We also had huge support from the members of the club, trying their best to help us.
“What was interesting that all of them were good personalities. Some of them didn’t speak very good English. I always told them: ‘I will never teach English with you because many of you don’t know the language.’ I was joking with them.”
The Italians were all serious on the field.
Speaking of the UN, here is the Starting XI and substitutes used for the team’s 1991 Open Cup final, with the players’ countries of birth or nationalities:
GK – Dragan Radovich (Croatia/USA)
D – Victor Ogunsanya (Nigeria)
D – Bill Manning (USA)
D – Ronan Wiseman (Ireland)
D – Digner Valencia (Ecuador)
M – Manny Udoh (Nigeria)
M – Carlos Jaguande (USA)
M – Junior Superbia (Brazil)
M – Jean Yves (Haiti)
F – Cesar Silva (Portugal)
F – Ernest Inneh (Nigeria)
71 – Harry Smarth (Haiti) > Jaguande
86 – Lucco Russo (Italy/USA) > Silva
You have to remember that playing for the Italians was not anyone’s day job. Players would finish their day shifts, train two, three times a week and they play on Sunday.
“We’re semi-pro players that were people and had real jobs during the day,” Superbia said. “I’m sure a lot of those guys were blue collar workers, right, where they’re working very hard during the week. We were training twice, sometimes three times a week during the night, and playing games on the weekends. So it was busy. It was physically very tiring. But again, this is a testament of how much that group, and I think players in general, played the game for the love of it.”
Italians president Jerry Valerio and general manager Dick Pusateri, back in the day. (Michael Lewis Photo)
The men in charge
Jerry Valerio, was the team president, Dick Pusateri was general manager.
Rybak, who emigrated from Russia in 1980, pulled the strings on the field. He directed the Italians for a few years before taking on the coaching reins of the Albany team in the ASL. He returned to coach the Italians for a couple of years before moving on to the New York Falcons of the Italian-American Soccer League, winning the Dr. Manning Cup in 1986. He returned to the Italians fold the year fall in his third tenure.
A calm and experienced presence at the helm, Rybak put together right combination of players on the field within a certain formation and then let them play.
“Basically, he let us play,” Manning said. “It wasn’t the big tactics. It was put the best players on the field to win the game because we’re an elite team. He has a manager who has to manage the minutes.”
“That’s a huge credit to Mike because being a coach and going through it myself, sometimes, you want to be more involved and when really you should trust your players,” he said.
“If there were things that he didn’t like, he would let us know. His style of coaching was not a joystick coach. He wasn’t all over us and angry and every little thing. He would have his moments every now and then but it was [only] constant anger and frustration at his players. We all respected that. We responded to that style.”
Added Superbia: “Mike was a gentleman. He was not only a very good coach, but he was also a great man. He was very calm on the sidelines. He had a lot of authority, without really saying much. It was such a presence about him. He was the type of coach that I think his players and I, myself included, wanted to play for him.”
Needless to say, Rybak returned the compliments in the best way possible.
“I had so much fun because soccer was my life,” he said.
During the 1990-91 NESSL regular season, during which in lost but once. That was in an epic encounter with Glen Cove Xara for the league title. Brooklyn was NESSL North champions, while Glen Cove ruled the South. Regulation ended at 3-3, but Glen Cove scored three times in extratime to register a 6-3 victory over a tiring Italians side.
At the time, Brooklyn was forced to play four games over 10 days, which included finishing up the league schedule and an Open Cup match.
“We just ran out of gas in overtime,” Manning said. “We were really dominant that year.”
The Open Cup run
The Italians’ 1990-91 season proved to be a busy one.
While pursuing the Open Cup, the team also participated in the Concacaf Champions Cup competition along with the 1990 cup winners. After losing in the North quarterfinal opener at the Dandy Town Hornets of Bermuda, 3-1, the Italians bounced back with a 3-0 home victory to win the total goals series, 4-3. Later in the year, the Italians took on Universidad de Guadalajara in the North semifinals.
On the way to the Open Cup final, the Italians defeated Hermes S.C. in the Eastern New York State Soccer Association Round of 16, 2-0, at home, the N.Y. Pancyprian Freedoms away in the quarterfinals, 3-1, in extratime, N.Y. Greek-American Atlas in the semifinals at home, 2-0, and U.S. Ragusa at home in the state championship match, 4-2.
Brooklyn hit the road for the Region I bracket, besting Connecticut Unionsport away, 1-0, in the quarterfinals, Faialense S.C. (Mass.) on the road in the semifinals, 3-1, and the Fairfax Spartans (Va.). in the final, 3-0, at home.
On the field, the Italians fell to Chicago RWB Adria (Ill.) in the semifinals, 1-0.
But the Chicago side used ineligible players and the game was awarded to Brooklyn via a forfeit victory.
“That loss to Chicago was crushing, because we were such the better team,” Manning said. “They had a special player, of course to put it in the at the back of the net. But even though we lost the game, we still went to the final. I guess they didn’t play by the rules.”
Ah, perhaps some ecstasy.
So, the squad got another opportunity to play for the Open Cup title, this time against the Richardson Rockets (Texas). The Rockets were a pretty damn good side that boasted a future Major League Soccer League and U.S. international in 19-year-old forward Alan Prampin, who performed for the Kansas City Wiz and Tampa Bay Mutiny from 1996-99. They bested Galveston NASA in the national semifinals, 8-2, and edge the New Mexico Chiles in the semifinals, 1-0, to set up the final confrontation.
Scouting in those days was word of mouth, at best. You had to know someone who played the opposing team or saw them compete. Remember, this was 1991, well before the days of streaming games and the cornucopia of the internet.
“Back in the day, we knew nothing about them,” Superbia said. “There were on the other side of the country. I don’t even recall us discussing their way of playing, their tactics, because how could we right? There was no television, there were no videos. It was just a testament of how good and confident that particular group was coming to a game, to a national final, not knowing much about your opponent.
“We knew they were they were going to be a challenge on a very good team. You don’t reach the final or national cup, if you’re not quite a good team. But I don’t think we as a group were very worried about the [challenge] that we’re going to pose to us. We’re just a very confident team. We knew we could win the cup.”
Bill Manning (Michael Lewis Photo)
Saturday, Aug. 10 was a typical, hot summer day at Brooklyn College. The stands filled quickly for the highly anticipated confrontation between the two best teams in the United States.
The Italians entered the match confident. They were difficult to beat on the artificial turf field. During a three-year span while playing at the school, the Italians were virtually invincible there, recording an outstanding 30-2-8, according to Manning’s copious records. The team rarely suffered a loss on its home turf.
“Brooklyn College was like a fortress,” Wiseman said. “So that would give you a lot of confidence playing on the field every day. The ball is going to roll. … Some of the players that we had were frighteningly quick and playing on that type of surface, it would be a nightmare for any defender to try and hold on. We always knew we had a chance with our attacking power. We have to make sure we’re solid and we don’t give up anything in the back.”
Six minutes into the match, the Italians struck as Inneh headed Cesar Silva’s pass into the net. With goalkeeper Brian Hall out of position to stop the ball, defender Billy Pettigrew lunged to clear the ball on the goal line as it entered the net for a 1-0 lead.
“I wasn’t in the best of shape,” Inneh told Soccer Week at the time.
Inneh had returned from a trip to his native Nigeria two weeks earlier.
“But I said, ‘Give me the ball.’ This is our home. We don’t want to lose here,” he added.
With a one-goal lead and playing in their “fortress,” the Italians’ confidence grew.
“We really thought we’re going to have control over the game at that time,” Superbia said. “We were possession because of the technical ability of the squad.”
But 17 minutes later, agony raised its ugly head in one of the worst ways for a team.
Manning and Prampin battled for possession of the ball about 30 yards from the Brooklyn goal. Referee Steve Olson blew his whistle in which several observers felt was an obstruction foul. Seconds later, he showed Manning a red card, much to the astonishment of the player, teammates and partisan crowd.
“I always confident, chasing down chasing down balls,” Manning said. “Prampin was extremely fast. And it was a foot race, and I remember he had gotten this step on me. He tripped on the turf and it was not out of the norm. I knew how to play on that turf. All of a sudden turn, I around and red card. I didn’t even think of the foul. I just felt I beat him to a 50-50 ball.
“That was just brutal because I was on the team before when we lost in the final. I was one of the leaders of that team and I really wanted to win that national championship. I always say it was so bittersweet for me.”
(A couple of interesting asides: Prampin eventually played for Manning when he was general manager of the Tampa Bay Mutiny. When he worked at the Minnesota Thunder, Manning ran into Olson, who was executive director of the Minnesota Soccer Association. They talked about the controversial call. “It’s funny. He gave me a little bit of peace,” Manning said. “He said afterward he had actually spoken to some people about the call and so on. He probably jumped the gun.”).
Manning was forced to exit the stadium, which he did. However, he would up with a pretty decent seat for the final 67 minutes and several minutes of stoppage time as he watched the game from the hood of his Mustang with his girlfriend, who is now his wife.
“The one thing is, winning really helps you,” Manning said. “Had we lost, then all of a sudden: ‘Why’d you get a red card?’ And you just you have that guilt associated with it.”
Rybak then made the tactical move of the game, moving right back Victor Ogunsanya into Manning’s spot. “He did a good job,” the coach said.
The Italians went from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-2 formation as Rybak moved a defensive midfielder to right back.
“We still were a team that was able to play even a man down, not where it was them all over us,” Manning said.
Jaguande, then 20, helped Brooklyn dominate the crucial 15 minutes after Manning’s expulsion.
“Going down a man in the final of a cup competition, and given the situation, it’s not ideal,” Wiseman said. “But I think it just speaks to the to the character of the team. We say okay, here’s another obstacle, another opportunity for us to try and overcome this obstacle. We can argue and then we can cry about it. We can wither up and die and let them win or we can we can fight. That’s what we chose.”
The Brooklyn Italians celebrate winning the Open Cup. (Photo courtesy of Soccer Week)
Some close encounters
The Italians came close to scoring in the 32nd minute on an Inneh shot off a give-and-go between Jaguande and Silva.
Only four minutes later, Jaguande drilled a 23-yard attempt wide after some nifty passing between Yves and Superbia.
Prampin, who paced the Richardson attack, came close to equalizing twice. He beat Digner with a burst down the right flank in the 54th minute. Prampin crossed the ball into an unmarked John Reynolds, whose header sailed over the bar.
Three minutes later, Prampin nearly caught the defense napping, beating Wiseman to a loose ball in the penalty area. With his back to the goal, Prampin fired a shot barely wide right.
The Rockets had one last chance to force extratime. Two minutes into stoppage time, substitute Lucio Russo fouled Rex Roberts just outside the area for a free kick. Gian-Paulo Pedrosa booted his free kick over the crossbar.
Radovich remembered the goal he let in, in the 1990 final.
“I was thinking about it,” he said in 1991. “I was wishing for the game to be over.”
A few minutes later, Radovich got his wish. Olson sounded his whistle twice and the Italians were champions.
“After the drama and the tension of the day and that you’ve achieved what you set out to achieve, you can kind of relax and enjoy it and look back and say, ‘It’s a job well done,’ to be able to celebrate with other people who are on the field,” Wiseman said. “You went through something with them but then the people who are outside the field they have a different experience. But it was also good to share it with them as well because they had their drama and their tensions and what they went through. That was a good moment.”
Indeed, it was.
“It was a combination of all the hard work that we had done in the previous years” Superbia said. “We had lost in we lost in ’90. So, there was extra special winning in 1991. I do remember the fans and club president and just rushing to the field and congratulating everyone. It was a very special moment that has stayed with us, with me particularly forever.”
Several hours later, the Italians held a victory celebration at Gargiulo Restaurant in Coney Island, as the players were awarded their winners’ medals. The Rockets also attended.
“When we’re getting our meals and just being recently arrived from Brazil, being a national champion was very, very special and exciting for myself for such a young player,” Superbia said. “A special moment.”
The Italians celebrated into the wee hours of the morining and rightfully so.
“It was really cool, too, because the other team was there with us,” Manning said. “They were from Texas, and I don’t know if I had met a Texan by that point. I remember them just being gracious, telling us like, ‘Wow, you guys can play!’
In the three decades since, no other New York or metropolitan area team – amateur, semi-pro or professional – has lifted the trophy.
Aug. 10, 1991 certainly was a day many Brooklyn Italians soccer fans will cherish forever.