In the third part of our series about the upcoming Hudson River Derby confrontation at Red Bull Arena Wednesday and Saturday, we feature a quick history of the Rochester Lancers-Toronto rivalry from the original incarnation of the North American Soccer League.
By Michael Lewis
In 2015, former Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch hit the nail on the head when he talked about his team’s very first encounter with New York City FC.
“I don’t know if rivalry is fair because there’s no history to it but you have to say derby simply from talent proximity and there’s the comparisons on a lot of different levels,” he said.
Translated: a rivalry doesn’t happen overnight, and you can’t force it.
It just happens.
Heck, some of the best rivalries aren’t necessarily between teams from the same city or area (ie. Red Bulls vs. D.C. United, among others).
Take, for example, what transpired between the Rochester Lancers and Toronto Metros-Croatia in the original North American Soccer League some four decades ago.
They were separated by a lake — OK, a Great Lake — Lake Ontario. But they forged one of the fiercest rivalries in all of pro soccer.
And the reasons for why the players and fans took every minute of every match so seriously changed every few years. It morphed from one type to another, from a soccer feud to an ethnic crisis back to a good ole soccer feud again.
Actually, that rivalry lasted but 10 years, although it seemed to go for decades.
But regardless who were the characters on either team, there always, always was an edge when these two teams tangled.
In fact, it had the makings of a great rivalry before the first game was played. In 1971, The Toronto Metros were forced to dress for its game against the Lancers in the baseball dugout at Silver Stadium.
Tempers were short after that.
In 1979, an advertisement in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle called the game, “It’s a War!”
“I don’t know if there’s a bigger rivalry,” said Lancers defender Damir Sutevski, who played for Toronto for four years. “The closest thing to it in the NASL is the Rowdies-Strikers rivalry in Florida, but that one is just beginning.”
Added teammate Ibraim Silva, the hero of the 1977 playoff series victory over Toronto: “Everyone wants to play in this one. Every time we play against Toronto, we seem to have problems — fights, bad referees, playing with a man down, you name. I always like to play up there. I like the city and I have a knack of scoring the winning goals against them.”
Former NASL all-star defender Charlie Mitchell, who played for both sides, put it into perspective. “This type of game is like a playoff game,” he told me many, many years ago.
The rivalry officially began on May 1, 1971, when the Metros were forced to dress in the visitor’s dugout because the Lancers temporarily were forced out of their regular ground, Holleder Stadium.
“We were told to change in the dugout. It was ludicrous,” Toronto general manager Jack Daley said. “Then things after that helped perpetuate the rivalry.”
Things such as Metros player-coach Graham Leggat kicking Lancers goalkeeper Claude Campos in the jaw during play and breaking it in five places.
Things like a war of words between Daley and Lancers GM Charlie Schiano, who eventually became the team’s chairman of the board.
Schiano wrote Daley claiming Campos had received unwarranted rough treatment from the Metros. “We are attempting to have Campos fitted with an iron mask,” he wrote.
Daley cited an incident when Lancers coach Sal DeRosa charged onto the field after a Toronto player kicked Campos in a 3-2 Rochester win later that season.
Daley replied, “We are asking Varsity Stadium [the Metros’ home field] to provide us with a restraining jacket for your coach … should he persist in hopping around the field where he has no place being, then we finally would suggest utilizing a steel cage.”
So many players performed for both team through the years that the rivalry continued for obvious reasons. Everyone knew everyone else, which always adds fuel to a rivalry. Enough said.
Words almost became blows later. In 1975, the Metros were failing financially and were bought by the Croatian community of Toronto. In 1976, Dragan Popovic, a Serbian who guided the New York Arrows to four Major Indoor Soccer League titles, became Rochester coach and added several Yugoslavians. Although Popovic claimed the Yugoslavians had no Serbian blood, the predominantly Croatia crowd booed the Lancers in Toronto. Popovic, who once coached the Serbian White Eagles in the National Soccer League in Toronto, needed a police escort from the Varsity Stadium locker room to the team bus.
Forward Mike Stojanovic, who once starred for the White Eagles, found it impossible to score against any Croatia team. He once missed not one, but two penalty kicks in a playoff game against Toronto. “I wanted to pound them into the ground so much that I tried too hard,” he said.
Two of the most memorable Rochester-Toronto confrontations were played during the 1976 and 1977 playoff series.
In 1976, With a second — that’s right — a second remaining in the first-round match, the Toronto Metros-Croatia managed to score the lone goal of the match (in those days the NASL did time by the second, not by the minute as in MLS and the rest of the world). Gene Strenicer, a bulldog of a defensive midfielder not necessarily known for his scoring exploits, scored the controversial goal at Varsity Stadium. It earned him the nickname of “89:59 Strenicer” among many Rochester supporters.
The main story in virtually every major American newspaper the next day? Elvis is dead (really, he did die).
The Lancers were a rather ordinary team that season under Popovic, barely getting into the playoffs with a 11-15 record, good for third place in the Northern Division of the Atlantic Conference of the North American Soccer League and a post-season berth (despite being four games under .500). Popovic’s given name was Dragan, so you can guess who used his first name as much as possible in his stories. Besides, I didn’t want to let our headline writers miss some classic headlines such as “Dragan breathes fire after loss” or “Dragan slays critics after a comeback victory.”
The ’77 side had plenty of its own problems and characters. Its leading goal-scorer, the enigmatic Stojanovic, who passed away in November 2010, had been diagnosed with a separated shoulder late in the season and everyone thought he was done. As it turned out, he wasn’t. He came back and helped the team reach the playoffs.
On the eve of the playoffs, however, Stollie was stuck in Canada (he was a citizen of our neighbors to the north). It seemed that his visa had expired, and he neglected to take care of it. The team did and arrived in time for the first playoff game in St. Louis.
The Lancers, who couldn’t win on the road, managed to get past the St. Louis Stars at Washington University via a shootout.
That set up a grudge match between them and their archrivals, the defending NASL champion Metros-Croatia (interesting nickname, for many reasons, huh?). The Eastern Conference semifinal confrontation went beyond soccer. The Lancers had several Serbian players, including Stojanovic and Popovic, while Toronto was dominated by Croatians. It certainly gave yours truly a lesson in world politics and history before it was thrust front and center into the world about a decade later.
They played a two-game series in those days.
The first match ended in a scoreless tie after extratime as well. Stojanovic missed not one, but two penalty kicks in regulation. The Lancers played with 10 men for a good deal of the match but managed to outshoot Toronto by a wide margin. They prevailed in the dreaded shootout, although Toronto protested to the league that Silva, who converted two winning shootout goals, had shot out of order. In the lead of his D&C game story, a certain young soccer writer now is now the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com called it the “soccer games to end all soccer games.” You know, that lead has held up over all these years.
Hyperbole? Maybe, maybe not. Little did we know that was the appetizer for the next encounter in Canada.
In the second leg at Varsity Stadium in Toronto, a ground where Rochester had not prevailed in something like eight matches, the Lancers had not one, but two players red carded in the first half, forcing the Lancers to play two men down in enemy territory with so much at stake.
After the second ejection, Popovic was given a yellow card (yes, in those days, referees awarded cards to coaches, at least in that match, instead of today’s protocol of asking them to leave the bench) and he was egging on the referee to give him another (I heard later that the ref did not award Pops another yellow because he did not want the team to be without a head coach, given the state it was in).
Despite playing two men down, Popovic put together a second-half lineup that would make even the most catenaccio aficionados envious — three central defenders in front of goalkeeper Jack Brand, four players who were going to play mostly defense and a lone player up front, essentially a midfielder — Stojanovic. The Lancers were going to try to play for a shootout. An obvious and smart move playing two men down on an enemy field.
It worked. The Metros-Croatia rarely got close to the goal. Later in the match, sometime around the 77th minute, Silva found himself alone in the Toronto penalty area and scored. The Toronto players claimed there was a handball, but the goal stood. Thirteen minutes later, the Lancers had earned a rather improbable win.
“Hi-Ho Silva, the Lancers ride again,” was the headline in the D&C the next day.
The main story in virtually every major American newspaper the next day? Elvis is dead (really, he did die).
The Lancers’ next opponent was the Mount Everest of American soccer, the New York Cosmos, with the aforementioned Pele and Beckenbauer and this guy up front who could put the ball in the back of the net once in a while, Giorgio Chinaglia. The Lancers’ quest for a rather unlikely championship ended in a two-game series. The Cosmos won the first encounter in Rochester, 2-1, on a defensive blunder before really crashing back down to earth in the rain in a jam-packed crowd of about 73,669 at Giants Stadium in a 4-1 trouncing.
While the Cosmos series was incredible, it terms of drama and international tension, the Toronto series stood out even more.
Global Communications bought the Metros-Croatia in 1978 and renamed the team the Blizzard. Many of the Croatian players were sold.
In another rough and tumble affair that sometimes reminded spectators of pro wrestling rather than the beautiful game, Peter Lorimer booted a free kick into the rear end of Silva, who was standing too close to the play at CNE Stadium in 1979. “Now, that is soccer!” Lancers radio announcer Wayne Fuller sarcastically bellowed into his microphone, converting that famous line from the movie Slap Shot! From hockey to soccer. That was only the tip of the iceberg. The rest was one real, ugly berg. The Lancers lost a shootout, 2-1, after the two teams redefined what the word battle means. Referee Robert Sumpter called 37 fouls on Rochester, 29 on Toronto. Silva and Toronto’s Ivair were given their marching orders. Shep Messing, then the Lancers goalkeeper, threw off his gloves, ready to fight Ivair and Toronto captain Colin Franks landed a right hook onto the face of Lancers midfielder Val Tuksa.
(In an interview in 2010, Messing, now a Red Bulls TV color commentator, remembered that game and incident. “I threw my gloves off and I was challenging anybody to a fight,” he said. “I hated Toronto. . . . It was a real rivalry. I got into it.” Messing remembered that one of the defender, Nick Mijatovic, used to sharpen his the metal studs on his cleats. “I got into it right away,” Messing. “It was fierce. It was like going to war. That’s a bad analogy today.” Messing commuted from Long Island to Rochester for games. “I loved playing for the Rochester Lancers,” he said. “It was school. It was unbelievable. I loved the fans. The Cosmos would draw 60,00-70,000 fans. The Rochester fans were grittier. The Rochester fans were the real deal.”)
Later that year, the Lancers’ playoff fate hinged on a Toronto result.
On an August Friday night, the Lancers failed to secure a three-goal victory over the New England Tea Men in their final regular-season game (the NASL awarded six points for a victory and a point for every goal up until three). They won, 2-0. Two days later, the Blizzard hosted the Philadelphia Fury in a game in which the Blizzard needed to win and score at least three goals. The Fury needed three goals (and points) to qualify. Popovic and trainer Joe Sirianni drove up to Toronto to watch the game. I went up as well. “If it’s a high-scoring game, then the game is fixed,” Sirianni said beforehand. Hmmm. Guess what happened? The final score was a convenient 4-3 in favor of Toronto. Both teams booked a spot in the post-season and Lancers were looking in from the outside for the second consecutive year. A few days later, a story broke in the New York Post, quoting Messing, about a possible goal-exchange scheme between Rochester and New England. Stojanovic told me that he was offered a deal with by the New England keeper. But nothing came out of an investigation by the league. But that’s another story for another time.
By 1980, which turned out to be the Lancers’ final season, the rivalry had lost its steam.
In the first encounter in Toronto April 20, the Blizzard rolled to a 3-0 triumph as former Cosmos forward and South African national coach Jomo Sono tallied one of the goals. There were 35 fouls called — 20 on Toronto.
The second meeting, in Rochester on May 21, had a lot more intrigue — for the home side. Stojanovic, who hadn’t score in nearly a year, came off the bench to break a personal scoreless streak of 22 games (1,927 minutes, 38 seconds) to lift Rochester to a 3-1 win. Stojanovic moved past one-time Lancers standout Carlos Metidieri’s club-record 40 goals. the victory lifted the Lancers to a 3-4 record, rare dizzy heights for them that early in the season since they had played the majority of their games on the road due to the colder climate of Western New York.
The real intrigue transpired the following morning. Coach Ray Klivecka, the former Cosmos coach, was called into office of the Rochester contingent of owners.
“They told me I was the greatest coach the Rochester Lancers ever had,” Klivecka said. “They said I was great for the community and great for the public relations aspect of the job. Then they said I was fired.”
The Rochester-based owners were feuding for control of the team with the Long Island-based owners of John Luciano and Bernie Rodin. Klivecka had gotten involved in the politics with the LI owner and paid the price.
Alex Perolli, who directed the Lancers in 1970 before he was bounced in favor of DeRosa (who guided that team to the NASL title), was named the new coach for the rest of the season.
The Lancers finished at 12-20.
It was a great derby and rivalry while it lasted.