Dave Sarachan (far left) and Nelson Cupello (far right) with former Lancers teammates Craig Reynolds and Kevin Gannon at the 1992 NSCAA convention. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

As a third-round draft choice of the Rochester Lancers in February 1976, Dave Sarachan would drive to the Flower City from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. to train with the team.

The 21-year-old forward didn’t know exactly what lied ahead for him in soccer, let alone in the North American Soccer League.

“I had no idea if I’m going be a player and make that team,” he said.

After all, he was a third-round draft choice and American players did not have a history of sticking with teams.

“I show up and it’s overwhelming, it’s overwhelming,” Sarachan said Monday.

He got some minutes in a scrimmage at Franklin High School. Assistant coach Luis Dabo was watching.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “I was playing on the left wing. I remember crossing a ball, maybe 50 to 60 yards across the field to to the right winger.”

“I just remember Luis gave me this kind of look like I think you got a chance here,” Sarachan said. “Don Popovic [the head coach] wasn’t going say anything. When we were finished, he was the one that came up to me and put his arm around me and just went something to the effect like, ‘We’ve got a starting point here. Hang in there.'”

Those nine words of encouragement meant a lot to Sarachan, who did hang in there, for a nice long playing and coaching career.

Some of that credit goes to Dabo, who went on to coach several indoor teams before establishing a soccer club in Phoenix, Ariz. Dabo passed away in Phoenix late Friday night. He was in his 80s.

When he heard the news about Dabo, Sarachan admitted he “was a little numb.” He heard Dabo had some health issues in recent years.

Sarachan called Dabo “really genuine.”

“He didn’t do it just to make you feel good, because that’s what he felt he had to do,” he added. “It was genuine and sincere. He really believed that in American soccer players. I’ll speak for all the guys could could play. ‘Don’t let the outside noise of the Popovic and the Yugoslavs and whatever else tell you otherwise.’ It gave me so much confidence. I’m a five foot five inch little Jewish kid from Brighton [a Rochester suburb]. To have a guy in your corner who I respected from, from his experience, him taking the time after training all the time to work with us on a technical level, give us the attention just kept me going. It kept me going.

“There’s somebody in my corner and it but it was sincere. It was deep. He really meant it. And who knows if, if Luis wasn’t in Rochester at the time, you know, I could have punted it.”

Defender Nelson Cupello, Sarachan’s teammate on the 1976-77 Lancers, also mourned Dabo’s passing and elaborated on what the assistant coach was trying to accomplish with American players.

“I was impressed by how he could spot players and get the best out of them,” he said.

All his soccer life and his first year as a pro in 1975, Cupello always played in an attacking role. When Popovic became coach, he was moved to defense.

“I had never played center back in my life,” he said. “Luis, more than anybody other than Nick [Mijatovic, a center back] worked with me to learn that position as much as I could. I think he truly cared about developing young players. I think you’ll find most American players that he had. Dave, Craig [Reynolds], Jim Pollihan and Don Droege, Kip Jordan, all those guys really enjoyed working with Luis.”

Back in those days, it was difficult for Americans to break into an NASL team. The league started an Americanization plan in which teams needed at least one North American citizen on the field at all times. Then it went to two, three and finally to five in 1980.

Sometimes scrimmages and practices became the games for many U.S. citizens.

“When we would have practice, and it’d be just the day after a game, whoever didn’t play the game much or wasn’t dressed for the game,” said Cupello, who went on to more than a three-decade career as head coach at Monroe Community College.  team. “We always would have practice and more often than not Luis was the guy that ran practice. It was always a fun practice. I enjoyed going to those practices. He always made sure there wasn’t sort of a drudgery. Just totally enjoyed playing with him.”

Dabo joined with the team to play in those training sessions.

Not unlike Cupello, Dabo also helped to several Americans on the Lancers an opportunity to embark on careers in soccer, many in coaching.

Sarachan eventually became head men’s coach at Cornell and the Chicago Fire. He also was an important lieutenant to Bruce Arena during two tenures with the U.S. men’s national team and the LA Galaxy. Sarachan also was USMNT head coach for a year before Gregg Berhalter took over the reins.

They remained friends for many years, talking many times on the phone.

“He was just he was a big fan, and a good friend,” Sarachan said. “It continued all the way through adulthood. He had such a way about communicating about the game. It just captured you. He just wanted more. You just wanted more. He could go deep, but he kept it simple. Very unique guy and from a technical sense. He prided himself on that. That’s what he did later in his life.”

Dabo started the Santos Futbol Club in Phoenix.

“Winning and losing was irrelevant to him,” Sarachan said. “It was all about forming relationships, developing players move on in the game, on the field and off the field. He was really special.”

Years ago, Dabo invited Sarachan’s son, Ian, to attend his soccer club and school for a couple of weeks.

“He believed he was good; never saw him play,” Sarachan said. “He kept saying, ‘Ian’s going make it. You bring Ian out to me. Let him spend two weeks.’ We were really close to having that happen before college. And we just couldn’t logistically get it done. He like loved my son. He loved me. We loved each other. It was there was a real mutual respect there. But more than that, it was like family.”

Ian is an assistant coach at Creighton University.

Sarachan, who most recently directed the Puerto Rico national team in World Cup qualifying, played for Dabo when he was an assistant coach with the Buffalo Stallions (Major Indoor Soccer League), which turned into bridge to a coaching career.

“I wish I would have had the opportunity to play for him if he was the head coach,” Cupello said.

But Cupello had hung up his competitive soccer boots for good to become a soccer coach.

“I was looking forward to getting into coaching and I really didn’t want to leave Rochester, so I concentrated more on being an assistant coach over at MCC and it worked out for the best for me.”

Beyond his coaching attributes, Dabo was a pretty decent recruiter as well. He brought over such talent Portuguese attacking players as Joao (John) Pedro, Ibraim Silva and Vitor Moia. They all made positive impacts on the Lancers.

“Joao Pedro, he was phenomenal.”

Then again, so was Luis Dabo.

“He was really unique guy. I really believe in my throughout my life in soccer, there’s been a handful of people, whether it’s Bruce [[Arena], Manfred Schellscheidt, Bob [Bradley], people you get you really think back on that had an influence and Luis’ in that five, no question,” Sarachan said.

“Luis Dabo knew talent and he knew how to bring out the best out of you,”   Cupello said. “I don’t remember him ever raising his voice to get his point across. A real gentleman.”

Front Row Soccer editor Michael Lewis has covered 13 World Cups (eight men, five women), seven Olympics and 25 MLS Cups. He has written about New York City FC, New York Cosmos, the New York Red Bulls and both U.S. national teams for Newsday and has penned a soccer history column for the Guardian.com. Lewis, who has been honored by the Press Club of Long Island and National Soccer Coaches Association of America, is the former editor of BigAppleSoccer.com. He has written seven books about the beautiful game and has published ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers. It is available at Amazon.com.