By Michael Lewis
If Rochester New York FC’s win in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup over FC Motown had a familiar ring do it, well it.
It wasn’t the first time a Rochester professional soccer team survived a knockout competition after having two players red carded. They did so against the Toronto Metros-Croatia in the 1977 North American Soccer League playoffs.
On Wednesday night, RNYFC survived a wild, third-round encounter with Motown, winning in a shootout after playing to a 2-2 draw after 120 minutes.
Rochester will play at New York City FC in the fourth round on May 11.
Here is what transpired between Rochester and Toronto some 45 years ago:
The Rochester Lancers were a rather ordinary team in 1977 under head coach Don 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 Mike 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 champions 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, who wound up using an illegal player for part of the match, also played with 10 men for a good deal of the way but managed to outshoot Toronto by a wide margin. They prevailed in the dreaded shootout, although Toronto protested to the league that Ibraim Silva, who converted two winning shootout goals, had shot out of order. In the lede of his D&C game story, this writer called it the “soccer games to end all soccer games.” That lede 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.
Want to find out more about the Lancers’ incredible rivalry with the Toronto Metros-Croatia? You can in Michael Lewis’ book, ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers.
You can purchase it here: