Don Lalka was the Lancers’ first star player. (Photo courtesy of the Rochester Lancers)
By Michael Lewis
Don Lalka, a member of the original Rochester Lancers, the first star of the team that received national attention, passed away on Christmas Night.
He was 78.
Lalka, a defender during his playing days, died from complications from a stroke, his daughter Larissa said.
Born as Bohdan Lalka in Rohatyn, Ukraine on July 3, 1944, Lalka emigrated to the U.S. with his parents at a very young age. Rohatyn is a suburb of Lviv, the second largest city in the western part of the Ukraine. When Lalka was one-year-old, his family was forced to escape the city because it was about to be reclaimed by the communists in 1945. His father was an anti-communist, and an active member of the underground movement.
“The communists were coming back, and my father knew it would be Siberia for us if we stayed,” Lalka was quoted by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
Lalka was in the Starting XI of the Lancers’ very first game, a friendly against Concordia of West Germany at Aquinas Stadium on May 30, 1967. Concordia won, 4-2, against a team that was combined side of local players and others who brought in to play.
“That first game was a lot of fun,” said Lalka was quoted in the book, ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers. “But it was hard to communicate with a fellow you’ve never seen before.”
He attended Franklin High School and played basketball and ran track alongside Rochester legend Trent Jackson.
“Sports here have opened up everything for me,” Lalka was quoted by the D&C. “I got caught in the wrong sport and didn’t get rich, but the traveling … it opened things up. … At Franklin, there were blacks and Jewish and Italians and Ukrainians. Through sports, we learned to get along. If you scored 20 points [in a basketball game] on a Friday night, nobody cared where you came from.”
The 6-1, 175-lb. Lalka became adept at soccer, competing in ethnic and semi-pro leagues at 16. He started playing with the local Ukrainian-American team, earning club MVP honors in 1964, before signing with the Italian American Sport Club as it bulked up for a run at the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
“I was ostracized in the [Rochester] Ukrainian community,” he said in the Lancers book. “Nobody talked to me in the Ukrainian community when I made that change. I’m not playing against the Ukrainians. It would have made it rougher if I played against the Ukrainian team.”
Lalka shined on the field and in 1968, doors were starting to open for Lalka, who had opened eyes with his performances. However, the communication process from the U.S. Soccer Football Association at the time could be considered sketchy, at best and ridiculous at worst.
While reading a newspaper at breakfast one morning in June, Lalka noticed he was chosen to try out for the U.S. national team team in St. Louis, in preparation for its qualifying run for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. With his mother’s vacation pay, he journeyed to St. Louis. At the camp, no one had his name, or a place for him to stay before he explained things to an official. One of 45 players, Lalka performed with the “Orange” team the next day. The session was organized by Atlanta Chiefs head coach Phil Woosnam, who also wore the hat of U.S. national coach.
Lalka played well and scored a goal, while demonstrating his leadership qualities and some courage. “Fullbacks don’t score goals,” he told the D&C. “But I did. There was a penalty kick in our advantage and everyone just stood there without any notion of who was going to take the shot. So I ran across the field, raised my hand, and said, ‘I’ll take it.’ ”
When the original list of 30 players was released on July 14, Lalka’s name was not on it. He took the news hard. “Next time I’ll have to try much harder,” he said. Because the Lancers were in preseason and were not a fulltime side, Lalka took some time for himself on a short vacation to Cape Cod for a few days.
On July 23, a letter from the USSFA that was addressed to Lalka was opened by his parents, who were surprised by this message:
“Congratulations! You have been selected as one of a squad of approximately 30 some players for the World Cup team. Eventually the World Cup will be reduced to the allowed number of 22 players, and we trust you will be one of the final selectees.”
The USMNT selections included several future members of the National Soccer Hall of Fame – defenders Bob Gansler, Werner Roth and Adolph Bachmeier, midfielder Pat McBride, and forward Willy Roy.
In 1969, Lalka joined the Syracuse Scorpions, who turned into the Lancers’ main rivals and captured the division title in a special playoff match against Rochester.
After retiring from professional soccer, Lalka coached the Eastridge High School boys soccer team, and the St. John Fisher College men in the seventies and eighties.
He also ran a Rochester soccer bar, the Goal Kick Lounge, not far from Silver Stadium, the original home of the baseball Rochester Red Wings.
Lalka also was the first coach and general manager of the Rochester Flash in the American Soccer League (1981-82), and was the Rochester Rhinos radio color analyst during their early days in the United Soccer League.
He also is a member of the Lancers Wall of Fame.
Funeral details were not immediately known.
Here is a story about how Lalka came to the USA:
To find out more about Don Lalka and his Rochester Lancers: