Edner Breton played in three of the longest pro soccer games ever. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)
By Michael Lewis
You want to know why there are no endless overtime or extra time periods in pro soccer?
There’s a good reason. Just ask Edner Breton. He has become sort of an expert that subject.
In fact, Soccer’s Marathon Man has participated in not one, not two, but three games that have totaled more than 145 minutes apiece a generation ago.
Thursday is the 51st anniversary of the longest professional soccer game in American history. That’s when the Rochester Lancers battled the Dallas Tornado in an incredible 176-minute marathon in the North American Soccer League playoffs.
Some four years later, Breton had that deja vu feeling as a member of the New York Apollo, which tussled with the Boston Astros for 157 minutes and 30 seconds in the American Soccer League championship match.
“That’s one for the archives, for sure,” Breton told this writer years ago. “Actually, two for the archives.”
“Those games kept following me around,” added Breton, now 74, who lives in West Palm Beach, Fla. and coached at the Wellington Soccer Club for 20 years. “It was unbelievable.”
Let’s back track to Sept. 1, 1971, when the Lancers and Tornado started a semifinal playoff game at 8 p.m. at what was once Holleder Stadium in Rochester, N.Y. By the time Rochester’s Carlos Metidieri scored the winning goal in the 176th minute at 11:59 p.m. — it was four minutes shy of two full soccer games.
“Now that I’m talking about it I can feel the fatigue setting in,” Breton said. “Two soccer games in a row, non-stop. It was unbelievable.”
In those days, there were no such things as penalty kick tie-breakers and shootouts to decide matches. Teams would play until they scored.
Or in this case, until they dropped.
Until he mercifully scored, Metidieri said he never had been thanked by an opponent for scoring a winning goal.
A Lancers’ teammate likened it to being in the desert without water for weeks.
For the record, Breton did not start the game. For the opening 95 minutes of the match, he sat and simmered on the bench.
When Breton came on to replace Eli Durante in the 95th minute, he figured the game would be over soon.
Even though he had two of the freshest legs on the field, Breton said that, he too, soon would feel the battle fatigue.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been that tired and that exhausted,” said Breton, who essentially played “only” one game that night. “It was the mental duress of the game, the drama.”
Each overtime – that’s what it was called back in the day – lasted 15 minutes. No one dared to imagine there would be six 15-minute exttra periods. Some players changed shoes. Others had cramps.
Around 10 p.m. the first extra period kicked off. And the two sides played on and on and on.
Without any goals, the players became wearier and the threat of injury – pulled and cramped muscles – became greater.
“There came a time it didn’t matter any more,” Breton said. “Everyone was praying that something would happen, that someone would end our misery.”
Dallas defender Gabbo Gavric’s thigh cramped up in the 165th minute. Since both teams had used their allotted substitutions, Gavric stayed around the center circle the rest of the game, kicking the ball whenever it was close to him.
“It was so pathetic,” Breton said. “Every time the ball got near him, he touched the ball. You would hear an ovation from the fans.”
And on the game went.
“Every 15 minutes we switched sides,” Breton said. “After the third overtime, we began to wonder. You go through stages that you were so exhausted that you were hoping it would be over. But when the whistle blew for the next 15, you wanted to win it.”
It was so bad that Metidieri had to use two pairs of shoes.
“It kind of wore out,” he said. “Aquinas Stadium in those days … the field wasn’t in such a great shape. I had Brazilian boots with plastic cleats on. I finally gave up. I got one of those shoes, rubber ones. I put it on. I think it helped. I got the goal after that.”
Most of the crowd stayed for the marathon.
“It was like history was being made and they wanted to be part of it,” Breton said. “That kept us going.”
Rochester head coach Sal DeRosa and his Dallas counterpart Ron Newman — yes, the same Ron Newman who once guided the Kansas City Wizards — pleaded with NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam several times, asking him to stop the game or have it decided by penalty kicks or even the number of corner kicks already taken. After the fifth extra period, Woosnam said that he would wait and see.
He never had to make a decision.
Metidieri, nicknamed El Topolino (Italian for “Little Mouse”) because of his shifty moves, had something left in his 5-4 frame. He made two fakes, slotting the ball into the right corner of the net.
“I got the ball from the right side,” he said. “Ken Cooper [goalkeeper] went down and missed. I was coming from the left side and I just hit it right and it went into the net. I looked around and saw our players falling down.”
Cooper said “the ball went across the six-yard box. Carlos Metidieri came in and he hit it low down to my left. I want to say I got my hand on it. I want to say it hit the bottom of the post and spun just over. I thought I got enough of a touch. just inside the net. My first reaction was ‘Oh no, no – it can’t happen, because it’s going to go on for ever and ever.’”
Aquinas turned into sheer bedlam. Lancers players who hadn’t collapsed ran toward Metidieri and piled on top of him.
“We didn’t have enough strength to run and have a big goal celebration,” Breton said. “He fell down when he scored. If the ball did not go in, he didn’t think he had the strength to get off the ground. It was his dying effort.
“Usually after Carlos scored a goal, he went crazy. Remember, he’s a Brazilian.
“We didn’t have enough strength to run and grab Carlos. I remember falling on him. It was ecstasy for winning a historic game like this and it was relief for ending.”
An interesting footnote to the game: Rochester thought it would blow past Dallas, but the opposite happened. The Tornado won the best-of-three series, capturing the final game, a 145-minute affair. The Tornado went on to capture the NASL title.
“I remember those guys from Dallas,” Breton said. “They were totally dejected. They wanted to continue because they lost. . . . We developed a camaraderie and a respect for each team.”
As well as Breton remembered the NASL marathon, he admitted he had trouble recalling the 1975 match. In fact, it was quite difficult uncovering any solid information about the game, which ended in a draw with two champions declared.
The 1976 ASL media guide did not say a word about the game — no date — only a listing that there were dual champions.
Perhaps the ASL leadership was embarrassed about the way the championship match ended.
The game was destined to be tied. The Apollo and Astros played three regular-season games that ended in draws (Breton, incidentally, scored three goals in those contests). That came out to 427 minutes and 30 seconds of soccer tied at 10-10.
It was to be decided once and for all at Memorial Stadium in Mount Vernon, N.Y. in front of about 1,000 spectators, including ASL commissioner Bob Cousy, he of Boston Celtic fame.
Breton admitted that he did not remember much about the contest, which included 90 minutes of regulation and nine 7 1/2-minute extra periods.
The game was stopped after 157 minutes, 30 seconds.
“There was a problem with the renting of the place,” Breton said. “We could only get the place from such a time to such a time. At midnight, both lights had to go out and Cousy declared both teams champions”
According to the 1976 edition of The Complete Handbook of Soccer, the game could not be rescheduled because many of Apollo’s contracts had expired that night.”
Like the game in Rochester four years prior, there was no way to determine the winner after 90 minutes except for a goal. Jose Neto had given Boston a 1-0 lead in the 15th minute with Dave Power equalizing in the 35th minute.
The game was stopped at 12.30am, one hour after the city curfew.
Cousy made a controversial ruling, telling reporters: “You don’t have to be a soccer expert to see that both teams deserve a share of that title. I don’t care what the precedent is for something like this.”
Breton said: “It was a disappointment for everybody. It was a bittersweet tie.”
A replay could be not scheduled because many of the Apollo players contracts had expired that night.
“I don’t know if this ever happened before,” Breton said.
Given the laws of the game in the 21st century, those soccer marathons, mercifully, will never happen again.