Rough Riders win 'Hail Mary' finish

A late winner from Giovanni Savarese gave the Long Island Rough Riders the USISL Pro League title.

The Sizzlin' Nine lived up to its name on Labor Day weekend as the Long Island Rough Riders squeaked out a 2-1 win over Minnesota with only six seconds left to take the USISL's Pro League title.

Venezuelan Giovanni Savarese pounced on a goalmouth cross from Chris Armas and left-footed the ball into an open net for the Rough Riders' first championship.

"It was the Hail Mary of soccer," said Long Island keeper Tony Meola.

After Danny Mueller headed a Meola clearance to Savarese, his cross from the left corner of the box pulled Thunder goalkeeper John Swallen out of position as the ball rolled toward the end line. But Armas, who scored the game's first goal, chased it down and sent Swallen sprawling on the pass back to Savarese for the easy kill.

"I faked out the goalie and he went for it," exclaimed the smiling Armas soaked in champagne.

Savarese, who played college soccer at Long Island University, had 23 goals and 11 assists in leading the Rough Riders to a 19-1 regular-season record. The Italian-born Venezuelan capped his sensational season with eight goals (including two hat tricks) in the four playoff games the past week.

"It's been his year, his season," Long Island coach Alfonso Mondelo said of the Pro League's MVP. "It's very befitting that he got the clinching goal with only seconds left in the game."

Savarese was marked closely by at least two defenders. Chato, the Thunder's Costa Rican defender, shadowed him the entire game. The goal was the only real opportunity he had all day.

"The Thunder was very organized in the back," he explained. "But I wasn't getting frustrated."

Thunder coach Buzz Lagos, father of stars Manny and Gerard Lagos, saw his team go down in the final for the second straight year. Minnesota lost in last year's finals to the Greensboro Dynamo in a shootout.

"We played them tough and very tight," Lagos said, "and I thought we were going to take them the second half."

The first half had been a dour affair. The tentative Rough Riders simply couldn't break down the heavily fortified Thunder defense.

"Both teams were testing each other," said Mondelo. "In the last two or three minutes we did what we couldn't do the whole game."

"Hell, they had five guys back there that never crossed midfield," said Meola. "It took a long time, but we broke through."

Long Island utilized the final seconds of both halves, with Armas getting the first goal from a deflection off a Thunder defender just 44 ticks before the intermission.

It didn't take long for Minnesota to get one back, though. Amos Magee equalized at the 3:20 mark of the second half on a shot from the top of the box that beat Meola to the near post.

At 1-1, the two teams again turned conservative. Minnesota relied on Tony Sanneh as its lone threat up front. John Menk was able to get off a couple of threatening shots in the first half, but that ceased when he was moved to sweeper to make room for Manuel Lagos after the break.

But Minnesota grew tired, and Long Island got more breaks. Swallen raced out of the box to force a Savarese shot wide right after he broke away on a Meola goal kick 10 minutes from time. Three minutes later, Swallen saved a Savarese header from seven yards out, and then a Jim Rooney blast from 23 yards skimmed just wide left.

Long Island came closest when Savarese, standing in front of the goal, whiffed on a corner, but the ball went to Armas, who hit the crossbar with only 48 seconds left.

"It was a long season with a perfect ending," said Armas. "No question we're the No. 1 team in the USA."

Thunder rallies to down Boyz

Even with the exciting ending, the game fizzled compared to the thrilling semifinals two nights earlier.

The shoe was on the other foot for Minnesota after a Manuel Lagos goal tied the game against Myrtle Beach with just 28 seconds to play. Defender Don Gramenz emerged as unlikely hero to knock home the gamewinner just 2:30 into overtime and give the Thunder an emotional 3-2 victory over the Boyz.

"After we scored so late in the game," said Buzz Lagos, "we had the confidence going into overtime."

The Thunder came straight at the Boyz. Magee, who figured in all three goals, went racing up the left touchline, then dribbled toward the midfield before sending the ball back down the touchline for the overlapping Gramenz.

"I touched the ball, and then looked to the middle toward Tony [Sanneh] and Manuel," said Gramenz. "I wanted to pass the ball, but nobody came out to get me. Pretty soon, it was just me and the keeper."

Bearing down on Boyz keeper Warren Russ, Gramenz let fly with a stinging left-footer that found the back of the net from nine yards out.

"Even though we were down late, we knew we could do it," said Magee. "We've come back before, and even though we didn't play our best game, I felt we could still find a way to win."

As the clock ticked toward zero in regulation, it appeared that the Thunder would not find a way to reach the championship. Two goals by John Garvey had rallied the upstart Boyz, the unlikely winners of the Atlantic Division, to a 2-1 lead.

But the Thunder kept pressing and in a flurry of activity in the closing minute, Magee came free with the ball near the top of the box. He chipped ahead to Manuel Lagos, who knocked the ball home. Lagos, nursing a nerve problem in his legs, played only half of both games.

It had been a long week for the Thunder. It overcame a 1-0 deficit against the host New York Fever to win its final group game in a shootout and advance to the semifinals. Sanneh, Gramenz, Manny Lagos and Matt Holmes, scored for the Thunder, while only Jim McEldery and former U.S. national team players Peter Vermes and John DeBrito converted for the Westchester team.

The Rough Riders had a relatively easy route to the finals, beating the Tampa Bay Cyclones 5-2 in the other semifinal. Cyclone coach Jose Grueso inexplicably left only one marker on `Air' Savarese, who scored a hat trick off headers at the 11:04, 21:16 and 24:10 marks.

Rough Rider captain Paul Riley set up the first, and Mike Masters got the assists on the other two Savarese goals.

by Soccer America correspondent Jerry Hawkins

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