The Rochester Lancers: 'the antithesis of the New York Cosmos' -- book review and author Q&A

Alive and Kicking: The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers by Michael Lewis  (Independently published)

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U.S. soccer was not born in the 1970s, but it's certainly the time when the sport came of age. At the start of that decade, the North American Soccer League was still taking baby steps in its struggle to establish the continent's first coast-to-coast professional soccer setup. By 1980, a lot of people were taking heed of NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam's bold claim that soccer was the sport of the future. And while the ambitious, innovative, over-reaching, self-combusting NASL itself turned out to be a premature dawn, its reach and its roots had a major and significant influence on soccer that has endured now for half a century.

Looking back, it's something of a minor miracle that soccer established itself — even if only for a brief time — in so many North American cities. You can take even the shortest-lived franchises, such as the single-season Team Hawaii or Las Vegas Quicksilver (both from 1977), and wonder how they came into existence at all. That there were owners willing to gamble their money, and players and coaches who were prepared to up and relocate to untried markets in the middle of the ocean or the desert. And that each one of these teams produced its own set of stories, featuring the kind of characters you might better expect to find in a fictitious reenactment of the whole improbable charade.

Or you can take a city like Rochester, whose scrappy team, the Lancers, spanned that entire decade. They won nothing besides a fistful of playoff games after lifting the 1970 NASL title during their first year in the league, when it was just a six-team setup. In 1977, they made it to the Atlantic Conference finals, where they lost two games to the Cosmos. In his new book on the history of the Lancers, veteran journalist Michael Lewis optimistically describes this period as 'Lancermania.' The home playoff game against a Cosmos team boasting Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia was the only time the Lancers sold out the city's derided, shabby, mud-rutted, 20,000-seater Holleder Stadium. They lost 2-1, and then were soundly beaten 4-1 in the away leg three days later in New Jersey.

All that's besides the point, though. The Lancers somehow existed. Evolving out of the Italian-American Sports Club in the 1960s to play in the American Soccer League, the Lancers joined the NASL in 1970. Crowds of around 5,000 to watch its scratched-together squad were nowhere close to helping its owners break even. Every offseason, there was talk of the franchise moving somewhere else. Coaches came and went faster than you could clock their names, while players were perpetually unhappy with the field, the arduous travel, the wages, and their teammates. The Lancers were a microcosm of all the financial, ownership, staffing, stadium and legitimacy problems that plagued the NASL throughout its history. "It seemed every game meandered from crisis to crisis," Lewis writes of the 1973 season, but you could apply that sentence to the entire decade.

In 1976, the team found stability of sorts when it appointed the Serbian Dragan Popovic as head coach. An ugly rivalry with the at one point Croat-affiliated Toronto Metros had already developed, leading to several unseemly scenes at the end of games that generally involved rioting fans, the hounding of game officials and the denunciation of the other side's foul tactics and devious means. And it's Popovic who makes this book sing, turning it into a long-running sitcom where his postgame tantrums become the signature punchline we're expecting every week at the same time, but want to hear anyway. He's the central character in a weird, chaotic, dysfunctional family that could yet spawn its own HBO series based around wild hope, fake promises, inglorious failure, futile combat, wounded honor and Yugoslav goalkeepers who miscommunicate with their compatriot defenders and concede a goal because neither understand the meaning of the word 'OK.' Lose 1-0 to Tampa, Tulsa or Toronto, followed by another long and miserable journey home.

This is an exhaustive, game-by-game account of the Lancers' unlikely life and eventual decline, but there are enough absurd characters and bizarre stories here to usher you through the excess of detail. It's the textbook to hold up when someone asks, "Just what was it like to run a struggling pro sports franchise in the 1970s?" It was hard-scrabble survival, from first day to last, but with plenty of tales to tell of a typical team in that era. We played, we fought, we lost, we squabbled, and then the next week we came back and tried all over again. Who says the best stories are about the teams that win? Lewis's Lancers are not even lovable losers. Pretty much, they're just losers. What's fascinating is how they lived and survived to lose at all.

Q&A with Michael Lewis, author of Alive & Kicking

SOCCER AMERICA. The NASL, and indeed U.S. soccer history, is littered with strange teams in unlikely places with weird back-stories. What made you think that the Lancers in particular were worthy of their own book?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I thought they had a unique story to tell, giving all their adventures on and off the field. In many ways, they were the antithesis of the New York Cosmos. They were not corporate owned. No one player ever got rich playing for the team and the owners lost money trying to keep the team alive. It was a community team. Owners Charlie Schiano and Pat Dinolfo held parties and barbecues for the team at their respective houses. They wanted to put the city of Rochester on the map, not necessarily get rich. There was so much passion on the club.

So many unusual things happened to this team; 21 coaches in 14 seasons, owners coached the team; an owner who sat on the bench during games; a coach who was forced to direct the team from atop the press box; four coaches in a season; home supporters invading the field, attacking their own players; players storming off the field and throwing their jersey at the coach (that happened twice); a player forgetting to renew his Canadian visa to the USA before a key playoff match; border issues for the team. I would like to think I have a vivid imagination, but I could not make this stuff up.

When the NASL dwindled down to four teams after the 1969 campaign, the Lancers saved the league by jumping from the American Soccer League, along with the Washington Darts. If they hadn't, the league would have folded. I wonder if there would have been a Cosmos franchise to lure Pelé out of retirement and start a youth soccer boom that helped the sport grow. Perhaps there would have been another New York team for Pelé.

As the league grew, the Lancers became the underdogs and the little engine that could.

I also think today's soccer fans need to be educated about the past, that it wasn't as glitzy and organized as Major League Soccer. Many fans think USA first division soccer always boasted these soccer-specific stadiums. That wasn't the case back in the day when many clubs played at baseball parks and sub-standard stadiums and looked for ways to survive.

And one other thing. I am a history buff. I have traveled to England and Europe and noticed that many teams have had their histories detailed in books; some of them were defunct teams. I think every first division soccer team in the USA deserves their own written history.

SA: The research for your book must have been exhaustive — I picture you in a basement of the D&C surrounded by dusty back issues. Was it like that, or were you able to access archives online? Or do you have shelves full of yellow-edged cuttings that your wife would like to see taken to the tip now that the book’s been written?

ML: Have you been talking to my wife? She would like me to get rid of several boxes of files, beyond the book's research. Seriously, my research unofficially began when I covered the team. Early in my career, I kept scrapbooks on every story I wrote. So, I had a good starting point. I wanted to learn more about the team. So, before and after my desk shifts, I made copies of old game and feature stories from the team's early days from microfilm at the newspaper library. I did the same thing at the Rochester Public Library. With the advent of, I was able to research other cities' newspapers to help fill in the holes.

I also attended several Lancers reunions and similar events by the team's predecessors, the Italian American Sport Club over the years and spoke to players, coaches, owners, staff, etc. etc. I realized early on that the project wasn't going to be finished overnight and that it would take years to complete.

SA: You’re one of the longest serving soccer reporters in the U.S. and describe how you reluctantly accepted the Lancers beat in order to serve your journalistic apprenticeship and move on to other things. What was it about soccer in the U.S. in the 1970s that made you fall in love with the game and stay with it?

ML: Only months after I was assigned the beat in 1975, Pelé joined the New York Cosmos. That certainly piqued my interest for so many reasons — an opportunity to see whom I consider the greatest player to play the game, even though he was at the tailend of his career. He still could perform some magic and wow the crowds.

It took three years for me to feel comfortable with the game, in that I could have an opinion and stick with it, even if the Lancers coach disagreed with me. Pelé opened the door, and I was privileged to watch some of the greatest players perform, including Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Gordon Banks, George Best and Carlos Alberto. I also was invited to some players’ homes to have dinner with their families, eating food from their respective countries.

Covering the NASL was an education and a half for me, learning about the rest of the world, including the Serbo-Croatian crisis well before it received big headlines here. The Lancers had several Serbians and the Toronto Metros-Croatia was stocked with many Croatians. Their battles were intense and so were the Croatian fans. One of my favorite stories I wrote was how Croatians gathered in a Croatian church basement in Toronto after Sunday services and passed the hat to pay for the salaries of Croatian players.

SA: If push came to shove, who would you name as your all-time favorite Lancers player, and why?

ML: It would have to be Mike Stojanovic. He was Serbian-born, played with intensity, could run like the wind and was strong enough to run through a wall. Even though he smoked like a chimney, he had everything you wanted in a striker, although he had one slight weakness. Stollie's right foot was first class. His left foot was never near that quality. If it was, he probably never would have immigrated to North America and instead would have played for a big European club.

He was, as we say in journalism, a good quote. You never knew what he was going to say after a game. During his first four years with the team, Stojanovic demanded to be traded. In his fifth season (1980), Stollie said he wanted to stay with the club. As it turned out, the club folded several months alter. How ironic. He was the ninth all-time among NASL goalscorers (83 in 179 matches).

At the Lancers' 40th anniversary reunion and celebration of their 1970 title in 2010, Stojanovic, who knew he was dying of stomach cancer, gave me the letter he received from the Canadian Soccer Association that notified him he had been elected to its Hall of Fame. I guess he wanted to give it to someone for safe keeping. I felt quite honored. Several months later, Stojanovic passed away. As it turned out, I was in Toronto with my wife, Joy, for MLS Cup, and we attended a wake for him. It's crazy how life works sometimes.

Unfortunately, I didn't see Carlos Metidieri play in his prime. I've spoken to El Topolino, as he was nicknamed, and to his teammates so many times — I feel like I covered him in his heyday. He had swagger, but also was down to earth. Metidieri is the only player in NASL history to have won back-to-back scoring titles and MVP honors (1970 and 1971). He also was a money player, scoring the winning goal in the longest game in U.S. pro soccer history, a 176-minute marathon with the Dallas Tornado in 1971.

6 comments about "The Rochester Lancers: 'the antithesis of the New York Cosmos' -- book review and author Q&A".
  1. frank schoon, April 5, 2022 at 10:26 a.m.

    Good interview, Ian. Mike, I will definitely buy this book even though I haven't read it, I remember those beginning days in soccer, it was a total sub-culture. I use to hang around with some of the Washington Diplomat players, one of them was a Serb ,another a Canadian, another a Scot and another a Jamaican....We had a ball of course.  I heard stories the Serb about Popovich, for he was always calling him and about Mike Stojanovich who he at one time roomed with...You couldn't get enough 'yuks' listening to these stories while spending our time at Cafe de Paris in Georgetown.....

    Stojanovich was a 'fantastic' player, brilliant!!! All players ending with their name in 'ic' or 'ich'. Remember Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Dzajic...This is the only reason why I lament there is no more  Yugoslavia for that country at the time was called the 'Brazilians' of Europe. We called them 'crazy' Yugos in a positive way for in the way they were 'brilliant' with the ball. I remember I had a conversation with Hennie Cruyff, Johan's brother, saying to me that the Yugoslavian team needs 11 balls to play the game instead of one for each player is such a great 'individualist' but they never a great team, remember the 'Yugo' car....

    This is what I miss about today's American players they lack Individual 'mental' strength gives them the confidence and skill with a ball, which make a great player. Zlatan represented it fully playing here. On the field, he showed no weakness as player, was strong mentally, felt he was the best, fully 100% confident in what he did. This is why you can't have  11 Zlatan's out on the field, it's no team. Our problem in 50years of soccer is that we can't even produce a Zlatan "light"...

    I'm off to order this book.....

  2. RAY HUDSON, April 5, 2022 at 1:31 p.m.

    Good luck with the book Michael,hope we can get you on our SiriusXM radio show to chat about it...playing against Big Mike Stojanovic was like playing against a broken bottle with legs,but a good player for sure. The young Branko Segota was better,even faster & classier with his overall game,in my opinion.However,the first time my Fort Lauderdale Strikers played at Hollender Stadium,(what a dump!) it was like playing on planet Mercury & dustier than Qatar;Stojonovic was like Hanibal Lechter,absolutely torturing us & the thug marking him that day was one of the very nastiest,bloody-pieces of work,I`ve ever known,called Bobby Bell. Our coach Ron Newman blistered the locker-rooms paint (what there was of it) with his verbal assualt on Bobby & told him to "get to work on Stankovic,he`s embarrasing you!!".That was like throwing gasoline on a fire.Soon afetr 2nd half started,a pass was lofted a mile high into the blazing hot June sky with Stojanovic waiting underneath it...closely marked by Bell The Thug!...Bobby took a purposful step bacwards away from the center forward & just as Mike was about to controll it with his chest,"Dinger" Bell,violently & blatently,kicked viciously into Stojonovic`s hamstring area.I still can hear poor Mike`s agonised voice as rolled about in the dust. Bell was sent off,if I remember correctly,and within 24 hours was cut from the Stikers roster & sent home to England,never to be seen again....Stojanvic scored 2 before he was stretchered off. Happy days! 

  3. Douglas Mael replied, September 28, 2022 at 11:45 a.m.

    Rocky Ray,

    That was Stojanovic for you! I rarely missed one of his home matches with Lancers and made a few road trips (mainly Toronto, but a few to North Jersey) when he was with the Lancers.

    PS - listen to you and the lads virtually every morning--electrifying like a hair dryer thrown in a hot tub!

  4. Ian Plenderleith, April 6, 2022 at 6:40 a.m.

    Ray, when are you going to write your own book? I've a feeling that we'd be well entertained...

  5. Johan Aarnio, April 6, 2022 at 12:45 p.m.

    The San Diego pre game team room was coming to order as players filled themselves with Ron Newman's carefully crafted tea & toast ( I had the responsibility to order it with all specific details ). The game was against Willie Roy's Sting.
    Ron starts: "So Mike ( Mike Stoyanovich ) you have 2 speeds, fast and faster, must not get offsides!" Mike's blue eyes pierce at Ron and shouts..."Mike NEVER offsides!" Kazie ( Kaz Deyna ) who delivers balls to him, explodes his tea in laughter...all players look at Mike and laughter, tea everywhere. Mike smiles and joins in. Ron, Kaz Deyna, Mike are gone and memories still there.

  6. Douglas Mael, September 28, 2022 at 11:39 a.m.

    Ian, did Rocky Ray ever get you on The Football Show on SiriusXM FC157?

    Also, was that the same Charlie Schiano who now appears frequently as co-host of said Football Show mornings on SiriusXM FC157?

    Doug Mael,
    Lancers fan who rarely missed a home game

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