The Day The King Died … in 1977
By Michael Lewis
It is quite easy for me to remember the anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley — Aug. 16, 1977.
If you were around then, do you know where you were when you heard The King had died?
I certainly know where I was.
I was in a car going to Varsity Stadium in Toronto along with Rochester Lancers public relations director Jerry Epstein and Rochester Times-Union writer Gary Jacobsen, riding from a restaurant called the Spaghetti Factory for that night’s North American Soccer League playoff game between the Lancers and the Toronto Metros-Croatia.
I was a young sportswriter for the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle at the time, starting to understand this game called soccer.
Let me set the scene.
This little sci-fi movie called “Star Wars” had come out that summer. Disco, for better or worse (probably the latter), was still raging. The Yankees were getting as hot as the Bronx, which was burning. Son of Sam was making the wrong kind of headlines. And Jimmy Carter was president.
The Lancers were a rather ordinary team that season under Coach Don Popovic, barely getting into the playoffs with an 11-15 record, good for third place in the Northern Division of the Atlantic Conference and a postseason 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 classics such as “Dragan Breathes Fire After Loss” or “Dragan Slays Critics After a Comeback Victory.”
The ’77 team had plenty of its own problems. It’s leading goal-scorer, the enigmatic Mike Stojanovic, had received a diagnosis of 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 he arrived in time for the first playoff game in St. Louis.
The Lancers, who couldn’t buy a 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 NASL champion 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 and it was two of the most memorable matches I can recall, even after all these years of watching Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Diego Maradona, Juan Pablo Ángel and Thierry Henry play.
The first game ended in a scoreless tie after extra time. Stojanovic missed not one, but two penalty kicks in regulation. The Lancers played with 10 men for a good deal of the match, 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 shootout goals, including the game-winner, had shot out of order. In the lead of my story, I called it the “soccer games to end all soccer games.”
Hyperbole? Perhaps, because little did I 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 six or 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 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 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 Lancers’ next opponent was the Mount Everest of American soccer, the New York Cosmos, with Pelé 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 a record crowd of 20,005 at Holleder Stadium before really crashing back to earth in the rain in a jam-packed crowd of about 77,000K at Giants Stadium in a 4-1 trouncing.
While the Cosmos series was incredible, in terms of drama and international tension, the Toronto series stood out even more.
Just how do I remember it? It was the day The King died.
Michael Lewis covered the Rochester Lancers from 1975-80, and the original NASL until its demise in 1985. He is the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com and covers soccer for Newsday. He can be reached at SocWriter@aol.com.