Friday, January 31, 2014

The Longest Game in North American Soccer League History

I am going with a shorter piece this time. The subject has been covered before, but I felt it needed another look anyway. Enjoy.

The NASL instituted several inane rules during its existence. From the infamous penalty shoot-out to its elaborate points system, the NASL inherently tweaked the laws of the beautiful game to make it more appealing to Americans. Of all of the alterations to the traditional rules of the game, the NASL’s institution of the golden-goal sudden-death overtime in the 1971 postseason is perhaps one of the most outrageous modifications. The rule inevitably led to the longest game in NASL history.

The 1971 season, the NASL’s fourth, saw the league undergo significant change with the nascent league still experiencing growing pains. The Kansas City Spurs franchise folded after the 1970 campaign while the league expanded into three new cities: Toronto, Montreal, and New York, home of its future flagship franchise the Cosmos. The new clubs brought the league total to eight. With the influx of new teams, the club owners decided to expand the NASL postseason by staging a series of best-of-three game semifinals prior to the best-of-three game final, allowing the two division second place clubs a chance at a title. Amongst these changes, the club owners, spurred on by Rochester Lancers owner Charlie Schiano, reluctantly instituted a golden goal overtime period for the playoffs to avoid ties. This led to some incredibly lengthy playoff games involving, ironically, Schiano’s Lancers.

Courtesy of Rochester Lancers
Rochester, the defending league champions, rolled through the regular season finishing atop the Northern Division with a league leading 141 points. They were paced by the league’s leading scorer, and future U.S. international, the diminutive 5’4” Carlos Meditieri. The Cosmos, a team devoid of star power at the time, ended their inaugural season in second place pitting them in a semi-final series against Southern Division champion Atlanta. Meanwhile, the Dallas Tornado finished one point shy of the South Division crown second to Atlanta, rubber-stamping their place in a semi-final against the league leading Lancers. While Atlanta swept New York in rather humdrum fashion, the Rochester-Dallas semifinal series requires more than a sentence of summary due to Schiano’s idea of sudden-death overtime.

The Lancers achieved the best record throughout the regular season and entered the series as favorites, though Schiano recognized that wins would not come easy during the semi-final showdown. Dallas, owned by soccer and NFL luminary Lamar Hunt, had a very English identity. Ron Newman, former Portsmouth midfielder and future U.S. Hall of Famer, managed the Tornado and instituted a very rough style of English play. Not to mention the club featured former Yugoslavian international Mirko Stojanovic in goal, a player Newman ultimately suspended for the first game for walking out on practice earlier in the week. This forced an injured Kenny Cooper into goal for the series opener. Dallas, a tough matchup throughout the season, sought to stymie the Lancers fluid play in the semifinal series.

Phil Woosnam, credit, Associated Press

With league president Phil Woosnam on hand, the series kicked off at 8 pm on September 1 1971 at Aquinas Memorial Stadium in Rochester, New York in front of just over 8,000 fans. On one of the worst fields in NASL history, the two teams traded goals during regulation. Dallas, physical as ever, slowed down Rochester’s creative offense by consistently playing the ball out of bounds. The Tornado dictated the slow pace of the game and ultimately forced the game into overtime. After two overtime periods and 120 minutes neither team could break the deadlock. Despite the game dragging with no end in sight, most of the fans stayed to witness the rest of the match. Everyone must have felt a sense of history watching as the game crept through several overtime periods.

Inevitably, President Woosnam sought to end the match as it progressed into a fifth overtime period after appeals from several individuals associated with the teams including Tornado owner Lamar Hunt and manager Newman. All the while, Schiano, perhaps a little embarrassed at his golden goal suggestion, insisted that the two teams play the game out, only agreeing to call the game only if the two teams had not scored by midnight, four hours after the game started. Little did anyone know that the game would actually last that long. The players, past exhaustion, searched for ways to carry on throughout the ordeal by drinking coffee and eating oranges. Salvation finally came in the form of a Calros Metidieri goal at 11:59 pm in the 176th minute. Meditieri slotted a low shot past Tornado keeper Kenny Cooper much to the excitement of everyone in attendance, including the Tornado players. The teams were four minutes shy of playing two games in one night. Following the lengthy affair, Metidieri predicted that the Lancers record victory would propel them past a broken Dallas team, which inevitably proved erroneous as the Tornado went on to win the next two games.

Beyond exhausted, the two teams met just three days later in Dallas, with the Tornado taking that game 3-1 as Stojanovic returned in goal.  The Lancers and Tornado travelled back to Rochester just a few days later for the series deciding third game. In a game that mirrored the series opener, the two teams both notched a goal during regulation and predictably entered overtime. Just as in the first game, the two teams battled through several overtime periods until Bobby Moffat scored for the Tornado in the 148th minute coming nowhere close to the record setting first game. The win granted Dallas a 2-1 victory and a spot in the championship series against the Atlanta Chiefs. Dallas, fatigued from their record setting semifinal series, dropped their first game to the Chiefs, only to win the next two games and claimed the 1971 NASL championship.

Dallas Tornado
courtest of
The league owners, upon Schiano’s insistence,  introduced the overtime rule to the NASL in 1971. Far from popular at the time of its institution, the rule did not progress past the 1971 season. The owners dropped the playoff series format and settled on single game elimination for the 1972 season, while also dropping Schino’s overtime idea. Due to the rule changes the first game of the Dallas-Rochester semifinal series in 1971 stands as the longest game in NASL history and probably professional soccer history in America. The significance of the game was not lost on either team following the season and is still talked about among the individuals who were on hand that night. The Dallas Tornado reveling in their grueling semi-final series win following their championship season even had “176” engraved on their championship rings as a reminder of the historic game.


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