December 4, 2016
Toronto, Ontario, what a wonderful town!
By Michael Lewis
Mac Kandji is congratulated by his Colorado Rapids teammates after he helped score the goal that lifted them to the MLS Cup in 2010.
Keith Furman/First Row Photos
This week I'm heading to Toronto, Ontario, Canada for the 21st MLS Cup at BMO Field next Sunday.
If you have never been there, Toronto is a fabulous city, part North America, a little European thrown in and all Canada. It is the most populous Canadian city (an estimated 2.6 million people).
I've visited the city more times than I can remember, mostly as a sportswriter for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and on vacation (sometimes a bus man's holiday) on a couple of occasions.
The following are my most memorable dozen soccer moments in Toronto (in chronological order), with the hope of adding Saturday night's confrontation between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders as a baker's dozen on the list:
The stolen goal (Aug. 18, 1976)
With a second -- that's right -- a second remaining in the North American Soccer League playoff match, the Toronto Metros-Croatia (their history is worth a book or two, honest -- just by the name) managed to score the lone goal of the match against the Rochester Lancers (in those days the NASL did time by the second, not by the minute as in MLS and the rest of the world). Gene Strenicer, a bulldog of a defensive midfielder not necessarily known for his scoring exploits, scored the controversial goal at Varsity Stadium. It earned him the nickname of "89:59 Strenicer" with many Rochester supporters.
The miracle of Varsity Stadium (Aug. 16 1977)
Let's see. You're playing our archrival at a stadium where you don't normally win, let alone draw. You get not one, but two players red-carded in the opening half and your coach just got a yellow card for serious dissent just before halftime and he's egging on the referee to give him a red. It happened between the Lancers and the Metros-Croatia. Having survived a wild shootout win in the opening game of the playoff series, the Lancers had forward Jorge Costa and defender Nick Mijatovic ejected, forcing the club to play a good portion of the match a man down. Somehow, the Lancers held on and managed a late goal by Ibrahim Silva to secure a 1-0 victory. Perhaps Lancers striker Mike Stojanovic summed it up best. "This is one team that ha big hearts like an elephant," he said. "We had nine men left but we played like 12. Sometimes I thought we were playing 12 mean -- their men and the referee." I'll never forget the headline on my story atop the sports section in the next day's edition of the D&C: "Hi-Ho Silva! Lancers ride again." The main story in virtually every major American newspaper the next day? Elvis is dead.
Slap Shot! meets soccer (July 18, 1979)
In another rough and tumble affair that sometimes reminded spectators of pro wrestling rather than the beautiful game, Peter Lorimer booted a free kick into the rear end of Silva, who was standing too close to the play. "Now, that is soccer!" Lancers radio announcer Wayne Fuller sarcastically bellowed into his microphone, not unlike what the Charleston Chiefs announcer said about hockey during a fight scene in that legendary movie, Slap Shot! Yours truly doesn't remember much more of the game except that the Blizzard prevailed in a shootout.
The final nail in the coffin (Aug. 12 1979)
On a Friday night, the Lancers failed to secure a three-goal victory over the New England Tea Men in their final regular-season game (the NASL awarded six points for a victory and a point for every goal up until three). They won, 2-0. Two days later, the Toronto Blizzard hosted the Philadelphia Fury in a game in which the Blizzard needed to win and score at least three goals. The Fury needed three goals (and points) to qualify. Lancers coach Don Popovic and trainer Joe Sirianni drove up to Toronto to watch the game. Yours truly went up as well. "If its a high-scoring game, then the game is fixed," Siranni said before hand. Hmmm. Guess what happened? The final score was a convenient 4-3 in favor of Toronto. Both teams booked a spot in the post-season and Lancers were looking in from the outside for the second consecutive year. A few days later, a story broke in the New York Post, quoting then Lancers goalkeeper Shep Messing, about a possible goal-exchange scheme between Rochester and New England. Stojanovic said that he was offered a deal with by the New England keeper. But nothing came out of an investigation by the league. But that's another story for another time.
Meet Prof. Smigley (May 8, 1980)
Took a road trip with Vinny Dinolfo, the nephew of part-owner Pat Dinolfo, and Fuller, among others. They were scouting the Cosmos, who were playing the Lancers soon, for then coach Ray Klivecka. For the first half, they drew a line to signify every movement by the Cosmos. The paper had several dozen lines on the left wing. So where did the Cosmos score from? The right side? Interesting. Afterwards, we decided to go out to dinner at a nearby restaurant, Old Vic's, if memory serves me correctly. There was one problem -- you needed to wear a tie and jacket. I was the only one who didn't have one. I went into my car and found a sporty-type jacket owned by my then wife. When I put it on, we realized it was way too small. I looked so ridiculous, Vinny called me "Prof. Smigley." Call me anything you want, but don't call me late for dinner. It got me into the restaurant.
Cosmos get stung (Sept. 26, 1981)
Talk about omens. While sitting on the bench during practice at CNE Stadium, a couple of bees swirled in front of Cosmos forward Giorgio Chinaglia. Little did he realize that a few days later, Chinaglia and teammates were beaten by a swarm of opposing players. The Chicago Sting surprised the favored Cosmos, winning a shootout after playing to a scoreless tie in regulation and overtime (which what it was called in those days).
Hurrah for the green, white and red (July 8, 1982)
Some 25 years ago I moved to Brockport, a nice little college town to the west of Rochester. Unfortunately, I went from having cable TV to using a rotary antenna on the roof of my house to take in six or seven local channels. So, trying to watch the 1982 World Cup turned into an adventure. I would position the rotary antenna toward Hamilton, Ontario across Lake Ontario and we got the first game live from Spain at 11 a.m.. For the 4 p.m. kickoff, there sometimes was too much static to truly enjoy the match. Undaunted, we decided to take a week's vacation in Toronto so we could see some of the games there on TV. At a friend's house, we watched an unforgettable semifinal doubleheader in which Germany rallied from that famous two-goal deficit in extratime vs. France and Paolo Rossi continuing his amazing comeback with two more goals in a 2-0 win over Poland. Afterwards, we drove back to our hotel in downtown Toronto amid a gigantic traffic jam as seemingly every Italian in the city was out celebrating with the green, white and red Italian flag. By the time the night was over I counted almost 400 flags. My everlasting fascination with the World Cup forever was cemented on that day.
Valentine's day in June (June 5, 1983)
After the Lancers went to that great soccer field in the sky, I needed to get my fill of live NASL soccer. So occasionally I would venture to Toronto to watch the Blizzard (that's what they were called after the Metros-Croatia) take on whomever. One early June weekend game had the Blizzard hosting the Vancouver Whitecaps. The spectators were barely in their seats on the opening kickoff when an incredible sight occurred on the field at CNE Stadium. Toronto took the opening kickoff and started passing the ball from the forward to the midfield, probably with the defense in mind. But before another pass could be completing the ever-hustling Carl Valentine intercepted and forced the hosts to score an own goal -- something like 30 seconds into the match. Vancouver needed every goal, since it edged Toronto, 3-2.
A sea of red (July 25, 1987)
The last time they held a male FIFA competition in Canada, Varsity Stadium (you could walk to the stadium from your hotel) was the final venue. It has been knocked down since then. And even though it was used for football, it had the contours of a soccer-specific stadium, a 20,000-seat bowl. The Soviet Union outlasted Nigeria, 4-2, in a penalty-kick tie-breaker after playing to a 1-1 tie in regulation and extratime. Some observers felt the Africans deserved the title because they outplayed the Soviets. But it was an entertaining game, regardless. Even before the game, you could tell the teams' styles differed. As officials marched the sides onto the field, the disciplined Soviets walked in unison while the Nigerians bounced around, running in place and waving to the crowd. Even a lapse by the usually disciplined Soviets almost gave Nigeria the game. Six minutes into the first extratime, the Nigerians enjoyed a 2-on-1 break while the Soviets were enjoying a water break. A sea of red shirts raced from the sideline toward Anthony Emoedofu, whose shot was tipped over the net by goalkeeper Yuri Okroshioze.
Hugo's last hurrah (May 9, 1993)
Sometimes irony can just be so sweet. Just ask the Mexican National Team. The Mexicans, who were the first country to e denied a spot at Italia '90, became the first to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Superstar Hugo Sanchez made sure of that, scoring the first goal and setting up the game-winner by Francisco Cruz win the 85th minute at Varsity Stadium. USA '94 was Sanchez's third and final World Cup. "For 1982, we were eliminated in Honduras because everything was against Mexico," Sanchez said. "In 1990, we didn't go because we used an overage player in the Under-20 tournament. I could have been in five." He added: "I hope to finish my professional career at the World Cup in 1994. It is 90 percent probably that I will say goodbye to soccer. . . . If I feel physically and mentally good, I will play one more year." Actually, it was three more years. Sanchez wound up playing once in the 1994 World Cup and in the 1996 MLS inaugural season with the Dallas Burn and then for Atletico Celaya in Mexico.
An exhausting elimination (July 14, 2007)
One by one the U.S. players fell to the ground, exhausted, disappointed and stunned they had just been eliminated from the FIFA Under-20 World Cup. But then again they had no one to blame but themselves. Entering the match as favorites, the Americans allowed the match to get away from them, especially in the second half. They lost the lead and relied on goalkeeper Chris Seitz on too many occasions to keep them in the game in what turned into a 2-1 loss at the National Soccer Stadium. "Out of the first round, all games become really tight," U.S. coach Thomas Rongen said. "They were well organized and their set piece were very dangerous. We knew that there weren't going to be too many chances. We didn't take our chances, and they took theirs. It was a battle, like we expected and they took the few chances they made. We fell short of our goal here in Canada, and we are bitterly disappointed about that."
Former Red Bulls striker Jozy Altidore, now a member of Toronto FC, and one-time teen prodigy Freddy Adu were members of that team. "It's difficult," Adu said. "I don't know what it is. Things didn't go our way today. But that's soccer for you. Sometimes the bounces go your way and sometimes they don't. It's about inches and bounces and they didn't go our way today."
Mac the Knife cuts and goes under the knife (Nov. 21, 2010)
For Mac Kandji, an injury never felt so good. As as the former Red Bulls forward fired a shot that would turn into the game-winning goal in the Colorado Rapids' 2-1 extra-time win over FC Dallas in the MLS Cup, defender Ugo Ihemelu fell on him. The shot he took from the right side of the penalty area and ricocheted off the upper left leg of defender George John and into the goal in the 107th minute. "To be honest with you, it is the best kind of injury I ever had in my life," Kandji said. "Right now I am trying to enjoy that trophy over there, these guys over here. This injury, we'll see in a couple of days how it feels."
Instead of participating in a champagne-laced celebration with his teammates, Kandji was in the trainers' room talking to reporters. Someone carried Kandji into the locker room after what later was diagnosed as a torn left ACL. Still, the 6-4, 175-lb. Kandji was all smiles. "The right time. I was there," he said. "The type of player I am I try to take people on one-on-one. This time it worked for me. So I thank God for it, man. MLS Cup champs. It is always my dream to make big plays. Maybe that's why I try to dribble [around] people. Even in my head before the game I was thinking, 'If I can get the ball or something like that, chest the ball or [bicycle] it, I would take that goal any day. It was a dream when I came through today." Asked if it mattered that the goal was an own goal and not credited to the Senegal native, Kandji replied, "I don't really care. As long as it went into the back of the net, I don't care."