On June 30, 1963, the Italian-American Soccer Club of Rochester, NY won the United States National Amateur Cup when they defeated the St. Louis Ambrose for the championship. In 1966, they almost duplicated the feat, but unfortunately lost in the final to the Chicago Kickers. Although the loss, many members of the Italian-American Sport Club felt their team was ready to step-up to the professional ranks and join the American Soccer League (ASL). One prominent club member, Tony Pullano, organized a group led by Pat DiNolfo and Charlie Schiano to purchase an ASL franchise. In 1967, with the franchise bought and named the Rochester Lancers, the team began play in the ASL’s first division with the Baltimore Flyers, Newark Ukranian Sitch, Washington DC Darts, Boston Tigers, and the Philadelphia Ukranian Nationals. The Lancers made it to the playoffs in their first year, but were defeated by Boston and Philadelphia in a round-robin playoff tournament. In 1968 Rochester placed second in the league, while in 1969 the Lancers lost to Syracuse in the playoffs. The following year, both Rochester and Washington DC moved from the ASL to the North American Soccer League (NASL).
The NASL itself came about when in 1966 NBC televised the World Cup final in North America, and the broadcast went over so well that American sports promoters decided to start a division-1 professional soccer league. In 1967, two separate leagues were formed, the United Soccer Association (USA), and the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL). In 1968, the two rival leagues merged to form the NASL. In 1970, the Rochester Lancers played their first season in the NASL and went on to win the championship that same year, defeating Washington DC in a two-game aggregate final. The Lancers, who brought to Rochester opponents the likes of Pele, Beckenbauer, and Cryuff to name a few, played in the NASL until the team folded after the 1980 season.
In 1981, a new group bought another franchise for Rochester in the ASL, calling the team the Rochester Flash. The Flash included former Lancer players and staff, including trainer Joe Sirianni. In 1981 and 1982, Rochester was knocked out of the ASL playoffs by Carolina. The Flash suspended operations for the 1983 season, and in 1984 joined the United Soccer League (USL), a league including former ASL teams. The USL lasted for two seasons, folding in 1985.
After the demise of the Lancers and the Flash, it would be ten years before pro soccer would return to Rochester.
In 1990, local businessman Chris Economides attempted to bring a pro indoor soccer team to Rochester to participate in the indoor National Professional Soccer League (NPSL). But with lacrosse and hockey playing during the same season, not enough quality dates were available at the Rochester War Memorial arena for a season with 20 home games to play. So Economides took the franchise to Kansas City, where he won the NPSL championship in his second year, ’92-’93. By chance, Rochester-native Steve Donner, then in Florida working for the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, saw his friend Economides on television during Kansas City’s post-game championship celebration.
One day in the summer of 1995, Economides and Donner were together at a Rochester Red Wings baseball game at Silver Stadium. During the game they discussed how a pro soccer game would be more or just as exciting as a pro baseball game. They both agreed a pro outdoor soccer team could possibly work again in Rochester. A fact-finding mission was then conducted to find out what professional soccer leagues were available and affordable. At that time, the only existing high-caliber league was the A-League. At one point, Economides and Donner were presented with an option to start a third-division USISL pro team at the Rochester Institute of Technology, using the college field and a few hundred bleacher seats. But they honestly felt that a third-division pro soccer team wouldn’t work because former Lancer fans would not enthusiastically embrace a low-level professional team. Economides then called A-League commissioner Richard Groff to inquire about purchasing a franchise. After attending the 1995 A-League All-Star game in Atlanta at Groff’s invitation, Economides returned to Rochester impressed enough to talk again to Donner, who then spoke to friend and businessman Frank DuRoss about joining their group. After talks with Monroe County officials led to confirmation of a lease to use Frontier Field (the new baseball stadium being built for Rochester), the group formally applied for an A-League franchise. Their application was approved, and in the summer of 1996, the Rochester Rhinos began play in the A-League, with former Lancer players Pat Ercoli and Frank Odoi as head and assistant coach.
The A-League itself came about when the American Professional Soccer League (APSL) was formed in 1990 as a merger between the American Soccer League and the Western Soccer Alliance. The APSL, renamed the A-League in 1995, merged with the USISL Select League in 1997, becoming part of the USISL structure (the A-League name was chosen to be continued rather than USISL Select).
In 1996, the Rochester Rhinos made it to both the A-League and US Open Cup finals, but in 1997 were defeated early in the A-League playoffs. In 1998, the Rhinos had a stellar year on and off the field, averaging over 10,000 fans and winning the A-League championship when they defeated Minnesota in the final at Frontier Field. The Rhinos’ future hopes and plans include a stadium of their own, and possibly returning Rochester, NY to division-1 professional soccer as a franchise in Major League Soccer.
Sam Mongiovi is a free-lance writer and host-producer of “Soccer Report”