February 24, 2012
Soccer's version of Jeremy Lin -- some 33 years ago in Rochester
By Michael Lewis
With Jeremy Lin taking New York, New Jersey and the NBA by storm, fans have been trying to figure out if American soccer had its version of the New York Knicks star, someone who busted out of "nowhere" to wow and amaze the fans. Well, some 33 years ago, the sport did have one -- Branko Segota.
As a 17-year-old, Segota started with the New York Arrows in the original Major Indoor Soccer League way back in 1978.
He kicked off his outdoor career with the original Rochester Lancers in the original North American Soccer League in 1979.
Those were some heady and exciting times in soccer. The Cosmos were the rage and played to huge crowds at Giants Stadium. The great Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff were playing in the NASL. Teams named the San Jose Earthquakes, Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps performed in the league.
Even though he played for the Arrows, who eventually were the Lancers' sister organization (John Luciani owned the Arrows the was an investor in the Lancers), the Lancers had to fork over a couple of first-round draft choices to the New York Cosmos, who grabbed Segota in a special draft.
It turned out to be worth it and then some.
"I think Branko is a man who will decide a lot of games for us," a hopeful Lancers coach Dragan Popovic said at the time. "I'm almost sure he will score a lot of goals for us this season."
How prophetic his words turned out to be.
Segota, who was an exciting and prolific indoor player, was unproven at the pro outdoor level. Then 18, he had a booming shot, but could he withstand the pressure of opposing defenders kicking, fouling him, leaning on him?
After playing four games at midfield, no one really knew what to expect when Segota made his debut at center forward against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers at Holleder Stadium on July 14, 1979.
He struck not once, but twice, powering the Lancers to a 2-1 victory and snapping the team's scoreless streak at 371:26.
For the record, Segota found the back of the net at 31:26 (they did times in minutes and seconds in those days) as veteran Mike Stojanovic, moved from center forward to right wing, crossed the ball to Segota. The Canadian headed it home past goalkeeper Arnie Mausser. Segota added a second goal at 42:18.
The Lancers (9-13), who remained in last place in the National Conference Eastern Division, were about to embark on a wild and magical ride to the edge of the playoffs.
A disputed penalty kick in a 1-0 win over the Minnesota Kicks. A 2-1 sudden-death overtime win over the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Segota's second goal of the game only 41 seconds into the extra session. Two more goals in a 2-1 triumph over the Los Angeles Aztecs and Johan Cruyff. A goal and an assist in a 2-1 win at the Strikers. Two more goals in a 4-2 home loss to the Cosmos before a regular-season record crowd of 18,881. Two more goals and an assist and a shot off the post that Fred Grgurev headed home with 10 seconds left in a wild 4-3 road win at the Memphis Rogues. Yet another goal in a 2-0 home victory over the New England Tea Men. Segota had a goal called back with 3:41 left in the game, a goal that would have lifted the Lancers into the playoffs (the NASL awarded points for every goal scored up until three in a match) in their regular-season finale.
Two days later, the Toronto Blizzard defeated the Philadelphia Fury, 4-3, a result that propelled both teams into the playoffs, a result that many observers suspected was a suspected goal rigging scheme that could not be proved.
After connecting for an astonishing 14 goals in nine games, Segota earned rookie of the year honors from the Professional Soccer Reporters Association, although not the official title from the league.
Great things were expected of Segota in 1980, but many things went wrong with the Lancers as the owners -- the Rochester and New York factions -- feuded. Segota did not get along with new coach Alex Perolli and he threw his shirt at the coach when he was replaced in a match, necessitating a club suspension.
Segota put up decent numbers for a 19-year-old -- 10 goals and six assists -- but he could not live up to the legend he had created and the hype.
Segota never played for the Lancers again, but he was far from finished. He went on to play for Canada in the 1986 World Cup, the Strikers, Golden Bay Earthquakes and Toronto Blizzard outdoors and with the San Diego Sockers, St. Louis Storm, Las Vegas Dustdevils and Baltimore Spirit indoors before calling it a career in 1997.
You might be wondering why Segota played more indoor than outdoor soccer, well, for most of his prime years, there was no serious outdoor soccer league to compete. Indoor soccer was the way to go and to pay the bills (salaries were in the six figures for the best players).
For the record, he scored 73 goals in 147 NASL appearances (13th in NASL history), just under a 50 percent strike rate, impressive in any outdoor league.
In the MISL, Segota ranked second in goals (463) and points (841) and. third in assists (378). He played on nine MISL championship teams -- three with the Arrows and six with the Sockers.
His career spanned some 20 years.
Not too shabby, not too shabby at all for the Jeremy Lin of his era, even if we didn't know it at the time.
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