Monday, August 18, 2008

Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. San Diego Sockers, 8/17/78

Late one summer night 30 years ago this week, Tampa Bay soccer fans took in one of the must unusual contests in the history of this area.

At stake in a North American Soccer League playoff game between the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the San Diego Sockers was a trip to the American Conference finals against the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers. Earlier in the week, Tampa Bay defeated the Sockers in San Diego, 1-0, and earned a chance to clinch the series on home turf at Tampa Stadium.

The game carried an interesting caveat. Should San Diego defeat Tampa Bay, the two teams would immediately play a sudden-death mini-game to determine the winner of the series. The complications of such a setup presented numerous headaches for the players to contemplate.

For example, the two teams could conceivably play an entire 90-minute game with the score tied at the end. Fifteen minutes of sudden death would follow, and then if the game were still tied, a shootout would be needed to decide a winner. If San Diego came out on top, the teams would then play another 30 minutes of sudden-death soccer.

NASL Commissioner Phil Woosnam defended the league’s playoff format, saying it really wasn’t that complicated. Many Tampa Bay players disagreed with Woosnam, using words such as “stupid,” “crazy” and “messed up” to describe the possible worst-case scenario.

Rowdie right wing Steve Wegerle boldly predicted such madness wouldn't occur.

“There is no way (the sudden death) will happen," Wegerle said.

Oh, but it did.

In front of a crowd of more than 32,000 at Tampa Stadium on Aug. 17, 1978, the Sockers won the game with a 2-1 regulation victory over the Rowdies. San Diego opened the scoring early in the second half at 48:25 on a goal from outside the penalty box by Laszlo Harsanyi.

The Sockers kept the Rowdies off-balance throughout the game by employing an “offside trap” - San Diego moved its defenders away from its own end of the field, creating less space for the Rowdies offense to move the ball while staying onside. This plan worked to perfection, resulting in eight offside calls going against Tampa Bay and helped negate a goal by Graham Paddon that would have given the Rowdies an early lead.

“It was the right thing to do,” said Rowdies defender/midfielder Peter Anderson, “because they have a good defense.”

Not good enough, however, to prevent Anderson from tying the game at 1-1. At the 64:42 mark, Anderson found himself on the receiving end of a pass from team captain Rodney Marsh that began on a Paddon corner kick.

Less than four minutes later, some aggressive play by San Diego resulted in the deciding goal. Following a Tampa Bay scoring opportunity, Walker McCall blew past out-of-position Rowdy defender Mike Connell and put the ball just inside the left post. McCall’s goal gave the Sockers a 2-1 lead they did not relinquish. After that, the Sockers played keep-away.

Still, San Diego paid a severe price for its success with just 20 minutes left in regulation. Goalie Alan Mayer, American Soccer Magazine’s Player of the Year, suffered an injury to his thigh when, attempting to play a ball, he collided with Marsh. As a result, the Sockers played without their star goalie during the sudden-death game to decide the series victor.

As if the evening needed any more drama, a monstrous summer downpour added even more urgency to the situation. With lightning in the sky and sheets of blowing rain blanketing the entire stadium, visibility and safety became a legitimate concern. Officials delayed the start of sudden death while deciding whether to postpone because of the weather.

Tampa radio personality Jack Harris, then the Rowdies play-by-play announcer, remembers the scene vividly to this day.

“I can well recall the water cascading down the steps of the stadium like a waterfall,” he says. “For some reason we had been relegated to the roof of the old press box in a makeshift little shack. Lightning was striking nearby, and there we were holding microphones at the highest point of the stadium.”

Rowdies coach Gordon Jago capitalized on the delay by reminding his players to take advantage of the conditions and pressure San Diego’s replacement goalie, Gary Allison, who had less than a half-game’s worth of playing time all season. Just 3:24 into the sudden death, Jago’s advice paid dividends.

Arsene Auguste, who scored the only goal in Tampa Bay’s 1-0 victory three days earlier, took a shot on Allison from 25 yards out. Despite San Diego’s best attempts to guard against a long-range strike – the Sockers resumed their strategy of keeping 11 players back to defend -- the ball ricocheted off the goalie’s outstretched hands and rolled a few feet along the soggy grass directly to Rodney Marsh. In what amounted to a basketball alley-oop dunk, Marsh put the ball into the net for his 21st tally of the season.

Like the rowdy celebration earlier that day in France when three Americans became the first to cross the Atlantic by hot air balloon, Marsh’s goal set off a delirious, field-charging party by the remaining rain-soaked fans.

Despite being outplayed most of the night, the Rowdies ended San Diego’s season and advanced on to play the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers in the American Conference finals.

Following the game, San Diego coach Hubert Vogelsinger railed against the official’s decision to continue play, calling the conditions “illegal and dangerous.”

“The better team lost,” he said. ‘We were better than them out in San Diego and we were better than them here. The (Marsh) goal was rubbish. We had two great goals, they get rubbish. There’s no question who is the better team. No question.”

Perhaps Vogelsinger was correct, but the Rowdies appeared to be a team of destiny. Despite dropping their first game to Ft. Lauderdale, the Rowdies returned to Tampa and beat the Strikers 3-1 to force yet another mini-game. This time, the Rowdies won in a shootout to advance to the 1978 Soccer Bowl championship.

Unfortunately, the Rowdies ran into the juggernaut New York Cosmos, who were gunning for their second consecutive championship. Tampa Bay fell to New York, 3-1, but an exciting season and memorable playoff run helped cement the love affair between the Rowdies and their fans that remains to this day.

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