Written by Michael Lewis
Editor, Front Row Soccer
Due to the plethora of soccer talent on Long Island, Lou Ederer and Chuck Jacobs decided to take it to the next level and created the Long Island Rough Riders in 1993. The team originally competed in the U.S. Interregional Soccer League, one of several leagues under the umbrella of what we know today as the United Soccer League.
The start of something big (1994)
In their franchise opener against the North Jersey Imperials at North Hudson Park in North Bergen, N.J. on April 9, 1994, the Rough Riders dropped a 3-1 decision. Former Adelphi University standout Duane Robinson scored one goal and set up two others for the hosts. Another one-time Adelphi star, Chris Armas, tallied Long Island’s first goal ever, converting a penalty kick in the 64th minute to slice the lead to 2-1. Armas would go onto become one of Major League Soccer’s finest defensive midfielders with the LA Galaxy and Chicago Fire. He also made 66 appearances with the U.S. men’s national team.
Two weeks later, on April 23, the Rough Riders, under head coach Alfonso Mondelo, made their home debut at the Mitchel Athletic Complex in Uniondale, N.Y. They attracted 3,649 fans to the match, but lost to the Detroit Wheels, 1-0. Jamie Huff found the net in the 63rd minute when the hosts couldn’t clear the ball after a scramble in front of the net.
The first of many victories
The Rough Riders notched their first win in their history on April 30. After enduring 142 consecutive scoreless minutes at home, Giovanni Savarese scored off a header in the 52nd minute. The defense and goalkeeper Chico Mieles made sure the goal stood up and Long Island walked out with a 1-0 victory.
Despite the slow start, the Rough Riders rebounded quite well, winning 13 of their final 16 regular season games. They finished atop the Northeast Division with a 13-5 mark, outscoring their opposition, 35-19. Of the 69 USISL teams in the coast-to-coast league, Long Island tied for the sixth best defensive side.
In the Northeast Division playoffs, the Riders won a pair of closely contested matches. In the semifinals, they edged the Dragons due a 4-2 advantage in corner kicks after the teams played to a 1-1 draw on July 27. Danny Mueller scored for LI. In the USISL’s first two seasons, divisions experimented with several unusual rule changes. One of them was awarding tied games to the team with the most corner kicks. In the two-game divisional finals, Long Island won both matches. The team recorded 3-2 and 1-0 wins over the Imperials. Savarese tallied twice and Richard Nuttall, the current Hofstra University men’s head coach, added one in the first game. Cordt Weinstein scored the lone goal in the second encounter.
The Sizzlin’ Nine
That qualified the Riders for the Sizzlin’ Nine Championship in Greensboro, N.C. In the Raleigh, N.C. group, they wound up splitting their games with their two foes. Long Island lost to the Minnesota Thunder, but rolled over the East Los Angeles Cobras, 8-2, to win its group by a better goal differential (+4 to +1) over Minnesota, which also reached the semifinal.
In the national semifinals in Greensboro, the Rough Riders could not get past the host Greensboro Dynamo in an epic, 120-minute encounter. Mike Masters, the first American soccer player to score at Wembley, lifted LI into the lead in the 31st minute, However, Masters’ goal celebration did not last very long as he aggravated a hamstring and was replaced by Armas. Greensboro equalized on Adian Murphy’s header with 97 seconds remaining in the half. The Dynamo outshot the Riders, 35-10. Only a day after he was named USISL defender of the year, the Rough Riders’ Travis Rinker was red carded in the 60th minute, forcing the visitors to play a man down the rest of the way. Greensboro threw everything it could at Mieles, who was brilliant, making nine saves. It appeared the game was headed for a shootout, but Mike Gosselin scored in the 118th minute to lift the Dynamo to a 2-1 victory.
The Dynamo went onto win the championship, besting the Thunder on penalty kicks, 2-1, after the squads played to a 1-1 deadlock.
A legendary team (1995)
The Rough Riders bulked up for the 1995 season, signing goalkeeper Tony Meola, who had backstopped the USMNT at the 1994 World Cup. They were designated as the host venue for the USISL Sizzlin’ Nine semifinals and final. A hungry Long Island side realized it needed to dominate foes at Mitchel to establish superiority from the opening kickoff to the final game. The team boasted other future MLS all-stars, including Giovanni Savarese, Jim Rooney and Armas and a talented supporting cast that made their impact when called upon.
The defense included Martin Munnelly, Steve Cadet, Laurence Pitturo, John Diffley and Travis Rinker. The midfield had Kevin Anderson, Paul Riley, Dan Mueller and Weinstein, a sparkplug off the bench. The dynamic duo forward combination of Savarese (11 assists) and Masters teamed for 52 goals in the regular and postseason, with 33 and 19 goals respectively.
Long Island finished the regular season atop the Coastal Conference of the Northeast Division with a 19-1 record, outscoring its foes, 69-20.
The great indoors
Before they secured the title, the Rough Riders decided to test the ways of indoor soccer at the old Nassau Coliseum on a Sunday afternoon on Feb. 12. After recording a 12-8 triumph two days prior over the host Baltimore Bays, they completed their sweep with a 5-2 win before a crowd of 4,453. Juan Ramon Pacheco broke a 2-2 tie with 2:13 remaining in the game. Daniel Leon and Mueller added sixth-attacker goals. Matti Roberto and Savarese had scored earlier for the Riders. Afterwards, the team invited Gregory DeLorenzo, a 12-year-old player on the Dix Hills Thunders, who was battling brain cancer, into their locker room. He was greeted by members of the team, who signed his hat. Several days prior to the game, several players, including Paul Riley and Kevin Anderson and general manager Jim Kilmeade, visited DeLorenzo and brought soccer balls and pictures. They spent 2 1/2 hours talking to him.
An Olympian task
In front of a standing room only crowd, a team-record 6,125 on July 5, 1995, Long Island stunned the U.S. Olympic team, 3-0. Diffley gave the hosts the lead before Weinstein struck twice over the final 15 minutes. Armas set up Weinstein’s first goal and Leon the second, past U.S. goalkeeper Chris Snitko. Meola made two vital saves on Scott Coutal and Temoc Suarez to preserve the clean sheet. The result helped to determine the fate of Olympic head coach Timo Liekoski, who eventually was fired and replaced by Bruce Arena. The Franklin Square, N.Y. native directed the USA at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
A memorable friendly
The Rough Riders were known to pull off some dramatic finishes, even in games that really didn’t count. In an electric atmosphere in front of a capacity crowd of more than 5,000 at Mitchel, Savarese rallied the host side with a pair of second-half goals, including the equalizer with five minutes remaining in the match, in a 2-2 draw with C.D. FAS (El Salvador) on Aug. 16. Fans who could not get into the stadium watched from the outside and some even climbed a fence and watched from there to get a better view. In a rare start in goal that season, Mieles was superb in the net.
Sizzling in the Sizzlin’ Nine
The Riders won the Long Island group of the playoffs, starting with a 2-1 win over the Monterey Bay Jaguars as Masters scored a late goal off a Weinstein pass. Savarese had given LI the lead. Savarese connected for a hat-trick and Weinstein added a late tally in a 4-1 victory over the New Mexico Chiles to reach the semifinals. Savarese headed home three first-half goals in a 5-2 win over the Tampa Bay Cyclones. Anderson and Weinstein added goals.
A game and finish for the ages
In a clash of titans, the Rough Riders overcame the Minnesota Thunder before a crowd of 4,118 at Mitchel. Before teams had future MLS players as the Thunder boasted Manny and Gerard Lagos and Tony Sanneh. The match entered the final seconds deadlocked at 1-1, thanks to goals by Armas and the Minnesota’s Amos Magee. That’s when the most dramatic goal in Long Island soccer history was scored by some legendary players. Meola booted the ball down field. Savarese got possession and passed to Armas, who ran down the right flank. Armas then crossed the ball into the penalty area, where Savarese beat keeper John Swallen from six yards for the game-winner with six seconds left. The goal capped an historic season for the team and Savarese, who scored eight playoff goals in four games over a week, which included two hat-tricks. Savarese, who went on to fill the net for the MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls), New England Revolution and San Jose Earthquakes, also earned regular season and playoff MVP honors. He has coached the Portland Timbers since 2018.
Time to Reload (1996)
With the advent of MLS, many USISL players moved onto other teams in 1996. The Rough Riders lost several key players, including Meola, Armas and Savarese, to the new league. They still remained competitive in the USISL Select League, finishing first in the North Atlantic Division with an 11-7. Travis Rinker was named to the All-League team as a midfielder. They captured the North Atlantic Division title by five points over the Richmond Kickers with an 11-7 mark.
Backstopped by goalkeeper Paul Grafer (in 2000, he became the first MetroStars netminder to win an MLS playoff series), the Riders raised their game in the playoffs, dispatching the Delaware Wizards in the first round, 2-0, in a game that was played over two days at Mitchel. The Aug. 23 match was suspended in the 39th minute due to lightning. A minute earlier, Masters had given the hosts a two-goal lead after Rooney found the net in the seventh minute.
At the Select Six national tournament in Richmond, Va., Long Island won both its group matches, edging the Thunder, 1-0, and then the Hampton Roads Mariners, 3-2. The team lost to the Richmond Kickers in the semifinals, 1-0, on Rob Ukrop’s tally. The California Jaguars defeated the Kickers in the championship match in a shootout, 2-1 after playing to a 1-1 draw.
One more time (1997)
In what would be the final year of the original ownership, the Rough Riders played under yet a new league name – the A-League after the merger between the USISL and American Professional Soccer League. They reached the postseason for the fourth consecutive time, although there were a few non-league contests that stood out – two against the MetroStars.
The Grapple for the Apple
On a balmy night on July 30, an exhibition soccer game at Hofstra University caused traffic on Hempstead Turnpike in Hempstead, N.Y. to come to a halt, a game that had no bearing on standings or a cup competition. The encounter, promoted as “The Grapple for the Apple,” pitted the then two-year-old New York/New Jersey MetroStars against the Rough Riders. It was a big, big deal. Officials expected a big crowd for the match and masses kept on coming. The Rough Riders prevailed, 2-1, before 11,658 spectators at Shuart Stadium. The Riders dominated the match as Saul Martinez and Flavio Ferri tallied. South African international Shaun Bartlett scored a late goal for the Metros.
Some Open Cup glory
In his first game as a Rough Rider, Ernest Inneh scored in the first half against the Bridgeport Italians to lift LI to a 1-0 triumph at Adelphi University on June 20, setting up an Aug. 1 confrontation with the New England Revolution, only two days after their emotional victory over the MetroStars in New Britain, Conn. In one of the most storied matches in the team’s history, the Rough Riders rallied from a 3-1 second-half deficit. U.S. international Joe-Max Moore, who had a hand in all three Revolution goals, was taken out by head coach Thomas Rongen early in the second half. That’s when the visiting side began its comeback as Rooney took center stage. He smacked a 25-yard free kick past goalkeeper Jeff Causey and the equalizer off a Saul Martinez feed in the 81st minute. In the second extratime period, defender Mohammed headed in a Rooney corner kick to climax the incredible comeback and a 4-3 triumph.
The Rough Riders were drawn as the quarterfinal hosts as they were pit against the MetroStars. The visitors rejected several viable Long Island sites, including Hofstra and its artificial turf, even though they played on it at Giants Stadium, before settling for a day game at Stony Brook University on Aug. 26. It looked like a mismatch. The MetroStars boasted nine internationals – Tab Ramos, Brian Bliss, Mike Sorber and Meola (U.S.), Roberto Donadoni (Italy), Branco (Brazil), Antony de Avila (Colombia), Shaun Bartlett (South Africa) and Savarese (Venezuela). The goalkeepers – Manuel Carou and Meola – matched each other with some spectacular saves as the latter twice denied Saul Martinez. With a minute remaining in the first extratime, MetroStars defender Rhett Hardy headed home Donadoni’s free kick to settle matters with a Golden Goal.
The regular season and playoffs
Despite not having a goal-scorer in double figures, Long Island (16-12) reached the postseason a fourth consecutive time finishing in second place behind the Montreal Impact (21-7-1) in the Northeast Division. Inneh collected nine goals and Rooney contributed eight goals and nine assists. Carlos Ledesma, a free-kick specialist, added seven assists. Some other new names also saw some playing time, including midfielders Hector Wright (Jamaican international), David Price (St. John’s), Sal Leanti (Fordham), David Price and Kerry Zavagnin, who helped the Kansas City Wizards to the 2000 MLS title, and defenders Tom Lips and Jim McElderry, future Fordham and Seton Hall University head coach. Carou manned the nets, playing all 28 regular-season matches while recording a 1.25 goals-against average.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Riders squeaked past the host Rochester Rhinos in a pair of shootouts. The first encounter was a 1-0 win in Rochester, followed by a 2-1 victory at home as Ledesma tallied the hosts’ lone goal and Carou was credited with 10 saves in the match. In the Northeast Division final, it took three games to get past the Montreal Impact. The Riders won at home, 2-1 in the opener as Wright and Ferri found the net on Sept. 12. Two days later, the host Impact prevailed, but the Rough Riders won the mini-game to decide matters via a shootout.
In the third round, the Riders met their match against the Carolina Dynamo, dropping a 2-1 decision at home in a game that kicked off at 11 a.m. in the morning at Hofstra. In the return match in North Carolina, the Dynamo eliminated LI via a 2-0 result.
Riley, the Rough Riders captain since the 1994 inaugural season, retired as a player.