Nickels were tossed around like manhole covers during those pioneering days of major league soccer in the United States in the early 1970s. In fact, money was so tight that two-time most valuable player and scoring champ Carlos Metidieri had to supplement his league-high $12,000 annual salary with a job as a grocery store butcher. Chasing a paycheck took on a whole new meaning for him and his Rochester Lancer teammates back in the day. At times, it could be an exercise in futility.
“We usually played on Sundays, and on Monday morning you’d go knocking on (owner) Charlie Schiano’s door to get paid and he’d say, ‘Go see (co-owner) Pat DiNolfo,’’’ Metidieri recalled, chuckling. “So, we’d knock on DiNolfo’s door and he’d say, ‘Go see (treasurer) Tony Pullano.’ And Tony would tell us to go see someone else. Around and around we’d go. We’d eventually get paid, but it was quite a workout.”
Although the dollars were hard to come by, the experience proved priceless.
“You hear pro athletes say they play for the love of the game and not the money. Well, we really did play for the love of the game because we were paid peanuts,’’ Metidieri said. “We had a bunch of guys who loved the game and one another. And we helped get pro soccer off the ground in America. There were so many great moments. No amount of money could ever buy the memories we made.”
Many of those moments will be relived, and perhaps enhanced a bit like fish stories over time, Saturday night at the Italian American Sports Club in Gates as the Lancers celebrate the 50th anniversary of the team’s founding. And no one will deliver taller tales than the 5-foot-4 Metidieri, whose small stature and explosive speed earned him the nickname “Topolino,” Italian for “little mouse.”
Metidieri grew up in soccer-crazed Brazil, during the heyday of Pele, whose sublime skills helped popularize soccer throughout the world. “Pele would come to my hometown (Sorocaba) to visit a friend of mine, so I met him a few times,’’ he said. “And I got to play against him several times. We knew he was special, but we didn’t know how special until I saw the way people in the United States reacted. More than 20,000 people packed old Holleder Stadium when he and the New York Cosmos came to play the Lancers. That was quite a scene.”
Like most Brazilian boys, Metidieri had a soccer ball placed at his feet the minute he learned to walk. It was love at first kick. By age 16, he signed his first pro contract with Toronto Italia in the Canadian professional league and became an instant sensation. Fans loved watching him elude big defenders and boot the ball into the net.
“That’s where I got my nickname,’’ he said. “It stuck, and all these years later when I come back to Rochester, people don’t call me Carlos; they call me Topolino.’’
Schiano lured Metidieri to the Lancers in 1970, and the little striker became the North American Soccer League’s biggest star while leading his team to a championship.
“I was doing radio color commentary at a game in Montreal when Carlos hit this rocket from about 30 yards into the net,’’ Schiano recalled. “The kick bent from right to left so fast that the poor goalkeeper never had a chance to react. Carlos may have been short, but his shots were like missiles.”
Metidieri spent four indelible seasons with the Lancers, topping the league with 35 points (14 goals, seven assists) in 1970 and 46 points (19 goals, eight assists) the following season. His most memorable kick was the game-winner in the sixth overtime of a 1971 playoff game vs. the Dallas Tornado. That 178-minute marathon remains the longest match in U.S. soccer history. No one was more relieved to see it end than Schiano, who hated ties so much that before the season he convinced his fellow NASL owners to institute a new rule that games would be played until a winning goal was scored.
“Of course, the first time it came into play it just had to involve us,’’ Schiano said, laughing. “I remember how worried Lamar Hunt (owner of the Tornado and the National Football League’s Kansas City Chiefs) was getting. I told him not to worry because somebody eventually had to score. Thank God, Carlos did.”
His game-winner occurred just before midnight. Had the match dragged on two more minutes it would have been the equivalent of two full matches.
“Everybody, including the Dallas players, was happy to get it over with,’’ Metidieri said. “A bunch of us had to go to work at our regular jobs the next morning. My legs were like rubber. I called in sick. My boss understood.”
After his final professional season in 1980 with the Buffalo Stallions of the indoor league, Metidieri opened three pizzerias in Rochester, and remained here until moving to Arizona in 1995. The 74-year-old has been retired for several years, but picks up a little extra cash carting passengers around for Uber. He sighed when told his modern-day soccer equivalent – 5-foot-4 striker Sebastian Giovinco – recently signed a Major League Soccer contract for $7 million per year.
“He drives a Ferrari,’’ Metidieri joked. “I drive Uber.”
Oh, well. Dollars aren’t the only way to measure wealth.
“I wouldn’t trade the memories we made for all the money in the world,’’ he said. “We had so much fun. We won championships. I got to score a bunch of goals. And you couldn’t beat the Rochester fans. Best place I ever played. No matter where you went – the gas station, the grocery store, the bank – people knew you and were friendly to you. I can’t wait to get back there and see all my old friends.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.