September 28, 2007

It's 1995 all over again...

It's Atlanta v. Seattle for the championship, again. I was introduced to championship soccer first hand via this very match-up, back in the A-League finals of 1995.

I missed out on the days of the Atlanta Chiefs of the NASL, I was only 5 during their last season in 1982. I didn't discover soccer until the spring of 1986 when I went out to play on my local YMCA team instead of playing baseball. I liked it, but it was the World Cup that summer that made me fall in love with the game. I vividly remember watching the epic Brazil v. France quarterfinal. It was the genius of Diego Maradona that hooked me though. I vaguely remember watching the "Goal of the Century" against England live, but it was his goal in the semifinal against Belgium that I'll really never forget. The final with Argentina and West Germany, with the Germans coming back to tie after going two goals down, followed up by an unbelievable pass from Maradona to Burruchaga to win it for Argentina, was the clincher.

I was too young to understand why there wasn't a team in Atlanta I could go see. There were the Braves, the Hawks, and the Falcons, but no soccer team. A financial news station, FNN Score, used to have Italian league games on TV on the weekends, so I saw Maradona with Napoli. MISL games were occasionally on ESPN. As the 1990 World Cup got closer, they'd show a few of the qualifiers on ESPN. I'll always remember running around the house when Paul Caligiuri scored in Trinidad.

However, I never saw a high level game up close until 1995 when the Atlanta Ruckus came to town. I had just finished my senior year in high school, and a big group of us from the team came up to the first ever game against Colorado. The Ruckus went down 3-1 before coming back in the second half to level the score, before winning in the dreaded CrapShootout. Early on, the team played great, attacking soccer. They scored a bunch of goals and were near the top of the league at the All-Star break. Pumas of Mexico came to Adams Stadium for the All-Star game, and it was an electric atmosphere.

As the season went on, we started going to the official postgame parties at Chicago's Pizza on Buford Highway and meeting some of the players. The guys were all very cool, and went out of their way to make the fans feel special. That just deepened the bond between my group of friends and the team, one of the players even called a friend for her birthday.

Injuries, and a lack of payroll dollars, began to take their toll as the season went on. Coach Lothar Osiander had to play more conservatively as his firepower kept getting injured. Luckily, he had great goalkeeping from Bill Andracki and Mun Young Yi in the shootouts. John Doyle was really the key figure on the team though, especially late in the season. He was amazing, and even earned a few more call-ups with the national team.

The playoff berth came down to the last day of the regular season, as Colorado came back to town. Colorado had to win in regulation to pass the Ruckus, Atlanta only needed to force the shootout to qualify for the playoffs. We already had tickets for the 99X Big Day Out concert, but left the festival early to get to Adams for the big game. It wasn't much to write home about, but Atlanta got their shootout and clinched the final playoff spot. The Ruckus went 13-11 in 1995, but 8 of those wins came in the shootout. They pretty much single handedly made a case for the elimination of the shootout, something MLS didn't heed until a few years later.

The playoffs were a best of three series back then, and Atlanta hosted the first game against the regular season champions Montreal Impact. I spent the day moving into my dorm at the University of Georgia in Athens, before driving back to Atlanta that night for the game. Atlanta's Tom Wurdack was red carded in the first half, and things didn't look good. The Impact scored first in the 70th minute, but Lenin Steenkamp answered with an awesome header a minute later. Doyle repelled attack after attack from the Impact in one of the best defensive performances I've ever seen. The Ruckus added their 9th win in a shootout to the record books. After losing Game #2 in Montreal, the series came down to a decisive Game #3. After a scoreless 90 minutes, Atlanta moved on by winning their 10th game in a shootout on the year.

Seattle finished level with Montreal on points in the regular season, and handled Vancouver pretty easily in their semifinal series. They came to Atlanta on a Sunday afternoon to a packed Adams Stadium for Game #1. Steenkamp scored another clutch goal to put the Rucks into the lead early in the second half. The Sounders leveled in the 77th minute. Doyle had broken his nose on the road in the Montreal series, and took a hit to the nose late in the game. He went over to the sideline and blew snot, blood, and who knows what else all over the place before stuffing some tissue up his nostrils and continuing to play. Atlanta had a series of corners late, but couldn't win in regulation. It came down to the CrapShootout again, and who else but Doyle scored the winner for Atlanta's 11th shootout win and a 1-0 lead in the series.

Game #2 was a blowout win for Seattle, so it was all down to a final game at Seattle's Memorial Stadium. The game was being broadcast on SportSouth, which we didn't get in Athens. I had to drive back home to my parents' house to watch the decider, then head back to school for class the next day. I think it was then that I learned never to sign up for 8:00 a.m. Philosophy classes. I couldn't believe what I was seeing when Staale Soebye scored in the 3rd minute to put the Ruckus in the lead. Atlanta then held on for dear life, while Doyle and Mun Young Yi did their best Superman impressions. It was impossible to keep Seattle out for nearly 90 minutes, and Jason Farrell headed in a free kick to tie the game in the 81st minute. At this point, I figured we were down to the shootout again, and I had to like our chances.

However, the Ruckus had one more surprise in them. Someone sent a ball through to Mo Suri and he beat Marcus Hahnemann (yes, Reading's Marcus Hahnemann) at the top of the box and beat a second defender. He had an open goal to shoot at, with a defender and Hahnemann closing quickly, and he hit the inside of the near post instead of the net. The ball trickled across the goal, and Brian Moore's follow up was stuffed by Hahnemann. The championship was there for the taking, but it was not to be.

Of course, the TV producers hyped up the Ruckus' outstanding record in the shootout for the whole second half and after full time. I tried not to think about the jinx, as Seattle hit their first two attempts and the Ruckus missed theirs. Neil Megson was saved, as was Suri (poor guy just had no luck). John Doyle, of course, scored to halve the lead while Dominic Kinnear (yes, Houston's Dominic Kinnear) missed. It came down to leading scorer, and future Rochester legend, Lenin Steenkamp. It was Marcus Hahnemann's night though, as he made the save that brought the A-League title to Seattle.

It was a long drive back to Athens.

Of course, there wasn't much more glory for the Atlanta Ruckus. The team nearly folded in 1996, but luckily found new ownership late in the year. Unfortunately, the key players who remained in Atlanta to start the year (Doyle, Tim Martin, and Mike Huwiler moved up to MLS for the first season) had be sold off. Steenkamp was sent to Montreal first, who then moved him over to expansion Rochester. A promising move to Roswell in 1997 was followed by a disastrous move back to Adams Stadium in 1998. The league pulled the franchise from the owner after his refusal to send the team on a roadtrip, and the league ran the team using the team's letter of credit for the remainder of the season. Players and uniforms were borrowed to see the season out.

Saviors showed up immediately before the last game of the season in the form of new owners. The team name was changed to the Silverbacks, and the rest is history. Luckily, we haven't had any repeats of 1996 or 1998 since then, but we also haven't had any repeats of 1995. Until now...

I'll be remembering Mo Suri, Lenin Steenkamp, John Doyle, Brian Moore, Mun Young Yi, and other Ruckus players on Saturday night. I'm sure I'll be reminded of a sunny October day at Adams Stadium when the American soccer spotlight was shining on Atlanta. I know I'll be hoping against another Atlanta v. Seattle shootout (at least this time it would be of the PK variety).

Hopefully, today's Silverbacks can bring home the championship that eluded yesterday's Ruckus.

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