A Trip for the Storybooks
In January 1992, 30 years ago this month, sportswriter Michael Lewis went on a record-setting trip with the Harrisburg Heat as the National Premier Soccer League team played three road games in some 48 hours. They became the first NPSL team win three away matches in as many days. This is Lewis' account of the trip, on and off the bus and field.
This story was originally published in the Jan. 30, 1992 edition of Soccer Week, a publication that covered the sport in the New York/New Jersey area.
First of two parts
By Michael Lewis
As far as road trips go in the National Professional Soccer League, this one wasn't your typical one-night stopover.
Three games in three days.
Three road games in three days.
Three road games across 48 hours.
All the travel in a bus.
"If you want to play, you get used to it," veteran Heat defender John Abe said.
The expansion Harrisburg Heat team has become accustomed to the grind in a hurry.
The team has acquitted itself quite well, well enough to become the first NPSL team to win three road games in as many days. That was no mean feat, considering the NPSL has been around for eight years, with more than 1,000 regular season games.
In fact, the Heat's performance was so imposing that the team was named the NPSL offensive and defensive players of the week. The three victories certainly made the 1,328-mile round trip a lot more bearable.
"It even made the trip home that much better," said Abe, a veteran of more bus trips than he can care to remember. "It's tough playing three games in a row."
It's also tough to sit on a bus for hours on end.
"It doesn't bother me," said Abe, who has had NPSL stints with Hershey and Chicago.
Rookie forward Mark Pulisic of Centereach, Long Island already has gotten used to it. "This is what American soccer is all about," he said. "It's not glamorous. It's not for the money. You've got to grind it out."
Rookie goalkeeper Joe Mallia of Syosset, L.I. remembered a three-hour bus trip to Chicago. "You get used to what the worst is, so it makes the shorter trips all not that bad," he said.
They all begin in Harrisburg, Pa., a city of about 53,000 located in south central Pennsylvania. Harrisburg's claim to fame or infamy, a cynic might say, is its proximity to the Three Mile Island nuclear facility that experienced a partial meltdown in 1979.
This voyage will talk about heat, or rather the Heat, in another way.
Several players have New York-Long Island connections.
Pulisic is best known for scoring the winning goal for the Oceanside Navahos in the 1987 Under-19 Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association championship match. Mallia starred for B.W. Gottschee (CJSL) before attending Old Dominion University.
General manager Pat Flynn was born and grew up in Brooklyn. Coach Jim Pollihan was a member of the New York Arrows, who captured the Major Indoor Soccer league title in the league's first season in 1978-79, while playing at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, L.I. He also was a Baltimore Blast standout.
The Heat's leading scorer, Franklin McIntosh, starred for SC Gjoa (Cosmopolitan Junior Soccer League), and Forest Park (Long Island Soccer Football League). Danny Kelly, a New City, N.Y. native, played for Gottschee. Lee Tschantret attended SUNY Albany before playing with the Albany Capitals (American Professional Soccer League) last summer. Second-year defender Kyle Boschen hails from Denville, N.J.
Thursday, Jan. 9
Outside the Farm Arena, Harrisburg, Pa. - 9:05 a.m.
All aboard for Canton, Ohio with continuing service to Detroit, Mich. and Dayton, Ohio on Rohrer Bus No. 117. First stop, Canton. Last call for Bus No. 117. Round trip: 1,328 miles.
Sixteen players including one coach, trainer, equipment manager, radio broadcaster, marketing director, merchandise supplier and a sportswriter pile into the 48-seat bus with liquid refreshments, reading material and pillows to endure the six-hour, 15 minute trip to Canton. The bus leaves the Farm Show parking lot with light rain falling.
Somewhere on Route 76 - Central Pennsylvania - 9:10 a.m.
Players are settling in and getting comfortable. Flynn opens up his portable word processor and starts to type to do work. So everyone thinks. Pollihan notices that Flynn and Mike Curley, the team merchandise supplier, are playing a video game. "Come on you guys. I thought you were going to do work there," Pollihan says. Pollihan, capped 17 times with the U.S. men's national team, is in his first year as a coach.
He is out to add to his resume with the Heat, essentially an expansion team. The emphasis is on the word essentially because the Heat has replaced the nearby defunct Hershey Impact in the NPSL under new owners. Pollihan decided to stock the team with several veteran Impact players - fan identification is important - several NPSL veterans and first-year players. It seems to be working because the Heat is in second place in the American Division, a couple of games behind the Canton invaders, tomorrow night's opponent.
"At the professional level, an important part is putting the team together initially," he says. "If you make changes, it's hard to obtain any kind of consistency."
At this level a coach wears many hats, including player personnel director, traveling secretary and travel guide.
"It's a mixed bag," Pollihan says. "We tried to make things as accommodating for the players.”
Such as having a couple of cases of beer after a road game.
"We try to do the little things that don't cost us that much money, but do things that are rewarding," he adds.
Getting closer to the Ohio border. the bus drives past a sign for fast food at a rest stop.
"We'll check out the next step and see what they'll have to offer," Pollihan tells bus driver Earl Comp, "to see if they have a Popeye's or McDonald's. If not, we'll keep on going."
Responds Comp: "There is a difference in prices between Pennsylvania and Ohio. A lot of guys don't like to eat in Ohio."
The lower the price, the better because the per diem is only $15, barely enough for two decent meals. But then again, everything is relative. The Heat gives its players their meal money at the beginning of the trip. The Impact, on the other hand, was behind in paying, several players said. A major gaffe in the league that has an average salary of $8,250 per player over five months.
It is a relatively quiet trip. Defender Ben Pollock is sitting in the back with McIntosh and several other teammates playing cards. Midfielder David Vaudreuil is reading the Prince by Machiavelli, defender Bob Lilley is reading Sports in America by James Michener, and goalkeeper Larry Thomas is reading a newspaper. He adds he likes to read Time and Newsweek because he's "big on current events." Mallia is listening to the rhythm and blues singer Keith Sweat on his Walkman. Other players are talking. Newcomer David Bascombe, a member of the Bermuda national team, sits and stares out the window. He says he meditates or watches the movie that is playing if he wants to keep from going stir crazy.
"You find a hobby," Pulisic said.
He has discovered a new one, Game Boy, a handheld video game.
Someone spots a mileage sign. "Fifty-seven miles to the Pennsylvania line," he says.
Comp notices another sign. "Burger King and Popeye's coming up 20 miles," he says.
Pollihan replies, "That's us."
Rest stop on Interstate 76 - Western Pennsylvania - 12:38 p.m.
It's lunchtime and most of the players and staff opt for Burger King before returning to the bus at 1:20. The main feature, Major League, is shown. It is comedy fantasy about the Cleveland Indians and a bunch of misfits winning the pennant against an ogre of an owner who wants to make the life miserable for her team.
"What more can they do with us?" one of the Indian players asks. The next scene was a battered bus rambling down the highway. The players laughed and applauded realizing how close fiction can be to reality.
Yet, in this reality the Heat players are being taken care of quite well. The bus is first class with a VCR machine and six monitors dispersed throughout the vehicle. Today's quadruple feature started out with the movie Internal Affairs, starring Richard Gere. a video and entitled, Hockey, The Lighter Side, followed by The January Man, which not very popular with the players, and Major League.
"Without it [the movie], that makes the trip twice as long," Pollihan says.
It could be a lot worse. The players could drive. Midfielder Bill Becher, a five-year NPSL veteran who has played for Fort Wayne, Indiana, New York (Albany) and Hershey, has traveled in a van with six players. "You lose and somebody has to drive six hours back," he says.
There was one advantage to vans. "With winter coming on, you can have a sick van," trainer Craig Sherrick says. "On a bus, if one person has the flu, it spreads like wildfire."
Market Street - Canton - 3:19 p.m.
Pollihan gives Comp instructions to the Civic Center for practice. "Just past the Wendy's," he says. "That's where we're going to have dinner tomorrow night after the game."
Maybe, maybe not.
Civic Center - Canton - 3:22 p.m.
It's time for an hour practice - this interrupts the final half hour of Major League - at the 4,200-seat Civic Center, a somewhat battered facility that has seen better days. The locker rooms are locked. Instead of wasting time trying to find some arena official, the team decides to dress in the stands. Bob Lilley, a defender, is taped by Sherrick in the stands.
It probably turns out for the best because the basement feels like it is 110 degrees, equipment manager Mike Butala says.
It is hot enough on the arena floor. Several players claim it was 85 degrees.
Canton Hilton - Market Street - 4:45 p.m.
The team arrives at the Canton Hilton. Before leaving the bus, Pollihan addresses the team.:"Curfew is that curfew is 11 p.m., Practice tomorrow at 9:15. We'll meet in the lobby."
The players are on their own. Most go to dinner and retire early.
Friday Jan. 10 - Civic Center - 9:25 a.m.
It's time for morning practice on the day of the game. Yes, on game days. In hockey, they have morning skates. In soccer, they have morning stretches and practice. "It might take a half hour," Pulisic says. "It loosens you up for the game."
Pollihan uses it to work on defending corner kicks. "The last time they scored two free kicks here from this area," he tells his team. "We're not getting a lot of accomplished with the two-man walls. So, we're going to use a two- man wall and stagger it a little. By staggering it a little bit, we'll be giving shots out there."
He points to several feet outside the penalty box.
The team has the rest of the day to themselves. Most eat lunch. Some take a walk, go window shopping. Others take a nap.
Jan. 10, 1992 - Civic Center - 7:38 p.m.
It's game time against one of the best home teams in the league. The Canton Invaders (8-1) have captured the NPSL title five times in seven years, lead the American division with an 11-7 record. It's going to be difficult to overcome. The Heat (7-7) enter with a 2-4 record on the road, dropping a 16-12 decision to the Invaders here in their Nov. 1 season opener and a 10-8 result on Dec. 13.
Scoring in the NPSL is inflated. Two points are awarded for conventional goal, one point for a shootout goal and three points for goals scored from more than 50 feet.
"The most important thing on a three-game trip is to get off to a good start," Lilley said. "You can't save anything for the next game. If you're conditioned, you should be able to go."
The encounter is a see-saw affair before a crowd of 2,200. The Invaders strike first but Becher ties it. Canton retakes the lead in the 15-minute first quarter. The Heat owns the second period as Pulisic and Becher score. Pulisic adds his second goal at 7:17 of the third period for an 8-4 Harrisburg lead. The Invaders, however, counter with three consecutive scores for a 10-8 advantage. Instead of cracking, the Heat scores five consecutive goals as Scott Cannon, Pulisic (completing his hat-trick), McIntosh, Angelo Panzetta and Pollock find the net.
"A lot of my game is mental," Pulisic said. "I feel confident to take chances."
At 9:44 p.m. the final buzzer sounds as the Heat secures a 17-10 victory to break the .500 barrier. "We didn't buckle in the fourth quarter, which was great," Pollihan says. "When they [the Invaders] get on a roll, they're tough to stop."
Pollihan substitutes freely because he needs fresh legs for tomorrow's 2:05 p.m. game in Detroit. "Everybody played for us, so hopefully we won't be fatigued," he says.
Next: Proving to be road warriors
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. He can be reached via email at Michael@FrontRowSoccer.com. His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, will be published soon.