HENRIETTA, N.Y. -- After the Rochester Lancers endured a rough return to the Major Arena Soccer League, team owner Salvatore "SoccerSam" Fantauzzo addressed the team during a post-game dinner after the squad's second consecutive loss at the Dome Arena last Sunday.
He talked about the club's initial foray into the arena/indoor, when the team lost its first few games in the Major Indoor Soccer League during the 2011-12 season before rebounding to have a competitive year.
He also spoke of the present and the future of this year Lancers' side. Fantauzzo was encouraged by the fans' response. The team pretty much filled up the 3,000-seat venue and very few supporters had left both games by the middle of the fourth quarter or both games. That's saying a lot since the home team was not in the game since the opening period.
"Alex Harling scored a goal with seconds left in the game, the crowd erupted," he said. "When he threw the ball into the stands, the crowd was ecstatic, and we were getting killed basically. Several fans throughout the night tonight and last night told me that their kids or their grand kids, it was the greatest night of their life. They loved the Lancers. That's what we're doing this for.
"When I was 10-years-old, I went to my first Lancers game. I saw a player score a goal, I saw him do a somersault and I was hooked for life. What we're doing right now is that we want to win, but if we don't win, if can keep the game of soccer going for many years to come, that's what we're doing it for.
"The one thing you're never going to lose is turning these young fans into soccer fans. So, salute!"
Fantauzzo was referring to the original Rochester Lancers, who toiled in the American Soccer League and the North American Soccer League from 1967 to 1980.
The Rochester Rhinos revived the soccer spirit in this Northwestern New York city when they joined the A-League (which eventually morphed into the USL Championship) in 1996 while winning league championships and the 1999 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the last non-Major League Soccer team to do so, while playing to capacity crowds. The Rhinos went dormant after the 2017 season and there are fears they won't be back. The Western New York Flash, which boasted an impressive roster of U.S. women's national team players through the years, also called Rochester home before moving south to become the North Carolina Courage after the 2016 National Women's Soccer League season. The Courage, which captured the 2016 title as the Flash, also has won the last two NWSL championships.
At the moment, the Lancers are trying to keep high-profile soccer alive in their town and they're doing it their way. The team went on hiatus after the 2014-15 season before returning to arena soccer with MASL2 -- aka M2 -- last year. Their roster is stocked with players from the greater Rochester area or ones that have played for the club in the past.
The team has a three-year plan in moving the team up the MASL ladder with this rare, audacious and unique approach.
The Lancers went through a difficult initiation and weekend, playing back-to-back season-opening matches at home at the Dome Arena last weekend. Rochester lost to Utica City FC, 9-1, on Friday, Nov. 29, before losing to the Harrisburg Heat, 12-3, some 24 hours later.
"It was their first taste of playing back to back games in 24 hours," Miller said. "We got guys who were at work today and then showed up for a game. It's challenging. It's going to be that for us as we grow through it because as you have tired legs, the brain starts to disconnect and then you make mental errors.
"The first three goals they scored we actually gave them. We responded with good opportunities, but we didn't match the intensity. That's playing [another] game in 24 hours. It's difficult. It's difficult for guys that are just concentrating on one thing, let alone multiple things."
It certainly was a learning experience for rookie Matt D'Amico, who scored the Lancers' first MASL goal since 2015 against Utica City FC. D’Amico, a standout at Pittsford Mendon High School and at SUNY Geneseo,
"When we play in practice, we're playing against the third and fourth line and then to play one of the top tier teams in the league, it was a big step up," said D’Amico, a standout at nearby Pittsford Mendon High School and at SUNY Geneseo. "We were well prepared, but I don't think we showed our full potential. It's good that we have something to build off now.
"For me, personally it was just to be on the field was just step one. That was my goal even to make it this far. Then to actually put away the first goal for me it was just one of the best feelings I had probably since the first goal I scored in college six years ago."
Last year the Lancers enjoyed a successful return to arena soccer, taking home the third-place trophy in M2. They realized the jump would be a challenging one. As competitive M2 is, it can be night and day from MASL.
Legendary coach Keith Tozer said it could take as much as two seasons for a player to get acclimated to playing indoor soccer.
"The intensity is a whole other level and that's something we really need to step up if we want to compete in this league," Lancers co-captain Michael Cunningham said after the second game. "I think it shows the experience the other teams have. They're really exploiting our weaknesses, our lack of experience. But we've got to take the positives as well. Three goals are better than one. So, we're making baby steps from last night's game and hopefully we can progress from that."
After his team vanquished the Lancers on Friday night, Utica City FC midfielder Jake Schindler returned to the Dome Arena to watch his former teammates perform on Saturday. Schindler, the MVP of last year's Lancers' M2 squad who still lives in Rochester, attended the match for two reasons. He was scouting Harrisburg and he wanted to watch some of his friends perform on the Lancers.
A member of the Lancers' original 2011-12 squad, Schindler remembered the growing pains of that season. He felt this year's addition will learn and grow as well.
"I think the guys who came in Saturday looked a little more poised on the ball," he said. "So, I think that's going to be one of the biggest hurdles that they go through, learning how to play indoor soccer. Indoor soccer is not outdoor soccer. Two different skill sets, two different sports. As long as they continue what Doug is training in practice, they'll continue to improve."
That's the key -- improvement and growth.
It won't happen overnight, but veterans such as midfielders Jeremy Ortiz and Gary Boughton must be the on-field teachers.
Boughton saw this season as the start of a new generation, which will take the baton from the veterans.
"My job is going to be to try and bring some of those young guys along and try and pass on some of that knowledge and wisdom that I have in order to be able to prepare them for taking the reins in the future," he said. "We want to see the ability to compete with some of these teams that have been doing this at this level for years and years, like the Baltimore's, the Milwaukee's and the Kansas City's. For a long-term perspective, getting the younger guys the experience they need to transition into those veteran leaders is going to be one of the biggest goals this season."
The Lancers will get another crack at the Heat when they visit the Farm Show Arena in Harrisburg, Pa. on Saturday, Dec. 7 at 7:05 p.m.
Miller was hopeful.
"We get to go down to them and steal a game," he said. "I think we've learned a lot. We're going to watch some film, give guys an education on what they need to improve on. and then hopefully we can match the intensity."
The turnaround might not necessarily come sooner than later, but the Lancers are willing to be patient.