ROCHESTER LANCERS BRING BACK THE PARTY
Soccer Sam and the Rochester Lancers just love to throw a party, especially when there is a roof overhead.
The problem was that they hadn't been able to hold one for the past 3 1/2 years.
That should be remedied this weekend when the Lancers, who like to remind their fans that "It's not a game, but a party," return to arena soccer in a very big way with a pair of Major Arena Soccer League 2 games on Friday and Saturday night.
They welcome the Detroit Waza Flo the first night and the Cincinnati Swerve the second night at the Dome Arena in suburban Henrietta, N.Y. Both parties, err, matches, are set to kick off at 7 p.m. ET.
Lancers' indoor soccer games are really like parties for their fans. Spectacular pregame introductions, the national anthem sung by a former contestant on “The Voice”, remembering the team's past but always looking towards the future.
The second incarnation of the Lancers were forced to close up shop after four years of playing indoor and arena soccer in 2015 due to the rising costs of workers' compensation insurance in New York.
Since then, team owner Sam ‘Soccer Sam’ Fantauzzo and team president/head coach Doug Miller have looked long and hard to bring back the team and to do it in a proper venue with decent weekend dates.
The Lancers once called the Blue Cross Arena in downtown Rochester home, but were treated like a fourth-class citizen, getting only a handful of prime playing dates. So, they thought out of the box and found the cozy Dome Arena, which seats 2,500.
The team's staff worked until 8 p.m. Wednesday, transforming the arena into an arena soccer field.
"We saw the field up inside the arena instead of in the hall and all of the signs going up," said Miller. "We had our walk through with all the staff, with the DJ, the bounce house and all the things that are going to be entertainment for the fans there. I took a picture and looked at it. I'm so excited for the players. They're going to have this opportunity in such a great environment. It's going to be a lot of fun and I'm actually going to take it all in."
Added Fantauzzo: "I haven't slept in a month probably and last night when everything came together and the boards were up. At first, I thought to myself, I was really upset with the Blue Cross Arena for not opening up their arms to us. I was even upset with the Rochester Amerks [an American Hockey League team] for shutting the door on us, but after seeing the place set up, it was the best thing that could have happened to us. The Dome Arena is perfect for who we are and what we can do."
Earlier this week, the team announced that it had sold out both games.
"We exceeded all expectations," Fantauzzo said. "I'm amazed on how we were able to convert this concert hall into an arena and how cool and beautiful it looks."
Soccer Sam admitted he was "shocked" that both matches sold several days prior to opening night. When the team played at the Blue Cross Arena -- 11,215 capacity -- the Lancers didn't sell 2,500 tickets a game.
"We had sometimes, 5,000, 7,000 people in the building but kids were free and lot of times coaches brought 10 kids and parents brought four kids," he said. "So, it was rare for us to have the kind of gate we're going to have this weekend because we were unable to give away any free tickets. Our players have passes. Our family members have passes. But there's absolutely no free tickets out there. At first I was concerned about that but now that all the tickets have been sold, it's great. Our losses and I'll say that again, our losses will be less. At this level in any sport, it's about controlling your losses. So, I'm excited in that not only is it going to be fun, but my personal losses are going to be a lot less."
This is what they have on tap:
On Friday, Austin Giorgio, one of the standout performers from “The Voice”, will sing the national anthem and at halftime. Former Lancers stars Mauricio Salles and Joey Tavernese, who perform for Utica City FC are celebrity captains. Fans also will hear the voice of Megan Carter of IHeartRadio, Rochester soccer’s first female PA announcer.
On Saturday, the team will hold a live jersey auction post-game, which will benefit The Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester. Fans can bid on pink jerseys to help raise money and take home a game-worn jersey from their favorite players. Members of the Breast Cancer Coalition will be honorary captains. Former Lancer Dancer Brenna Spencer will perform the national anthem.
The Lancer Dancers will return as will DJ Key-YO, Lancer Louie, T-shirt tosses, a Bounce House, among other entertainment. Fans also will have the opportunity to print their selfies onto a T-shirt.
And at all games this season, the club will hold an IDE ball toss halftime contest at all games, with proceeds to benefit Camp Good Days & Special Times. A special prize will go to the game-winner. The grand prize winner will be entered into an end of season contest to win a trip for four to Jamaica, including airfare.
After the games, fans can meet their favorite players at the in-house Goal Kick Lounge, named after Lancers Wall of Famer and defender Don Lalka's soccer bar in Rochester from the seventies.
And oh yes, about those games. Miller, who last coached the indoor squad in 2015 and directs the Lancers outdoor team in the National Premier Soccer League, has had the team training for five weeks.
The team is a mixture of former Lancers indoor and out. The arena returnees include captains Jake "Earthquake Jake” Schindler and Gary “The Pride of Buffalo NY" Boughton, plus ex-indoor teammates Elliot "The Mohican Warrior” Fauske and Marc "The American Dream” Sotile. Some outdoor Lancers standouts will return, including Isaac "The Medic” Kissi, Rafa Godoi and Alex Harling.
Miller has been forced to put the finishing preseason touches while dealing with some major adversity of his own. On New Year's Day, high winds in Rochester -- gusts were reported to be as much as 61 miles per hour -- blew off the dome of his Doug Miller Family Sports Park (also called Glacier Ridge Sports Park) in suburban Spencerport.
It was an emotional jolt, but Miller has stayed focused the last several days.
"We've prepared for this opening weekend," he said. "We started about five weeks ago. The players are pretty prepared. Even though it's not the best situation that I'm in right now, in regards to moving forward you get stuck sitting there. With every big test comes a big testimony. Then it's just one of those that I'm going to have as I forward dealing with a lot of moving parts. I'm preparing for the opening weekend, which is going to be a sellout and the players are going to be ready to play."
Miller was hopeful of a successful season, although the Eastern Conference looks tough.
"You have some really good, quality teams in Detroit, Chicago and Cincinnati," he said. "In the other division, there's San Diego and Ontario. I haven't seen much or done much scouting of those teams. It's really based upon how we play. We're going to come with high energy. We're going to be pressing team that's going to hopefully score a lot of goals. However, how the other teams match up, that's going to be on them. Our focus right from the get-go was to re-instill, re-energize what we had in 2015 and get people excited about the product."
Rochester will play 12 games this season. All six games will be on back-to-back weekend dates to help cut down the costs of setting up the field at the Dome Arena, which also is used for concerts and trade shows.
For years, Soccer Sam has been the ring leader and driving force off the field and the ringmaster on it. He has taken to the field wearing crazy glasses and loud suits with microphone in hand, and revving up the crowd.
He is far from that for his day job as the founder of Salvatore's Old Fashioned Pizzerias, which has 28 locations in the Rochester-Monroe County area.
The Lancers' revival has been far from a one- or two-man show. Fantauzzo gave credit to Salvatore's director of operations Charles Abore, Lancers president of operations Ashley Maria King and team Kayla Kent-Moreira for performing much of the grunt work of marketing and publicizing the team.
"It's a three-person team," Soccer Sam said. "It's Chuckie, who helped me set everything up at the Dome. Then Ashley and Kayla did everything they could do that's almost humanly possible for ticket sales, ticket distribution, sponsorship sales, sponsor deliverables. So, it's been really a three-man crew. They deserve a lot of credit."
Fantauzzo, 58, knows how to market his product, whether it is pizza or a soccer team. He has eight, that's right, eight, title sponsors and 64 "regular" sponsors.
One of those people was Rich Ide of the Ide Family of Dealerships (cars), who reached out to the Lancers during preseason.
Soccer Sam relayed this story:
"He said, 'How can I help? I hear you guys are bringing back indoor soccer. These days, everywhere I go, people will mention, I remember you at Lancers games. I had no idea the effect my sponsorship had, and I don't get that from radio sponsorship or TV sponsorship where people go out their way to thank them.' I explained to him because the soccer community is so tight and they realize that a lot of the sponsors, and a lot of the media doesn't cover them like they should. That's when a sponsor gives to a team, that sponsor is one of their [fans'] people. So he came out of the woodwork to help us.”
Fantauzzo admitted that he is "slowly trying to retire the Soccer Sam character and trying to become more of a legitimate sports person, and hopefully, eventually a politician."
Oh, he still planned on making player announcements, at least for the opening weekend, although King will do the halftime and postgame player interviews.
"I'm really going to try to take more of a backseat and try to become more on the business side of it all," he said. "I think I'm getting too old to play the Soccer Sam character publicly and it doesn't help me sometimes when I'm in a serious meeting with a business person or a political leader and acting like a 12-year-old who needs Ritalin when I'm doing this character."
Not surprisingly, Soccer Sam's reputation has preceded him.
"He's a promoter," MASL commissioner Joshua Schaub said. "He's one of the best promoters the game has ever seen. He does it the right way. I always love to see owners that become involved in the actual operations. I think fans have solace knowing the person behind the team is really involved and has a passion to get them revved up as well. It's not some owner sitting in a suite, drinking beer lamenting the referees and you never see them again because they sneak out the back door. He is front and center in front of the fans and really energizing the crowd. You can get behind that."
Not surprisingly, Fantauzzo's got a lot of people rooting for him and the Lancers.
He worked for the Rochester Rhinos during its heyday under co-founder general manager Chris Economides, currently Chief Operating Officer of the Florida Tropics. They still are close friends.
"I know that anything he does up there will be first class," Economides said. "You'll have a tremendous atmosphere. I think Sam did a great job with the first version of the Lancers. I would expect nothing less with round two there."
When he was traded by the Lancers to the rival Syracuse Silver Knights (now Utica City FC) in 2011, Tropics defender JP Reyes remembered how he was treated by Fantauzzo.
"Don't let the suit fool you," he said. "That guy is all business all the time. He is one of the best owners that I've had for sure. Even when the whole trade happened with Syracuse and Rochester, he called me three times a day. He made sure I was taken care of in every aspect possible when it happened.”
It should come as no surprise that Soccer Sam has been hopeful of returning to the MASL in the not too distant future.
"I think eventually the MASL will, give us a pass and allow us to be in their league despite the 2,500 maximum capacity," he said.
Rochester returning to M1 isn't out of the realm of possibility, said MASL commissioner Joshua Schaub.
"Sam sent be a radio clip via texts," he said before the sellouts were announced. "It was exactly what I was told the Rochester Lancers were and are. Just a complete, energetic voice pounding about arena soccer, how fast paced and great and exciting it is. I only heard great things about Rochester and the atmosphere that Sam created and his staff. So I look forward to them launching. I hope we can get through the legal and bureaucratic issues in the state of New York to bring them back to M1 because Sam is one of our best operators. They do a great job. I know they're going to fill the stands there. and yes, they are one of the teams we're watching and hopefully someday move back to M1."
It might sound like a cliché, but Fantauzzo bleeds Lancers blue and gold. When he was 10-years-old in 1970, Fantauzzo's uncle, Al Oliveri, took him to a Lancers game in the old North American Soccer League. Fantauzzo, who had just started playing with the Rochester Juniors. He was mesmerized by what he witnessed on the Holleder Stadium pitch.
"So I knew soccer and all of a sudden I was seeing these guys hitting the ball 40 yards to somebody's chest or head and I was like in awe of it all," he said. "I could not believe that they could do that because I couldn't hit the trees in my backyard. I was trying to hit trees in my backyard as a goal and these guys are kicking like it's no big deal and I'm thinking this is like unbelievable. From that point on I was in love with the game."
Five years later, Soccer Sam saw his first indoor game at the Blue Cross Arena and it was even more love at first sight.
Asked what the Lancers have meant to him, Fantauzzo rattled off several names, which included two owners and a standout player.
"It means Charlie Schiano, Pat Dinoflo, Holleder Stadium, Carlos Metidieri, the legends of the game that in my opinion changed my life. I just want to keep their memory alive. That's what Doug has shared with the team. That's what I share with the people I meet, players that join us, staff members. It's part of every speech I make.
"Nobody's doing this for money. This is kind of like my hobby. I don't play golf, I don't jet ski, I don't snow ski, I don't hunt, I don't fish. I don't do anything of them. This is my hobby -- to keep the Lancers memory alive and keep soccer alive with the hope that there's some 10-year-old kid like me in the crowd that loves the game the way I loved it and keeps it alive for the next generation."
Perhaps he or she will be among the crowd at the Dome Arena this Friday or Saturday night.