Friday, October 1, 2010

"Hot Winter Nights" - Chapter 2B--The Players, Part 2

Time now to finish my profile of selected greats in Kansas City Comets history.  Again, I will make reference to this highlight video several times throughout to give you a little taste of what this whole thing was about.  Cue the "Midnight Express" theme again...

Dale Mitchell  When this dude played for the Tacoma Stars from 1983-86, Mitchell just killed the Comets and they couldn’t keep him off the scoreboard to save their souls, to the point where my tag-team partner Tom would often proclaim, “I HATE that guy!”  Unaware of the trade that brought Dale here until pre-game introductions before a Friday night game at Kemper in early ‘86, imagine my surprise when P.A. man Mark Fitzpatrick said, “Please warmly welcome to Kansas City, #15, Daaaaaale Miiiiitchelllllll!”--I was dumfounded.  DM didn’t screw around, though—he scored his first goal as a Comet that night and went on to be named Comets Offensive Player of the Year with 20 goals and 17 assists in the last third of an otherwise down season for the team when they missed the postseason for the first time since the dismal 1981-82 inaugural campaign.  Mitchell wound up being the Comets’ Most Valuable Player in 1987-88 and 1988-89, and he holds the Comet record (along with Jan Goossens) for most goals in a season with 51 in 1986-87.  Dale ultimately was the MISL’s 3rd all-time leading goal scorer (tied with legendary shirt-thrower Tatu).  Check out Dale's OT game-winner vs. San Diego in the 1988 playoffs at the 2:49 mark on the video.

For reasons I’ve never fully understood, Mitchell was inexplicably traded to the Baltimore Blast in 1990 for midfielder Carl Valentine.  Valentine was a fine player, but the move baffled just about everyone around here, and I can only surmise that Dale had some sort of conflict with head coach Dave Clements.  It figures—we couldn’t stand the guy when he was our enemy, then we finally embraced him as one our own, and then they let him go.  Made no sense...

Jan Goossens  “The Goose” rounded out the Goossens/ Roentved/Mitchell leadership triumvirate for the late ‘80s/early ‘90s Comets squads, and he was every bit the prolific scorer Mitchell was, except for when his fragile knees and/or Achilles heel kept him out of the lineup, which always seemed to happen at the most inopportune times, like during the playoffs.  A native of Velp, Holland, Goossens was previously an All-Star with the Golden Bay (Oakland) Earthquakes and Minnesota Strikers before joining the Comets not long after Mitchell did.  Jan was the Comets’ all-time leading goal scorer and had one of the greatest individual single-game performances in Comets history in 1991 against Wichita, scoring five goals and one assist on a night when it initially didn’t look like he would even play because of a knee injury.  Goossens had a hat trick in his next game too—guess he healed real fast!  However, my favorite Goose memory was his double-OT game-winner (at 2:37 of the video) against Dallas at Kemper in 1987, after which he ripped off his jersey (in a little dig at Sidekicks star player Tatu’s trademark goal celebration shtick) and ran around the field flailing his arms hysterically while being chased by his teammates.  Goose later deemed this “a moment of mental illness,” but it led radio announcer Kevin Wall to proclaim on-air, “The MAGIC IS BACK at Kemper Arena!” following a bit of a down period for the team.  Ironically, Goossens and Tatu were later teammates for one season in Dallas after the demise of the Comets in 1991, then Goose retired as a player when the MISL folded in 1992 and got into coaching in his native homeland.

Barry Wallace  “The Boomer” had not one, not two, but THREE tours of duty with the Comets, near the end of the team’s tenure which were sandwiched around stints playing outdoors in Tulsa.  You might say Barry was the Michael Corelone of the franchise—just when you thought he was out, they pulled him back in!  A midfielder from merry ole’ England and teammate of Kim Roentved in Wichita for several years prior to coming to K.C., Wallace was best known for his footwork and ball control skills in the midfield.  He garnered his nickname from his penchant for scoring goals off restarts with his booming hard shots.  Sadly, Barry died of cancer at age 47 in October, 2006, the first (to my knowledge) former Comets player to pass on.  He was followed just a couple months later by former Comets forward and fan-favorite Carlos Salguero, another victim of cancer.  And like so many other former Comets—Wallace was still living here in the area at the time of his passing, coaching youth soccer.

Clive Griffiths  Clive was another Comet whose life was interrupted by cancer but unlike Barry Wallace, Mr. Griffiths is happily still alive to tell about it.  A fellow Brit from Wales, Griffiths played on the inaugural ’81-’82 squad and teamed up with Gino Schiraldi on the defense and also quickly became another fan favorite and was very active in the community before being stricken with testicular cancer in 1983.  After undergoing successful chemo treatments, Clive returned briefly before retiring to the Comets’ front office and to the broadcast booth.  Clive also served as head coach for the men’s soccer team at my alma mater, UMKC, in the late ‘80s.

Mike Dowler  Another guy who was one of our villains for so many years when he was with Wichita and Tacoma, “Iron Mike” platooned with an even bigger villain, former San Diego Sucker (Socker) Jim Gorsek, during the final two seasons in Comets history to form a solid veteran goalkeeping tandem.  Dowler got his nickname for doing his best Lou Gehrig/Cal Ripken impression with Wichita back in the day when he started practically every game in goal.  During those last two Comets seasons when Mike was out injured, he would join announcer Kevin Wall in the radio booth to do color commentary and did a really nice job, sounding very charismatic with his eloquent British accent, a bit reminiscent of Beatle George Harrison at times.

Gordon Hill  Sticking with the Brits here, Gordie had a magical season for the Comets in 1983-84, racking up 46 goals and 24 assists—one of them appears at the 2:05 mark of the video.  That was the night Hill went bonkers at Kemper and scored six goals (all in a row!) against the Steamers, setting the team record for most goals in a game, and they needed every last one of them that night to beat St. Louie 8-7.  Hill's first goal in a Comets uniform that season was pretty memorable too, yet few people actually witnessed it.  One night in front of a paltry crowd in Phoenix, GH took a feed near the top of the penalty area and executed a perfect “bicycle kick” and rammed it home, but no video exists of said goal, that I’m aware of.  Gord only played for one season and change with the Comets before wearing out his welcome with head coach Pat McBride, who accused Hill of not being a team player and released him.  McBride himself was gone by Christmas of '84 as well.

David Doyle  No, not Bosley from “Charlie’s Angels”, this David Doyle was known as “The Legend” in his native Dublin, Ireland, where he lived up to his nickname in the outdoor futbol realm.  I’ll never forget the time I was out drinking one night circa. 1995 down in Westport when this Irish bartender and I were discussing soccer and as soon as I uttered the name David Doyle, his eyes lit up and he said, “You mean The Legend?!?”  Doyle, who was voted MISL Rookie Of The Year in 1987-88, was a speedy forward who was a major cog in the Comets offense from 1987 until the bitter end in ’91, and he executed two of those Jack Buck “I don’t believe what I just saw!” kind of moments you just can’t forget.  The first was a goal in 1990 against the St. Louis Storm (who replaced the Steamers) when after the Comets’ defense wrested control of the ball, Doyle brought it up from his own defensive zone, having to dodge at least five tackle attempts by the opponents—getting knocked down at least twice—as he bobbed and weaved his way into their end of the field, never once losing control of the freakin’ ball. Just when you thought he was going to collapse from exhaustion, he fired a shot that the goalie completely whiffed at!  I’m hoping that particular play is still on video somewhere, but I haven't found it yet.  The other classic happened a few games later when Doylie launched a shot from his own defensive third of the field as the quarter was about to expire and caught opposing goalkeeper David Brcic (a former Comet) way out of position (in the next county almost).  Brcic looked as if he was watching a 747 soaring overhead as the ball sailed past him into the goal as the horn went off.

Doyle was involved in an unfortunate (and controversial) incident in a 1990 playoff series against Wichita, breaking his right tibia in a collision with Wings defender Victor Moreland.  Many Comets fans accused Moreland—who had a reputation as a bit of a goon—of “over-topping” the ball and deliberately trying to injure Doyle (who was lost for the rest of the playoffs, obviously) but when I saw the replays, I never really thought it was a dirty play at all.  Fortunately, David recovered and was fully-functional again by early ’91 for the final Comets season stretch run, and went on to star well into the ‘90s with the Dallas Sidekicks of the CISL and briefly as a teammate of Kim Roentved with the Wichita Wings in the NPSL in 1997-98, ultimately retiring in 2004.

Other Comets players of note:

Kia  No, not the crappy little import car line, but native Iranian Kia Zolgharnain, who simply went by his first name and was a fan-favorite beginning in 1987.  He was a little dude, all 5’5” of him, and had previously starred with the Canton Invaders of the American Indoor Soccer Association.  He brought some added punch to the Comets offense for three seasons, but early in his fourth season with the team, he got off to a poor start and perceived himself to be in Coach Dave Clements' doghouse, so he requested the controversial trade that sent him and Gerry Gray to Tacoma for Barry Wallace.  Kia subsequently wound up back in Canton.

Charley Greene  Greene’s arrival in K.C. in 1986 raised a few eyebrows, mostly because of his infamous head-butting (at 3:10 of the video) of Gino Schiraldi at Kemper in 1982 when Greene played for Cleveland.  Greene accused Schiraldi of kicking him in his "manhood", but Gino claimed he did no such thing.  Gino forgave and forgot, as did Comets fans, and Greene had a nice run as a defender here for two seasons before heading back to Cleveland.

Ty Keough  Ty only played one season for the Comets after several years with those evil Steamers in his native St. Louis.  You might recognize him from his color commentary work on ESPN’s MLS and World Cup coverage.  Ty is the son of late St. Louis soccer legend Harry Keough, a member of the U.S. National Team who played England in the 1950 World Cup final.

Charlie Fajkus  Fajkus (pronounced FY-cus, like the plant) was a midfielder who had a steady run for three seasons here in the mid-‘80s, sandwiched between stints with the Chicago Sting.  He was also a dead ringer for actor William Watson, who played the soldier on "MASH" who held the 4077th hostage while his wounded lieutenant was in surgery.

Tim Twellman  MLS star Taylor Twellman’s pappy played for the Comets from 1983-86.

Dave Boncek  MISL Rookie Of The Year in 1985-86, #19 was a solid defender for five seasons with the Comets.  Nothing flashy here—just a quiet hard-working blue-collar kind of player.

Paul Peschisolido  Another little dude who came along late in the team’s tenure, his surname (pronounced ‘pesky-SO-lee-doh’) translated to “solid fisherman”.  He more or less took Kia’s spot on the roster, as both an offensive weapon and heartthrob for female Comets fans.  At 19 years of age, Paul was the youngest player in the league at that time.

Iain Fraser  Another defender, Iain was almost a carbon copy of Dave Boncek—they even kinda looked alike.  Not to be confused with the journeyman NHL center of the same name, Iain “Fuckin'” Fraser (as I affectionately liked to call him) was born in Scotland and raised in Ontario, and was the Comets Rookie Of The Year in 1986-87. He was one of the team’s best shot blockers from ’86-’91 and later returned to K.C. for two seasons with the Attack and also played in the inaugural season of Major League Soccer with the New England Revolution in 1996.

Ted Eck  Ted came along near the end of the Comets’ road in 1988 and gradually worked his way into the Comets offensive arsenal, which was tough to do with the likes of Haramina, Goossens, Doyle and Mitchell ahead of him on the depth chart.  Eck later played sparingly for the Dallas Burn in MLS in the late ‘90s.  After each Comets goal during home games at Kemper, the player who scored it would kick out a genuine regulation “Wilson Keeper” soccer ball into the stands, and Mr. Eck launched one skyward in my direction in a game in 1990 and I caught it.  My friend Tom always accuses me of knocking some little kid in the aisle out of the way to get it, but I did no such thing, and I still proudly own said ball to this day.  Thanks, Ted!

Zoran Savic  A name like Savic makes you think of Star Trek movies, but the Z-man was one of the top scorers during the Comets’ early years.  He later returned here as a member of the Kansas City Attack and subsequently became their head coach, leading the team to its first NPSL championship in 1992-93 in his first season at the helm.  Zoran is currently an assistant coach for the artists formerly known as the Kansas City Wizards in MLS.

Doug Neely  The Comets snagged Neely (aka "Gnarly") in the dispersal draft after the 1989 demise of the L.A. Lazers.  This surfer boy from California looked like a hippie with his long blonde hair, but he played hard as a defender, working well with messers. Schiraldi and Fraser.

Dave Clements  “Clemo” replaced head coach Rick Benben after a poor start to the ’86-’87 season and righted the Comets’ ship, leading them to a playoff berth.  He remained with the team until the bitter end and was the all-time winningest coach in team history.  Ironically, the guy he replaced (Benben) replaced the guy who Clemo replaced in St. Louis (Pat McBride) when McBride took over the Comets in ‘82, and Dave was head coach of those evil St. Louis Steamers during the intense rivalry years from ’82-’85.  Clemo was a tough old Irishman, but very fair, and most players seemed to enjoy playing for him.  Off the field, he was quite friendly and affable, and it was fun to be able to walk up to him and shake his hand during pre-game warm-ups prior to the playoff game in Cleveland in ’91 and say, “Hi Coach, you know me as ‘Brian from Raytown’ on your radio show—nice to finally meet!”  He also encouraged me and the other Comets fans who’d made the road trip to remember that we were representing our city and we should do K.C. proud, and I thought it was really cool that he would take the time to talk to us before such an important contest.  Last I heard, Clemo had retired to the mountains in Colorado.  A good soccer man, indeed.


dr sardonicus said...

Back in the day I went to a few Wichita Wings games, there not being much else to do in Wichita that time of year besides drink beer. For a good part of the 80's, that triangular Wichita-Kansas City-St.Louis rivalry provided the MISL with many of its greatest moments. A shame none of them ever won a championship.

I hadn't heard of any of these guys in ages, looking forward to more.

Brian Holland said...

Thanks, Doc--great to hear from you. I think you'll enjoy the next installment, in which I'll delve into the "other guys", including the Comets' rivalries with the Wings and Steamers, among others. I loved doing road trips to Wichita and really liked Kansas Coliseum--excellent venue, and it's a shame it'll be torn down soon.