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.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Hot Winter Nights" - Chapter 2A--The Players, Part 1

In my second installment of my Kansas City Comets tribute, I salute some of the players who made this whole thing happen in the first place.  Throughout the course of this post (and the next one), I will make mention of this YouTube video a few times, which I think you'll find highly enjoyable and for those of you not familiar with the K.C Comets phenomenon, highly educational.  Without further ado, please allow me to introduce YOUR Kansas City Comets!!!

Gino Schiraldi  Gino’s surname was misspelled in the inaugural 1981-82 Comets media guide (‘SCHIRLADI’), but little did anyone know then that he’d go on to become the man most associated with indoor soccer in Kansas City, and the only man to play for the original MISL Comets franchise throughout its entire existence from 1981-91.  Short and stocky with the funniest-looking knees you’ll ever see, Gino was a tenacious bulldog of a defender and the captain of the Comets for most of his tenure in K.C., and very active in the community off the field.  I met Gino several times over the years and he’s real nice guy, and I dearly miss his pizza establishment that he opened downtown back in the late ‘80s—Gino’s pizzas had the best-tasting bread crust I’ve ever had, as well as some tangy Italian sausage that had just the right amount of kick to it without being too spicy.  When the Comets folded in 1991, Gino received offers from some of the remaining then-MSL clubs, but to his credit, he did not want to leave K.C., and eventually signed on with the Kansas City Attack of the NPSL for their inaugural season in ’91-’92 before calling it a career, and his #2 was retired by the team.  I’m willing to bet there’s a pretty fair chance that Schiraldi will be involved with the new Missouri Comets franchise in some capacity as well.

Alan Mayer  One of the all-time great goalkeepers in indoor soccer history, and the only one with sense enough to wear rubberized headgear to protect his noggin from all the abuse goalies are known to take.  Alan’s nickname was “Kamikaze” because of his all-out reckless style of play, hence the need for the headgear.  Mayer had previously played on the evil 1982-83 championship San Diego Sockers team, going 30-10 in goal in the regular season and also served as the player/head coach of the short-lived Las Vegas Americans before arriving in Kansas City in 1985, becoming one of the most popular players on the squad.  Like so many other Comets players, Alan liked our area so much that once he got here, he decided to stay put, thus he relocated his family here permanently.  Mayer served as an assistant coach for the Kansas City Wizards for a while in the '90s, and he still works around town in the insurance business milieu.

Damir Haramina  My personal all-time favorite Comet, in part because his story just fascinated me, and partly because he kinda sorta looked like me back in the day in the face.  He came to America in the spring of ’85 at age 23 from Yugoslavia knowing only two words of English:  “Hello” and “Damir”.  He was also totally unfamiliar with the indoor game, having been raised on outdoor soccer back home, but by some fluky luck, he landed a spot on the Comets roster at the tail end of the ’84-’85 regular season.  Damir assimilated quite rapidly, and ended up scoring four goals in five games during the ’85 playoffs, including a game-winning OT goal against the arch-rival St. Louis Steamers (at the 2:16 mark of the video I mentioned above) and a game-tying goal that forced OT in the following series vs. San Diego.  Damir took English classes in his spare time in the off-season at one of our local community colleges and he lived in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas, which is home to many Serbian/Slavic people, including teammate Boris Bandov, who became his mentor.  By the ’85-’86, da boy was one of the mainstays of the Comets offense, racking up 108 goals through the ’87-’88 season.

When I purchased my first Comets replica jersey in ‘86, I had it customized with “HARAMINA” and his #11 on the back—the first and only time I’ve done so with a jersey.  Said shirt also gained me the first nickname I ever had that actually stuck—“Haramina”—during my first radio gig at the “Mighty 1030”, KKJC in Blue Springs, MO.  We were a Comets radio affiliate and I proudly wore my uni constantly to work.  And because of my beloved jersey, I adopted 11 as my lucky number, which makes sense anyway since I was born on the 11th of June and 11 totally resembles my zodiac sign Gemini.  On the night of December 12, 1987 at a Comets game, my good friend Tom and I were sitting in the lower level stands at Kemper when some guy taps me on the shoulder and says, “I like your shirt.”  I turned around and was astounded to see the man himself, Damir Haramina, seated behind us!  He was sitting out that game with an injury and was taking in the game from the stands, which was not uncommon for Comets players to do when they were injured—unlike these pampered, overpaid yutzes in the NFL and NBA, et al, MISL players weren’t too good to mix with the peeples, and didn’t mind rubbing elbows with us peons at all.  Tom and I both shook hands with him and he seemed like a cool guy.

My favorite Damir moment was a Saturday night game on March 1, 1986 at Kemper vs. Tacoma that happened to be on ESPN in which he was suited-up but remained on the bench almost the entire game because of a nagging stomach muscle injury.  The game went into overtime and the Comets drew a foul that resulted in a restart at the top of the arc in front of the penalty area.  In a brilliant maneuver not quite two minutes into OT, head coach Rick Benben trotted Haramina out for the restart, and before you knew it, he scored on a nice feed from veteran Charlie Fajkus.  Essentially, the man played all of four seconds of the entire game, yet he scored the freakin’ game-winning goal!  After an injury-plagued 1988-89 season that limited Damir to three goals in 13 games, he had a falling-out with coach Dave Clements before ’89-’90 commenced.  Haramina had come to training camp out-of-shape, and evidently his work ethic wasn’t what it should have been at the time, so he was released and landed in San Diego for a season or two.  He also played for the Las Vegas team in the now-defunct Continental Indoor Soccer League before returning to Croatia in the ‘90s.
Pato Margetic  He only spent a season and a half here (sandwiched between two stints with the Chicago Sting), but “The Magic Man” was a favorite with the ladies because of his long blonde hair, and Pato could’ve passed for the late Randy Rhoads’ older brother, if he had one.  Pato was a native of Argentina and was oft-injured, and how he got around so well on those spindly legs of his is a mystery to me, but when Margetic (pronounced mar-HET-ic) was healthy, he was a prolific scorer.  My favorite Pato memory is the time during our front-row season ticket era when referee Gino DiPollito called a foul on him right in front of us and as Margetic started to protest, all of a sudden this big ol’ wad of drool comes out of his mouth.  DiPollito had already turned his back to him, so Pato quickly reached up and grabbed the wad of slobber and wiped it on DiPollito’s shirt tail without him ever realizing it!  "Dippo" was pretty clueless about most everything anyway, as I’ll detail later.  Pato later became player-coach of the Chicago Power of the NPSL and led them to a championship in 1990-91.

Kim Roentved  Now here’s a dude I want in my foxhole if I'm ever a soldier in a war.  Not only is he a natural-born leader, but he would fight and kick and scratch and grab to steal the ball away from his opponent and is one of those scrappy players who wouldn’t think twice about sacrificing his body to make a play.  Roentved (pronounced RUNT-ved) played in more games than anyone else in MISL history, and was the Bobby Orr of indoor soccer.  Not only was he an excellent defender, but Kim often played a major role in the offense as well—defenders aren’t supposed to average 24 goals a season!  He was the only defender in league history to amass more than 500 points (goals and assists combined).  A native of Denmark, “The Rocket” was a fan-favorite during his seven years with the Wichita Wings, playing alongside his older brother Per Roentved.  Sadly, Per suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that left him temporarily paralyzed on the left side of his body and was forced to retire early (he made a full recovery eventually).  When the Wings could no longer afford Kim’s salary, he moved up I-35 and joined the Comets in ’87 and was a stalwart of the franchise until the bitter end in ’91.  I’ll never forget when I attended the Comets’ final playoff game (and final game ever, period) in Cleveland in ’91, I was sitting in the front row at Richfield Coliseum toying with my camera during pre-game warmups, and Roentved spotted me in my Comets jersey and he came over and knocked on the Plexiglas and waved at me.  You think Manny Ramirez or A-Roid would do such a thing?  I think not...

My other favorite Rocket moment was when (at 7:31 of the video) he knocked Wichita badass defender Brad Smith right on his arse.  After the demise of the Comets, Roentved returned to play and coach for the Wings during their NPSL days in the ‘90s (with Smith as a teammate, oddly enough), then returned to play one season with the Kansas City Attack in 1998-99 (which I’d totally forgotten about until I revisited all this) before retiring as a player.  He has since remained in the K.C. area and opened a chain of import high-end Danish furniture stores in the Overland Park area, but I think they’ve since closed.  His son Cole—a spitting image of his old man—plays soccer at my alma mater, UMKC, and Kim was inducted into the Wichita Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.  Which begs the question, if Wichita has a Sports Hall of Fame, why the filth-flarn-filth doesn’t Kansas City have one yet?!?  But I digress.  I’m quite pleased to report that “The Rocket” will be head coach of the new Comets franchise that begins play this fall in nearby Independence.  Excellent choice, indeed.

Tasso Koutsoukos  One of the stars of the Comets’ early seasons and a fan favorite, Tasso was a native of Montreal, not Athens, thus making him sort of a Greek/French Canuck, and he manned the midfield for the Comets for a couple years in the mid-‘80s before being traded to Minnesota in 1985, then he returned to K.C. for another tour of duty in 1987.  Tasso scored the cataclysmic game-winning goal 1:22 into overtime in Game 3 of the 1985 playoffs vs. St. Louis, clinching the Comets’ first playoff series win in team history and finally getting them over the Steamer hump, after having struggled mightily against Team Steam in both the regular season and playoffs during their first three years of existence.  He also helped mentor young master Haramina upon his arrival here, and they often assisted on each other’s goals.

Enzo DiPede  K.C.’s first star goalkeeper and another fan favorite from the early days, Enzo was an original Comet who had played previously as back-up to the legendary Shep Messing on those champion New York Arrows teams from ’78-’80.  Born in Italy and raised in Toronto, DiPede (pronounced de-PAY-day) survived original Comets head coach Luis Dabo’s revolving personnel door in that first season where he seemingly fielded a different roster of players for every game, hence Dabo’s dismissal after the team stumbled out of the gate 2-9.  Enzo and fellow original Comet Gino Schiraldi became the best of friends and like Gino, Enzo went into the restaurant biz here in town and opened up Bagel Works in the heart of Westport.  And like so many other Comets, he still lives here in K.C.

Just as an aside, Dabo pretty much cooked his own goose before the Comets ever played a game, as he was busted for soliciting an undercover K.C. Police woman for prostitution on October 30, 1981—two weeks before the Comets' debut.  His excuse was he was merely "complimenting" the woman on her appearance.  Riiiiight...

Yilmaz Orhan  A native of Cyprus and an offensive force in the first two seasons of Comets history, Orhan scored 63 goals in basically a season-and-a-half.  "Yo” was a favorite of the ladies with his thick, wavy Gino Vanelli-ish hair and European good looks—that's him scoring at the 1:15 mark of the video.  Unfortunately, Orhan fell out of favor with a DUI arrest following the 1983 season and was released outright before joining the Memphis Americans, for whom he scored 49 goals in ’83-’84.  He then bounced around with other teams for a couple years, returning here for a cup of coffee in 1986, playing in five games with the Comets without scoring a point.  By that time, he was a mere shadow of the player he was in 1982-83, and never played in the MISL again after that.  Sad case of what might’ve been…

Plenty more to come in Chapter 2B, coming soon...