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He’s now president of Major League Soccer side Toronto FC, but back then Manning was a 25-year-old midfielder trying to make his way playing the game he loved in a pre-MLS America with limited professional options. And from the hood of his gray ragtop, he was forced to watch the last hour-plus of the 1991 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final between his own Brooklyn Italians and the Richardson Rockets.
(Bill Manning today with Toronto FC of Major League Soccer (MLS)Manning was in the Italians' starting XI at Brooklyn College that steamy Saturday in August. But he’d been sent off after receiving a controversial red card mid-way through the first-half and had to watch from a gap in the fence off on a side street (He wasn't just sent from the pitch; he had to leave the stadium]. A man down for the last 67 minutes, Manning’s Italians managed to win the day 1-0 over their talented foes from Dallas, Texas.
Down a Man, on the Mustang
"I just hoped that that red card didn't blow it for the team," said Manning, now 51 and a crucial cog in the front office machinery that’s helped make Toronto FC into the powerhouse they are today. "Luckily we were strong enough to win. Mike [Rybak, coach of Brooklyn Italians at the time] made a couple tactical moves. It was rare that we ever lost a game on that field."
They did enjoy a home-field edge, but Brooklyn's journey to the title had plenty of twists and turns. The year before, the Italians were tied 1-1 with AAC Eagles of Chicago in the final minute of the 1990 Open Cup Final in Indianapolis when their goalkeeper, the ever-reliable Dragan Radovich, bobbled a 20-yard shot by midfielder Piotr Modrezejewski into the net. "It was a routine save for Dragan and I think he was thinking, 'How am I going to distribute this?'” remembered Manning, a native of Massapequa, Long Island. "But it went through his fingers and into the goal. It was brutal."
Radovich had played in the original North American Soccer League (NASL) alongside Johan Cruyff with the Washington Diplomats, then with the Portland Timbers before spending another year with the Chicago Sting. A goalkeeper with experience and talent both, he took all the blame that day in 1990. "He had great credentials," Manning said, feeling for his teammate even after all these years. "He was a class act."
The Italians’ Irish defender, Ronan Wiseman, remembers it the same. “The shot came in and I thought ‘Dragan’s got this for sure,’ so I peeled out wide to receive the ball and come out with it,” said the former right-back, who played with the Italians for five seasons and now heads the youth academy for the NASL's New York Cosmos. “But I turned around and the ball was in the net; it must have slipped through his fingers.”
Italians Spurred to Action
That stunning defeat only fortified the Italians' focus on winning the Cup in 1991. They played in a Northeastern Super Soccer League that lived up to its name mainly because it was comprised of the best amateur and semi-pro teams in the New York-New Jersey area at the time. The Brooklyn Italians, founded in 1949 and still operating today, had already made a name by winning the Open Cup back in 1979.
And considering the team played in the most cosmopolitan city on the planet, it’s no surprise that Brooklyn boasted a virtual United Nations in their lineup. There were Brazilians, Nigerians, Latin Americans, Haitians, Portuguese, Irishmen – Italians of course – and Americans. As was the case in those days when the ethnic leagues reigned supreme, country of origin, background or creed, didn’t much matter. If you were good enough, you were Brooklyn Italian enough.
“We had some seriously talented players in that team. Guys from all over the world,” said Ernest Inneh, the talented attacker from Benin City in Southern Nigeria who came to New York City to study at Brooklyn College. “Players today are like machines, but back then it was about dribbling. About showing up the other guy and making him look stupid! It was old school. About brains and skill, not brawn.”
(Brooklyn Italians Owner Jerry Valerio at the clubhouse)
According to Manning's own detailed records, Brooklyn forged a 21-4-4 record in 1991. They scored 68 goals and surrendered 34. At home, the Italians were even more difficult to topple. That year they boasted a 13-1-2 record while outscoring their opposition 38 to 13 at Brooklyn College. “I don’t remember losing any games there,” added Wiseman, noting the old-style artificial turf wasn’t the kind you’d want to slide, or fall, on. “It would leave its mark on you. But we were built for speed and that field gave us an edge.”
Inneh, who played for a time in the Greek first division, had bags of pace and was among the speediest in the side. “I loved playing on that turf,” he said. “In Nigeria we played on dirt, so for someone who had good speed and skill like me, that turf was a dream. Even if it was a little hard, you never had to lose the ball.”
Consistency Key in Brooklyn
"We pretty much had the same team as the year before, the year we lost it late," Manning said about the 1991 Cup-winning side. "We may have added a player or two. It was a really strong team. We were 14 or 15 deep. It was one of those teams, had MLS been around and everyone was playing fulltime, you could have picked six or seven MLS-type players from it."
But even with all the edge and ability, the Italians nearly missed out on the Final. RWB Adria beat them 1-0 in the Semifinals, only to be disqualified after the Italians discovered that the Chicago side used illegally registered players, and lodged a formal protest. Some 24 hours prior to the Final’s kickoff, Adria petitioned an Illinois court to postpone the game in hopes of countering with an appeal. But federal court judge Ilana Rovner wrote, in a seven-page decision, that there were no grounds for a delay.
So, the match went on – on the AstroTurf of Brooklyn College between the Italians and the Sun Belt Independent Soccer League side (known as the United Soccer League today)."We played quick possession soccer and that field was suited to the technical players we had," said Manning, who still wears the scars and burns of the unforgiving surface.
Quick Start in USOC Final
Only six minutes after kickoff, the Italians set themselves on the road to victory. Inneh headed a long ball from Cesar Silva toward goal. With ‘keeper Brian Hall out of position, defender Billy Pettigrew lunged to clear the ball off the goal-line, but he was too late to keep the hometown Italians from going up 1-0
The next crucial moment came in the 23rd minute as Manning and Rockets forward Alan Pamprin, twice capped for the U.S. National Team, battled for possession. Referee Steve Olson blew his whistle sharply. Manning remembers thinking he was going to award Richardson a free-kick for obstruction. Instead, the man in black slapped him with a straight red.
Manning was incredulous then. And he still is now. "It was a through ball," he said. "Alan and I got into a foot race and we both were pretty fast. I remember we were jostling with our arms and I had gotten my arm in front of his arm. He stumbled on the turf. I got the ball and I heard the whistle. I said, ‘Ok, obstruction.’ And the guy pulls out the red card. I was beleaguered, I was astonished. And after I was angry."
Jumped the Gun?
Years later, Manning met up with Olson when he was president of the A-League’s Minnesota Thunder. "We went out that night," Manning said. "I would always argue that it wasn't a breakaway, it was a foot race. That's what I remember telling Steve years later and he admitted he may have jumped the gun on that one.”
(Brooklyn Italians before the 1991 U.S. Open Cup Semifinal - Bill Manning standing 2nd from left)
And years after that, when Manning was general manager of the now-defunct MLS side Tampa Bay Mutiny, Pamprin – the man he allegedly fouled in the 1991 Final – was a member of the team. "We joked about it," Manning chuckled. "I remember him saying that he was astonished when he saw the red card come out."
But back on that day in the summer of 1991, coach Rybak never panicked. He moved Victor Ogunsanya, the right back, into Manning's central spot alongside Wiseman and moved a forward to midfield as the Italians switched from a 4-4-2 to a 4-4-1. "So we never really lost the midfield, even though we were a man down," Manning added, admiring the tactical switch while rolling his socks down on the hood of his Ford showpiece. "It was actually a fairly even game after I got knocked out."
Rockets Rally Late
That so many of Manning’s teammates don’t even remember the sending off is a pretty good indication of just how good, and how confident, the Italians were that day. “Did he get sent off in that game?” Wiseman asked, having difficulty remembering it after all the 26 years in between. “I don’t really remember playing with ten men that day,” added Inneh. “I just remember having the better of the play.”
The visitors had one more chance after Lucco Russo fouled Rex Roberts just outside the box. Gian-Pualo Pedrosa took the free-kick, but it sailed over the crossbar along with any hopes of a Richardson win on the day. Several minutes later, Olson blew his whistle and the Italians won their second Open title (they were known as the Brooklyn Dodgers when they won the first), cementing their status in the legend and lore of American soccer’s oldest and most enduring Cup.
Mixed Emotions for Dismissed Manning
"It was kind of bittersweet, though," admitted Manning, who sneaked back in the stadium and joined his teammates on the pitch for the post-match award ceremony. "Obviously, I was a big part of that team for years because I started every game, but not to be part of that championship team out there on the field when we won it was a little bittersweet."
Both teams celebrated the game with 150 people at Gargiulo’s Restaurant in nearby Coney Island. There, amid the celebrations and commiserations, someone pointed to the big trophy in the center of the room and said: "That trophy cost Jerry Valerio $100,000."
The Open Cup trophy, especially in those days, was worth far more than the sum of its parts. It crowned the best soccer team in America for many years. Valerio, the Italians' owner, had paid players and traveling expenses from his own pocket, which helped account for the six-figure price tag.
"Jerry Valerio poured everything into that team," Manning said, remembering a time before MLS when passion and community kept the game alive. "That guy wanted to win. I remember the Region I final. He came into our huddle literally right before the game. He offered each of us a hundred bucks if we won. And he paid out. After the game, we would go back to the club, and he wound up giving everyone a $100 bill. He put a lot into that franchise. He expected a lot too. None of us were full-time players, but he expected us to go out and win."
Little Money, Lots of Memories
Manning worked for his father's security business at the time. "I was working for him and trying to make ends meet by playing for the Brooklyn Italians, still chasing the dream," he said. "Back in those days, we were all pioneers because no one was making enough money to just play soccer."
(Brooklyn Italians clubhouse and trophy room)
Manning earned $200 a game with the Italians before moving to three-time Open Cup champs New York Pancyprians, where his earnings doubled to $400 a match. "I felt like I was rich," he said. "It was crazy. With the Italians, I imagine some guys were making more than me. You probably figured guys were making anywhere from $100 to $400, $500 a game,” Manning said. “That was a fun team. We had a chance to play in the CONCACAF Champions Cup (today’s CONCACAF Champions League)."
While the money was a nice touch, it was probably spent straight through many years ago. But the memories Manning and Co keep from that magical year will last forever, even the bittersweet ones on the sun-hot hood of an American classic.
(Additional reporting by Jonah Fontela)