THROWBACK THURSDAY | Gio Savarese, Tony Meola Help Guide Long Island Rough Riders To Title

The current NASL coaches were key members of the Rough Riders side that won the 1995 USISL title
Matthew Levine (@NASLInsider} | Jan 7, 2016

Giovanni Savarese and Tony Meola are busy at work putting together their rosters for the 2016 NASL Season. Savarese is coming off his second title in three seasons with the New York Cosmos, while Meola embarks on his head-coaching debut with Jacksonville Armada FC.

The twosome, though, were part of one of the most memorable rosters assembled for a professional team in the New York area: the Long Island Rough Riders.

The 1995 team that competed in the U.S. Interregional Soccer League (USISL) included Chris Armas, Jim Rooney (Meola’s assistant in Jacksonville) to go along with Savarese and Meola. Other members of the roster included Paul Riley, who recently coached the NWSL’s Portland Thorns and Richard Nuttall, who has been Hofstra’s men’s soccer coach for more than 25 years, as well as Jamaican national team captain Paul Davis, who was the lone player that didn’t have ties to the area.

“Back then that league was, for lack of a better term, very localized,” Meola told “Now it’s changed a little bit.

“That particular group shows how strong the sport was in the Northeast at the time. I’m sure if you put a league together that way now, you’d get some similar results.”

The result was winning the league title of the top league in the country at the time. Built off of strong play from Savarese, who scored 23 league goals and would become the regular-season and playoff MVP, and Meola’s goalkeeping, it was the atmosphere around the team that contributed most to its success.

“It was a very good team, but the best part of the team, more than the talent, was the camaraderie,” Savarese said. “We were a true family-oriented club and that made us champions in the end. All credit to everyone involved because it was a very good experience.”

Meola echoed that sentiment wholeheartedly: “I look back at that team and the one thing that sticks out – and I’m sure everyone on that team will tell you the same thing because I’ve spoken to Jimmy [Rooney] about it, Alfonso Mondelo about it, and I’ve had the conversation with Gio over the years about it – was the culture on that team. Everyone fought for each other, loved being around each other. It was a good group of guys. We had one mission – of course it’s the same mission that everyone in the league has – to win a championship.”

Meola gave credit to Mondelo, who was the head coach of the Rough Riders during the title-winning season.

“He created an atmosphere that guys couldn’t wait to get there and guys didn’t want to leave,” Meola said. “We couldn’t wait to compete and go on the road with each other and win away games. It was one of those groups, and you don’t get it all the time, but the more time we spent with each other the more we enjoyed each other when often times that doesn’t happen.”

The Rough Riders missed the championship match the year before, losing to the Carolina Dynamo, 2-1, in extra time. After an opening match loss on the road, 2-1, to the Charleston Battery, the Rough Riders wouldn’t lose another game, finishing with a 19-1 record, earning a bye into the Sizzlin’ Nine Championship. Each team played the other two sides in the three-team groups and the top four sides advanced.

In the playoffs, Savarese again showed his goalscoring prowess. He tallied the opener as Long Island edged the Monterey Bay Jaguars, 2-1. In the second group match, Savarese scored a hat trick in a 4-1 win over the New Mexico Chiles.

In the semifinal round, Savarese once again notched three goals in a 5-2 dismantling of the Tampa Bay Cyclones. The win set up a final against the Minnesota Thunder, which included former Minnesota coach and now the club’s first sporting director Manny Lagos and U.S. international Tony Sanneh. The Thunder also posted a 19-1 record.

The contest was as close as the teams’ regular-season records suggested. Armas scored just before the first half ended and Amos Magee equalized shortly after the break.

With the match winding down, though, the Rough Riders pushed for a game-winning goal and found it with six seconds remaining, scored by Savarese.

Meola sent the ball upfield and Danny Mueller played the ball to Savarese.

“There were times that we were always talking for him to play the ball quickly so we could anticipate and have better counterattacks,” Savarese said of Meola.

The Venezuelan forward sent the ball to the right for Armas, and he crossed back into the path of Savarese, who did not miss from close range.

“When the ball came across the box I almost couldn’t believe that it was ending up with one of the guys leading the league in scoring,” Meola said. “It was kind of surreal.

“We really enjoyed it. That group of guys was really close. There’s a lot of close teams that never win anything. We’re still kind of close. When talking to those guys the conversation always comes up about that team.”

Savarese added, “It was a team that was very special in the USISL.”

The head coach, for the past three seasons, has led the Cosmos in training just a few strides away from where the Rough Riders won the title at Mitchel Field.

“The stadium is different, but it’s a great feeling to be in the same location that brings back so many memories,” he said.

The two former teammates now look forward to coaching against each other.

“I’m happy for him to be able to coach Jacksonville,” Savarese said. “He’s been preparing and waiting for the right moment that he is now able to have.

“It’s going to be great – to see him again, to see him working, and to see his team. It’s always good to catch up with friends.”

They will, however, need to put aside those fond memories for 90 minutes when they meet in the 2016 NASL season.

“There won’t be much else for me than to win three points,” Meola, a New Jersey native, said about returning to Long Island. “I’ll put all that stuff aside until after it’s done.”

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