If Gordon Singleton had not insisted on watching the 1989 US Open Cup Final from the team bench, perhaps the fortunes of the St. Petersburg Kickers would have changed.
Singleton was recovering from knee surgery a few weeks prior, and the only way he could watch the game from the bench was as if he was in uniform. If had been content to sit in the stands behind the bench, Kickers head coach Steve Gogas wouldn’t have been able to put him in as a sub in the 116th minute with the idea he would take one of the penalty kicks in the tiebreaker shootout. Instead of an attempt in the penalty shootout, he scored the game-winning goal just before the final whistle to make history as the first Florida team to win the tournament.
But before lifting the trophy after one of the most dramatic finishes in Open Cup Finals history, Florida’s lone Open Cup champion got their start in 1957.
The St. Petersburg Kickers began as the St. Petersburg Soccer Club. The club founder was Kirk Herbach, a German immigrant who had played as a defender in various leagues in New York City. Herbach moved to Tampa to open a rattan furniture store and was also the vice president of Sunshine Bowl. Herbach put an ad in the St. Petersburg Times in 1957 to find players for a team he was starting. The club’s first game was a 6-1 loss in the spring of 1958 to a team in Gainesville, Fla. In those early years, Herbach would often arrange games with foreign sailors whose ships were docked in the Port of Tampa. In a 1982 story in the St. Petersburg Times, Herbach recalled his attempts to arrange games. “I’d go down there with a bullhorn and a soccer ball. I’d stand on the dock and call up to them. If I couldn’t speak their language, all I had to do was point at a soccer ball. That would get the message across.”
By 1967 the club won its first national championship, the National Over-30 Cup. By 1989 the Kickers had won four Florida State Cups and racked up eleven Suncoast Soccer League championships.
The Kickers first taste of Open Cup success came in 1982 when it advanced to the Semifinals to face the mighty Maccabee AC of Los Angeles, where the Kickers lost 3-0. The Kickers returned to the semis in 1984 but fell short once again, losing 3-1 to eventual champions A.O. Krete of New York. The team became a fixture in the late rounds of the Open Cup, reaching the Quarterfinals in 1986 and 1987.
National success wasn’t limited to the Open Cup, in 1990 the Kickers captured the National Amateur Cup, defeating NY Hota-Bavarian 3-1 in extra time in the semifinals and besting San Francisco Glens 1-0 in the Final.
Like a lot of clubs throughout American soccer history, the Kickers took on a sponsor that became part of their team’s name. While the club was primarily known as the St. Petersburg Kickers, in the early 80s the team was sponsored by the Halkey Roberts Corporation, a maker of valves based in St. Petersburg. The team would be referred to as HRC Kickers or St. Petersburg HRC Kickers. For the 1989 season, the Kickers added Datagraphic as the main sponsor on their jersey, which let to the team being referred to as St. Petersburg Datagraphic Kickers during the broadcast of the Open Cup Final on TV. Datagraphic was most known as the main sponsor of Atlanta Datagraphic, who won the National Amateur Cup in 1979.
The Kickers’ Path to the Final
To open their 1989 US Open Cup run, the Kickers traveled to Miami to take on the Miami Kickers on Feb. 12, 1989. Garth Pollinais and Lee Woolley scored for the Kickers to lead them to a 2-1 victory, qualifying them for the Region III tournament in June.
The Kickers opened the Region III semifinals on June 2 at the George D. Baker Soccer Complex in Roswell, Georgia with a commanding 5-0 victory over Genesis from North Carolina. With Genesis out of the way, the Kickers would begin a gauntlet of fellow heavyweights on their path to the Open Cup championship
The Kickers’ opponent in the Region III Final was FC Dallas of the Lone Star Soccer Alliance (LSSA). FC Dallas was no stranger to lifting trophies in national competitions, having won the National Amateur Cup in 1984 under the name Mean Green, and again in 1988 as FC Dallas. Dallas had also won the Region III Open Cup in 1987 and 1988 and were two-time defending champions of the LSSA.
The Kickers were quite familiar with FC Dallas however, having faced them in the 1987 Region III Open Cup Final at the Orange Bowl in Miami. Dallas won the game 4-1 but fell short of reaching the Open Cup final.
With temperatures in the upper 90s, the Kickers welcomed Chicago’s AAC Eagles to Puryear Park in St. Petersburg, the lone home game in the Kickers’ Open Cup run. The Eagles were making their first Semifinals appearance since 1961 and had a roster that featured many former Polish professional players. In a move aimed to counter the age and experience of the Eagles, the Kickers set the game to start at noon in the midday Florida heat. The Eagles took a 1-0 lead into halftime, but the Kickers answered in the second half through a Jim Knowles goal. The match would go to penalty kicks where Jim Knowles was the hero, scoring the final spot kick for the Kickers. The Eagles’ final attempt sailed over the bar as St. Petersburg would emerge with a 5-4 shootout win to punch their ticket to the Final.
The Eagles would still find their way to a National Cup final in 1989, winning the National Amateur Cup in Oakford, Pa. on June 25 with a 2-1 win over Philadelphia Inter. A year later, they would return to the Open Cup and win the tournament.
The 1989 Open Cup Final
St. Petersburg traveled to the St. Louis Soccer Park in Fenton, Mo. for a battle of veteran semi-pro players vs. young, mostly collegiate amateurs. Adding to the challenge was 95-degree heat in the middle of the day, which led to an on-field temperature over 100.
The New York Greek American Atlas were one of the giants of American soccer, having won the Open Cup four times and were looking to add a fifth to join Bethlehem Steel and Maccabee AC as the only teams to do so. Coming out of the Hellenic American Soccer League in New York, the New York Greek American SC merged with the Atlas Soccer Club to become Greek American Atlas. NYGAA were making their first Open Cup Final appearance since 1977 and were looking to win the Open Cup for the first time since 1974.
New York was a semi-pro club, and players usually were paid a couple hundred dollars per game. Their roster was full of experienced players, including two NASL veterans. Goalkeeper Dragan Radovich played with three NASL clubs from 1979-1983, making 48 appearances. John Lignos played from 1979-1983 with two NASL clubs, and also was selected for the 1980 Olympic soccer team that did not get to play due to the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Games.
To scout his opponents, manager Steve Gogas had to travel to New York to watch a pair of State Cup matches Greek American Atlas played. Atlas did have a major handicap in that they were able to dress only 12 players due to injuries.
“They trap well but I felt we could beat them with some good inside runs,” Gogas told Soccer America after the game.
In contrast, the Kickers were an amateur club, with nearly their entire roster having some connection to the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. Some players who attended college outside the Bay area would travel to play in the Kickers’ more important games. In one example, Garth Pollonais would drive 14 hours from Erskine College in Due West, SC to play for the Kickers in their bigger games.
The first decent opportunity to score came about 20 minutes into the game when Patrick Daxon sent a cross from near the sideline to Craig Fossett, but Fossett’s shot went directly to Atlas goalkeeper Radovic for an easy save. With about 20 minutes left in the half Joey Valenti collected a pass from Garth Pollonais and dibbled into the penalty area for a one-on-one showdown with Radovic, but Valenti sent his shot wide.
Late in the half, New York’s Al Lawrence had a couple of good chances to score in the span of 30 seconds. After being brought down in the penalty area by Jim Knowles with no call, Atlas collected the clearance and Lawrence’s shot from just outside the penalty area was headed for the top left corner of the goal, but Brett Phillips was able to handle it. Just before the halftime whistle blew, Pollonais struck a one timer shot that forced Radovic to dive to the post to save it. The first half came and went without any goals scored.
Just a minute or so into the second half, the Kickers were the first to break through. A foul on Craig Fossett about 30 yards from the goal set up a Kickers free kick. Joey Valenti ran over the ball as a decoy, and Garth Pollonais sent in a rocket shot that slightly deflected off a New York defender and beat Radovic. As a Trinidad & Tobago native, Pollonais represented T&T on the youth level as well as the national team and continued his career through the 90s with a number of indoor and outdoor teams in the United States.
With ten minutes remaining, New York found the goal that drew them level. New York’s lone substitute, Peter Karagiannis, won a fight for the ball with a Kickers defender on the right side of the penalty area then sent a high cross to the left of the goal. John Lignos jumped and headed the ball between the post and Kickers goalkeeper Brett Phillips. Even though they had just tied the game with ten minutes left, the Atlas celebration was limited to a few high fives and hugs while running back to the center circle. As Atlas’ John Shannon told NY Soccer Week “It was so hot then even when you scored you had no energy to celebrate.”
In the remaining ten minutes each team had good chances to win the game, but Radovic and Phillips could not be beaten.
As both teams slogged through extra time in the heat, the threat of a penalty shootout was becoming a reality. Kickers head coach Steve Gogas rolled the dice and sent Gordon Singleton in. As Singleton came on, he became one of many playing hurt. A pair of Greek American Atlas players were playing with casts in their left arm and opening goal scorer Garth Pollonais had his chin bandaged after catching an errant elbow in the second half.
The Kickers captain and ex-Tampa Bay Rowdies player Gordon Singleton had injured his knee in the Kickers final Suncoast League game, just before their semifinal game against AAC Eagles. The cruel irony is, the game was essentially just a warmup for the Kickers, as they had clinched the Suncoast League championship well before that final game. After the surgery Singleton developed blood clot issues that kept him in the hospital for another week.
Singleton was looking at another 8-9 months before he could return to the field, but the day before the final Singleton borrowed a knee brace from teammate Billy Fautner and realized he could still take a penalty kick. Then on game day Singleton was told he could only be on the bench if he was in uniform, so he got dressed, with the idea of watching the game alongside his team rather than any serious thought of playing.
There were just a couple minutes left for Singleton to stay out of trouble until he was needed for the penalty shootout, but it never got that far. After a goal kick from Brett Phillips, Patrick Daxon sent a long pass from midfield and Singleton managed to break the offside trap that New York had been playing all day. Singleton dribbled into the box and beat a diving Radovic with a shot to the lower corner.
The New York players immediately protested that Singleton was offside. The broadcast of the game only had one camera which followed the ball after Daxon’s pass, so it was impossible to tell where Singleton was when Daxon sent his pass in. Perhaps due to exhaustion from the heat the Atlas players didn’t protest to the referee too long. The man who wasn’t supposed to play again for months had come on and scored the goal that won the Open Cup.
Soon after Singleton’s goal, New York nearly sent the game to penalties anyway. John Lignos sent a pass through the goalmouth, but a Kickers defender was able to intercept and clear the ball away. A few moments later the final whistle blew, and the St. Petersburg Kickers celebrated their championship win.
As US Open Cup Champions, St. Petersburg qualified to represent the United States in the 1990 CONCACAF Champions Cup. Their opening round opponents turned out to be none other than New York Greek American Atlas, The Kickers won the first leg at Tampa 2-0 on goals from RC Campanollo and Greg Bowen. The Kickers lost the second leg 1-0 in Queens, New York but advanced on 2-1 aggregate.
The Kickers then faced Mexico’s Club America in the second round in a single game in Tampa. Club America won 1-0 on a late goal in a game that saw two Club America players receive red cards for violent play. Club America would go on to win the 1990 CONCACAF Champions Cup.
The Kickers’ 1990 Open Cup run fell short with a 1-0 loss to FC Dallas in the Region III Final, but they went all the way in the National Amateur Cup, defeating NY Hota-Bavarian 3-1 after extra time in the semifinals in Oakford, Pa., and two days later defeated San Francisco Glens 1-0 giving them two national championships in a row.
July 8, 1989 St. Louis Soccer Park – Fenton, Missouri
St. Petersburg Kickers 2:1 (aet) New York Greek American Atlas
Kickers: Garth Pollonais 47’ (Unassisted)
NYGAA: John Lingos 80’ (Peter Karagiannis)
Kickers: Gordon Singleton 119’ (Patrick Daxon)
St. Petersburg Kickers: Brett Phillips (GK), Bill Fortner, Joey Valenti, Jim Knowles, George Fotopolous, Patrick Daxon, Andrew Daxon, Lee Woolley (Gordon Singleton 116’), Craig Fossett, Siegfried Eichorst (Kevin Daxon 90’), Garth Pollonias
Manager: Steve Gogas
Yellow Cards: Andy Daxon 119’
NY Greek American Atlas: Dragan Radovic (GK), Enco Micic, Apostolidis, John Shannon, Al Lawrence, Richard Castillo, (Peter Karagiannis 2H), Dimos Roubas, John Lingos, Carl Christian, Luis Gonzalez, George Kazunas.
Manager: Peter Chrisoforides
Yellow Cards: Al Lawrence 88’