Next year, Atlanta will again have a pro soccer team in the nation’s top flight league. Most think this hasn’t happened since the Atlanta Chiefs in the original North American Soccer League in 1981. However, in the year before Major League Soccer launched in 1996, Atlanta was represented by the Ruckus in the American Professional Soccer League, better known as the A-League.
They say that a cat has nine lives. If the Atlanta Ruckus was a cat, they would have used up at least five or six of those lives in 1995. Nearly going out of business before their first game, the Ruckus found a new owner and found themselves at the top of the A-League table in June.
Injuries and a thin roster took their toll as the season moved from summer to fall. While they were not winning games in regulation, the Ruckus stacked up points from success in shootouts. They narrowly held on to the last playoff spot after a rally from the Colorado Foxes.
Atlanta's reward for that effort? Their fourth seed in the playoffs earned the Ruckus a date with the regular season champion Montreal Impact. A best of three series was set to begin on Thursday, September 14 at Atlanta's Adams Stadium.
Head coach Lothar Osiander made adjustments to his team as the season went on, becoming more of a counter attacking threat. This defensive posture was necessary against the Impact, an attacking powerhouse that averaged nearly two goals per game. Veteran A-League star Paulinho led a talented Montreal roster that also featured many Canadian national team stars.
I had just started college at the University of Georgia and was actually moving into my dorm at Creswell Hall that week. I remember driving back for this game as there was no way I could miss it.
I settled in among the 2,114 fans on hand that night to see if the Ruckus could pull off an upset in the first game of the series. Things looked bleak as defender Tom Wurdack was shown a red card right before the end of the first half.
Montreal poured on the pressure in the second half and finally broke through in the 70th minute. Nick DeSantis crossed for Lloyd Barker who headed the ball past Atlanta goalkeeper Mun Young Yi. In a huge shock, Atlanta went straight down the field off the kickoff and earned a corner kick. The Impact only cleared the ball out wide to Michael Araujo. His cross found Lenin Steenkamp, who fired a powerful header past Paolo Ceccarelli.
Neither team could find a winner and the match headed to the Ruckus' old standby, the shootout. Mo Suri and Araujo scored in the shootout, and Yi saved Tom Kouzmanis' effort to give Atlanta the win.
Captain John Doyle told the Atlanta Journal Constitution after the match:
"We would have liked to have put on a good offensive show, but we accomplished what we were trying to accomplish."
Doyle was amazing for the Ruckus in this match and seemingly willed them to victory. I already had Doyle's autograph, but had to have him sign my ticket from this game. I've never seen a better individual defensive performance.
For Game 2, both teams headed to Montreal for a Sunday afternoon kickoff. You have to remember, this was in back in the Dark Ages of American Soccer, so those of us in Atlanta were not able to watch the 1:30pm game live. With no Twitter spoilers in 1995, it was easy to suspend our disbelief and watch the tape delayed broadcast at 10:30pm. The fact that we had a same day tape delayed broadcast itself was an accomplishment, SportSouth originally had the delayed broadcast scheduled for three days later.
Another bit of news that leaked out on the old NA-Soccer mailing list after Game 1 was that the team had suspended Justin Fashanu. I noticed that he was not even on the bench for the first game but nothing had been said in the local media about it.
It was one thing to stay up to watch your team in a playoff game that had been over for seven hours. It was another to watch them get demolished. The Impact came out firing on all cylinders and completely dismantled the Ruckus 3-0. Paulinho scored first in the 31st minute, followed by Barker just before halftime. Lenin Steenkamp ripped a shot from the top of the box that rebounded off the crossbar, and that was essentially the extent of the Ruckus attack. In the second half, Lyndon Hooper added a third Montreal goal. Worse for the Ruckus was a second yellow card for Steenkamp, which took him out of the decisive Game 3.
Ruckus coach Lothar Osiander told the Atlanta Journal Constitution's Wendy Parker:
"It's going to be difficult for us but we've been in this position before and we've been optimistic before. We've been able to be positive even when the chips are down."
Game 3 was set for Wednesday, September 20 in Montreal. Luckily, we had a shorter tape delay for this one back home. Goalkeeper Mun Young Yi and midfielder Bruce Murray missed the game due to injuries. In their place, Bill Andracki was in goal and a reshuffled lineup saw Tag Gambatese replace Murray. Mo Suri replaced the suspended Steenkamp.
Our SportSouth broadcast started at 11pm after Braves baseball. The Ruckus came out in a 4-5-1 bunker, but did look for counter attacking opportunities in the early going. Paulinho went out injured early in the first half for Montreal, to be replaced by current Montreal manager Mauro Biello. Andracki made two huge saves on Biello in the first half to keep Montreal off the scoreboard.
The start of our second half broadcast cut the first six minutes, starting in the 51st minute. With SportSouth signing off at 1am, this was a dead giveaway that a shootout would be on the way.
Without Steenkamp, the Ruckus offense was reduced to throwing long balls towards Staale Soebye. If he could get on the end of it, Suri would join him in an attack. Otherwise, retreat and try again. Coach Osiander summed it up on the broadcast:
"We'll kick and scratch and do what we have to to win the game."
John Doyle was a beast yet again in the center of defense. Steve Trittschuh caught him with an elbow in the second half that broke his nose and drew blood, but Doyle returned as soon as possible with tissue shoved up his nostrils. It was the epitome of a "blood and guts" performance.
The series would be decided in the shootout. While Atlanta was missing its usual goalkeeper, Andracki was no slouch in the tiebreaker. Soebye scored first for Atlanta. Brian Moore scored for the Ruckus in the third round, followed by Tom Kouzmanis for Montreal. With neither team scoring in the fourth round, Doyle won the game and series for Atlanta with his shootout goal.
Somehow, the Ruckus had upset the top seed and was now heading home to host the first game of the A-League Championship Series on October 1 at Adams Stadium.
Their opponent would be the Seattle Sounders. Seattle dispatched the Vancouver 86ers in two games to reach the final.
Game 1 was on Sunday, October 1 at Adams Stadium. Kickoff was set for 4pm. Doyle told the AJC's Wendy Parker:
"I think we like being underdogs. Nobody expected us to be here, but that's all right. We're just glad to be playing."
The team pulled out all of the stops in trying to bring good vibes to the game. They invited former Atlanta Chiefs player/manager Phil Woosnam, who brought Atlanta its last championship in 1968.
Mun Young Yi was back in goal for Atlanta, and made several saves in the first half to keep it scoreless. Lenin Steenkamp was also back after being suspended for Game 3 of the semifinal series, and made his presence known with a headed goal from a Mo Suri cross in the 58th minute. Future US men's national team goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann had no chance to make the save for Seattle.
Seattle's manager Alan Hinton made 2 offensive subs to try to get the Sounders back into the game. Chance Fry came in up top for winger (and future Atlanta Silverbacks manager) Brian Haynes and Jason Dunn came in for his brother James. It was Dunn who leveled the score with a first time volley from the top of the box in the 77th minute.
Atlanta went for it late, going against their recent style of parking the bus and waiting for the shootout. Greg Sheen had the best chance, missing the left post by inches in the 84th minute.
In the shootout, Yi made three saves for the Ruckus and it was Doyle once again who finished off the win. His broken nose had been busted open late in the match and I'll never forget him running a lap around the field after the shootout goal with tissue hanging out of his nose.
Bruce Murray was also banged up, putting off surgery til after the season, and he waved off a substitution in the second half. He told the AJC's Wendy Parker:
"My wheel wasn't so great but I didn't feel I was getting beat down the line. The deal is everyone stuck together."
"I'm 29 years old and I want to win a championship. All of the guys are committed to doing this. What would it have looked like if I sat down?"
"I'm sick of people belittling this team. `Should have, could have, would have.' That's all I hear. Until you go out there and win against us, keep your mouth shut."
It was amazing how well the Ruckus were doing in the shootout. They would not have made the playoffs in a standard league format, but the 8-1 shootout record carried them through. They were now 3-0 in the shootout in the playoffs. It wasn't beautiful, but it sure was exciting as a fan.
The Ruckus headed to Seattle with a chance to win the series in Game 2 on Sunday, October 8. They dreaded the artificial turf at Memorial Stadium. Lothar Osiander told Wendy Parker:
"That's the worst thing in the world for us."
"We don't do very well on the turf. We just don't have the kind of speed to have success playing that way, but we've found a way to win when we've had to all this season."
Again, this was back in the Dark Ages of American soccer and the 7pm Eastern kickoff was shown on tape delay on SportSouth at 11pm.
Seattle came out and attempted to attack the Ruckus on the flanks and win with crosses. Doyle and Yi were put to the test in the early going, but handled things well. Doyle nearly contributed to a Ruckus goal on the other end, heading a free kick to Mo Suri whose shot was blocked by a sliding Shawn Medved.
The Sounders broke through in the 25th minute. James Dunn's cross from the right found Peter Hattrup on the far post. He headed it back across and Chance Fry slid in to tap the ball in past Yi.
Tom Wurdack nearly tied the game up in the 35th minute, but his shot went wide. Yi saved a header from Hattrup a few minutes later. The temperature of the match kept rising as physical play kept going unpunished.
The Ruckus attempted to counter in the 41st minute but Michael Araujo was tripped up at midfield. He did not get the call and bumped the referee's chest while arguing. The inevitable red card was shown and Atlanta was now down a man and down a goal.
The second half was mostly Seattle attacking Yi's goal, but Atlanta tried to pick their spots to find an equalizer. Staale Soebye had a few chances in the second half, but Marcus Hahnemann was up to the challenge. During the last ten minutes, Osiander threw Doyle up top and played direct to him. He battled as always, but just could not help find a goal.
With Doyle at forward and the team down a man, it was inevitable that Seattle would eventually break through. Late goals from Fry and Jason Dunn clinched the 3-0 win for the Sounders, forcing a Game 3 for the trophy.
Originally Game 3 was scheduled for Tuesday, October 10. It was moved to Thursday night to avoid a conflict with the Seattle Mariners-Cleveland Indians American League Championship Series. Ruckus officials were not thrilled about the move, but eventually agreed and hoped that the extra days would allow their beat up team to rest. Osiander only used one sub in Game 2 due to his depleted bench.
The game kicked off at 11pm on the East Coast and was actually shown live for once on SportSouth. My dorm at UGA did not get SportSouth and I had to drive back to my parent's house in Stockbridge to watch the game, then drive back for an early Friday class. It was then that I vowed never to take 8am classes on Fridays again...
In a shock of all shocks, Staale Soebye scored for Atlanta in the 3rd minute out of nowhere. For a team without much left in the tank, it gave the Ruckus a lifeline to win the championship. This was parking the bus at its finest.
Atlanta rode the one goal lead through the first half and into the second. Seattle's manager Alan Hinton brought on forward Jason Farrell in the 76th minute for defender James Dunn. With time running short and Atlanta putting everybody in defense, there were not many other options. Doyle and Yi were just incredible for the Ruckus, stopping every Seattle attack.
In the 81st minute, they finally broke. Farrell was able to find some space on the back post and beat an exhausted Doyle to a cross. The header left Yi with no chance and leveled the game at one. The goal was Farrell's first of the 1995 season. Unlike most teams who conceded late, the Ruckus still displayed confidence. The shootout loomed and Atlanta was 11-1 in the tiebreaker in 1995.
In the 85th minute, Atlanta nearly avoided the shootout. A long through ball found Mo Suri in on goal. He beat an on rushing Hahnemann, but still had two defenders to beat to get a shot off. He cut back to beat the first who went to the ground. Hahnemann and another defender were racing back to challenge. On the left side, Suri decided to shoot for the near post rather than continue the dribble. His shot hit the inside of the post and rolled tantalizingly across the mouth of the goal. Brian Moore raced in from the far post and slid to try to tap the ball in, but Hahnemann was able to recover and smother the rebound attempt.
It was a classic Atlanta sports moment. I jumped up off the couch on the through ball, jumped again when Suri cut back to avoid the defender and was ready to celebrate when he shot. After Hahnemann saved Moore's follow up attempt, I collapsed back to the couch. I cannot even imagine what that moment felt like for the players on the field. To be that close to a championship sealing moment and to have it slip away, it was brutal.
So, it was down to the shootout for all of the marbles. The broadcast of course made a huge point about the Ruckus' success in the shootout. However, Soebye missed Atlanta's first attempt. David Hoggan scored for Seattle. A Moore miss was followed up by another Seattle make to put the Sounders up 2-0.
Suri missed Atlanta's third attempt. Why Suri was chosen for a shootout attempt after his regulation miss, I will never know. He could not have been in the right frame of mind for that. Luckily, Neil Megson also missed to keep the score at 2-0. The ever reliable John Doyle converted for the Ruckus to cut the lead in half. Kinnear missed for Seattle and Atlanta had a lifeline heading into the fifth round.
Lenin Steenkamp was up for the Ruckus. The broadcast showed a graphic before his attempt, stating that he had not missed in the shootout all season. In classic Atlanta fashion, Hahnemann made the save and the Seattle Sounders broke Ruckus hearts with a shootout win and an A-League championship.
It was a dismal drive back to Athens after the game. The roller coaster of the game combined with the unknown status of the roster with MLS kicking off in 1996 made it a weird feeling.
Even with all of that, the Atlanta Ruckus made it all the way to a shootout in the final game of the championship series in their first year. It was my first year having professional soccer to follow and I'll never forget the impact players like Doyle, Steenkamp, and Moore had on my life. I wanted more, I wanted to see things build on the incredible atmosphere and drama of the home playoff game with Seattle. I thought that things were headed in the right direction for Atlanta soccer...