Season 10: An MLS magic number
as the number of points that the late great Wilt Chamberlain put through the hoop in only one game.
MLS has its magic number as well -- 27, as in the number of goals that Roy Lassiter scorched opposing goalkeepers for, which still stands as a league record and standard some nine years later.
He accomplished that feat for the Tampa Bay Mutiny in the inaugural MLS season of 1996. Former Columbus Crew striker Stern John (1998) and Mutiny forward Mamadou Diallo (2000) have come close with 26, but no one has been able to equalize or surpass it.
But even Lassiter himself, one of the league's true authorities on putting the ball into the back of the net, realizes it won't stand forever.
"It's going to be tough," he said by telephone. "Records are meant to be broken, just like my career goals. Jason (Kreis) passed that. These are great stepping stones for players who are coming in the league and who have been in the league that are producing.
"I'm sure down the line someone is going to (surpass) that goal total. I'm just on standby right now."
In 1996, Lassiter was in his prime, a fast 27-year-old forward who knew how to put the finishing touches on his and his teammates' hard work.
"Roy was very focused and a true goal scorer," said Chivas USA head coach Thomas Rongen, his coach at Tampa Bay. "Even if we would win and he didn't score, he was very upset. Roy lived and died by scoring goals."
It certainly didn't hurt that Lassiter had Colombian national team and World Cup veteran Carlos "El Pibe" Valderrama feeding him some of the nicest passes this side of Bogota.
"I took advantage of him, I guess, in a very good sense," Lassiter said. "It elevated my game to be alongside a player like Carlos. He was my roommate. Besides Carlos, that Tampa Bay team was phenomenal. Thomas Rongen gave me the freedom to do whatever it took to put the ball into the net.
"I was always a goal scorer. All my life I had been a goal scorer. All I needed was a midfielder, and shoot man, God blessed me with one of the best in the world. If I couldn't have taken advantage of it at that time, I probably would have never gotten another chance to do so."
Lassiter's critics claim he was able to score that many goals was because of Valderrama. But that is more fallacy than anything else. El Pibe assisted on only nine of the 27 goals.
"To score 27 goals in any season anywhere is hard," Lassiter said. "You notice it has only been done once. Guys have gotten close, and gotten real close -- Diallo, Stern John -- but weren't able to surpass it. It takes a good, cold mind to be able to finish that many goals in a season. Maybe a little luck but I think hard work brings about luck.
"In '96, to be the ultimate goal scorer, it took a lot of work and a lot of hours after training to do some finishing. Ultimately, Carlos put it on my foot, but someone had to be there to finish it."
Critics pointed out that Lassiter was a goal-poacher. His defense? That was his role.
"I didn't concentrate on anything else," he said. "My job as a forward was to put the ball into the back of the net. ... We have different positions in different roles for different players. I don't need to take on multi-tasks when my job has enough to deal with there is pressure as well."
The 5-foot-8, 165-pound Lassiter scored the Mutiny's first goal in history in their 3-2 victory against the New England Revolution on April 13, 1996, and never looked back.
"I think I was consistent throughout the whole thing," he said. "I scored the first game and it was over. I was excited to play to be in Major League Soccer. I was excited we had a nice crowd. I was just very excited to be very glad to be aside some great players, especially Valderrama. I was overwhelmed. I took it and I ran with it and I got better at it."
Indeed, he did.
During an 18-game stretch midway through the season, Lassiter struck for 17 goals. He earned most of those 27 goals -- he converted only two penalty kicks.
"He finished the majority of his chances," Rongen said. "He didn't need four or five chances to score one. He needed one to score one. That's a pretty incredible ratio if you think of it.
"It wasn't easy to (mark him) because he could beat you in many ways. If there was a lot of space behind any of the defenders, he would exploit that because he was probably one of the fastest players in the league. If you marked him real tight, because of his quickness he was always able to get away from a defender. Only half a step -- that's all what he needed. He was always tough to handle for any backline."
Lassiter's most productive match? A hat trick in a 3-1 win against the Colorado Rapids on Aug. 3.
One goal, however, stood out - in the 82nd minute of 1-0 victory against the Dallas Burn at the Cotton Bowl on May 23.
Lassiter said he received "a good through ball from Valderrama. I had to outrun two of the Dallas defenders. They were about five yards ahead of me already and the ball came out to the left side and I was able to get my body around, hit the ball with my three toes and bent the ball on the backside of the opposite post.
"That was probably the goal I watch all of the time. How in the world did I make that goal? That was one of my phenomenal goals that year."
If you want to be a goal scorer, you must concentrate.
"I didn't pay attention to the crowd or too much of what people were saying," Lassister said. "I just concentrated on what I needed to do. That's how I was able to distinguish, to shut that door off from things that don't pertain to the field to really concentrate on what my task was at hand -- finishing goals and being at the right spot.
"One thing about being a forward and scoring a lot of goals -- you've got to be thinking when you don't have the ball. When you do have the ball, there is no more thinking involved. If you think, you miss."
You also need to have a killer instinct. Lassiter would do anything to score a goal -- anything.
"If the ball is streaking across the goal, I would want to score, even if I broke my leg after. I'll break my leg, fine, but I want to put that ball in the net," he said. "That was my thinking always. If it was going to go in that box, that six, that 18, I'm going to be around it. One has to study where to be all the time, where the balls normally pop out at, what position I need to be in."
Of course, goals mean goal celebrations. Lassiter was best known for doing "The Airplane" -- him running around with both his arms stretched out. As it turns out, Lassiter credited Valderrama with a big assist with his celebration.
"He scored a goal -- he didn't score many -- early in the year," Lassiter said. "All of a sudden he did it and I followed him doing it. When I scored, I did it every single time. He would get the airplane out. That guy, if you scored a goal, he would be more excited than you are. He would be just out of his mind. He would come to you with the airplane. I just kept it going."
While he never came close to duplicating those 27 goals, Lassiter is one of only a handful of players to have scored 10 of more goals in four consecutive seasons, which included back-to-back 18 goal-seasons for D.C. United in 1998 and 1999. After stints with the Miami Fusion and Kansas City Wizards, he retired after the 2002 season as the MLS leading goal scorer with 88 goals (Kreis, with Real Salt Lake, has 94).
Today, Lassiter teaches the finer points of the game to 700 children as director of coaching at the Dripping Springs Youth Soccer Association in Texas, situated about 13 miles outside of Austin. He also was named as Boys 1988 coach of the Olympic Development Program staff of the South Texas Youth Soccer Association.
"I knew I wanted to become a coach," Lassiter said. "It's a lot of fun. It's a lot of work. ... Education is a key. As a coach or a player you have to be acceptable to learning at all time, never thinking that you know everything.
"Right now, I think soccer more now than I was playing."
Who knows? Perhaps one of his players will break his record. Or maybe it will be one accomplished by someone wearing an MLS team uniform.
Lassiter felt New England striker Taylor Twellman has the best chance of today's crop.
"He is just an all-out, pure goal scorer," he said. "That ball gets in the box and he will be around it somehow. So I can say he was closest to what I was. He is a great finisher. As long as he has those great players around him, he can definitely get the job done."
When and if that happens, a new magic number will be established for players to attain.
Michael Lewis writes about soccer for the New York Daily News and is editor of BigAppleSoccer.com. He has covered MLS since its inception, including the league's unveiling at the 1994 World Cup draw in Las Vegas. He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com.