Updated: Jun 5, 2019
When one thinks of St. John's University, often times such names as Lou Carnesecca or Chris Mullin come to mind. Rarely do you hear the likes of Ben Hickey, Kevin Daly, Ricardo Joseph, Jesse Van Saun, Ranford Champagnie, Robert Wile, Wojtek Krakowiak, Pavel Krakowiak, Carlo Acquista, Keke Kulego, George Daku, Stefani Miglioranzi, Dani Braga, Paul Cusano, and James Buscemi. But these names will forever live in the NCAA halls of greatness as winners of the 1996 Division I NCAA Men's Soccer National Championship. In the NCAA Men's Soccer Final in 1996 St. John's destroyed a great team in Florida International University (4 - 1) widely considered the tournament favorite. Earlier that season FIU bettered SJU in a clash in Miami on FIU's home field 2 - 0. St. John's went on to lose only one other game that season to an upstart Syracuse team and tied two other games finishing the season with an astounding 22-2-2 record. SJU's dominance was evident from day one of the season that year. Playing with sheer efficiency on both sides of the ball, SJU dominated opponents, but like true champions, they were also able to get scrappy when difficult fixtures presented themselves.
With a melange of talent the SJU Red Storm benefited from a United Nations approach with players from all walks of life including England, Poland, Ireland, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Sweden, New York, and New Jersey. Putting it all together into one symphony of stylish football were coaches Dr. Dave Masur (aka Silver Fox), Gary Book, and Sean Kenny. Dave Masur, known for his strong defensive sides and highly organized and efficient teams found himself presiding over a side that was not only organized and strong defensively, but one that also had the ability to score goals in bunches. Led in the back by Kevin Daly and Pavel Krakowiak, teams found it hard to score against a defensively organized back-line that also offered the ability to attack on the counter with great players like Stefani Miglioranzi (who went on to become a professional footballer in various parts of the world) playing left-back in the final and Robert Wile who also excelled in coming out of the back. The back-line was anchored by Dani Braga in goal (who was rumored to have had a small cameo appearance in the Movie Donnie Brosco). Some like to offer opinions on "best-ever"...and this analyst is no different. The SJU back-line could be the best ever to play at the collegiate level.
Attacking options included Jesse Van Saun a gritty New Jersian who played with a bruising chip on his shoulder, Wojtek Krakowiak a goal scorer who went on to become National Player of the year after transferring to Clemson a year later, and James (Jimmy) Buscemi who rounded out the front line in the final. Adding to their attacking options that day and starting on the bench due to injury was the ubiquitous Keke Kulego hailing from Sweden. Keke spent the entire season in 1996 scoring important goals for this team only to be hampered by injury which didn't stop him from coming on late in the game and scoring in the final anyway....a true marksman with an eye for the back of the net...when one studies that amazing season it was almost as if Mr. Kuelgo couldn't NOT find the back of the net in each game! Also worth mentioning were Freshman Carlo Acquista (now Head Coach at Division I Fordham University) considered one of the nations top recruits from the illustrious Holy Cross High school in Queens NY, who came on often offering his great touch and the ability to find the open man.
Never to be dismissed however were the two maestro's in the center of the park Ben Hickey widely considered one of the most consistent players ever to don the St. John's University Red and White colors, and Ricardo Joseph, the soft spoken but highly efficient work horse that can be considered the straw that stirred the drink. Not to be forgotten was Ranford Champagne (who played out wide) the wiry Jamaican American who had a craftiness and cunning that added a flavor that made this team truly difficult to deal with and appealed to the style side of the game with his play. This man had tricks that always delighted the crowd...especially the 20,000 fanatics that filled the stadium in 1996 during the final in Richmond Virginia that day.
Additionally SJU had a deep bench with such players as Brent Sancho who represented and played in all three games in the 2006 Fifa World Cup, Paul (Pauly) Cusano from NY State, and Larry Hoffman a New Jersey native who always went into battle with a smart looking headband!
St. John's comes with a long history of great players some of whom were in attendance that day to support the side that they had a part in creating. Through years of efforts to bring important football to a New York community, teams that came before the 1996 team were immensely talented embarking on major successes almost kick-starting a program that soon became the greatest collegiate soccer program in New York state. But like a crescendo, SJU peaked in 1996 to win the program's and University's first NCAA Championship ever.
When one looks at the great teams that have competed in the top college soccer division, without question this team MUST be added into the conversation of "best-ever". Style, efficiency and instinct....one only needs to look at likely the best goal ever to be scored (in video above 3 Minutes 14 sec in...in video below 24 Minutes 10 Seconds in) in NCAA Tournament history when in the semi-final versus Creighton, Van Saun delighted with a curling winner that darted through the back of the net. The build-up started in the midfield where Ricardo Joseph gained possession laying off to Buscemi who in turn played into Acquista who sharply laid off to Van Saun who expertly scored placing SJU in the final versus Florida International. To this day the joy of this important goal can be felt through the words of the analyst that rainy day in December of 1996....
"its in the net....its in the net...oh its in the net...a goal St. John's".
Looking back at the history of the NCAA Final it is hard to find a more lopsided win in the final match considering the high level of play. Additionally when one looks back at the history of the various great teams that played Division I Football, it is hard to find many comparable or more dominant overall seasons as the SJU Red Storm accomplished in the 1996 season.