In its struggle to gain access to the mainstream of American life, soccer, that colossus of international sport, has pinned its hopes on a variety of devices: massive infusions of money (a failure), network television (discontinued), widespread junior programs (very successful), even six-to-a-side played indoors (still a gimmick). Now the game has come up with something else: a genuine, homegrown, 100% American superstar (maybe). Furthermore, this bright hope carries a name that hitherto has been widely identified with two of the country's most pervasive institutions, football and Texas. The name is Kyle Rote. Or, more precisely, William Kyle Rote Jr.
Kyle Sr., once a Texas high school football star, is remembered as an All-America tailback at Southern Methodist and then as an All-Pro running back and flanker with the New York Giants. Through his freshman year of college Kyle Jr. followed in his daddy's cleat marks. At Highland Park High School in Dallas—which earlier had given the game Bobby Layne and Doak Walker—he captained the basketball and baseball teams and starred at quarterback and safety in football. By graduation he had 50 college scholarship offers and he chose Oklahoma State. "I was determined to go the football route," he says. "All the way to the pros."
Then young Kyle's seemingly resolute plans took a surprising turn. After one year he gave up his scholarship and left the fervent football atmosphere in Stillwater to become a paying student at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. There his sport was soccer, which he fit into a crowded extracurricular schedule that included just about everything but football. As a result, instead of preparing to begin his second year as a professional athlete somewhere in the spotlight of the National Football League, Kyle Jr. has emerged today as a high-scoring center forward for the Dallas Tornado in the North American Soccer League. He is no Pelé but his value is considerable, for it is through Rote and others like him that U.S. pro soccer is straining for recognition. He is becoming soccer's Great American Hope.
Rote remains only a hope, albeit a promising one, because no one has yet discovered a way to produce an instant soccer star. Learning to read the ebbs and flows of the game is something that takes years of experience. Along with the fact that they are less proficient in the individual skills of ball control, lack of game experience hinders American-born players in their attempts to beat out the NASL's array of foreign talent for places in starting lineups. Aside from St. Louis and Philadelphia, where the NASL teams have emphasized the homegrown product, hardly more than a dozen of the league's 44 native Americans are regulars. They include Rote and the Miami Toros' Mike Seerey, twice college soccer's outstanding player while at St. Louis University. Forward Gene Geimer, a former teammate of Seerey's at St. Louis U., is up among the NASL's leading scorers this season with seven goals and four assists for the St. Louis Stars. The New York Cosmos have Forward Joe Fink, an NYU graduate who debuted in the fifth game this year and promptly punched in three goals. The Philadelphia Atoms have Bob Rigby, an East Stroudsburg (Pa.) College graduate, the No. 1 draft choice this year and the league's leading goalie. Others include Al Trost and Buzz Demling of St. Louis, Len Renery of the Cosmos and Bobby Smith, an outstanding defender with Philadelphia. As far as potential stars from the American delegation are concerned, that's about it, soccer fans.
"It is not a good situation," says David Sadler, a world-class player who is on loan to Miami from England's Manchester United. "It's no good just bringing in chaps like me. To make this thing succeed, you've got to have Americans that fans and future players can identify with."
His father's reputation, his own rugged, Texas-style good looks, his intelligence, his church interests and his dedication to presenting a good image to youth, all make the 22-year-old Rote come on like Mr. Clean. Which is fine, because soccer in the U.S. is not yet secure enough to get promotional mileage out of its swingers. Rote, therefore, seems an ideal choice to lead a new wave of American soccer heroes, if such a wave is ever going to build.
Kyle Rote Jr., the soccer player, came to his sport relatively late in life. His successful preoccupation with more typical U.S. games kept him athletically active until he was 16. That year, 1967, he and other members of the Highland Park football team tried soccer as a summer conditioner. One afternoon they learned what the game really was about. Their teacher was Ron Griffith, an Englishman from Blackpool who had come to the U.S. as a sports correspondent for a Scottish newspaper and was in Dallas to cover Dundee United, the Dallas entry in the old United Soccer Federation. Driving by the high school, Griffith was astounded to see a group of Texas teen-agers playing soccer in the midsummer heat. They were doing it all wrong, of course. He stopped the car, rushed over and in 45 minutes of Lancashire dialect tried to cover the fine points of the game. Griffith has been enmeshed in the Dallas youth soccer program ever since.
"At first we were kind of offended by this guy with a funny accent who was butting in," Rote recalls, "but we soon saw by what he taught us that we could really improve. He explained that we should kick the ball off the side of the foot instead of the toe. He told us how to make the two-handed throw in from the side and even showed us the overhead scissors kick. We found out the game could be something more than a conditioner."
The following summer Griffith organized a tour of Britain for 28 young soccer enthusiasts, and Rote's interest deepened. He also played in a summer league in Texas before entering Oklahoma State. One year at Stillwater was enough for him to question if he enjoyed big-time football.
"My dad had as much to do with my thinking on this as anything," says Rote. "He had always needed an escape from football. We had a cottage out on Long Island where he used to go to write music and poetry and to paint. He drilled into me the importance of having a vocation outside of football, because football might not last long. After a year in an athletic dormitory enjoying the rich life—plenty of spending money, steak every night, that sort of thing—I realized I probably didn't have the self-discipline to live that way and still get any kind of an education."
The result was the switch to Sewanee (enrollment: 991), with psychology as a major instead of engineering, campus involvement instead of isolation in a jock dorm, soccer instead of football.
"I missed football, but unfortunately the two games fell during the same season, and I just found soccer more enjoyable," says Rote. "It was a new sport to the school and we had a coach, Mac Petty, who was learning along with us. His attitude was great. There was none of the 'you do it my way or else' routine that exists so often in sports."
Rote graduated in June 1972, and married Mary Lynne Lykins, a sophomore from Rossville, Ga., in the Sewanee chapel the day after commencement. The newlyweds moved into a small apartment in North Dallas, and Kyle signed a contract with the Tornado, which chose him in the first round of the NASL draft.
Dallas' selection of Rote was dictated more by his local appeal than by his college accomplishments, but one scene Tornado Coach Ron Newman had witnessed one afternoon in the summer of '69 made the risk seem worthwhile. It was during a scrimmage between Rote's amateur team, the Black Bandits, and the Tornado.
"Kyle didn't look too polished, just big and strong," Newman recalls. "Then at one point the fellow who was marking him eased off just a little. Bang! Kyle was by him like a shot and positively cannoned the ball into the back of our net. Well, I thought, one goal might be a fluke. Then, a few minutes later, he did the same thing again. It was a pretty impressive performance. When his name came up in the draft, it was not hard to remember that tremendous potential."
The potential remained on the Tornado bench throughout 1972, a season in which the team moved from the Franklin Field at Hillcrest High School to the luxury of artificial turf, $50,000 picture-window suites and the semidome at Texas Stadium, the Cowboys' home in suburban Irving. But Rote showed during practice and in intrasquad games that he was developing. "Kyle was so amiable and obviously trying so hard that getting help from the other players was no problem," says Liverpuddlian John Best, an All-League defender who also serves as an assistant coach of the Tornado. "The problem was that he was getting a barrage of help. An indication of his high intelligence is that he was able to sift out what really applied to him."
From Forward Luiz Juracy, a Brazilian who had played many times with and against Pelé, Rote learned the Pelé technique of always moving under tight, tense muscular control, ready to make a break in any direction, and how to bound into the air for a header while still looking around for the most appropriate target. From All-League Goalie Kenny Cooper, who is English, he learned the particular shots a goalie fears most, an unusual confession from a goaltender. Defenders Best and Dick Hall taught him how to outmaneuver a defender and maintain the strongest possible position. From Midfielder Bob Ridley, a South African who has played all over the world, the lesson was how to hit a low sinker shot at the goal, one that dives, skids and is extremely hard for a goalie to block.
"It was frustrating," says Rote, "but I never felt bitter. I figured my physical assets—speed, willingness to make contact and the ability to leap into the air—would help a lot even if I would never become very adept at controlling the ball with my feet." Even that skill is being improved, against tennis bangboards, on outdoor handball courts and off the walls of the Rotes' small apartment. "All the lamps are left on the floor behind the end table," says Lynne, "because that's where they'll end up anyway."
Fortunately, at six feet and 180, Rote is large for a soccer player. His position is more like that of a rebounding basketball center, who stays up near the goal, than of a playmaking guard. "Where Kyle is strongest is in the air, banging the ball around with his head," says Best. "And yet he hasn't come close to realizing his full potential in that area."
During preseason training this year Newman still did not visualize Rote as a starter. Rote's largest contribution to the club was being made in the front office, where he worked as General Manager Joe Echelle's assistant. But as the season opener drew near, Newman altered his thinking. "He was 250% better than the year before," says the coach. "It was amazing how quickly he was learning the more sophisticated versions of our wall play, the give-and-go and the rest. The more I watched him, the more it grew on me: he was my center forward."
It was at center forward that Rote opened the season at Texas Stadium against the Toronto Metros. A crowd of 19,342, including 12,000 local junior players, came despite a deluge, and Rote's performance sent them home pleased. In a 2-1 victory he headed home the first goal, and his intimidating presence helped set up the winning score by John Collins, who kicked in a loose ball that had been punched away from Rote by Metro Goalie Dick Howard.
"Oh, no," thought Best, when the game was over. "Why couldn't that kind of game have happened a bit later in the season when Kyle's had more experience. That's a tough act to follow."
Best's fears have been allayed. Rote, who is at his most useful when the tactics call for high passes lobbed toward the front of the goal, has become the league's leading scorer with eight goals and 10 assists as the regular season nears its close. (He is also helping the gate. Dallas is averaging 6,662 per home game, up 2,652 from last season. The whole league is averaging 6,000, up 20%.) "The feeling of the players is that he is not out there because of his name or because he is American," says Best. "He's there because he's earned it."
There are other Americans on the club, little-used Californians Otey Cannon and Gary Allison, who feel that being U.S. citizens, even in a league that is crying for them, can be a disadvantage because foreign coaches tend to discriminate against American players.
"Americans cause a problem that I don't think I've handled very well," Newman admits, "but until someone tells me different I have to go with my best. Nationalities have nothing to do with it."
The only American coach in the nine-team NASL is Al Miller, whose Philadelphia Atoms are leading the league's Eastern Division (New York, Miami, Philadelphia) by a comfortable margin. Miller has been able to start from four to six Americans each game and win. "I don't think any of my colleagues discriminate against American players," he says, "but I think that a lot of the coaches underrate them. Take Rote. He played an important part in our first game with Dallas, a 0-0 tie. Then in the second game Ron Newman didn't play him at all. I can tell you we were very happy to have Rote on the bench, and we beat them 2-1. Often an American, despite his inexperience, will do better because he's hungrier."
Newman may be increasingly inclined to agree. Following a recent mediocre performance during a 1-1 tie with Miami in which he was covered by David Sadler, a fine defender who played on England's 1970 World Cup team, Rote did not start the following week. The Tornado, leading the Southern Division by seven points, was playing second-place St. Louis. Rote on the bench, and at home in Dallas yet? It seemed an extraordinary gesture of little faith. Then, with 25 minutes left in a scoreless game, Newman put in Rote. He promptly booted in one goal and assisted on another, and the Tornado won 2-0 and began to pull away in its run for a berth in the late August playoffs.
Maybe the Americans are hungrier. And with desire and performances like Rote's, the country may yet develop an appetite for soccer.