As he was passing through a St. Louis hotel lobby one evening recently, David Brcic (pronounced Bur-sek), 19, was hailed by a former college rival. "Hey, Dave, I just heard that you signed with the Cosmos. That's great!"
When Brcic smiled his thanks there was an impressive display of late-teen orthodontic braces, an adolescent mark that made it difficult to believe the boy had signed a contract in professional sports. And though he carried off the scene all right, not everybody thought his signing was just great. Until the end of September, Brcic had been the outstanding goalkeeper for perennially strong St. Louis University, and his move to the Cosmos had profoundly disturbed the entire college soccer community. Last week the collegians were shocked again as the Cosmos reached out and picked off another college star—Rickie Davis of the University of California at Santa Clara—and signed him, too, to a so-called "Olympic" contract.
Until this fall the individual NASL teams had honored a gentleman's agreement not to recruit undergraduate players. Instead they have held a full-fledged NFL-type draft for graduating seniors each spring. But a few weeks ago the Cosmos, in the wake of Pelé's retirement and with a new enthusiasm for American players, turned their attention from the international soccer player pool and began closing in on the college ranks.
Eddie Firmani, the Cosmos' head coach, spoke warmly of the new approach and the reasons for it. "We need more Americans in the game at this point, and the way to do it is to get as many 18- and 19-year-olds into our programs as we can," Firmani said. (League rules now mandate a progressive reduction each year in the number of foreigners carried on NASL teams.)
October 23, 1977
"The colleges are just not turning out the numbers and the quality of players we need," Firmani said. "They play only three months a year—maybe 20 games of mediocre competition by our standards. Developing kids need year-round training. And outside of the top 15 schools, the boys are getting antiquated and ineffective coaching. By the time a boy's 22 and getting out of school he's wasted four years in which he might have been developing toward the pros. We're moving toward the system followed elsewhere in the world of club junior teams, with proper coaching and training, playing against many foreign teams. It's something like the farm systems here in baseball and hockey. I hope the rest of the NASL follows our lead."
Well, Tampa Bay, Dallas and Los Angeles have been talking to undergraduates; in fact, Los Angeles made an offer to Brcic before he signed with the Cosmos. Terry Fisher, former UCLA coach and the current Aztec mastermind, says, "I've been on both sides of the fence, and there's a real crisis for college soccer. Either they're going to continue to turn out sportsmen and scholars and lose their best players or they'll have to become a better pipeline to the NASL for players. A wrong choice can ruin the sport."
Although there has been progress in the performance of college players and the quality of competition—the NCAA now boasts 437 schools playing soccer, up from 277 in 1967—the colleges have had slim pickings from a boom that has led to 500,000 kids playing the game in California alone and 76,000-plus sellout crowds for the Cosmos. College soccer has simply been trampled in the rush, limping along without adequate funding and often without varsity status. If the pro raiding increases, the position of the sport at many schools could be badly damaged; the few superlative players would be courted by the NASL, and high school stars might decide to bypass college altogether.
The ruthless manner in which the Brcic and Davis raids were made has left a bad taste. Last summer, while the U.S. Olympic team trained alongside the U.S. National team, both Brcic and Davis told Assistant Coach Ray Klivecka that they wanted to turn professional. That was in August. In early September, after their season was over, the Cosmos hired Klivecka as an assistant coach. On Sept. 27, Brcic signed his contract with the Cosmos, and at the end of last week Davis, after considering an offer from Tampa Bay, signed, too.
Although the situation is muddied by charges and countercharges, the implications for the college game are clear—Klivecka was hired by the Cosmos because of his access to and knowledge of the Olympic and National teams, the cream of American amateur players.
"Klivecka played dirty pool, no doubt about that," says Harry Keough, coach of St. Louis University, which had been stunned by Brcic's decision. It came just eight days before the SLU season opener. "On the other hand, college players must be pretty good for them to sign a 19-year-old. The Cosmos don't want Humpty-Dumptys."
Part of the bad feeling is also the result of awkward timing. Brcic was forced to make his decision when he did because of the NASL's "120-day" rule, which states that no college player can sign a pro contract until 120 days have passed since his last college class. That is just about the length of summer vacation. If raiding continues, there will be more flabbergasted coaches.
Although Brcic's teammates, as well as his coach, are still upset by his defection, he defends himself and his plan for the future. "I want to be the best goalkeeper in the NASL," he says. "I've wanted that for a long time, and I'm ready now." Like Davis, Brcic has played soccer since the age of six, and with various teams he traveled to West Germany to play at 14 and to Puerto Rico at 16.
"Not even SLU and Harry Keough could make me a great player soon enough," he says. "One year with the Cosmos is equal to three in college, and learning to stop Franz Beckenbauer's shots in practice is better than doing the same thing with some kid I grew up with in St. Louis."
To woo Brcic away from SLU, the Cosmos offered a juicy "Olympic" contract. It provides first of all that Brcic retains his amateur status, making him eligible for the Olympic team. Under U.S. Olympic rules Brcic could accept the entire Cosmos package of college tuition fees, room, board, travel expenses and a $50 a week allowance, plus a fee for "not being able to seek other self-employment" because of his Olympic amateurism. But other considerations persuaded Brcic to give up college. "The Cosmos will send me either to Bayern-Munich or to a top Italian team to train with their juniors this winter," he says. "That's invaluable. And then I'll suit up and, hopefully, play with them next year in NASL competition, plus the Olympic and National teams. I get a house in New Jersey to share with the other juniors, and a car." And, presumably, all of the Big Apple he can munch.
Davis, who was offered similar contracts by New York and Tampa, says, "College was never it for me. I just went because that's what everybody did. And this way I don't have to go through the draft and maybe end up with a club that can't do much for me." Davis undoubtedly would have been a top-round pick, class of '80.
This situation makes Walt Chyzowych, coach of both the U.S. Olympic and National teams, a guardedly happy man. With these very young, top American amateurs receiving NASL-quality coaching and training abroad, he will be able to draw on higher-caliber players for the 1980 Olympics and the 1982 World Cup competitions. The U.S. has already been eliminated from 1978 Cup competition. "The colleges have done a fine job," says the diplomatic Chyzowych, a former campus coach himself at Philadelphia Textile, "and as the quality of their players grows, they'll do fine; there's no reason for them to panic. But we compete on the National team level with 140 countries, and are years behind them. If the best players go to the pros and play both National and Olympic games, we increase our prestige in the world community and build amateur soccer to a level that will benefit schools, too."
And so the colleges are caught in a squeeze between the NASL's hunger for players and the Olympic team's need for top-drawer amateurs. Last week the colleges were assessing blame in a variety of directions and forecasting a gloomy short-term future.
Steve Negoesco, coach of last year's NCAA champion University of San Francisco Dons, was fuming. "It's all financial," he said. "Soccer is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. and we're allowed 11 scholarships by the NCAA. The old jocks with the football mentality who run it still give football 95 scholarships. We're the NCAA Division I champs and my players don't even have the three different types of shoes necessary to play in different conditions.
"And I'm not even a full-time coach. I teach ninth-grade science to support myself. Even though it's cutting my own throat, I don't blame the NASL for going to the club system. Maybe it is better for the best kids. Our hands are tied by the NCAA and the blindness of sports programs."
"What hurts most," said a wounded Dave Chaplick, coach of Santa Clara, "is that we lend out kids to the Olympic and National teams, and then they help the pros raid us. Losing Rickie Davis is not the end of the world, but it's the principle of the thing. Rickie missed three games here at the beginning of the season, and we didn't begrudge his being with the National team, although we lost our chance at a conference championship with him gone. For that cooperation, we get kicked in the teeth."
Frank Longo of Quincy College, an official of the National Collegiate Soccer Association, says, "First the pros used so many foreign players to get good teams that our college players couldn't look forward to a career in the pros, and then the minute they want American kids they raid us. It's just more tentacles of the monster. Unless the league acts, it may well be the end."
Meeting in New York last week to consider less tendentious matters, such as awarding new franchises, NASL owners had no time to ponder the fate of college soccer and came to no decision on raiding, though one league official mentioned a possible compromise solution. "It looks as though we'll go to a pre-graduation draft system in which high school players and college dropouts would be bid on by all the clubs in turn," he said. "That would stop kids dropping out to sign with the Cosmos or the Rowdies or whoever had the best showboat and the most money. It won't stop it, but it'll slow it down.
"But next season we'll have at least five new teams. They all need six Americans on their rosters, by league rule, and those bodies have to come from someplace."
Seeking to quell the fear on campuses, the Aztecs' general manager, John Chaffetz, defended the prospect of more signings in the future. "We're not declaring war on the colleges, we're just making a minor incursion," he said. While most observers agree that a little raiding won't cripple the colleges, it could produce an anti-college movement among the top high school players, sending them directly to the pros.
And that worries St. Louis' Harry Keough. "Sure, the pros keep the kids amateur and they'll pay for their college education. But how many of them, as time passes, will actually go back to school? Not many, I think. And then they're out on their duffs with some memories and no job."
For the moment, however, Dave Brcic and Rickie Davis like the looks of an NASL champion's ring better than one reading Class of '80.