I think I can still play the whole 90 minutes if the coach will only give me a chance," wheezed a toothless old man in a dirty raincoat. The speaker, who was dining with the U.S. Olympic and national soccer teams last Friday night in Seattle, the day before they would respectively face the Canadian Olympic and the U.S.S.R. national squads in the Kingdome. was not an octogenarian athlete but a 27-year-old humorist aptly named Dennis Wit wearing a rubber mask. Wit is a midfielder with the North American Soccer League's New England Tea Men. and he was pointing up the latest truth in big-time American soccer: if you're over 21, watch out for the new kids on the block. They may steal your position and send you home.
With the help of Wit and a few other oldtimers in their mid-20s, the U.S. national team—on which both professionals and amateurs may play—held the highly favored Soviet national team to a 3-1 win Saturday night. That moral victory followed an actual one: the U.S. Olympic side, minus a few kids moved up for the evening to the big team, had beaten a newly organized Canadian Olympic team 2-0 in the first game of the double-header. All in all, it was reckoned a satisfactory showing for U.S. soccer, indicating that if we're not quite ready for World Cup finals, at least we're no longer brown shoes with the world's tuxedo.
"It takes nine months to make a baby," observed Walt Chyzowych, the coach of both national and Olympic teams, "and it takes about two years to forge a U.S. soccer squad that will be competitive in both the Olympic and World Cup eliminations. Three years ago, only a couple of our players were native-born Americans. Today, only two are naturalized citizens. We've arrived with a new crop of kids."
At the beginning of last week, Chyzowych was still smarting from the poor showing of the U.S. Youth World Cup (19-and-under) squad in Honduras in December. He rightly blamed that debacle on his inability to get enough top college players together to form a team at a time when the colleges were in the middle of their season. But now he was feeling better. He had been particularly jubilant about the U.S. Olympic squad's 4-0 upset of a shaky Mexican team the previous Wednesday. "I've got all my little ones now," he said, "and we can go a long way."
Several of these youngsters give promise that in 1980 the U.S. will qualify for the Olympics for the first time since 1972 and perhaps advance a round or two in the eliminations for the 1982 World Cup in Spain. In 1975, Mexico knocked the U.S. out of a berth in the Montreal Olympics by winning a home-and-home series 8-0 and 4-2. That is not likely to happen again when the two meet later this year. The road from there to Moscow, however, is sinuous indeed. If the U.S. gets by Mexico, it will then face the winner of a Canada-Bermuda series: the victor there will advance to a zonal three-team round robin, from which two sides will go on to the Games.
Among the most promising of the newcomers is Midfielder Rick Davis, 20, who quit college last year to join the Cosmos on an "Olympic amateur" contract. He has become a capable attacking player. Another is Angelo DiBernardo, 22, the winner of soccer's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy at Indiana University.
A sneaky, scoring forward who is a naturalized U.S. citizen from Argentina, he will also sign an Olympic contract with the Los Angeles Aztecs. Midfielders Larry Hulcer and Ty Keough, both 22, and both from St. Louis University, are also highly touted prospects. Hulcer has been drafted by the Aztecs and Keough plays with the new pro Major Indoor Soccer League Cincinnati Kids. Finally, there's the baby, 18-year-old Mark Mackain, a senior at Winter Park (Fla.) High School, who, though barely able to go to R-rated movies by himself, is a talented defender.
"Chyzowych is clearing out the dead-wood," says Bobby Smith, 27, a three-year Cosmos defender. "These kids lift weights, follow good nutrition and play like the devil. Us oldtimers like to party and play soccer. At their age I was terrible."
To speed up the seasoning process, Chyzowych has taken the limited risk of moving some of his youngsters up to the national team, which is usually reserved for veteran professionals. The system works, says Glenn (Mooch) Myernick, 24, a defender for the Dallas Tornado, because "basic skills have been so improved in this country. These 19-year-olds are keeping me on my toes."
"Walt has been national coach for only two years, and these kids are his babies," says Peter Arnautoff, a 27-year-old Vietnam veteran who was goalkeeper for NCAA-champion San Francisco. "They've learned his style, and they're incredibly cohesive. He's making legitimate American stars."
UCLA Coach Steve Gay, an assistant Olympic coach, says, "When the kids start practicing with the national team big guys, the staff just can't believe it. Their passing is so tight, and they've got a kind of electricity."
Even the dour president of the U.S.S.R. Soccer Federation, Boris Fedosov, was almost effusive after seeing the U.S. youngsters drub Mexico. "Those boys are very brave and full of heart," he said. "America is obviously going to be a major force in this sport."
Davis thinks he knows one reason why the kids are playing so well. "Most NASL squads are dominated by foreign stars," he says. "At the Cosmos, I play behind Beckenbauer and Chinaglia. They dictate the pace and the play. Here, on the Olympic team, I can come out and be an attacking player, do my thing."
Saturday night in the Kingdome, after shaking hands with Henry Kissinger, who is chairman of the board of the NASL, the U.S. Olympic team did its thing, slowly and methodically picking apart the ragged Canadian defense. Ten minutes into the game, Don Ebert, 19, the U.S. captain, boomed home a pass from 25 yards out, and with five minutes left, Larry Hulcer iced the game, shooting in a brilliant through pass from Ebert. Although Hulcer and DiBernardo played only half of the Canada game—being saved for the Soviet game—the Olympic team showed fine control and struck observers as being much further advanced than past U.S. squads.
But the game everyone was waiting for was the one against the U.S.S.R. nationals. Playing in a very difficult division of World Cup eliminators, the U.S.S.R. hasn't qualified a team in the final 16 since 1970, although many experts rate them one of the top dozen squads in the world. The Soviets had arrived in town with their usual slightly gloomy air, smiling only when offered free Levi's but ready to test their fine new national team against the U.S., Mexico and Canada. They also described as "not clever" the new rule by FIFA, soccer's governing body, which bars from the Olympics any player who has appeared in a World Cup qualifying match. The rule, subsequently supported by the International Olympic Committee, is aimed at the "amateurs" who regularly appear on Iron Curtain Olympic teams like East Germany and Poland.
Against the U.S., the Soviets were masterful. Although they appeared perplexed at first by the lack of bite and cushion on the Kingdome AstroTurf, they quickly figured it out, working with it as if mastering a new language. At the 19th minute, Valery Petrakov volleyed a booming shot from the edge of the penalty box, which went past U.S. Goalie Arnie Mausser into the net.
Three minutes later, the whiz kids went into their act. Keough bobbled a pass near midfield, misfired it off someone's knee, managed to corral it again and chip a high through pass to Davis streaking down the wing. Davis, normally a right-footed scorer, booted a low shot with his left for a goal high and to the left of Keeper Victor Radaev.
But although the kids played with commendable verve, it was oldtimer Myernick, a calculating sweeper, who saved the score from being worse than 3-1. Toward the end of the game, with both Hulcer and DiBernardo on the field, the crowd of 13,317 was on its feet, Kissinger included, chanting for an equalizing goal. But Forward Nikolai Kolesov iced the game with a shot from eight yards out in the 83rd minute.
Afterward, Chyzowych was stoic. "If we'd lost like that a year ago. it would have been very destructive to us," he said, "but this year we're building it up. I've tried my kids with fire and they survived. We're not going to go out and win the World Cup tomorrow. But after that, who knows?"
Said DiBernardo, "We showed them something. More important, we showed ourselves that we're not kids anymore."
Which may be true, although Chyzowych is not about to make all the old guys of 24, 25 and 26 wear masks and beg to play.