A colorful spectacle is in prospect at Seattle's Kingdome on April 23, the first day of play in the NASL. The visiting team will run out in red and white shirts, horizontally hooped like rugby jerseys, and blue shorts with white stars along the side seams. "Tip a player sideways and what have you got?" an ebullient Beau Rogers, the general manager of that visiting team, asked last week. He answered himself triumphantly, if inaccurately: "An American flag!"
The stars and stripes constitute a fitting uniform indeed for Team America, the latest and boldest attempt by the NASL to accomplish two things: 1) get professional soccer back on its feet in the U.S. and 2) somehow make the U.S. a serious contender at the world level.
The U.S. regularly fields soccer teams in international competition—in the Olympics and the World Cup, for instance. But they have always been patchwork sides, with players drawn from here and there, without cohesion and with little time to practice together. And almost always these teams have lost early in whatever tournament they happened to be participating in.
Last summer Phil Woosnam, the NASL commissioner, conceived the idea of a team composed entirely of Americans that would play the season as a regular NASL franchise but would also constitute the U.S. national side when it came to international competitions. Spruced up and solemn, the nucleus of that team appeared at a press conference in Washington, D.C. last week; Team America will play its home games at RFK Stadium there. "Good-looking American boys, aren't they?" Coach Alkis Panagoulias asked proudly.
March 7, 1983
But there had been an uncomfortable gestation period. Where would the players come from? How would they be paid? Woosnam first passed the ball to league president Howard Samuels. Samuels had to persuade NASL clubs to permit their best U.S. players to be drafted onto Team America. Only the exceedingly fragile state of the league's finances made it possible even to raise the question; Team America, it was hoped, would put the NASL back in the spotlight. Then Samuels had to look around for angels who would put money into what was almost sure to be a losing proposition. Samuels scored twice. The NASL owners agreed to the draft, and Bob Lifton, a New York business executive, turned up as prime angel. The red, white and blue package appeared to be neatly wrapped up. Only one factor had been overlooked—at first, anyway: How did the players feel about the whole thing?
In Tampa last month, where the fledgling team held its first training camp, Jeff Durgan, late of the Cosmos and arguably the best stopper back the U.S. has produced, gave voice to the doubts that many young players were feeling. "My initial reaction," he said, "was that they had drawn up a plan and they hadn't even considered the players. They didn't talk to us, they didn't even talk to our union. The original scheme would have completely abolished the requirement that the other teams in the league field American players, but we've got a better deal now. If a franchise gives up two or three of its North Americans, it can only reduce its quota by one—from four to three."
Durgan, in fact, didn't make the decision to show up at Tampa until the day before he was supposed to report, on Feb. 8. "Some of us are giving up more than others," he said. "I've been with the Cosmos for three years now, started for three and played in three successive Soccer Bowl finals, and it's a pretty good bet that I could play in a fourth. And a fifth.
"What changed my mind in the end was the thought that there might not be a league next year—which cancels out job security in New York. I agree with Lifton; instead of waiting for the wave to wash over us, let's try to swim with it. I still have doubts, I still have fears. But I would rather be part of Team America and go under with them than with the Cosmos."
But doubts and fears had clearly not been overcome by a number of good young Americans. Notable absentees at Tampa included the Seattle trio of Jeff Stock, Benny Dargle and Mark Peterson, all of whom had played in last year's Soccer Bowl. And midway through the two-week camp, the 26-year-old Cosmos striker, Steve Moyers, headed home. Moyers scored 13 times last season, and it was said that he was being looked on as the natural successor to the perennial NASL scoring leader, Giorgio Chinaglia.
"All right, so Moyers stays one more year with the Cosmos," says Panagoulias, a strong-featured, cigar-smoking man of 48. "But now that Chinaglia says he'll play again this season, Moyers is going to be on the bench again. This team, though, could have given him the opportunity to be a bigger name than Chinaglia—there are so many millions of young Americans playing soccer now and waiting for their American heroes."
Those words seem strangely patriotic from a man of Greek birth who was coach of Greece's national team from 1973 until 1981 and since then, until January, had been coach of Olympiakos, a leading Greek club. But U.S. soccer isn't all Greek to Panagoulias. He's a U.S. citizen of 15 years' standing, went to school at Upsala College in New Jersey and points out that Vanna, his wife, is a Brooklyn girl, that his 15-year-old daughter, Debbie, was born in that same borough and that his 11-year-old, Johnny, is Manhattan-born.
Panagoulias is well versed in the demands and intricacies of world soccer, and he's keenly aware of the glittering rewards that could accrue to U.S. soccer in the next four highly crucial years. By a freak of circumstance, not only will America host the Olympics next year, and thus automatically qualify for the final soccer round involving 16 teams, but it also stands a chance of being host country for the World Cup in 1986, thus automatically qualifying for the final round of that competition, too. "This isn't some underdeveloped, underprivileged country," says Panagoulias. "Even now as we talk, somewhere—in Harlem, in Tampa, in L.A., I don't know where—there are Pelés growing up. There was no compulsion for me to leave a comfortable career in Greece and come here. But I believe that American soccer has a tremendous potential for success."
To be precise, Panagoulias' appointment was made not by the NASL but by the U.S. Soccer Federation, which, in international terms, is the governing body of the sport here. He's therefore not only coach of Team America but also of the U.S. national side, with the right to call on clubs other than Team America for native players for important international games. For good measure, he oversees the National Youth team.
So Panagoulias has his work cut out for him: as a coach, and in having to please two masters, the NASL and the USSF, bodies that have rarely been in accord. But he does have one enormous advantage. "All over the world, the dream of every national coach is to have his players together as much as possible," he says. "And here I am, the envy of them all, having the national team together all the time, playing 30 consecutive league games, plus maybe five or six international fixtures."
At the University of Tampa's soccer ground two weeks ago, though, it couldn't be concealed that Team America was a gamble that could go wrong. Though the side may be strengthened later with more MISL recruits, it seemed lacking in firepower; one MISL player in camp, Golden Bay's Tony Crescitelli, was described as the team's "only true striker." And there was more than a little depression over its 3-0 scrimmage loss to a side composed of Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Oddly, in the light of his earlier hesitations, it was Durgan who rallied the team in a private meeting, and as the camp progressed, he emerged very clearly as a leader. Says Woosnam, "Suddenly, there's no fallback for him. He can't be looking over his shoulder for Carlos Alberto anymore. It's done him good. You could almost see his personality and self-confidence grow the last two weeks."
For all its inexperience, though, Team America, as it presently stands, has something that is often missing on the teams of some of the most powerful soccer nations—West Germany, for instance, or even Italy. This quality was expressed best at Tampa by Perry Van Der Beck of the Rowdies, the first player ever (in 1978) to be drafted from high school. He had been selected by Team America. "It's very important for me to be playing for my country," he said. "Tampa's a good city. I'm popular here and I could stay here the rest of my life. But I've always wanted the Olympics—I would have been on the side in Moscow in 1980—and I want to play in the World Cup in 1986." That simple patriotism was at work here was confirmed last week by a Tampa Tribune survey that had as Question 19: "Does nationalism play any part in your decision to join Team America?"
"Yes," answered every player.
"We're like little kids now," Durgan said last week, "feeling our way. We need a little success. We have to be told we're good. Let's not take on Italy in the first two months of Team America's life."
"The first year is going to be difficult," says Panagoulias, "but I tell my boys, 'You are playing for the future of the game in this country.' "