Okay, so how did it happen? How did the U.S. national soccer team, which hadn't scored a goal against Italy in 58 years, tie the Italians 1-1 last Saturday at Chicago's Soldier Field? How did the U.S. stun Portugal, a tough European team, 1-0, four days earlier in Chicago? And how did the U.S. shock Ireland, a quarterfinalist in the 1990 World Cup, 3-1, at Washington's RFK Stadium on May 30?
Easy. Meet the two newest—and by far the shiniest ever—American soccer stars, both of whom made their debuts for the U.S. against Ireland. First there is Roy Wegerle, 28, who was born in South Africa ("It's in my heart and in my blood," he says) to a German father and a Scottish mother, and who usually makes his living playing soccer in England. Obviously, Wegerle is red, white and blue to the core. Second there is Thomas Dooley, 31, who was born in Germany to a German mother, has lived in Germany all his life, is married to a German woman, plays soccer in Germany and had never even been to the U.S. until two months ago. Obviously, Dooley is red, white and blue to the core as well.
So there they stood last week in Soldier Field, hands over hearts before the games against Portugal and Italy, resplendent in red, white and blue, singing The Star-Spangled Banner and humming when they didn't know the words. They hummed a lot.
What the U.S. has discovered in decades of humiliating itself while trying to compete with the world in soccer is simple: Full-blooded Americans generally stink at the sport. So the U.S. has come up with an idea: ersatz Americans. By any logical standard, neither Wegerle nor Dooley is American. But U.S. soccer big shots discovered that under immigration law the two could be American citizens if they wanted—Wegerle because he married an American woman, the former Marie Gargallo of Miami, and Dooley because his serviceman father, who abandoned his family shortly after Thomas's birth and hasn't been heard from since, was an American.
June 14, 1992
The instant impact of these fine American lads has been dramatic. In the game against Ireland, in which the U.S. was down 1-0 but dominated the second half, Wegerle and Dooley were clearly the difference. With their world-class abilities and confidence, they made everyone on their team better. Against Portugal, both were again outstanding. Wegerle got the only goal of the game by streaking into the open and then faking Portugal's goalkeeper Ne‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o into Lake Michigan.
"It was frightening," Wegerle said of his scoring chance. "But I kept my nerve. It would have been terrible if I had missed. People would have said, 'Maybe he's not as good as we thought.' I desperately needed to stamp my mark on the U.S. game."
Then last Saturday, in front of 26,874 fans, the U.S. fought Italy to a tic as John Harkes scored the U.S. goal after a courageous battle in front of the Italian net in the 23rd minute. A brilliant performance by U.S. goalkeeper Tony Meola, who had eight saves, contributed mightily. But Dooley and Wegerle, with their experience, expertise and verve flashing like neon lights, were once again the difference.
Simply put, without Wegerle and Dooley, the Americans probably would have been 0-3 in this U.S. Cup '92 series and reduced to doing what they have done best in the past: pointing out how close they had come. Instead the U.S. won the series and gained some respect. "This is the highest point in American soccer since we beat England 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup," said U.S. Soccer Federation executive director Hank Steinbrecher after the tie with Italy. "Nineteen-fifty. Forty-two years ago. All over the world they're saying, 'Something is happening in U.S. soccer.' "
Skunks at the picnic might have noted that Ireland, Portugal and Italy were available to play in U.S. Cup '92 because none of them was among the eight teams qualifying for the European Championships. Conceded Steinbrecher, "These games ain't down and dirty like the World Cup. But it has always been men against boys. Now it's men against men."
Before the arrival of Wegerle and Dooley—both of whom play first-division soccer, the major leagues, in Europe—only one U.S. player, Harkes, was competing at Europe's top level. Says Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz, "The arrival of the two European players has given the Americans the maturity they lacked."
What Wegerle, who makes around $300,000 a year as a forward for England's Blackburn Rovers, brings to the U.S. team is a dazzling offensive style with first-rate footwork. His is a finesse game. The English national team (he could have played for any one of five nations) emphasizes strength, and Wegerle concluded that "my talents wouldn't be appreciated there." He also gives the Americans experience, which begets calmness. "It does no good," says Wegerle, "to try to play the game running around at 300 miles per hour when you don't know what you're doing."
Wegerle, who was born into soccer in Pretoria, played at the University of South Florida for two years, was the first player selected in the 1984 draft of the soon-to-be-defunct North American Soccer League, played two years in the Major Indoor Soccer League and then returned to play in England. During the 1990-91 season he was third in the English league in scoring, with 23 goals. "We have started to break the ice," says Wegerle of the U.S. team. "We have to get U.S. players hungry, to develop a passion for the game. Soccer is like art. You have to learn to appreciate it."
Dooley, who earns around $400,000 playing for FC Kaiserslautern, is a defenseman who has the skills to both go on the attack and get back, a nightmare for any opponent. Like Wegerle, he is always thinking two or three plays ahead. And like Wegerle, he probably couldn't have made his national team. Dooley, who speaks little English, wanted to play for the German side before, but he said that injuries had always played a role in preventing that. In '89 torn ligaments in his right ankle did him in; in '90 the same injury to his left ankle was his demise; and last year four broken ribs led to a punctured lung.
"After all those injuries, I lost hope," says Dooley through an interpreter. "I thought that it must not be in the cards for me to play for the German national team. I decided that even if the German team called, I would turn them down in favor of the U.S. I have always considered the Americans among my friends, anyway. I guess it all goes back to my American blood."
Dooley insists that his American credentials are in order. For the last six years he has driven a Corvette. "That is not normal in Germany," he says. "I have always been disappointed that I had never had complete contact with America. But I always watched the Super Bowl. Remember when Whitney Houston sang the national anthem?" Indeed, he says that when he sings it, "I get goose bumps and water in my eyes."
Then Dooley breaks into a big smile. "We are playing a quality of soccer that has never been achieved here," he says of the U.S. team. "We are going to put on the red, white and blue, and then go out and shock the world."
Both will continue to play in Europe, joining the American team when they can—for $15 per diem and $500 a game—to prepare for the 1994 World Cup, which the U.S. will host. (Neither is eligible to play in the Olympics because players must be 23 or younger.) Meanwhile the coach of the U.S. team, Bora Milutinovic, will try to keep peace on his team—14 full-time members are paid between $40,000 and $60,000 a year—by being the diplomat. When he is asked about Wegerle and Dooley, Milutinovic just says, "They are excellent players, like the other players."
Well, yes, but the obvious difference is they are a lot more excellent. The proof and the thrill are in the watching, which makes U.S. soccer intriguing to contemplate—for the first time.