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THE USA’S RED, WHITE AND BLUE GREEK

Alkis Panagoulias, coach of the U.S. National Team from 1983 to 19985, has died at his home in Falls Church, Virginia, at age 78.

The native of Greece  and naturalized U.S. citizen posted a 6-5-7 record as the USA’s coach, second in wins at the time to Walter Chyzowych (8-14-10 from 1976 to 1980).

Greek players were to wear black armbands in his memory during their upcoming European Championship quarterfinal match with Germany in Gdansk.   Panagoulias coached Greece from 1973 to 1981 and fom 1992 to 1994, guiding the Greeks to their first-ever World Cup appearance, in ’94.  He guided Olympiakos to Greek titles in 1982, ’83 and ’87, and he also coached Aris Thessaloniki and Iraklis.  [June 18]

Comment:  Panagoulias had the misfortune of presiding over perhaps the most frustrating and fruitless period in U.S. National Team history.  Worse still, it seemed as if no one cared–no one, that is, but Alketas “Alkis” Panagoulias.

A national team coach, of course, is paid to care.  But Panagoulias gave the U.S. Soccer Federation far more than it’s money’s worth in that department.  Chomping a cigar and sprinkling his brutally frank comments with profanities, the burly Greek battled with the federation and battled with the North American Soccer League, all the while leaving his players with no doubt as to who was in charge.  (He once told me in an interview that the team had “all these goddam California surfers,” such as Mike Fox, Paul Caligiuri, Kevin Crow, Jeff Hooker, Dale Ervine and Steve Sharp.)  Above all, he was unabashedly patriotic when it came to his adopted country and absolutely passionate as an advocate of the national team, trying with little success to explain to the media and public in general its importance in a country overwhelmingly indifferent to soccer.

A player for Aris before moving to America to earn a degree at NYU, Panagoulias turned to coaching and steered the New York Greek Americans to three straight U.S. National Open Cups beginning in 1967, back when that cup was more or less the championship for the country’s ethnic semipro clubs.

In 1983, with the U.S. having played only one match since a World Cup qualifier in 1980, Panagoulias was chosen by the USSF to succeed Chyzowych as coach of both the national and Olympic teams–a foreign-born coach with international experience and, presumably, an understanding of the American player.  And in a unique twist, his players were to play in the NASL as Team America.

Panagoulias recalled in a 2006 interview with the New York Times, “It was very difficult.  I first had to sell the league people and owners on the idea that the national team has to be the No. 1 team in the country.  We needed their players.  I was almost crying when I talked about the national team.  They looked at me like I was crazy.  They didn’t know from the national team.”

NASL club owners dragged their feet over what some regarded as a flawed grandstand play, most of the Cosmos players invited to join this grand experiment chose to stay in New York and Team America, based in Washington DC and featuring naturalized Americans like Alan Merrick and Alan Green and national team regulars Arnie Mausser, Perry Van der Beck, Dan Canter and Jeff Durgan, stumbled to a league-worst 10-20 record in their only season.

The following year, with Olympic soccer’s amateur restrictions rapidly crumbling, the U.S. was allowed to field its national team at the Los Angeles Games.  The Americans went 1-1-1 but it wasn’t enough to get them into the quarterfinals, and a golden opportunity to put soccer on front pages across the nation–or at least get the sport some airtime on Olympic broadcaster ABC–was missed.

Then in 1985, the U.S., needing just a draw at home to advance to the final three-team round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, lost to Costa Rica, 1-0, before a small but overwhelmingly pro-Ticos crowd in Torrance, Calif.

That heartbreaking defeat ended Panagoulias’ run as U.S. coach, but he bowed out knowing that he was right.  The sport desperately needed the rallying point of a successful national team, not yet another NASL championship by the Cosmos.  And without one, soccer in America would remain largely rudderless, a game much more fun to play than to watch.  Unfortunately for Panagoulias, it would take many years, other coaches and several generations of American players for the country to actually experience what this passionate Greek had been talking about.

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