Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


SIGI SCHMID: BEEN THERE, DONE THAT, SEEN IT ALL

Four-time World Cup goalkeeper Kasey Keller, longtime MLS and collegiate coach Sigi Schmid and the late Glenn “Mooch” Myernick, a U.S. international and USSF youth coach, have been elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Keller, who made 102 international appearances for the U.S. from 1990 through 2007, played in the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga before ending his career with the Seattle Sounders.  Schmid, elected on the builder ballot, is the winningest coach in MLS history and a two-time winner of the league’s Coach of the Year award.  Myernick, elected on the veteran player ballot as an American soccer pioneer, earned 10 U.S. caps and starred for the NASL’s Portland Timbers before coaching the U.S. national under-23 and under-17 teams and the MLS Colorado Rapids.

Details on the induction ceremony for Keller, Schmid and Myernick have yet to be announced.  [April 8]

Comment:  For interesting stories among this trio, you could probably start with Keller and his family living in an honest-to-goodness castle in Germany while he played for Borussia Moenchengladbach 10 years ago.  But for a career that has amounted to a sweeping panorama of the recent history of American soccer, nothing tops what Sigi Schmid has seen over the past half-century.

It’s not Forrest Gump-ian, but it’s close.

Born in West Germany, Schmid moved with his family to Southern California as a child in time to play for the Firefighters, one of the first four teams in the history of the hopefully named American Youth Soccer Organization, in 1964.  Little is know of what became of Schmid’s teammates and opponents, some of whom played this strange new sport in high-top basketball shoes.  None could have known that AYSO would grow to become a national program with, currently, more than a half-million players.

Young Schmid, on his way to becoming a CPA, played midfield at UCLA from 1972 through 1975, then coached the Bruins from 1980 through 1999.  He could have padded his lineup with foreign-born talent, which was common in the college game at the time, but he insisted on American players, most of them Californians.   Led by future U.S. internationals like Paul Caligiuri, Cobi Jones and David Vanole, Schmid’s UCLA won three NCAA championships.

An assistant on the USA’s 1994 World Cup team, he served two stints as coach of the U.S. National Under-20 Team and won MLS Cups with the Columbus Crew and Los Angeles Galaxy.  Now, he’s the only coach the six-year-old Seattle Sounders have ever known, having guided that club to four U.S. National Open Cups, and his team regularly plays home matches before crowds of nearly 50,000.

But before USA ’94, MLS and the Sounders, Schmid can remember other days.  Like how AYSO, to a ragtag collection of 11- and 12-year-olds, had no business catching on and going nationwide.  And despite 16 NCAA playoff appearances, how UCLA–and top-tier collegiate soccer–seemed destined to continue to labor in complete obscurity, as the Bruins drew about 300 for many home matches.  And in 1989, how, while Schmid was filling a summer coaching the California Kickers, the World Cup the Americans would host in five years seemed headed for disaster on the field and at the gate.  The Kickers played in the Western Soccer League, which along with the East Coast’s American Soccer League, was home to nearly every U.S. international player at the time.   No one, from Tab Ramos and John Harkes to Marcelo Balboa and Eric Wynalda, was paid a living wage.  Each club that year played all of 16 regular-season matches.  And as for the Kickers, their home games were played in a rickety high school football stadium.

The Kickers once played the visiting Arizona Condors in front of 72 spectators.  Seventy-two.  But Schmid, in retrospect, needn’t have worried.  Add 43,662, and that was the average number of fans at cavernous CenturyLink Field in Seattle who last season looked down and saw a former AYSO kid pulling the strings in front of the Sounders’ bench.

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18-YEAR-OLD MLS BRINGS US THE NEW 40

Pedro Morales converted a penalty kick in the 19th minute and struck again on a 20-yard shot a minute later to lead the Vancouver Whitecaps to a 3-2 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes in a Major League Soccer match before a crowd of 21,000 at BC Place.

The meeting commemorated the 40th anniversary of the first game between the Whitecaps and Earthquakes, who opened the North American Soccer League season at Empire Stadium as expansion franchises on May 5, 1974.  Fans at BC Place were encouraged to dress ’70s retro, which many did with long-haired wigs, sunglasses, fake mustaches and bell-bottom pants.  [May 3]

Comment:  The match was played about a month after the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders battled to an entertaining 4-4 draw before yet another standing-room-only crowd of 20,814 at Portland’s Providence Park.  The Associated Press referred to that encounter as “one of the wilder match ups of a rivalry dating to the mid-1970s.”  NBC, which televised the game, called it “the 85th meeting of the two teams.”  MLS noted earlier that the Sounders, along with a third Cascadia rival, the Whitecaps, and the ‘Quakes would mark their 40th anniversary seasons this year, with the Timbers celebrating No. 39.

What a stretch of the imagination.

Those clubs have as much right to claim a 40th anniversary as a married couple who experiences divorce, death, ressurection, marriage to other partners, further divorces, identity changes, separation, multiple relocations, and, finally, rebirth, all since the days that Richard Nixon was in the White House.

True, the Sounders, Whitecaps and ‘Quakes were born in 1974 as NASL teams, followed by the Timbers in ’75.  However, Portland, which once boldly called itself “Soccer City USA,” folded after the 1982 season, and Seattle, Vancouver and San Jose (known as Golden Bay for its final two seasons) went down with the ship when the NASL itself died after the 1984 campaign.

A year later, with professional soccer in the U.S. resembling a moonscape, two new teams, FC Portland and FC Seattle, joined with a reconstituted San Jose Earthquakes and the soon-to-be-forgotten Victoria Riptides to play in a hopeful attempt to revive high-level soccer called the Western Alliance Challenge Series (San Jose finished first with a 4-2-1 record).  The WACS morphed into the Western Soccer Alliance, then the Western Soccer League, then, through a 1990 merger with the East Coast’s year-old American Soccer League, the American Professional Soccer League.  FC Portland, born as an all-amateur side made up primarily of University of Portland players like Kasey Keller, and their rival, since renamed FC Seattle Storm, folded after that year.

As for the San Jose Earthquakes, they were replaced by the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks in 1989; after U.S. internationals like Marcelo Balboa, Eric Wynalda and John Doyle led them the to APSL title in ’91, they dropped into the USISL by ’93 as the San Jose Hawks and then folded.  After three years of darkness, the San Jose Clash became a charter member of MLS.  It shed the regrettable Clash nickname in 1999 and went on to win two MLS championships as the ‘Quakes, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the poorly supported team from moving to Houston in 2006.  Two years later, an MLS expansion team, named the Earthquakes, was awarded to San Jose; this fourth version of the ‘Quakes will move into a new, soccer-specific stadium, in 2015.

Vancouver?  It returned to action in 1986 as a freelance team, then joined the new, short-lived Canadian Soccer League the following year.  After six seasons as a CSL power, the 86ers embarked on an 18-year odyssey that took them to the APSL, A-League and USL-1.  Along the way, the 86es nickname was changed to Whitecaps.

These 40-year anniversaries are all well and good, but they ignore the difficult days between NASL and MLS, when there was genuine doubt that pro outdoor soccer would ever be seen again.  Ask those in the crowd of 34,012 who watched the Sounders beat the Timbers at the Kingdome in 1979 if any of them were among the 1,500 or so who saw an amateur Portland team play a semi-pro Seattle team at the old Memorial Stadium eight or nine years later.  Would any of them have drawn any sort of parallel between the two games?  Could any of them have foreseen a day when an MLS Portland Timbers and MLS Seattle Sounders would meet at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field in front of 66,452 in 2012 or 67,385 last season?

Given the ups and downs–and glaring gaps–in these and every other major soccer-playing market in the U.S., creating milestones like this is a shameless example of revisionist history.  If not, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls) should’ve just claimed the legacy of the New York Cosmos as their own and begun life in MLS in 1996 with five NASL titles to their name.  Better yet, the New England Revolution should’ve simply traced their roots to the Fall River Marksmen, founded in 1921.  That would’ve given the Revs an immediate 75-year history, plus seven American Soccer League championships and four U.S. National Open Cup crowns.  A stretch?  Fall River, which of course is part of New England, is only 36 miles from the Revolution’s home field, Gillette Stadium.

These MLS clubs are right to give a nod to their respective cities’ rich soccer histories.  But the Whitecaps, Earthquakes (with their new stadium on the horizon), and Timbers and Sounders (with their routine sellouts) should celebrate the here and now without trying to re-write history–especially without forcing themselves to drag memories of mutton chop sideburns, Watergate and disco into the equation.



MARIO MACHADO AND THE OLYMPIC SOCCER TOURNAMENT THAT DIDN’T EXIST

Long-time television personality and soccer champion Mario Machado has died of complications of pneumonia at a West Hills, CA, convalescent facility.  He was 78.

Born in Shanghai to a Portuguese father and Chinese-Portuguese mother, Machado began his broadcast career at KHJ in Los Angeles as a television news reporter, a first for a Chinese-American.  He went on to serve as reporter, host and producer for a number of shows on TV and radio, winning eight Emmys in the process.  He also appeared in several motion pictures, usually as a new anchor or reporter, including “Brian’s Song,” “Rocky III,” “Scarface,” “Robocop,” “St. Elmo’s Fire,” and “Oh, God!”

A father of four, Machado had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease.  [May 4]

(Personal) Comment:  When it came to soccer, Mario Machado was a man ahead of his time.  Today, he’d probably be a studio host or leading play-by-play man on Fox Soccer Channel, beIN Sport, GolTV or NBCSP, and would be getting high marks for his knowledge of and passion for the game, all delivered in that smooth baritone.

Instead, he came along in the late 1960s–unfortunate for him but fortunate for the smattering of soccer fans around the U.S. starved for any coverage of the game.  A former college player who continued to play well into middle age, Machado was probably best known to audiences here as the host of “Star Soccer,” a weekly English League highlights show–back when there was no Man U or Chelsea glamour–on the Public Broadcasting System for six years, and he was play-by-play man for CBS’s telecasts of the North American Soccer League.  He briefly served as commissioner of the ill-fated American Soccer League in the 1980s, published Soccer Corner magazine from 1976 to 1986 and, as a founding member of the American Youth Soccer Organization, successfully pushed for AYSO to allow girls to play.

I met Machado early in 1984.  He had been named ABC’s play-by-play man for its coverage of the Los Angeles Olympic soccer tournament, and he needed a researcher.  The job was particularly challenging for three reasons.  First, Olympic soccer was not very important in many countries, and thus not very important to the national soccer federations that were the source of team information.  After all, the players were supposedly amateurs–players not good enough to have turned professional.  It didn’t help that the best mode of international communication wasn’t e-mail but the telex machine (ask your grandfather about that).  Second, it was unknown whether the countries that usually won the medals–communist bloc nations and their state-supported “amateurs”–would play tit for tat and boycott Los Angeles ’84 the way a U.S.-led coalition had sat out Moscow ’80.  And third, it was uncertain what kind of teams the 16 finalists–whoever they were–would send here.  The lead-up to the tournament was rife with rumors that FIFA would, for the first time, allow professionals to play in the Olympics, and sure enough, with weeks to go before kickoff, it was announced that all were welcome except players from Europe and South America who had World Cup experience.  For their part, the host Americans, who had been preparing a proper all-amateur team for more than a year, dumped the whole lot–with the exception of UCLA’s Jeff Hooker and Columbia’s Amr Aly–and replaced them with players from the NASL.  And in the end, the communist qualifiers, save eventual bronze medalist Yugoslavia, dropped out.

As a result, up until Olympic soccer kicked off July 29, I spoon-fed Machado what I could.  When it came to finalists like Qatar, Iraq and Morocco, the amount of advance information was pitiful.  Some of the powerful Western nations, like Italy and West Germany, weren’t very forthcoming, either.  Nevertheless, Machado slogged on.  He called all 32 matches for ABC, in-person or via monitor (matches were played in Annapolis, MD; Palo Alto, CA; Harvard University in Boston and Pasadena’s Rose Bowl).  That would be, with overtime, 2,910 minutes, but Machado’s total air time on ABC amounted to about 20 minutes–20 damn minutes–during his 14-day stint, culminating with France’s 2-0 victory over Brazil in the Rose Bowl final.

ABC had obviously concluded that soccer was a TV buzz kill.  Maybe, in 1984, ABC Sports supremo Roone Arledge was right.  However, with the Los Angeles Olympic soccer tournament drawing an average of 44,548 a match, he helped suppress one of the major stories of the L.A. Games.  The country that apparently didn’t like soccer not only turned out 101,799-strong for the gold medal game but 100,374 for the third-place game.  Soccer, with its mishmash of amateurs, semipros and marginal professionals (with the possible exception of Brazil captain Dunga, Italy’s Vierchowod and a handful of others), had easily out-drawn the Olympics’ signature event, track and field.

Afterwards, Machado expressed no disappointment, at least not to me, over what amounted to what could be described as TV sportscasting’s version of more than 48 hours of shadow boxing.  He was a consummate professional, and as a soccer fan he probably reveled in that total gate of 1,425,541.



MLS: OLD ENOUGH TO VOTE–AND GLOAT (BUT WON’T)

Major League Soccer will kick off its 18th season Saturday, March 2, with 12 of its 19 clubs in action.  Another six will play the following day.

Aside from the usual player moves and coaching changes, the league remains relatively unchanged from 2012, although the start date marks the earliest kickoff in MLS history.  A record 87 matches will be televised nationally on seven different channels, and the league will be out to top last season’s attendance figures as it drew 6,074,729 fans and averaged a record-18,807–ahead of the NBA and NHL and behind only the NFL and Major League Baseball at the turnstiles.  [February 28]

Comment:  MLS, wisely, has never been a league to look back; given the alphabet soup of leagues that have crashed and burned over the past century, there never was a reason to remind anyone that it has been trying to be the very first one to fly.

But if it did publicly point to the past, it might … discreetly … modestly … pop a very quiet champagne cork and take a quick sip.

Season 18 makes MLS the oldest professional soccer league in American history.  Eighteen is one year older than the North American Soccer League (1968-84), the league formed by the merger of a pair of one-year-old circuits, the long-forgotten United Soccer Association and National Professional Soccer League.  The NASL was down to five clubs in 1969, then rode the Pele-led New York Cosmos gravy train to 24 teams and a national TV contract in the late ’70s, only to over-spend itself into oblivion a handful of years later.   The only other notable pro league in the U.S. was the original American Soccer League, which was founded in 1921 and was out-drawing the NFL until battles with the USFA (forerunner to U.S. Soccer) and FIFA and the Great Depression killed it off in 1933, although it reorganized and limped along on a minor-league basis until 1983.

MLS, now just three years away from full adulthood, still faces many challenges, not the least of which are poor TV ratings in a sports landscape ruled by the tube, plus too many clubs operating in the red.  And there would not have been an 18th birthday were it not for the likes of Phil Anschutz, who at one point propped up half the clubs in the league. But while the NASL in its 17th season was in its death throes, hemorrhaging money as its number of franchises had dropped to nine and average attendance to a tepid 10,759, MLS is not far from adding its 20th club (a reconstituted New York Cosmos?  Orlando?), and the fan base in many of its cities is made up of young adults who are loyal, knowledgeable and loud.  While NASL clubs shoehorned themselves into all manner of baseball stadiums and pro, college and even high school football stadiums, 14 MLS clubs play in new or relatively new soccer-specific stadiums.  MLS has proven to be one of the most competitive soccer leagues in the world–nine different clubs have lifted the MLS Cup and eight have claimed the Supporters Shield–and the quality on the field continues to improve (though some critics would ask, how could it not?).   And while the NASL tried to build itself on the backs of big-name, high-priced foreigners, the MLS this season loses the world’s most recognizable star in David Beckham but has attracted enough stars from abroad to make itself interesting.

With the MLS  now old enough to vote, should it gloat?  Nope.  Would Major League Soccer’s cautious, spendthrift approach, without a legion of Internet-driven 20-something hipsters in the stands, without its soccer-specific stadiums, without the explosion of television-exposure options, have survived back in 1968-84?  Of course not.  In short, after ASL I, ASL II, the International League, USA, NPSL, NASL, MISL, AISL, USL, WSA/WSL, ASL III, APSL and A-League, Major League Soccer can thank the soccer gods that it has proven itself to be the right league at the right time.



ONE OF LAST LINKS TO USA’S FINEST, UNLIKELY, HOUR AND A HALF
February 12, 2012, 11:37 pm
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One of the most notable figures in the early history of American soccer, Harry Keough, died at his home in St. Louis.  He was 84.

Keough was the broad-shouldered center back of the U.S. team that upset England, 1-0, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, in the first round of the 1950 World Cup, a result considered by many perhaps the biggest upset ever in sports.  England, inventors of the game with a side made up of First Division professionals, came to Brazil as tournament favorite while the Americans were a collection of semipros.

Keough, a postal carrier by trade, earned 17 caps in the late 1940s and ’50s.  He also led St. Louis Kutis to the 1957 U.S. National Open Cup and six consecutive U.S. National Amateur Cups beginning in 1956.   Keough went on to a long and successful career as a collegiate coach.  After helping Missouri’s Florissant Valley become a junior college powerhouse, he took the helm at Saint Louis University and guided the Billikens to NCAA Division I championships in 1968 (shared with Michigan State), 1969, ’70, ’72 and ’73, compiling a 213-50-23 record from 1967 through ’82.

In 1976, Keough was inducted along with the rest of his 1950 U.S. teammates into the National Soccer Hall of Fame, and in 1990 he became, along with ex-teammate Walter Bahr, the go-to guy for media members looking for a quote regarding the significance of America’s first World Cup appearance in four decades.   With Keough’s passing, only three members of that U.S. team remain:  Bahr, John Souza and Frank Borghi. [February 6]

Comment:  A fluke, a mistake, a month of Sundays in collision, but without the improbable heroics of Keough & Co. nearly 62 years ago, this country’s soccer’s history, at a glance, would’ve been a blank slate for 45 long years–from the USA’s two-win march to the semifinals at the first World Cup in 1930 to the arrival of Pele in 1975.   And when it came to America’s feeble hurrah in the middle of an otherwise barren resume, it couldn’t have had a more gracious and humble spokesman than Keough.

For those who aren’t inclined to read Geoffrey Douglas’ 1996 book “The Game of Their Lives” (or sit through the disappointing 2005 motion picture of the same name that managed to paint English star forward Stan Mortensen as an arrogant villain, among other distortions and inaccuracies), here’s a condensed account of U.S. 1, England 0, from Soccer Stories: Anecdotes, Oddities, Lore and Amazing Feats:

THE GREATEST UPSET OF THEM ALL

In terms of sheer shock value, it’s bigger than the U.S. ice hockey team’s gold medal triumph at the 1980 Winter Olympics.  It tops the 1969 Miracle Mets, Jets quarterback Joe Namath’s guaranteed win in Super Bowl III–all of them.

The U.S. National Team’s 1-0 victory over England at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil was the greatest upset in the history of sports.  England, the birthplace of soccer, lost to the United States, a team of semipros–plus one amateur–representing a country that was considered at the time to be on a par with Antarctica on the international soccer totem pole.  Imagine the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball squad, the so-called Dream Team, tumbling to the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.  So preposterous was the thought of England losing to the United States that many sports editors around the world, upon seeing the final score come over the wire from Belo Horizonte, concluded that it must have been a typographical error.  Surely the actual score was England 10, United States 1.

England, at odds with FIFA from the late 1920s until just after World War II, had finally consented to play in a World Cup after skipping the first three, and it came to Brazil as a favorite.  In the first round a routine victory over Chile and the expected hammering of the United States, plus a win–at worst a tie–against Spain, and the English would be through Group 2 and into the final pool for a four-team, round-robin playoff for the crown.  From there England would cement its status as the game’s master.

The English indeed brushed aside Chile, 2-0, June 25 at the cavernous Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro in their first-ever World Cup match.  The Americans, meanwhile, had opened the cup by falling bravely to Spain in Curitiba, 3-1, giving up all three goals after the 80th minute.  Thus, the stage was set for the USA’s expected elimination at the hands of England at Belo Horizonte, a mining town some 300 miles north of Rio.

A crowd of 10,151 gathered at the intimate Mineiro Stadium on that cool, cloudy June 29, most of them curious Brazilians rooting for the United States to somehow upend England and perhaps help remove an obstacle to their own country’s championship hopes.  The field was bumpy–an impediment to English skill–and the dressing rooms were so cramped and foul that England chose to change beforehand at its hotel.  From the opening kickoff, England set up camp on the U.S. half of the field and, early on, sailed a shot just over the crossbar.  The English were laughing and joking as they sauntered back for the ensuing goal kick.  Surely the slaughter would begin soon.

But, amazingly, the game remained 0-0 beyond the first half hour, and in the 39th minute (or 37th or 38th, depending on the account), the United States scored the Goal.  U.S. halfback Walter Bahr, one of eight native-born Americans in the lineup, latched onto a throw-in from the right by captain Ed McIlvenny, dribbled 10 yards down the wing, and rifled a 25-yard shot toward the far post.  English goalkeeper Bert Williams appeared to have the situation under control, but U.S. center forward Joe Gaetjens swooped in and sent a flying header into the right corner of the net.

Several English newspaper reports claimed the ball struck the unwitting Gaetjens in the head before caroming into the goal.  “Williams in the England goal positioned himself perfectly to gather in Bahr’s shot,” wrote John Graydon of the English Saturday Post, “but Gaetjens, the American leader, ruined everything for him.  Gaetjens jumped in, failed to connect with his forehead but the ball accidentally hit the top of his head and was deflected into the England goal.”  Surviving U.S. players later contended that Gaetjens was simply an unpredictable player who chose this moment to execute an unexpected diving header.

This was England’s wake-up call, and the red-faced favorites–frustrated by an underdog listed at 500-1–responded with a second-half barrage that increased in intensity as the final whistle approached.  But goalkeeper Frank Borghi and his back line held firm, the English marksmen were off-target, and there would be no equalizer.

At one point English defender Alf Ramsey’s free kick was headed on by forward Jimmy Mullen and seemingly bound for the U.S. goal, but Borghi made a sprawling save.

England’s best chance to draw level came with five minutes remaining.  Inside forward Stanley Mortensen split the U.S. defense, only to be brought down just beyond the penalty area with a desperate gridiron football-style tackle by U.S. center back Charles Colombo, the team’s hard man who, perhaps for reasons of intimidation, always wore boxer’s training gloves when he played.  So vicious was the hit that their momentum carried Mortenson and Colombo to the penalty spot.  Italian referee Generoso Dattilo, however, did not point to the spot to give England a penalty kick and he did not eject Colombo.  True to his given name, he shook his finger at Colombo yet said, “Bono, bono, bono!” (in this instance, “Good job!” or “Way to go!”) and awarded only a free kick that England subsequently sent sailing over the bar.

Moments later, Ramsey booted a free kick into the penalty area, where Mullen’s downward header got behind Borghi, but the U.S. ‘keeper recovered and palmed the ball away for right back Harry Keough to clear.  Dattilo rejected English claims that the ball had crossed the goal line.

Through it all, the Americans kept their cool.  Late in the match, with the partisan crowd chanting Mais um! (“One more!”), the balding inside forward John “Clarkie” Souza dribbled around a half-dozen Englishmen to kill several seconds off the clock.

At the final whistle, Gaetjens, Borghi, and other U.S. players were paraded around the field on the shoulders of jubilant Brazilian fans, and others set newspapers ablaze in the stands in celebration.  U.S. coach Bill Jeffrey, a Scotsman, danced a jig on the sidelines.

While the rest of the world buzzed, this monumental upset caused less than a ripple in the United States.  Only one American reporter, Dent McSkimming, was on hand for the game, and that was only because he was on vacation and taking in the game as a tourist; his paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, ran not a McSkimming report of the game but a wire service account.  The disinterest shown the remarkable feat by the American public spoke volumes of the state of soccer in the United States in the 1950s; likewise, the shock and amazement in most quarters that greeted news of the upset said plenty about what the world thought of both English and American soccer.

*          *         *

Before the upset the U.S. Soccer Federation, then known as the U.S. Football Association (USFA), all but shut down its national team program following a humiliating 7-1 loss to host Italy in its only 1934 World Cup match and a respectable 1-0 loss to the eventual gold medal-winning Italians in its lone appearance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  The United States entered the 1938 World Cup in France but withdrew after FIFA pitted the Americans against the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in a qualifying playoff.  (Perhaps the USFA was influenced by a September 1937 trip to Mexico City during which the national team bowed to El Tricolores, 7-2, 7-3, and 5-1 over two weeks.

Thanks in part to World War II, the USFA (since renamed the U.S. Soccer Football Association) didn’t send a selection out onto the field until the 1947 North American Championship in Havana, where Cuba and Mexico flattened the Americans by a combined 10-2.  That was followed by the 1948 London Olympics, where the Americans–featuring future World Cup team members Bahr, Colombo, Gino Parini, Eddie Souza, and John Souza (no relation)–were humbled by Italy, 9-0, in their only match.  Four days later, the squad, now appearing as the national team, was humiliated by Norway, 11-0, in Oslo, and five days after that it tumbled to Northern Ireland, 5-0, in Belfast.

Obviously, the world had changed.  The United States had beaten Belgium and Paraguay to reach the 1930 World Cup semifinals with a collection of rugged characters, a smattering with pro experience from Britain but most from the hardscrabble ethnic semipro leagues of the urban United States.  But over the next two decades professionalism spread to Brazil, Spain, and other soccer hotbeds, while elsewhere, from the amateurs of Scandinavia to the minnows of Central America, the game only got stronger–stronger than the likes of the Fall River FC of Massachusetts, Kearny Scots of New Jersey, Stix, Baer and Fuller of St. Louis, and other domestic powers of the era.  Before long, the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers playing in the American Soccer League and/or U.S. National Open Cup were hopelessly behind, a gap that would persist for a half century.

U.S. failure was supposed to have continued in September 1949 with World Cup qualifiers in Mexico City, but North America was generously awarded two slots in Brazil, and the United States team, despite being beaten by Mexico, 6-0 and 6-2, punched their ticket at the expense of the Cubans, 1-1 and 5-2.  Nevertheless, it was hardly a bold run-up to Brasil ’50.

The venerable Home International Championship, the world’s oldest international team competition (born 1883, died 1989 due to fan violence), was the annual battle for soccer supremacy among England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  In 1949-50, it doubled as a European qualifying group for the fourth World Cup, and the English finished first by two points with a 1-0 victory over Scotland in Glasgow in their final match.  A World Cup spot was reserved for the Home’s second-placed team, but the Scots deemed themselves unworthy as a runner-up and stayed home.

U.S. coach Jeffrey made his final World Cup squad selections after an April 1950 match in St. Louis between hopefuls from the East and West, which ended in a 3-3 tie.  Only seven players survived from the qualifiers in Mexico City:  Bahr, Borghi, Colombo, forward Nicholas DiOrio, defender Keough, John Souza, and forward Francis Wallace.  Jeffrey’s final selection then was thumped, 5-0, by the touring Turkish club Besiktas in St. Louis; a loss to an English B team, 1-0, at New York’s Randall’s Island, followed, and the United States was off to Brazil.

That English B team, playing as the English F.A. XI, would become part of England’s World Cup squad.  It tuned up for what would be, for some players, a trip to Brazil by winning all nine of its friendlies during a tour of Canada, outscoring the opposition 66-13, including the victory over the United States.

After the U.S.-England friendly, at a banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria, English Football Association president Stanley Rous, later elected head of FIFA, was gracious in his remarks regarding the U.S. team, but suggested his side was weary from the extensive travel in North America.  In conclusion, he said, “When you go to Brazil and play the English National Team, then you will find out what football is all about.”

*          *          *

After the incredible upset over England, the United States was unable to ride the victory into the tournament’s final pool.  The Americans lost to Chile, 5-2, three days later at Ilha do Retiro Stadium in Recife and were eliminated.  Like the Spain match, the defense collapsed in the second half.  After rebounding from a 2-0 deficit to tie on goals by Gino Pariani in the 47th minute and Ed Souza from the penalty spot in the 48th (or by Frank Wallace and Joe Maca, or by Wallace and John Souza, depending on the account), the team melted in the 110-degree heat and conceded three goals beginning in the 54th.

Nevertheless, the United States, whose squad included a postman, a school teacher, a factory worker, a knitting machine mechanic, and a hearse driver, went home tied for second in Group 2 with England and Chile, all at 1-2-0.  Spain (3-0-0) took first but eventually finished last in the final pool, behind champion Uruguay, host Brazil, and third-place Sweden.

Despite disbelief over the England defeat, the United States left Brazil with a respectable all-time World Cup record of 3-4-0.  Without a strong national league or public interest, however, the Americans’ immediate future in international soccer was bleak, and they wouldn’t make another World Cup appearance until Italia ’90, where an inexperienced squad of current and former college standouts, average age 23, lost all three of its games.  Following USA ’94 (1-2-1), France ’98 (0-3-0), the Americans’ encouraging quarterfinal showing at Japan/Korea ’02 (2-2-1) and Germany ’06 (0-2-1), the United States’ all-time record in World Cup competition stood at 6-16-3.

Coach Walter Winterbottom, who had kept Stanley Matthews out of England’s first two games, played the legendary winger in his team’s final Group 2 match, but the English lost, 1-0, to Spain before 70,000 at the Maracana and trudged home.  The English tumbled completely off their pedestal in 1953 when the “Magic Magyars,” the invincible Hungarian National Team, routed them, 6-3, at Wembley Stadium and 7-1 six months later in Budapest.

England, of course, did not curl up and die after the losses to the United States and Hungary.  Alf Ramsey, the man who played against the Yanks, was appointed coach, replaced Winterbottom, after England lost in the 1962 World Cup quarterfinals to eventual champion Brazil.  The Ramsey-led English won the 1966 World Cup.

As for Belo Horizonte, England avenged that defeat four times over by humiliating the United States, 6-3, in 1953 in New York; 8-1 in 1959 in Los Angeles; 10-0 in 1964 in New York; and 5-0 in 1985 in Los Angeles.  The United States came back to surprise the English, 2-0, in U.S. Cup ’93 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  For now, England’s advantage stands at 7-2-1, that tie coming at the 2010 World Cup.

As for Jeffrey, his tenure as U.S. coach consisted of those three games in Brazil and he returned to his day job as soccer coach at Penn State.  In 1951, with the national team temporarily in mothballs, Jeffrey led his Nittany Lions on a three-game tour of Iran.  The following year he closed out a successful 24-year career as Penn State coach, compiling a 134-21-27 record.

McIlvenny, who like Jeffrey was born in Scotland, played for Wrexham of Wales.  He moved to the United States in 1949 and played for the Philadelphia Americans, then in the midst of winning five American Soccer League titles over 10 years.  After the World Cup he returned to Britain and played two games with Manchester United, then ended his career with teams in Ireland, Germany, and once again, England.  Fellow defender Maca returned to his native Belgium, where he resumed his playing career as the hero who helped vanquish mighty England.

Left back Bahr followed Jeffrey to Penn State and guided the Nittany Lions to a 185-66-22 mark from 1974 to 1987.  Two of Bahr’s sons cut short promising professional soccer careers to pursue fame and fortune as place-kickers in the NFL.  Chris, a midfielder, switched sports after scoring 11 goals and winning the 1975 NASL Rookie of the Year award with the Philadelphia Atoms.  Matt, a defender, split the 1978 NASL season between the Caribous of Colorado and Tulsa Roughnecks before making the jump.

Defender Keough, later a successful coach at Saint Louis University (five NCAA titles in 16 seasons), is the father of TV soccer commentator Ty Keough, whose playing career spanned eight appearances for the United States–nine fewer than his father–and four seasons in the NASL.

Keough, Borghi, Colombo, Wallace, and Pariani were all products of St. Louis, the latter four from the southside Italian neighborhood known as “Dago Hill.”  A reserve, Bob Annis, and Jeffrey’s assistant, William “Chubby” Lyons, also were from St. Louis.  As a teen, Borghi, the hearse driver who would one day become his funeral home’s director, was a U.S. Army field medic in World War II.  He crossed the English Channel the day after D-Day, and among the men he treated in Germany was the future voice of the St. Louis Cardinals, Jack Buck.  Another army veteran, Wallace, nicknamed “Pee Wee,” served in the 191st Tank Battalion and saw action on the beach at Anzio, eventually earning four Battle Stars and a Purple Heart; he was captured by the Germans and spend 15 months in a POW camp.

Five Americans on the field at Mineiro Stadium that day were added by Jeffrey after the qualifiers in Mexico City.  Of them, McIlvenney, Maca, and Gaetjens were not U.S. citizens but were allowed to play under the more lenient rules of the time.  To the USSF, a player who declared his intent to become a U.S. citizen was eligible to play for the national team.  Questions were raised after the upset, but later that year FIFA declared that the United States had done nothing wrong.  Of the three, however, only Maca would go on to obtain U.S. citizenship.

Before scoring the Goal, Gaetjens, the son of a Haitian mother and Belgian father, was a dishwasher in a New York restaurant, working his way through Columbia University with the help of a Haitian government scholarship.  Previously his greatest claim to fame as a player had come in 1949-50 when he led the American Soccer League in scoring with 18 goals for the last-place Brook-Hattan Galicia.  After Brazil he played three years in France for Racing Club de Paris and Troyes, then returned to his native Haiti, where the rules of the day allowed him to play for the Haitians in 1953 in a World Cup qualifier against Mexico (a 4-0 loss).

Gaetjens later became a spokesman for Proctor & Gamble and owner of a string of dry-cleaning stores.  Gaetjens was apolitical, but apparently some of his relatives were not, and in July 1964 he was hauled out of one of his Port-au-Prince dry-cleaning shops and taken away by “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s dreaded Ton Ton Macoute secret police.  Efforts to determine his whereabouts have been unsuccessful, but it is believed he died in prison in 1970, six years before he and his 16 U.S. teammates were inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Ironically, the Haitian government issued a commemorative stamp in Gaetjen’s honor in 2000.

*          *          *

So, just how big was this biggest of all sports upsets?

It changed nothing in the United States, and it did nothing to change English soccer’s opinion of itself, nor did the rest of the world think less of England’s game.  An anomaly, at best.

Keough, one of the St. Louis boys, probably put it best.  Years later, he told his hometown Post-Dispatch:  “Obviously, there was no television back then and, honestly, the World Cup wasn’t nearly as big a deal as it is now.  We knew what we’d accomplished was something very special, but I don’t think most people back home, even soccer people, had any idea how major an upset it was.

“Was it the greatest upset in history?  I think so.  In the [2002] World Cup, when Senegal beat defending champion France, almost all of the players for Senegal were first-division players from top leagues all over the world.  We had a team of nobodies.

“I’d say the [USA] hockey team’s win [over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics] was probably more significant because they went on to win that tournament.  But there’s no way anybody, including us, expected the U.S. to beat England in 1950.”



AMERICA’S 5-FOOT-8, 160-POUND EMBLEM

Landon Donovan won an unprecedented seventh U.S. Player of the Year award in a landslide over runner-up Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey in balloting involving nearly 200 journalists nationwide.

Donovan, who first won the honor in 2002, attracted 403 points based on three for a first-place vote, two for second and one for third.  Bradley picked up 169 points and Dempsey 157.   The only other multiple winners in the 20-year history of the award– organized by the national radio show Futbol de Primera and until recently sponsored by Honda–are goalkeeper Kasey Keller (1999 and 2005) and striker Eric Wynalda (1992 and 1996).

The speedy attacking midfielder-withdrawn forward probably became a favorite for the 2010 award with his stellar play early in the year for Everton, but he cinched it by scoring in three of the USA’s four games at the World Cup, including the dramatic winner against Algeria in added-on time that put the Americans into the second round.  He then returned home and helped the Los Angeles Galaxy finish the MLS regular season with the league’s best record.  [January 5]

Comment:  Once dismissed by the Los Angeles Times as “the overrated Landon Donovan” following the first of his two attempts to make an impact in Europe with Bayer Leverkusen, later criticized for disappearing in this match and that, the USA’s all-time scoring leader in 2010 cemented his status as not only the face of the sport in this country but a face that some average Americans actually recognize.

This country’s first notable soccer player was, probably, Archie Stark, a Scottish-born center forward who dominated the original American Soccer League in the 1920s and was dubbed “The Babe Ruth of Soccer” by a young newspaper columnist named Ed Sullivan.   From the early ’30s, oldtimers fondly recall a ball artiste named Billy Gonsalves.  Fast-forward to the 1970s, when the NASL tried but failed to make league scoring leader Kyle Rote Jr. its All-American Boy, and the 1980s, when it succeeded, somewhat, in planting that title on New York Cosmos midfielder Rick Davis.   Since then, the country has produced several outstanding players, like Hugo Perez, Tab Ramos and Claudio Reyna, as well as personalities like bohemian gladfly defender Alexi Lalas, the fiery goal-scorer Wynalda and teen-idol Cobi Jones. 

It has been said repeatedly that what American soccer needs is a superstar–whatever that means.  It is doubtful, however, that the general American public would appreciate the subtle skills of a Xavi, a Zidane, a Cantona, a Maldini.  An incisive pass, a simple swerve, a change of direction, an immaculate take-away:  all would be lost on a viewership peering in on soccer only occasionally.  Donovan, however, does what Americans understand, has a track record of doing so, and is comfortable before cameras and facing a horde of reporters in front of his locker. 

Donovan has asked for a respite after several months of play, so it’s unlikely that he will return to Europe any time soon and add to his credentials this winter.  As such, enjoy his reign as “That American Soccer Player.”  Certainly, no successor is on the horizon, and that puts the sport’s longterm future on the fickle U.S. pop culture front in doubt.

[Full disclosure:  One ballot went to Donovan, Bradley and Steve Cherundolo, who served the role of grown-up on the USA back line in South Africa.  At 31 and playing for the obscure Hannover 96, it’s doubtful that the smart, energenic Cherundolo will ever get the credit he deserves.]