By Ian Plenderleith – WASHINGTON DC (December 12, 2007) USSoccerPlayers — Team America experimented with the unusual concept of a National Team playing in its country’s domestic league. The joint venture between the US Soccer Federation and the North American Soccer League — aimed at developing a credible US National Team in a league dominated by foreigners, and at presenting a decent US team at the 1984 LA Olympics — lasted for just one season.
What had been the brainchild of NASL President Howard Samuels was based here in Washington DC for the NASL’s penultimate season, in 1983, two years after the Diplomats had played their last game at RFK Stadium. The team’s owner was Robert Lifton, who pulled out at the end of the year when low gates couldn’t cover the running costs.
Team America was supposed to represent the best that the US had to offer, and allow them the time to gel as a team, as well as creating fan interest in homegrown players. However, it was hamstrung by the fact that key players such as the New York Cosmos’ striker Ricky Davis opted to stay with what they correctly surmised was the stronger team.
The team also featured several naturalized Americans, who were brought in to nurture the younger US players. Some, such as English-born goalkeeper Paul Hammond, never actually played for the US. His compatriots Alan Merrick (see interview below) and Alan Green played only once for their adopted country. In 1983, the full US National Team played just one international game, away at Haiti in Port-au-Prince.
The team coach was another naturalized American citizen, Alkis Panagoulias, who had coached the New York Greek Americans to three US Open Cup titles in the 1960s, and who had managed the Greek National Team from 1973 to 1981. After Team America was disbanded, he continued as US coach until 1985, and later had a second spell in charge of Greece where he took them to their first ever World Cup at USA 94.
In the NASL, Team America enjoyed a decent start, going 8-5 over the first two months of the season, but slumped badly in July and August with a 2-15 record that left them bottom of the four-team Southern Division, and with the worst overall record of the league’s 12 remaining clubs. They did beat the Cosmos at RFK in June, thanks to a 2-1 shootout win (their goal in open play came from an own goal), but three weeks later fell 4-0 in the return fixture.
In May, the team met sitting US President Ronald Reagan in the White House Rose Garden where they presented him with an autographed team ball, and a jacket that said “Commander In Chief Team America” on the front. The President, according to archives on the website The American Presidency Project, perhaps misunderstood why (or was misinformed as to why) he was meeting the team, because he told them: “We’re very proud and happy to have this team and to be represented for the first time in the World Cup.”
There are some strange statistical anomalies too. The team’s final ever game at home to Fort Lauderdale was played in front of a crowd of just 6,718. Yet in June the same opponents had brought in over 50,000 fans to RFK. Perhaps it had something to do with Team America appearing as part of a double bill featuring the Beach Boys.
Interview with former West Bromwich Albion, Minnesota Kicks and Team America midfielder Alan Merrick:
USSoccerPlayers: How did you get involved with Team America?
Merrick: As a player I was very interested in what was happening with the game. I was in the players’ union in the NASL trying to make sure that more American players could get a position. I’d played in the country long enough to get my status as a citizen, so as soon as I got that I was offered a position on Team America.
There were a lot of young players there, and obviously I was not a young player any more, but it was a chance for me to at least give a little bit more back to the game and see if I could influence some of the younger American players. It was an upheaval for my family — we bought a house in Virginia and moved there, and I was expecting a two- or three-year stint with them, and to finish my career with them, but obviously it was short-lived.
I thought it was a great concept initially, because having a National Team playing in a domestic league would have set the stage for cohesiveness within the team, and it was a chance to get America recognised around the world by having a squad of players and a team that could compete against most other nations.
USSoccerPlayers: Was Team America run by the league or the USSF?
Merrick: It was a combination. The USSF appointed the coach, Alkis Panagoulias, and then the ownership group was an east coast businessman [Robert Lifton] who I think had a majority interest in the franchise, but US Soccer certainly subsidized some of it.
USSoccerPlayers: The received wisdom is that the team didn’t work because most of the best US players didn’t want to sign up.
Merrick: There were only a couple who went into that category. Ricky Davis comes to mind. And there was some resentment from some of the players that somebody like myself could sympathize with his desire to continue to play for the Cosmos and the recognition that he had there. He was learning lessons from all of the great players they had, so you could make some exceptions to several of those players.
I must admit that when we played the Cosmos, he got ‘special treatment’ (laughs). Ricky’s a good guy and I’ve known him all the way through those events, and the resentment was short-lived — it was short-sightedness in some instances, and over-exuberance by some of the younger players. They felt a little bit cheated by not having all of their compatriots with them, but it wasn’t that bad at all.
In fact the talent pool was exceptionally good. It was a very good concept. I was not particularly enamored by the coaching selection. The USSF was in total disarray at that point. They were going through growing pains and hadn’t put people in place who’d had worldwide experience of the game. They had administrators and personnel making decisions that were way above their heads.
USSoccerPlayers: Looking at the season’s stats, you did well through May and June, but in July and August it all fell apart. What went wrong?
Merrick: We caught a lot of teams by surprise who thought they were just playing a bunch of players who’d been thrown together, but we organized ourselves pretty well initially, and had some great leadership from within the playing staff. Then there were some power struggles — I know that I was chastised for giving my opinions on what I thought should happen, and actually putting in a couple of free kicks and components of the game that would help us.
The conversation [with Panagoulias] was: ‘Cease and desist. You’re undermining my coaching ability.’ Although I was trying to supplement it, and also assist, because we’d only got a short time to get things right. I think some of the man management skills were lacking, and people got a little disenchanted, thinking, ‘Hey, we’re making all of this commitment, but we’re not seeing anything back from the USSF or the coaching staff.’
USSoccerPlayers: When did you find out the experiment was over? Did they wait until the end of the season?
Merrick: Oh yes. It was sort of a shock to everybody. We were all thinking that it was going quite well, we’d been respectable, so the experiment was not a total disaster. We’d shown a good skill level, and had done a decent job. At the end of the season we thought we were going on tour to start to have some international matches.
We’d only played one international match during that period, which was when I got my cap, and then at the end of the season we thought, ‘This is great. We’re going to South America, to Europe, and we’re going to play as the US National team, and the Olympic team in training.’ And we were going to bring in some of the other guys who hadn’t joined us for the domestic year, like Ricky Davis and a couple of other players. That would have really bolstered the squad that we had, and put us on a very, very good road to producing some good results and turning some heads.
But the doors were just completely slammed. It was right at the end of the season. ‘Here’s your last pay check, bye bye.’ We had an hour’s notice, and we were in the office, and we were told the doors would be shutting as soon as we’d left, never to be opened again. Take some souvenirs and walk out on to the street, I think it was just down from the White House. So we walked out, waved to the White House and [Ronald] Reagan, and said, boy oh boy, that was a short and sweet visit to the capital city. It was a little surreal.
USSoccerPlayers: Where was your one cap?
Merrick: It was in Haiti, in Port au Prince. I remember feeling proud when the national anthem was played, and thinking that was rather special. I’d had international experience with the England youth team in the 1968 World Cup in France, so I knew how big a deal it was to play for your nation.
And it was really neat to be in line with a lot of dedicated players, after some of them had been ridiculed in the press, and some of them had been earmarked as not good enough, and I was thinking, ‘These players are as good as anybody in the world.’ They just hadn’t had the chance to establish their credibility, and that was the chance to start establishing the credibility for some of those players.
There were players on that squad who could have gone into the English First Division, or into today’s Premier League. There were seasoned players who had lots and lots of skill, physical attributes that were sometimes unmatched by European athletes, and all they needed was an opportunity and a format that allowed them to gain that credibility.
That international game was a significant game from my standpoint, because that was the first time I’d been exposed, together with my team-mates, to that environment. I think it was a 1-1 tie [in fact the US won 2-0], and a controversial game because the referees were [sardonically] incredibly impartial.
USSoccerPlayers: You mentioned Ricky Davis. What other players stood out for you at the time?
Merrick: Jeff Durgan at center back. There was Chico Borja, Tony Crescitelli. Arnie Mausser, he was a great goalkeeper. Then we had Paul Hammond, like me a naturalized citizen. Paul was a quality player, and helping some of the younger goalkeepers that were on their way up. Arnie was a very confident goalkeeper, obviously physical size and stature were his main frame. Like all goalkeepers he blew hot and cold, but when he was hot he was exceptional.
Tony Bellinger was one of those very steady players who was out of St. Louis who had a good background and pedigree. He was one of the senior American players, and so he gained a lot of respect from everybody and added a dimension I think was very important. And he reminded some of the up-and-coming players like John Askew, who hadn’t paid their dues yet, just what he’d had to endure to get to where he was.
Greg Villa was just a physical specimen. He had so much promise, but he lacked some of the subtle elements of the game. He was six foot 3, ran like a gazelle, and was just an imposing figure. He was the first of the big-sized [US] players. He could have been a running back in American football. At the time I’d look at him and think, ‘What happens when the American athletes take to this game and put some finesse together with their physical attributes?’ And we’re starting to see a little bit of that.
Perry van der Beck’s record speaks for itself [23 caps]. A stalwart, the epitome of the work ethic.
Dan Canter was another one of the young American defenders. He could have gone and played in any of the foreign leagues, immediately.
Andrew Parkinson [naturalized South African] did well. Like myself, he believed that he was helping the American game. He had the physical attributes but he had the subtle elements too, and he knew where the goal was.
Chico Borja was another one with South American heritage who came in and showed how diverse we could be. We had a melting pot of styles.
USSoccerPlayers: It looks like it was a great missed opportunity for US soccer.
Merrick: Oh yes, big time. That shows the infancy of the game, and also some of the shortcomings of the Federation, and also the league, not realizing how good it was. It was hands-off management, because they’d given it to an individual. They didn’t nurture it enough.
USSoccerPlayers: You don’t swap Christmas cards with Alkis Panagoulias?
Merrick: No I don’t. You’d probably have to get verification from other players, but you posed the question, ‘What happened half way through the year?’ It’s very difficult to put a team on the field when the majority of your practices were playing head-throw-catch. He tried his best, but he was lacking.