By Tom Dunmore - CHICAGO, IL (Mar 25, 2013) US Soccer Players - On April 8, 1983, Team America - a club side in the North American Soccer League composed of leading American players - played its one and only international game, a 1-0 win over Haiti. In the 100 years of US Soccer, the Team America concept and its execution stands as one of the strangest episodes in the nation’s soccer history.
The idea for Team America came from NASL President Howard Samuels, aimed at preparing the National Team for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and qualifying for the 1986 World Cup.
In the short-term, Team America was on the face of it a failure. During the 1983 NASL season, the team lost twice as many games as it won (10-20), conceding 54 goals and scoring 33, while finishing bottom of the Southern Division, behind the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Fort Lauderdale Strikers and eventual NASL champions that season, the Tulsa Roughnecks. Yet it perhaps had a better chance at succeeding than has been credited since.
Team America’s owner was Robert Lifton, a New York businessman recruited by NASL President Howard Samuels to run the team out of RFK Stadium in Washington DC. All the team’s players were to be American citizens who had not represented another country internationally previously.
Its American players would come from other NASL teams, who would loan Team America their best domestic stars (with Team America picking up to three players from each team, paying their salaries) to help grow the sport and build the country’s competitive edge internationally. The U.S. had not qualified for a World Cup since 1950, and had only played one game in 1981 and 1982 combined. Team America would allow a crop of Americans to train and play together regularly. Samuels told the press in January 1983 at Team America’s launch that “We want to join the world in the world’s sport.”
At the same time, Team America would provide the NASL - struggling to attract interest by the early 1980s - a novelty factor that would boost attendances.
That, at least, was the theory.
The concept was dealt an early blow ahead of its debut in the 1983 NASL season when All-American star Ricky Davis of the New York Cosmos’ resisted the call to relocate to DC for the venture. The decision was a difficult one for Davis, who said at the time that “I was so confused I was really dying inside,” when faced with whether to stay with the Cosmos or join Team America.
Ultimately, Davis made his decision after writing down pros and cons on a piece of paper. The pros of staying with the Cosmos apparently outweighed the cons of missing out on the Team America experiment.
Davis, though, was one of the few holdouts. The team’s coach, Greek immigrant Alkis Panagoulias, drafted 11 American-born players, captained by the Cosmos’ Jeff Durgan. Ten players were born overseas and gained American citizenship, such as goalkeeper Paul Hammond, born in Nottingham, England, but an NASL player since 1975.
Before Team America even suited up in the NASL, its season opener set for May, it traveled to Haiti in April for what turned out to be the one and only international game the team would play.
It soon became apparent to Panagoulias, who passed away last year, that the team did not have unanimous support from within the NASL. With only 13 players on his roster at that time, the Greek-born coach called up six more players from around the league. The NASL clubs responded by only releasing two players.
Panagoulias told The New York Times that while he understood the reticence of some clubs to farm out more players - the Cosmos refused to make Ricky Davis available, but had loaned two players (Jeff Durgan and Chico Borja) to Team America - he was furious at the intransigence of clubs who refused to assist the National Team at all. Panagoulias had called up two players from the Seattle Sounders, Mark Peterson and Jeff Stock, with Seattle refusing to allow them to go.
“I’m furious about the Seattle team and their players,” Panagoulias told the Times. “They told me Peterson and Stock didn’t want to come because they wanted to play in games against some colleges next week. This is absolutely ridiculous. We’re talking about the National Team here. What the heck is going on in this country?”
So desperate did the situation seem that the Times headline ahead of the game was “Help Wanted: Soccer Players.”
Over two decades later, Panagoulias was more sanguine but no less baffled by the refusal of NASL teams to grasp the importance of the National Team’s success. “It was very difficult,” Panagoulias told Jack Bell in 2006. “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.”
In Haiti, Panagoulias’ scrapped together roster won 2-0 on 8 April in Port-au-Prince, with the goals coming from the Cosmos’ pair Durgan and Borja.
The win, in fact, proved to be a precursor to something now often forgotten: Team America actually achieved very good results during its first couple of months of play. Interest in the team was also significant. The team’s phone, with a number corresponding to U-S-A-T-E-A-M, was ringing non-stop at its headquarters just down the street from the White House at 908 Seventeenth Street NW in Washington DC. With only one month of operations before the NASL season began to sell season tickets, Team America attracted 2,500 season ticket holders, a highly respectable number in the league.
Along with Durgan and Borja, Panagoulias’ roster might not have been the very best the country could offer, but it still had talent. In midfield was Rudy Glenn, who had helped lead the Chicago Sting to an NASL championship in 1981. Also in Team America’s midfield, Perry Van der Beck, who had been the first American drafted out of high school in the NASL in 1978 and had twice helped the Tampa Bay Rowdies reach the Soccer Bowl championship game. He would ultimately earn 21 caps with the National Team. In defense alongside Durgan was Bruce Savage, who went on to play 16 teams for the National Team all the way up to 1992.
Buoyed by victory over Haiti, Team America began the 1983 season with a flying start. Despite a rainy, windy day a respectable crowd of 14,211 watched its opening home game at RFK on May 2 1983, a 1-0 win over Tulsa. Wearing jerseys with horizontal red-and-white stripes and bright blue shorts emblazoned with stars, Team America - motivated by the pugnacious Panagoulias - showed up in the NASL with a chip on its shoulder.
“Everyone on this team is playing with a lot of vengeance,” Team America’s captain Jeff Durgan told the press after the 1-0 win over Tulsa. “We’ve all been ridiculed by foreign players in this league, who’ve told us we stink and we’ll never make it in soccer. There isn’t a player here who doesn’t have an intense sense of patriotism and national pride, and we all have one objective: to show the world that Americans can play in top-level soccer.”
That commitment shone in the team’s early games. Through the end of June, Team America went 8-5, a highly respectable record for an expansion team.
On June 17th, Team America hit its high-point: a 2-1 shootout win at home over Ricky Davis’ New York Cosmos, the league’s flagship team featuring Franz Beckenbauer - who scored an own goal.
Team America had won four straight games. The concept, it seemed, might have legs after all. By the end of June, Van der Beck was telling the Chicago Tribune that Team America’s success might threaten foreign players’ dominance of the NASL both in numbers and in their inflated salaries. “It could cost the foreign players in this league jobs,” Van der Beck said. “The owners will see you can win with Americans and you don’t need to import anyone. There’s no comparison between our salaries, either.”
In truth, the team’s early run had come through a whole lot of grit and a fair number of slivers of fortune: three of its eight wins had come via the NASL’s shootout system that decided tied games, and they had not won a game by more than a single goal. While Durgan and Danny Cantor anchored a stout defense that conceded only 15 goals in those 15 games, the team’s offense had spluttered without the country’s best offensive American talent, Davis and his Cosmos teammate Angelo DiBernardo, who had also resisted Team America’s siren call. Panagoulias’ men had also only scored 15 goals.
The roster’s true weaknesses - a lack of depth and attacking talent - would be cruelly exposed throughout the rest of the summer, blowing up the Team America concept and ensuring it became a one-year curiosity for the record books. The DC-based team lost all eight of its games in July, scoring only five goals and struggling to rotate players with a thin squad and a packed schedule, playing four games in 11 days to end the month. The NASL began to look into ways for Team America to supplement its roster with short-term loans from other teams on off-weeks, but the team’s downward spiral continued.
Through the end of the season in September, Team America won only two more games. Just as troubling off the field, Lifton announced he had lost $750,000 on the venture and was looking for significant changes to continue. What Lifton wanted was obvious, the rest of the league obligated to part with their American players. His call went unheeded.
As the team crashed on the field, attendance plummeted and sealed Team America’s demise. The team’s last four home games attracted crowds of only 4,423, 4,865 and 6,718 for the team’s final-ever game, a 1-0 loss to Fort Lauderdale that closed its 1983 NASL campaign.
A 10-20 record on a team put together from scratch only weeks before the season began was not a wild success, but neither was it a gross failure. The team’s real problem was two-fold, and both stemmed from half-hearted support from the US Soccer Federation for the concept. It was not a true Team America, as club and international sides were not one and the same, nor was it able to play many international games.
Team America’s sole international game on April 8th was a victory, but for it to have succeeded both financially and in capturing the soccer nation’s heart, only playing one game against a foreign foe far away in Port-au-Prince was not the way to build the concept into something tangible for the growth of American soccer patriotism. A handful of high-profile international exhibition games played in DC might have added significantly to the team and league’s luster and stemmed Lifton’s losses. As it was, neither Team America nor the NASL existed by the time the next World Cup rolled around.
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