Len Oliver found success early as a soccer player. He won National Junior Titles with the Lighthouse Boys Club (1947-48) and a Philadelphia Amateur League title with the Kensington Blue Bells, and citywide high school titles with Northeast High School. While in college, Oliver won two NCAA titles in 1951 and 1953 with Temple University, and captained Temple in its 1952 Soccer Bowl victory over USFA. As a member of the military, Oliver acted as a “soccer ambassador” or sorts, making All-Star teams in San Francisco and Southern Germany, and played with CISM in Portugal, Belgium, and Germany (1958-59). His history with the National Team is one of fortitude. At 17, he was the youngest player ever in the Olympic tryouts in 1952, but he broke his leg in an ASL pro game and missed the 1956 games. Then, he caught mononucleosis before the 1959 Pan American Games. However, he finally made the 1963 U.S. Pan American Team and played in Brazil, then made the 1964 U.S. Olympic Team that went to Mexico. Returning to soccer through coaching in the 1980s, Oliver attained his USSF’A’ Coaching License and USSF Referee Certification, and became the Director of Coaching for D.C. Stoddert Soccer with 5,200 players. He won the NSCAA “Youth Long-Term Achievement Award” in 2000. He continues to coach, train coaches, write, and lecture about the game. Oliver now serves as a member on the National Soccer Hall of Fame Board.
You were a three-time collegiate All-American. Can you talk about the set-up of college soccer back in the early 1950’s? Were the rules different, and if so, how?
Well, for one, they used a kick-in instead of a throw-in, which was like giving a team a free kick every time there was a throw-in. They had a semi-circle instead of a penalty box. Also, they did an experiment with two referees that is still is around today, going to the two-ref system so they wouldn’t have to run as much. The finesse wasn’t as good back then; we had a lot of ex-football players. The finesse came from players who grew up with the game, had soccer-playing fathers and had played in club soccer in urban areas. Soccer back then was focused in urban ethnic areas, New England prep schools, and colleges. There was no NCAA championship, just a designation as top team. Temple was invited to the Soccer Bowl in January 1952 in San Francisco, and we were national champions. It was a little more haphazard than today. Temple was an urban institution that gave scholarships. There were only 12 games, now 25 games. We were a recognized varsity team. We competed with all the other schools on the East Coast. Most of the urban universities had soccer teams, staffed by kids from urban ethnic areas. Occasionally, you took a player from the basketball team for your goalkeeper. We once had a gymnast on the team, and a track guy. We knew he could run, at least.
Because of your military career, you were able to play for teams across the country and even across the world. Can you talk about some of those experiences?
I was drafted, like we all were. The recruiting sergeant, to get me in for three years instead of two, said he’d send me anywhere I wanted to play pro soccer. I played half a season in Ludlow, Massachusetts, in the old American Soccer League. A funny story from that time; I was stationed in Lynn, Massachusetts, and I took the train to play in Ludlow. Now, this area is a hotbed of Portuguese players. I was a left halfback. I was under the stands, ready to go on the field, and I heard “Leonardo Olivier.” But this was me, the announcer giving my name a Portuguese twist. The announcer came to me at halftime and said, If they think your name is Leonardo Olivier, they’ll accept you. Then, a guy came up to me after the game and said, I know you, you’re Len Oliver. But we laughed about it. So, then, I wound up in language school in Monterrey, California, where I learned Romanian. Every weekend, I played in San Francisco, for the Mercury. It was a Russian team; they gave me 15 bucks a game. This was the ethnic league in San Fran, in 1956 and 1957. It was very good soccer. We played in Balboa stadium at 8 AM, at 9 the Italians would come in, and at 10, the Greeks. I played against Glasgow Celtic as a part of the all-star team. What a wonderful experience that was. There were 10,000 people in the stadium. They had two guys who were tough—Bobby Collins and Bobby Evans. Collins says to Evans, after halftime, ‘Should we turn it up, laddie?” and then they scored four times in 10 minutes. But they didn’t want to destroy the hometown team. Then, I was assigned to a small town in southern Germany, in the Bavarian Alps. I arrived in my uniform to the local soccer game. The team played all over Bavaria. It was top amateur soccer; I played for 2 ½ years, a wonderful cultural experience. They accepted me, wanted me to marry their daughters. I could hold my own playing. When I make trips there now, they organize an old timers game just for me, it’s wonderful. When I made the Hall of Fame, one teammate took it upon himself to write a wonderful letter to the HOF committee, calling me the US’s best soccer ambassador. So few Americans played soccer at that time. I was one of the first, and I learned the language, got into the culture. I still have fond memories of that place. Then, I came out of the army and joined the pros.
Can you now discuss your National Team experience?
The first time I made the team, I was young. Then, I broke a leg and missed the ’56 Olympics. Then, I caught mono in Germany, while playing with the all-star team. I would have played with George Brown, actually. I had two choices: I could quit and say that my dream of making the Olympics was over, or I could keep playing. I came to DC, worked for the CIA, kept playing, and made the team in ‘63. In ‘64 we went to Mexico for regional qualifiers for the Olympics. There’s a photo of that team in the Hall because four players from the team are also in the Hall.
You have also spent much time coaching soccer in your day. Can you talk about the transition from playing to coaching, and also discuss your coaching influences?
I got into coaching because of my daughters. They were seven and they wanted to play. One turned out to be a fine player. Both are good kids, we’re close still. I got back into coaching, and started giving clinics after I got my A and my B license. Since 1989, I’ve trained 3,100 coaches from 55 countries. I have the names of every person I’ve ever taught on file. When I’m 90 or 95 I’ll send them a postcard. Back in the 40’s and 50’s, we just had people putting us on the field. They weren’t what you’d call coaches. They kind of knew the game intuitively, but there was no terminology. Now we have the terminology, so this is how we teach the technical and practical side of the game. I feel an obligation to encourage more coaches to think more deeply about the game. What makes it worthwhile is when someone comes up to me and says they see the game differently. It’s not made up of random kicks, it’s looking at all of the different techniques, how they dribble and shoot, the tactical side. It’s how the players work together. By training coaches, I’m giving back to the game, and it keeps me young, as I’m out there running. It’s a lot of fun. I’m a state staff coach, and I’ll occasionally do a national course. I direct coaching for our league as well, with 5,000 kids. I run training courses, clinics, and I’m always communicating the game. Last night, I was teaching 15-year old girls to do bicycle kicks. I’m on the ground, 70 years old, and I’m teaching 15- year old girls how to do bicycle kicks. We have all two books we could have written about our lives. One: the life we thought we’d lead. Two: the life that we did lead.