Former U.S. National Team Player and San Diego Sockers head coach Brian Quinn talks with Andrew Monfried about he came from a family of 10 in war-torn Belfast, Northern Ireland in the early 70’s to playing in the English First Division and then the North American Soccer League.
Part One: Larne to Los Angeles
Tell us about how you got your start in soccer.
I played a lot of games. I played the Irish games – hurling, gaelic football. Soccer was always very prominent because George Best was in his hey day. My family were good Celtic followers because that was the great Celtic team of that day. A lot of my upbringing in my youth revolved around sports. A lot of that was what kept me out of major trouble when I was a kid.
Did Americans get the wrong impression of what was going on in Northern Ireland in the 60’s and 70’s?
It’s difficult to understand a lot of times when you live in another country. It’s difficult for an ordinary American to understand exactly what happened. There are two completely different perspectives. There is a perspective of American foreign policy and how we approach things. Then, there is a perspective of the people living in the country. Sometimes, those perspectives are different even internally in the country. It’s not whether they got the wrong impression or not. The important part was what the Irish were trying to do was get a sense of fairness. That’s what happens inevitably around the world where countries fail and feel disenfranchised. You don’t have any quality of life.
Most Americans begin playing for a soccer club around eight or so, but what was the system like in Ireland?
Like a lot of people in my generation in Europe, you played soccer unorganized against your friends in the street. Then when you got to be 11 or so, you formed a team without any practices. You probably just play five-a-side games and you play a game at the weekend as well as hurling. Eventually you become good and you move up the ranks and get noticed. When you get noticed, you have to have someone who is your mentor and believes in you and encourages you to do well. To this day with all my coaching experience, I think that becomes the one most important element of kids loving the game and being motivated.
Who were some of your heroes as child?
My mother was very inspirational because my father died when I was almost 10. I was from a family of 10 with twins being the youngest at 3 and my oldest brother was 17. My mother was inspirational in keeping the family together and surviving. There were people in the Gaelic Football Association that I admired because of their talent. My older brother was a fantastic athlete and went on to become head of a department of his school. On the soccer side, the one who influenced my soccer career was Brian Halliday. He saw me at 15. He thought I was talented enough to play professionally. He stayed with me through thick and thin, always believed in me and furnished opportunities for me.
At what age did you feel you were ready to make soccer your career?
It’s difficult sometimes, not so much with ability, and Americans are finding this out now. The key is being strong to adapt a new culture when you are away from your comfort level. The number of kids in Ireland who go to England and come back are too numerous to name. What needs to happen is you have to understand what you are going into. Americans have done a much better job when they travel over to Europe. When Americans go to Europe now, they are much better prepared.
In Ireland, we face many of the same challenges. When I went to England in my first try-out, it just blew you away. The level of play and the competitive nature just blows you away. When I went back a second time, it was less of a factor. When I eventually decided that I had a chance to play professional, I was not intimidated. I was good as everyone. I really believed that because I had had the prior experiences. Going in initially, it’s a little bit daunting, but once you overcome that, you get to perform.
Your first English club was Everton in 1978 – that must have been an exciting time to be in Liverpool with all the great English clubs of that era.
Liverpool was extraordinary. I loved it. I would have stayed there my whole career. I loved the city. I loved the vibe when you went to Goodison Park or Anfield. When I was a young player, I got a chance to play in all the major grounds throughout England. I loved watching some of those great players. Spurs would come in and have (Glenn) Hoddle and (Ossie) Ardiles. The one team at that time that was very good in terms of creative soccer was Ipswich Town when Bobby Robson was the manager. That was a super team.
Would it ever be possible to have hooligans like there were in England at the time in America?
Hopefully not, laughs. At that time, it was like a cult. It was cool to be a skinhead or a hooligan. I don’t think it is cool anymore. I think that time has gone. I think the stadiums have improved dramatically. I think the sense of watching the game is based solely on your passion for your team for the good of the game. They have practically gotten rid of the hooligan element. Unfortunately, through a lot of security measures where they escort people from the bus to the stadium, but I guess that is the best way to do it.
Was the NASL relevant in European soccer in the 1970’s?
I knew a little bit about it, but it was not a major source of soccer at the moment. Some of the lads in England would go over there in the summer. Alan Willey, who was a great Minnesota and Fort Lauderdale player, went over there for the summer. The Cosmos had made it relevant because they took a couple of tours when they had those wonderful teams. They ended up beating a couple of the key teams in England at that time. I think they were relevant, but I don’t think the league was thought as a major league in terms of worldwide soccer.
What first brought you to the U.S.?
I was at Everton. My contract was coming up and we had a ton of midfielders. I was probably going to move to a different team in England. Brian Halliday called me up out of the blue and says ‘would you like to come over here and play for Los Angeles.’ I did not even have a passport. I was almost 21, said yes. I didn’t really think twice about it. I got a passport and got on a plane. The first day I landed in Los Angeles, I liked it and never looked back.
Part Two: Hotel California
What was it like to go from playing in front of 50,000 people at Goodison Park with Everton to playing in front of much less than that at the Los Angeles Coliseum with the Aztecs?
With any team, you want to perform. You want to be involved in a team. I was almost 21 when I went there, and the coach was the former Brazilian World Cup coach Claudio Coutinho. As far as coaching went, he was probably one of the most recognizable names in the world in coaching. I enjoyed his company. The team, for me, was a super group of super of skillful South Americans, a mix of Americans, myself, Mihalj Keri from Yugoslavia, John McGrane, a Canadian international. It was a lovely blend. I just enjoyed the whole experience.
Did you have any worries on the business side of things with teams going out of business each year in the NASL?
Maybe I was naïve, but I never had those thoughts at that time. Over the years, you become a little more familiar with the scene and what has transpired with different leagues and different ownership groups. You are aware of it, but I never had a thought about it in 1981. I expected my paycheck to be there, and it always was. The only wake-up call I got was when I flew back to Ireland after the season. I got a call to come back because the team had folded. I was flabbergasted because I didn’t know what that meant. I ended up coming back. I realized I had been put in a dispersal draft which I had no clue what it was at that time. I was jettisoned to Montreal. I went from Christmas Day in Los Angeles to Boxing Day in Montreal (laughs). That was fun.
Montreal was a good city for the league until…
It was a great franchise in a great city. The turning of the tide there was when they tried to do the Team Canada concept to follow up the Team America concept in Washington D.C. and it backfired. Molson Brewery, who owned the team, decided they did not want anything to do with it. The crowds dwindled and they left the league in 1983.
Was the U.S. National Team relevant in the early 80’s to the overall soccer landscape in the U.S.?
It was relevant if you were involved in that team and you understood what it meant to qualify. When I came in 1981, the field was already set for Spain in 1982. Northern Ireland had qualified so I was aware of that. I did not know anything about the U.S., but it became more relevant because there were players I played with who would leave for qualifying like Hugo Perez and Kevin Crow. I remember to this day, their last game for the 1986 World Cup when they lost at El Camino College to Costa Rica. If they would have won, they would have gone to the World Cup. The U.S. qualifying in 1986 would have propelled the sport ahead a little bit quicker. Fortunately for all of us, it happened in ’90.
How did you make the transition to the indoor game?
My first experience was when I went to Montreal, and it was the winter. There were good soccer players there like Gordon Hill, Tony Towers and Alan Willey. They were playing so I just got on the field and started to learn the game. It was a chance to compete and I went to play. The real success of indoor soccer came because of the league disappearing because that’s when indoor took off. Indoor was the only major professional league in the United States from 1984-1992.
Major Indoor Soccer League really had something in the mid-80’s with a TV contract and good support in cities like San Diego, Baltimore and St. Louis, right?
It probably was not unlike the World Wrestling Federation. There was great drama, talent and excitement in every city. The level of play was very high and people enjoyed that. It is for me, to this day, a sport made for television to build stories and see great action repetitively.
You got to be a part of the Sockers who won five titles in six years. What was it like to be on a team that good?
I never even thought of it on those terms. We approached every season as a new season, not something to build upon. That was the catalyst for our success — we never gloated or looked back on the previous year. We were fortunate to win a championship and then we started again in the pre-season. The players we had then relished that challenge every single year no matter whether we had won the championship. We wanted to show we were good players.
Was Steve Zungul the best player in indoor history?
Steve was a guy who drove the league in the early days as the “Lord of all Indoors”. Later on, he came to San Diego. The one aspect of his game to this day in a lot of the leagues indoors or outdoors that I have not seen is no one had the drive to put the ball in the back of the net game in and game out. Every single game, he wanted to score a goal. (Branko) Segota, to a lesser extent, was the same kind of personality. Steve had a passion to score goals. He thrived on it. He would do whatever it took to be in the right position to put the ball in the net. He was the best goalscorer in the league.
Were you ever tempted to return to the outdoor game?
I had a call from Trevor Francis who at that time was manager of Queens Park Rangers. I was 27 or 28, probably the prime of my career. I was doing well in San Diego. He wanted me to go on a trial. My trial days were long gone. I was flattered that he considered me to go over. I was not going to go on a trial. I probably had four kids by then and I was settled in San Diego. I was not going to uproot my family and go to Queens Park Rangers. I am not sure I would have gone to Manchester United for a trial. I think his concern was that I had not played a lot of outdoors in the past few years so it never transpired. I had no burning ambition to prove myself again in England. I loved the lifestyle in America. I loved San Diego. I liked America.
What is one aspect of your game that set your apart from other players?
I think my style fit with other players. By that I mean, I don’t have to score goals or get assists or look for recognition to realize I played well. Giving the ball to Zungul, Segota, Hugo Perez or Ade Coker and us winning the game was enough for me. Success was based upon whether we succeeded. I looked at my role as a helper. I helped the forwards. I helped the defense. Every so often, I could contribute to scoring then so be it. That was my greatest attribute in helping the team. I helped them be a little bit better.
Part Three: Red, White and Blue
What was the thought process that brought you to the U.S. National Team?
The decision process for the U.S. National Team was not on my mind. It was not on my radar screen. My decision to become a U.S. citizen I had thought about for a number of years. My daughter was born in Ireland, my son was born in Canada and my third child was born in the United States. My concern when I was older was if I wanted to go back to Ireland, I wanted my kids to be American citizen so I started the process for my family. It had not soccer implications whatsoever.
What transpired was I got my citizenship in April 1991. I never even thought about it. John Kowalski had known me from the indoor league, and when Bora became the coach, he scoured the country looking for players. I got an invitation to come practice with the team. As fate had it, the week that I was practicing with the team led up to the week they were playing Ireland at Foxboro Stadium. It was my first cap. We had just won the (indoor) championship in Cleveland so I took two days off. I went with the national team, and I was just thrilled to be there. Bora was great for the whole U.S. soccer community. He brought life, charisma, energy, new ideas and gave everyone a lift. I was very fortunate to be part of that for three years.
With players from all different backgrounds, playing indoor and outdoor as well as new citizens like yourself, it must have been an interesting group of players.
I was probably in a group that I knew a 1/3 of the group. Bruce Savage, Hugo Perez, Desmond Armstrong, Fernando Clavijo were there – guys who played in the indoor league so I was familiar with about a 1/3 of the team and I got to know the other guys quickly. This is the whole beauty of soccer and why it is a global game. Look at Arsenal, Manchester United or Glasgow Rangers – all multi-national teams. I think we were the forbearers of that. Tab Ramos was from Uruguay. Bruce Murray’s background was Scottish. Harkes, Scottish, Meola, Italian. There were a lot of guys who were first generation from Europe and their mothers or fathers had come from Europe or South American. It was not very difficult to adapt because we were all from somewhere else.
Without a professional league, the team played upwards of 30 games a year together. How did that affect team dynamics?
It was great. I say it to this day being part of that scene – it was a manufactured competitive environment to prepare the team for World cup ’94. Bora was given a lot of latitude. We went to Russia, Romania, Turkey, Spain, El Salvador, Brazil and Costa Rica. Every single game, we were the underdogs, but I think the idea was to build mental toughness for a group of guys so they were not overwhelmed by the 1994 World Cup. For me, it worked. The results in 1994 justified it.
You were one of the last cuts from the 1994 team. How disappointing was that?
Being involved in soccer, the ultimate dream is to play in the World Cup. I was not in a mood to deny anyone else a spot on the 20-man roster. When we ended up, there were 30 guys who had a realistic chance of making the team. I was not going to hang my head because I wasn’t selected and Frank Klopas or Joe-Max Moore was. I was disappointed because I was not there, but I would not trade any of that time for any part of my career. It was a fantastic time.
So coming off 1994, what were your hopes for MLS?
In 1994, I think if everything had been equal with the sponsorship and ownership, it should have started in 1995. But I think with everything that needed to be done in 1994, taking a year off was probably good organizationally, but I think we lost a step because the World Cup was an unmitigated success. I traveled with my son to the game at the Silverdome and it was superb as well as the game at the Rose Bowl and at Stanford against Brazil. It was all good. If that had been in 1995, it would have been fantastic, but I think we lost some momentum.
As the San Jose Clash coach from 1997-99, how did you transfer your skills from the indoor game to the outdoor one in MLS?
A lot of my expertise was from the outdoor game. Prior to my first coaching job in San Diego, I was an older player who was interested in coaching after I retired. I took the required coaching licenses, and I paid attention to outdoor soccer under Bora and the trends. All I needed to do when I got to San Jose was bring a sense of vision of what that team was trying to do. It was bereft of personality conflicts. That whole experience made me such a better coach understanding the dynamics within a team as opposed to a good coach understanding a style of play, like creating options wide and where to put your midfielders. All that stuff is soccer stuff. It was a great experience as far as understanding team dynamics and what you need to do to manage those types of players.
Was it hard to operate under single-entity in terms of signing players?
It was challenging to some degree, but I had a lot of guidance from Peter Bridgewater who had been instrumental in forming the league so I followed a lot of his guidelines. I think it got frustrating because you felt there was a particular player you thought was coming and they didn’t. Over time, the league improved by letting coaches identify the players and then try to sign them within the budget and guidelines. It got better as time went on, but it was not ideal.
Part Four: Status Symbol
The U.S. has 10 first division clubs across 3,000 miles while England has 20 first division clubs in country 1/10 of the size, is there any way to relate the difference?
The proximity of the teams in England – in Manchester, I think there are 24 teams within a radius of 45 minutes so there are built in rivalries where you grew up. It’s kind of like high school football in Texas where one community is so enthralled by its high school football team that they attend their games. That’s what it is like in England because of the proximity of the teams, Blackburn, Bolton, Man United, Man City, Liverpool, Everton – they are all in an area where you can create a great atmosphere between any of those two teams. When you get brought up in that environment, they become your team.
Yet, MLS wants to succeed at the level of the EPL without those built-in rivalries…
The model we were trying to achieve was the right thing at the right time. I was thrilled because I look around the world and they have average attendances of 10,000 people, and I read the other day we are averaging 15,000 and we are disappointed. What we are dealing with is perspective. If MLS was in the English First Division or Holland and the average was 15,000, those countries would be thrilled.
You live in San Diego so do you think it is a good idea for Chivas to start an expansion team there?
It’s a very good idea if they build a soccer-specific stadium. It’s not a good idea if they don’t. The reason I say this – MLS is on a fantastically upbeat curve, and the crux of that is creating soccer specific stadiums with ancillary income to help soccer succeed and using the stadium to create income from other avenues to help soccer. That’s never been done before. If Chivas come in and goes to Qualcomm, I don’t think it is a good idea. The overhead and the cost and trying to create the Home Depot type of environment isn’t going to be there. I have played at Qualcomm and been to games there, and there is a fantastic environment there when there are 30,000 people there. If I am wrong and Chivas draws 30,000, then more power to them.
But it is a good idea because it creates rivalries. Best case scenario is if you look back to the NASL, there was a team in Anaheim, a team in LA and San Diego and you create great interest within a two-hour window.
What’s the next step for marketing and generating interest in the U.S. for soccer?
If you look at growth of soccer in the last 13 years from 1990, it’s phenomenal. The exposure to the game on TV is better than it has ever been. MLS is good, and I hope it continues its upward trend. I was a little disappointed about the WUSA because I think that has some merit as a women’s professional league. I think we have a greater sense of what the sport encompasses around the world. Look at the number of kids wearing Man U, Arsenal, Inter Milan and Celtic shirts. You never saw that 10 years ago, and now there is a proliferation of it. Now what we need to do is make the next step and make those television fans into soccer-attending fans. That’s our next development.
In 1991, you could not get people to watch soccer on television. Now with the number of games on TV and the media attention, it’s ok to watch soccer. I have the Shootout package for MLS and I love watching the games on Saturday night. I enjoy watching Champions League, Premier League and the Mexican League. I have a chance to do that. In 1991, I did not have a chance to do that. I hope if MLS grows and grows, I hope people learn you have to be there to feel it. That’s what I think the Home Depot Center does. You feel like part of the game there. Some of the stadiums you don’t feel that. If I go to a Chivas USA game, I want to go to a game where it is a soccer experience with the drums, the concessions and the horns. Be part of it, and that’s the tie-in soccer has that other sports don’t have.
Part Five: Choices
Where does Major Indoor Soccer League come into play in American soccer?
MISL have to find a niche of attracting fans over the winter where we say MLS is gone and there is no other soccer. This is our window – October until the end of March, and we have to succeed then.
The Sockers have been an established presence in San Diego for almost 25 years – how big a part of the community have they become?
That run under Ron Newman was really a golden era, not just for soccer, but San Diego. Every city around the country loves teams that succeed whether it is a high school football team like De La Salle who are unbeaten for 140-plus games or the Los Angeles Lakers or New York Yankees. People enjoy winners. San Diego, at that time, enjoyed the winners. We have created a bit of a legacy. My kids play youth soccer, and I run into people who remember coming to Sockers games because that was the thing to do in San Diego on a Friday or Saturday night 15 years ago. Now they have kids playing soccer. Our challenge now is to turn their kids into soccer fans.
If you have a kid whose options include college, MLS Project-40 or Europe, where would you send them right now?
It’s a great question. Twelve years ago, we did not have those options. Now we do. That becomes a personal decision based on the personality of the kid. If I am a parent and I have my son, I have to be as objective as possible to say ‘how good is this kid, what is that he wants to do and can he succeed?’ If I think my kid is bright, he’s an average player, and he is never going to make it as a professional, I would usher him to college. If he is at the level of Freddy Adu then it is no-brainer. Obviously, we have a big group between the two.
It’s a situation based upon opportunity for the kid and the desire of that kid. I will use Ireland as an example. It’s a 5% success rate. For every 100 kids that go over, 5 will be successful. It’s no different here. You have to weigh up the options and then have people advise you on the opportunities and whether you can succeed.
If I am young forward, let’s use Kenny Cooper who went to Manchester United as an example. If he succeeds, it’s absolutely phenomenal to go from Dallas at 18 and play for Manchester United. Unless you are in the very top 1% of forwards in the world, you can’t play for Manchester United. If I was advising Kenny Cooper, would it have been better and go to a lesser team and play? Kenny stays there for a year or two at a Division I team and then goes back to Manchester United. You have to look at the opportunities, and Manchester United is a goal for a lot of kids.
What’s your best piece of advice for a young player coming up in the game now?
I keep thinking back to my own experience when I was young. I heard so many lectures on what it takes to succeed. We have to set an atmosphere where the kids enjoy what they are doing and they fall in love with the sport. Not to make them good, that’s not important. Kids can make themselves good. Good soccer players are self-made.
What we need to do is we have got to have a sense nation-wide where kids are going to enjoy playing soccer. Where they are going to go out and they want to juggle the ball and practice their skills, just like basketball. Be less stringent about the structure of the game until later on. We as parents and adults want to give information all the time. If you enjoy what you are doing, you are going to want to do it more. You are going to be more accomplished and you are going to improve. When a coach tells you when you are six years old to pass the ball and you are a good dribbler, dribble the ball.