It was a high
moment in low tech. When the public address system at Washington's RFK Stadium
failed before the start of Wednesday's NASL game between Team America and the
Cosmos, most of the crowd of 11,612, with nary a snicker or boo, came to the
aid of soloist Janet Schuessler, joining voices in a spirited a cappella
rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner.
In a way, the
moment symbolized the first seven months of the struggling and threatened life
of Team America, the U.S. national side in training—technical deficiencies
sometimes surmounted by high spirits and willing hearts.
All that was
dramatically evident last week when, after losing 2-1 to the Cosmos—the 10th
defeat in its last 11 NASL games—the club that calls itself " America's
Cream, Washington's Team" rose up Saturday night and turned in one of the
most significant performances in the history of U.S. soccer. In an exhibition
match that drew 20,111 to RFK, Team America played to a 1-1 tie against the
Juventus Football Club of Turin, Italy, one of the best teams in the world.
Juventus boasted seven players from Italy's 1982 World Cup championship team,
including Forward Paolo Rossi, whose six goals during the Cup made his name
foremost in all soccer. It's no small thing then that Rossi was not allowed a
single shot on the Team America goal in the 45 minutes he played.
If a tie is like
a kiss from your sister, then this one was like a date with Miss World. "I
hope Americans realize the significance of this game," said Forward Tony
Crescitelli, a native of Italy but, like all the Team America players, a U.S.
citizen. Crescitelli said that Juventus' Marco Tardelli told him, "I
thought we'd come over and kick the ball around a little bit. I never expected
you Americans would be that good."
The team that
shocked the Italians was anything but a star-spangled lineup. Rather, it was a
collection of native-born and naturalized American players willing to take a
chance on the notion of a fulltime U.S. national team competing in the NASL as
a means of preparing for qualifying matches for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Team America sometimes plays so rough that early on it was nicknamed Team
The idea behind
Team America was to give the best U.S. players two full seasons of competition
together, the better to achieve cohesion and perhaps avoid the early exits that
heretofore have characterized our World Cup participation. Team America is a
joint venture of the U.S. Soccer Federation, this country's sanctioning body
for the sport, and the professional NASL. For its part, the USSF hired—and
pays—Team America Coach Alkis Panagoulias, a Greek-born naturalized U.S.
citizen and former coach of the Greek national team, while NASL team owners
agreed to lend up to three players per franchise to Team America, which would
assume those players' contracts. League President Howard Samuels persuaded his
old friend, New York City lawyer and businessman Bob Lifton, to assume
ownership. And then the trouble started.
after Panagoulias named the players he thought would be on his roster, he
discovered that many of the best Americans, such as Cosmos Midfielder Ricky
Davis and Forward Steve Moyers, were unwilling to leave their own teams for the
uncertain surroundings of Team America. Though Panagoulias did muster some of
the better U.S. players, including former Tampa Bay Midfielder Perry Van Der
Beck and ex-Cosmos defender Jeff Durgan and Forward Chico Borja, the coach
realized he would have to start the season not with the players he wanted but
with those he could get.
Playing with what
Durgan says was "just a lot of guts, heart and emotion," Team America
broke from the box with an 8-5 record, all of the victories by one goal—three
on shoot-outs. But since then the team has dropped to last place in the NASL's
overall standings. When the wins stopped coming, so did the fans.
American response," says team marketing and sales Vice-President Jeff
Wagner of an attendance average that dropped from 19,952 for the first seven
home games to 8,010 for the last four. "We'll lose about a million
dollars," says Lifton. He has already given an ultimatum to Samuels and
NASL owners that next year "This team will have all the best American
players, or I will not fund it."
But it is the
players themselves, more than the league or its franchises, who seem reluctant
to cooperate. "Team America is an NASL club, not the United States'
national team," says Davis, who played on the U.S. national team in 1982.
"Believe me, if this were truly the U.S. national team and it was headed
into world competition, you'd have to shoot me to keep me from