- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
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 Animal.
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.
In February, 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.
"A typical 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 playing."