Sunday, June 8, 2014

World Cup Hopeful Team America and the Case for RFK: Part One

A number of journalists and writers have penned articles about Team America and the team's place within American soccer history. With this article, I intend to shine more light on the problems that plagued Team America from its inception, but I also attempt to highlight the positives of the doomed team's existence and its greater place within the history of American soccer, and America's unofficial national stadium, Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.

Note: For the purposes of this article, and brevity, one can assume that Team America and United States Men's National Team carry the same connotation throughout the article. I use the two terms interchangeably. 

Having participated in every World Cup since 1990, merely qualifying for the tournament is no longer a novelty for the United States. Every four years, American’s expect the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) to not only qualify for the world’s greatest sporting event, but also believe the team can make a deep run in the tournament as they did in 2002. Expectations for the US, prior to the World Cup draw in December 2013, were arguably the highest they have ever been in American soccer history. This, of course, was not always the case, as the US experienced a forty-year period of futility between their legendary victory over England in 1950 to their three-and-out appearance in Italy.

That is not to say that there was not a genuine effort by the USMNT to qualify for the World Cup in the intervening years. Prior to participating in the 1990 World Cup, the US would always fall short of qualification, which was often the result of negligence from the sport’s governing body in America, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF). The governing body often left national team managers with little resources and just days to assemble a competent squad prior to international fixtures. That is assuming that the USSF were even able to convince North American Soccer League (NASL) clubs to release their players for international duty in the first place. Attitudes began to change in the early 1980s. The NASL was hemorrhaging money year after year, and the brass within the USSF began to realize the importance of the World Cup and the revenue it could generate. The sudden interest crystalized during the winter of 1982-3 culminating in the formation of Team America, and led to the first legitimate use of Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Stadium as the USMNT home ground making it the unofficial national stadium.
Team America; A Questionable Concept

Team America was the brainchild of NASL President and CEO Howard Samuels. He presented the concept of the USMNT competing as a franchise (Team America) in the floundering NASL at the league’s annual meeting in late October 1982. The impetus behind the plan was  three-fold: to ramp up the Americanization of the game and develop a national team that could qualify for the 1986 World Cup, to develop a national team that could potentially compete in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and, most importantly, to generate interest and revenue for the NASL. The idea even had the support of the USSF, which given the history of relations between the two entities was a victory in itself. In the end, the league owners voted 10-1 in favor of the idea during the league’s annual meeting with only the Tulsa Roughnecks voting against the endeavor (The New York Cosmos abstained from voting). The Oklahoma based club may have not known what was to come, but by casting a dissenting vote, became the first in a long line of detractors to the Team America concept.

From its earliest manifestations, the suggestion of Team America proved a questionable effort. Though USSF president Gene Edwards backed Howards’ idea, and the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) and semi-professional American Soccer League (ASL) tentatively agreed to contribute to the development of the USMNT, the proposal reeked of desperation. Up to that point, the NASL, who would benefit most from the creation of Team America, had shed twelve teams in four years leaving the league with just eleven remaining clubs going into the 1983 season. The inclusion of Team America would bring the total to twelve. Nevertheless, with the approval of the NASL’s owners in October 1982 Howards committed to the formation of Team America even if he doubted the viability of fielding a team in 1983. Samuels, shortly after gaining the league’s approval for the formation of Team America stated, “I don’t know if we can pull it (Team America) off this year given the time factor, but it’s almost certain it will go in 1984.” Samuel’s tactful statement on the feasibility of fielding a team in 1983 proved an act of smoke and mirrors, as the nascent idea of Team America haphazardly came to fruition throughout the ensuing months following the league’s annual meeting.

Initially, Samuels proposed that Team America could compete in two cities: America’s soccer Mecca, St. Louis, or the Nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. By December, Samuels ruled out St. Louis as a host city after the NASL was unable to convince Anheuser-Busch to fund the team. The brewery balked at the notion that Team America would be able to compete in 1983 as did many others within American soccer circles. Inevitably, Washington, D.C. became the home of Team America as Samuels and the NASL hastily pressed forward with the intent to have Team America take the field for the 1983 further highlighting the exasperation of the league’s owners to turn the league around. By early December, Samuels and the NASL owners tentatively agreed that the existing clubs would loan American players to the National Team (Team America) with the USSF and outside investors and sponsors covering the club’s expenses. An official agreement from the various bodies would not be in place until the following month.

New York Cosmos midfielder Ricky Davis in 1979
Even before an owner/investor stepped forward to fund the growing idea of Team America or a provisional roster existed, some of America’s players openly questioned the formation Team America, chief among them New York Cosmos forward Ricky Davis. At the time of Team America’s hurried organization, Davis was undeniably the best, and most creative, American player in the NASL. In an op-ed to the New York Times on December 12, 1982, Davis railed against the Team America concept stating, “For the good of the United States national team’s qualifying effort for World Cup ‘86, I question the Team America project." Davis further decried Team America’s attempt to cull American players from existing NASL clubs who would benefit from more playing time at their respective clubs. Davis was not alone in his sentiments towards Samuels' Team America venture. Many more people within American soccer questioned the viability and practicality of Team America. Undeterred, Samuels was sure to offer Davis and other detractors a rebuttal a week later stating, “I see Team America as crucial to the growth of soccer in this country.” By then a rift between those in favor and against the proposal had widened. Perhaps most telling about Davis’ article was his insistence that Team America consist of America’s best players because if it was not, “its whole purpose is defeated at square one.” His thoughts proved prophetic by season’s end.

Team America = USMNT

Just months after Samuels proposed the concept of Team America, the NASL, the NASL Players Association, the MISL Players Association, and the USSF finalized the details surrounding the team in January 1983. Under the agreement between the governing entities, Team America, in addition to being financed by “team owner” Robert Lifton, would receive financial support from the USSF and outside sponsors. Team America would be entitled to, at most, three American players from each existing NASL franchise and would pay the player’s parent club $50,000 in addition to paying the player’s salary and relocation fee. Though the agreement made it compulsory for NASL clubs to release their players to Team America, the players had the right to refuse Team America’s loan request, which, in essence, was tantamount to refusing a national team call-up. The finalized agreement also alluded to the intent of the USSF to schedule a number of international games for Team America after the upcoming NASL season. In addition to the official creation of Team America, the NASL and USSF announced the schedule for the team’s upcoming training camp, and most importantly dictated that the USSF had the right to name the team’s coach making Team America the USMNT incarnate.

Cosmos defender Jeff Durgan. The future Captain America?
Following the final details surrounding the formation of Team America, the team moved closer towards completion after Lifton signed an eight-year lease with RFK Stadium with the intent to house a NASL club in Washington, D.C. after the 1986 World Cup making RFK the unofficial national stadium in the process. Preparations for Team America’s roster were also moving closer to finalization after the team invited thirty-nine players to Tampa, Florida for a preseason training camp. The thirty-nine invitees were to compete for twenty final roster spots. The only issue surrounding the national team camp was that the USSF had not appointed a national team coach for the team prior to announcing the camp’s invitees. The lack of a head coach left many players miffed. After receiving an invitation to the preliminary training camp, Cosmos defender Jeff Durgan offered the most damning opinion of the ongoing concept and the USSF’s involvement stating,
“They want us all to come to the training camp on February 1st, and sign our careers away to this thing without a coach. If they get a coach with character, who is strong, who will implant his own ideas, and won’t be a puppet of the USSF, that will weigh heavily on everyone’s decision.”
Of course, Durgan was not alone in his opinion, as Ricky Davis, and many others, had already criticized the idea in the months leading up to Team America’s official commencement. Despite the uncertainty and stigma surrounding Team America, several players were willing to sacrifice their careers to fulfill the goals of Team America. Durgan would eventually become the loudest voice in the campaign to promote the USMNT and Team America. Perhaps in an effort to appease those questioning their intentions and the viability of the entire concept, the USSF named Alkis Panagoulias USMNT, and Team America, head coach on January 28, 1983, just days before the national team camp was scheduled to begin.

Panagoulias, a naturalized American citizen, had his detractors, but was more than up for the task of managing Team America.  As former manager of the Greece National Team and of Greek powerhouse Olympiakos, Panagoulias came into the fold with more than enough experience to guide the United States to the 1986 World Cup. The native of Greece also had considerable experience playing and coaching the sport in the United States having captured three US Open Cup titles as coach of the New York Greek-Americans from 1967 to 1969. Panagoulias wanted to coach a team built upon the tenets of Team America as far back as 1967, believing it was only a matter of time before the US were able to compete on the international stage. The ultimate question surrounding Team America following Panagoulias’ appointment was if he would be able to cobble up a competent all-American roster to compete in the NASL’s 1983 season as not everyone was willing to support the impulsively manufactured national team.

Panagoulias in 1993 as coach of the Greece National Team
Photographer: Ben Radford
Source: Getty Images
Panagoulias’ first task upon taking the reins of Team America was to assess the American talent at his disposal during the team’s training camp in Tampa. On paper, Panagoulias’ job of selecting a national team of twenty players seemed simple, but petty politics, player’s attitudes towards Team America, and the timing of the camp all provided Panagoulias with a near insurmountable task. Originally scheduled to start February 1, the team pushed the start of camp back a week due to the ongoing negotiations concerning player’s contracts and their parent club’s compensation further highlighting the desperation and haste surrounding the implementation of  Samuels’ proposal.

With a multitude of problems plaguing Team America, some of the biggest problems Panagoulias faced heading into the camp were the outright refusal of players to respond to what amounted to a national team call-up, and clubs competing in the MISL, like the Chicago Sting, declining to release their players to Team America. The USSF ultimately fined the MISL for their clubs refusal to cooperate with the governing body drawing the ire of the club’s owners in the process who threatened to withdraw from the federation. The rift between the MISL, NASL, and the make-up of Team America would only widen throughout the team’s existence.

Of the thirty-nine players invited into the camp, only twenty-two opted to attend, a sign of the problems ahead for Panagoulias and the national team. Nevertheless, Team America pushed forward in developing a competent roster with Panagoulias refusing to beg for players stating, “I will go with what we have here.” The camp, though plagued by significant player snubs and absences, provided the developing Team America with significant games against the Tampa Bay Rowdies,  the University of Central Florida, and the University of Tampa. Able to judge the talent available due to these games, Panagoulias named a sixteen-man roster following its conclusion. Ricky Davis was the most notable inclusion on the roster, but the Cosmos midfielder ultimately refused to sign with Team America after weighing a list of pros and cons of the experiment and its effect on his career. Following his refusal to play for Team America, Davis stated he would compete for the national team in international competitions if called upon showing the lack of recognition Team America garnered as the USMNT among some of those involved in American soccer. Other player snubs, and MISL holdouts left Panagoulias with a roster of thirteen players following the camp.

Perry Van Der Beck as a member of the Tampa Bay Rowdies
The camp was a precursor of what was to come for Team America, as the team, led by former Cosmos players Jeff Durgan, and Tony Crescitelli, and US International Perry Van Der Beck, would experience considerable growing pains before the start of the 1983 NASL season. Following the team’s invitee training camp, Team America committed to an international tour in April consisting of a series of matches against Haitian and Colombian opponents, including the Haitian National Team. The match against Haiti, a FIFA sanctioned international friendly, all but dispelled any resistance to the fact that Team America was the acting USMNT. Prior to embarking on their international tour, the newly announced team members convened in Washington to continue  preseason preparations for the 1983 NASL campaign. In order to develop cohesion prior to their international tour, the members of Team America participated in a series of contests against local colleges, amateur teams, and a side consisting of performers of the Ringling Brothers circus.

Stay tuned for the second part of this article to find out just how Team America fared in their only NASL season and what contributed to their demise. Don't forget to read Part Two.

In writing this article, I relied on a multitude of sources. As always, I consulted a number of period newspapers for primary source material. I used the following newspapers in constructing this article: The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. In addition to these dailies, I also consulted numerous websites and articles including: Ian Plenderleith's piece on Team AmericaTom Dunmore's look at the team, Sports Illustrated, and, as always, the American Soccer History Archives.


  1. Good stuff as always. Looking forward to part 2!

  2. Nice work man! Looking forward to more like it!