Saturday, June 14, 2014

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

You can read the first part of this article HERE.

A Faulty Foundation

As the players prepared for their preseason tour, Team America’s brass hurriedly constructed a marketing plan with a publicly stated budget of $300,000 to $400,000. The team’s front office recognized that not only were they were selling Washington, D.C. area fans their third team in four years, but they were also attempting to sell an “all-American” team to an apathetic and uninitiated audience. Therefore, the club’s leaders relied on the team’s status as the USMNT, its alleged national appeal, and individual player personalities to draw people to RFK Stadium. In addition to its ambitious marketing plan, Team America’s front office was able to secure the patronage of R.J. Reynolds as its primary sponsor. The tobacco company bestowed a publicly specified sum of $2.5 million on Team America, while Budweiser chipped in around $200,000 to $250,000 to the USSF backed effort.

Source: The Washington Post
With its significant marketing budget and corporate sponsors in the fold, the marketing team of Team America committed to the timeless NASL practices of participating in international friendlies, heavily promoting their home games against the New York Cosmos, and coupling one of the club’s games with an after game concert. The club secured the services of the Beach Boys for their June 12 match up against the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, which garnered national attention during the preseason after James Watt, the acting Secretary of the Interior, banned the Beach Boys, and “rock music,” from the city’s Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall. The ban, issued after Team America scheduled their concert, left many people outraged including Vice President George H.W. Bush, who backed the band stating, “They’re my friends and I like their music.” The ban proved a boon for Team America as it generated considerable nationwide interest in the event, but in the end, it underscored the club’s biggest problem; the investors and front office’s focus on the financial profitability of the project and its role in saving the NASL, and not in securing the team the best “American” talent. The problem would plague Team America throughout the season.

As much positive press as Team America were able to generate prior to their Caribbean and South American tour, Panagoulias only had thirteen players at his disposal headed into the international expedition. Most of the players on the Team America roster were what many would quantify as a typical American player: athletic and strong, but lacking in technical ability and on-field ingenuity. The lone capable forward on the roster, Tony Crescitelli, was anything but lethal having failed to score in twenty games with the San Jose Earthquakes during the 1982 season. Panagoulias knew he would need players with greater offensive prowess in order for the team to compete in the long term.

The USMNT manager once again attempted to court Ricky Davis and a slew of other prominent American players, including Mark Peterson and Jeff Stock of the Seattle Sounders, only for America’s most talented players to spurn him again. Peterson was arguably the best American forward at the time and could have added a considerable threat to Team America’s already anemic attack.

Several players including US International Boris Bandov did join Team America for the tour, but the refusal of the country’s top players to accept a national team call-up baffled and infuriated Panagoulias. Stock’s and Peterson’s eschewal particularly enraged Panagoulias leading to the Greece native to lash out declaring,

“I am furious about the Seattle team and their players. They told me Peterson and Stock did not want to come because they wanted to play in games against some colleges next week. This is absolutely ridiculous. We’re talking about the national team here. What the heck is going on in this country?”
In spite of the steady lack of interest and support, Panagoulias and Team America carried on with the talent already on the roster. The makeup of the team left Panagoulias little choice but to play defensively, which in theory was in direct opposition to Team America’s goal of spurring interest in America soccer and the NASL. Up to that point in its history, the NASL instituted a number of distinctive rules to make soccer more appealing to the American fan; i.e. a greater emphasis on offense and goals. From the penalty-shootout to the thirty-five yard line offside rule, the NASL had always promoted an offensive, high scoring game. Now Team America stood as the antithesis to what the league had always promoted. The best offensive American players continued rejections forced Team America, the anointed savior of the NASL, into adopting a defensive approach heading into the 1983 NASL campaign. The style would prove to be initially effective but wildly unpopular, and contribute to the club’s downfall.

International and League Surprise

A fully stocked Team America outside the entrance of RFK Stadium
Still reeling from their collective slight, Panagoulias and Team America started their preseason tour in the Haitian capital with a 1-0 victory over a Port-au-Prince select team on April 6, 1983. Two days later, Team America competed in their first, and only, FIFA sanctioned international fixture against the Haitian National Team defeating the island nation 2-0 with the two goals coming from Jeff Durgan and Chico Borja. Team America followed up their set of Haitian victories with a pair of losses to greater competition from Colombian clubs Coruna Cristal and Deportivo Cali. In their two games in South America, the USMNT conceded five goals and scored via a lone penalty emphasizing the team’s weakness at forward. Overall, Panagoulias’ men fared well having scored four goals while only conceding five, but the team’s lack of a playmaker and goal scorer would prove lethal for the team by seasons end. 

Following Team America’s overseas sojourn, the team returned to Washington a week before their NASL debut with just twelve players under contract. With barely enough players to take the field, the team cancelled their final preseason game against the University of Virginia in order to prevent losing players to injury. It did not help that the club’s facilities were of little help in promoting the player’s health.
The USMNT’s accommodations at the unofficial national stadium, RFK, were perhaps fitting for the maligned team with the sparse roster. According to The Washington Post, the team’s place within the Washington sports world was more appropriate for “Team Podunk,” and not the USMNT as the team’s locker room was comprised of outdated furnishings in the bowels on the stadium.

Despite the consistent negativity surrounding the club, the players who had signed with Team America, led by Captain America Jeff Durgan, were bullish about the upcoming season and the importance of Team America to the survival of the game in the United States. All that was needed were a few more players to fill out the roster. The league soon stepped in and fulfilled that need loaning Boris Bandov, the US active leader in caps at the time, and Alan Green to the national team on a game-by-game basis just one day before the season opener. (Both would later sign permanently.) The continual derision led Jeff Durgan to lament the amount of support the team received up to that point. The USMNT captain elicited help from all American players who wanted to continue playing the game professionally in America stating,

“If you’re American and want to play professional soccer in this country, then you should be playing for Team America, because if it doesn’t make it, the league might not make it.”
Durgan’s sobering statement once again emphasized not only the haste in which Team America was created, but the lack of cohesion amongst the different entities involved: the NASL owners, the MISL owners, the USSF, and individual American players. In addition to the ongoing issues surrounding the team, many people, principally the NASL Players Association, openly questioned the amount of naturalized citizens on the roster bemoaning the true intentions of the so called “Team America.” Under these tumultuous circumstances, Panagoulias led Team America into their first domestic campaign praising the team stating, “Right now we look like the 300 Spartans against the Persians, but I have faith in these boys.”

Washington Post  Ad for Team America's game against the Toronto Blizzard on June 7
Note the ad's reference of Team America as the USMNT
Source: The Washington Post
Team America opened the 1983 NASL campaign with shootout victory over the Seattle Sounders. (The league did not permit draws and every game had a definitive victor and loser with penalty shootouts deciding stalemates after extra time.) The victory may have come as a surprise to some, but the way the national team won the game was what many people expected, as Team America did not force Seattle goalkeeper into a save until late in the second period of overtime. Despite the win, coverage of Team America the following day centered on the team’s offensive futility, but Panagoulias would have none of it. The former Olympiakos manager extolled the beauty of a defensive style of play while questioning American’s obsession with offensive and tactically unsound soccer.

Following their victory against Seattle, the team faced a both a daunting schedule during the month of May and the scorn of the MISL who refused to release players to the USMNT. The MISL’s insolence prompted Howard Samuels to declare, “The MISL is holding Team America hostage.” After notching a 1-0 win in their home opener at RFK Stadium against the Tulsa Roughnecks on May 8, the team crisscrossed the Western Hemisphere competing in six games in twelve days from May 15 to May 27. The team’s schedule included two international friendlies, one against English side Watford in Kingston, Jamaica, and the other against the Soviet champions, from Belarus, Dynamo Minsk in St. Louis, Missouri. The two friendlies once again served as an arena for Samuel’s and the proponents of Team America to prove their intentions to construct and field a competent and competitive national side, though the project’s detractors would continue to vehemently voice their displeasure regardless of Team America’s satisfactory domestic and international performances.

Team America with President Reagan
Overall, Panagoulias’ men finished the month of May with a respectable overall league record of three wins and three losses, but the team continued to struggle offensively. In these matches, Team America competed amid player snubs, the MISL’s refusal to cooperate with the NASL and USSF, an apathetic fan base, and mounting public scrutiny. Players, pundits, and fans alike were not buying into the Team America scheme, lending future doubt on the sustainability of the entire concept. LA Times columnist Grahame L. Jones denounced Team America as sham asserting, “It was idea doomed to failure from the beginning.” Jones lamenting the amount of naturalized Americans on the roster added, “It [having naturalized American’s on the roster] somehow goes against the very purpose of the concept,” prior to the USMNT’s game against the San Diego Sockers. Jones would not be the last member of the media to lambast Team America, but by the time of his article, even Panagoulias, long the champion of the national team cause, publicly began to doubt the viability of the project humbly stating, “We’re trying to have a strong national team, and I don’t know if were succeeding,”

Nevertheless, Team America continued to develop as a team, signing several more players, including MISL midfielder Tony Bellinger, who defied the MISL’s ban on lending players to Team America due to a clause in his contract with the indoor league allowing him to play outdoors. Bellinger, seeing the progress that Team America had made since its inception, was the first of several Americans who joined the team after first refusing a call up, though he may have been tempted to sign due to Team America’s lucrative incentive plan that gave players a profit-sharing agreement with the team’s owners. The plan, which later became public knowledge, offered players a stake in the team in addition to bonuses for appearances and man-of-the-match (MOTM) awards, which, at seasons end would net the player with the most MOTM awards an extra $10,000. The incentive plan was a last ditch effort by Robert Lifton and Samuels to lure America’s top players to the squad.

The Beach Boys  playing at RFK following Team America's victory over the Strikers
Photo Credit: AP Photos
Photographer: Ira Schwarz
The team’s inability to score goals and defensive tactics understandably failed to resonate with Washington’s fans as the team were barely drawing 11,000 people to RFK at that point, though the team’s coupling of the Beach Boys concert with their game against the Strikers did coax 50,000 fans to the stadium. The team’s defensive mentality, combined with the amount of naturalized American’s on the roster, led Washington Post columnist Ken Denlinger to call the team “Unamerican,” while adding, “More goals would certainly attract more fans,” despite Panagoulias temporarily guiding the team to first place in the NASL’s Southern Division in early June. Team America’s goalkeeper, the naturalized Englishman Paul Hammond referring to Team America’s lack of offensive prowess, said it best, “If you look at things logically, there has to be a breakdown sooner or later.”

Inevitable Decline

Despite rattling off four consecutive of wins to start the month of June, including a 2-1 shootout victory over the New York Cosmos on June 17, Team America’s lack of offensive prowess fed the growing negative sentiments concerning the “un-American” tactics on display at RFK. Ken Denlinger, a season long antagonist, again pointed out just how ineffective Team America’s offensive was by highlighting their inability to score in the second half of games leading the columnist to label the club “Team Tranquilizer.” Denlinger also continued his nativist diatribe as the season wore on referring to the club as “Team Immigration.” It was amid this constant criticism and continued offensive feebleness that Team America’s lack of a creative goal scorer proved to be the team’s Achilles heal with the USMNT dropping four of their next five games getting outscored 10-3 in the process. The losing streak brought the team’s record to eight wins and seven losses halfway through the season. The second half of the season would prove just as tough for Panagoulias and the USMNT even after long awaited reinforcements arrived.

As Team America continued to lose, interest in the team, already tenuous, began to wane considerably alongside any resemblance of positive press regardless of how much Panagoulias wanted to exaggerate interest in the team. The Team America venture reached critical mass near the end of July after the team dropped its eighth game in a row bringing their record to eight wins and twelve losses leaving them in last place in the Southern Division. Attendances at RFK were dwindling rapidly with every loss. The team drew Team America drew a paltry 5,281 fans to the stadium against the Montreal Manic on July 31. The losing streak and lack of fans led owner Lifton to threaten to withdraw Team America from the league stating,

“The attendance is a product of the team’s playing, and the team’s playing is the product of the fact that the NASL did not do what it said it was going to do, which was give us the best American players, and the MISL did not do what they said they were going to do, which was fill in with more players.”
During the prolonged losing streak, perhaps because of Lifton’s outburst, Samuels ordered the NASL owners send American players on loan to Team America to turn the USMNT season around, and effectually save the league. Panagoulias, after speaking with Lifton and Samuels, agreed to allow players to join the team on loan as long as he could choose the players. He still coveted Seattle’s Mark Peterson but the forward’s eventual permanent move could not save the floundering project.

Mark Peterson competing for a header against the Chicago Sting
Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune
In the end, Team America dropped fourteen of their last sixteen games finishing the season with the league’s worst record with ten wins and twenty losses. The lone bright spot of Team America’s slide was the team’s 1-1 draw against Italian giant Juventus, a club that fielded seven players from Italy’s 1982 World Cup winning squad. Lifton’s threats to withdraw his support from the venture grew as the season wound to a close culminating in a series of demands from Team America’s owner including Panagoulias' right to choose the players he wanted for the team. The businessman, claiming losses of over one million dollars, found little sympathy for the league’s other owners who were losing far more money supporting their clubs. By seasons end, both the Montreal Manic and the Seattle Sounders would cease to exist after each club’s owners could no longer afford to keep the teams afloat.

Team America’s players also balked at Lifton’s plan refusing to return to the clubs they played for prior to joining the USMNT fearing that they would find themselves unemployed due to their commitment to the moribund project. Despite the player’s demands to stay in Washington and the Team America’s ongoing negotiations with the USSF and NASL, Team America’s Lifton released Team America’s players to their parent clubs after Lifton, the USSF, and the NASL could not come to an agreement surrounding the future of the team.  

Even as Lifton and the supporters of Team America still clung to the minute chance of fielding a team in 1984, the concept, and the league, was crumbling. RFK Stadium official’s confiscation of Team America’s equipment and closure of the team’s locker room in early October signaled the end of the of the shortsighted project after Lifton refused to pay the stadium’s rental fees. Ultimately, Team America was a failure. Samuels’ proposal, hampered throughout its existence, did not achieve any of its stated goals during its short existence in the NASL.

A Captial Idea?
Though Team America did not exist in the NASL after the 1983 season, Panagoulias continued to manage the USMNT through the qualifying matches for the 1986 World Cup providing a sense of hope that Team America, despite its NASL’s shortcomings, would achieve its ultimate goal of qualifying for the world’s most prestigious sports tournament. 

As always, I relied on a number of sources, both primary and secondary, in writing this article. I perused many newspapers with The Washington Post being chief among them. I also consulted The Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. In addition to these dailies, I gleaned information from several online sources including; http://www.nasljerseys.com, among others. As always, I would be lost if it weren't for the American Soccer History Archives.

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