America fired its national soccer coach this week, which qualifies as a relatively new fashion. A mere generation ago, the U.S. team could have lost of couple of World Cup qualifying games, as Jurgen Klinsmann’s lads just did, and almost no one would have noticed.
This is a reminder that a coach’s job security is directly proportional to the sport’s cultural significance—that is, the degree of interest, and therefore the expectations, among the populace. More than that, it is a reminder of how dramatically (and how quickly) soccer has progressed on these shores.
Twenty-six years ago, the best the U.S. soccer federation could scrape together for a national team was a jury-rigged collection of recent college players. There was no U.S. professional league because there was no demand for one. The rag-tag team that qualified for the Italy-based 1990 World Cup did so, in large part, because the region’s perennial power, Mexico, had been banned for using ineligible players.
Even so, the Yanks barely squeezed into the championship tournament, their first such appearance in 40 years, and were promptly destroyed by Czechoslovakia, 5-1. The most skilled player on that U.S. team was Tab Ramos, who went on to a successful career as a player and coach and now, at 50, briefly was mentioned as an outside favorite to replace Klinsmann—before U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati settled on a more obvious choice, Bruce Arena.
After that 5-1 thrashing in Florence, Italy, in 1990, Ramos was one of only a few U.S. players brave enough to face reporters’ post-game interrogations. So I asked him, if he somehow could have known beforehand how disappointing his World Cup debut would be, might he have preferred to take a pass?
“This,” he said, “is the greatest experience of my life. If I had to go through it again, just the same way, I would.”
“It’s a reality,” he said. “It’s not something to be ashamed of. If we lived in another country and lost, 5-1, we couldn’t go home. But we’ll go home and walk through Kennedy Airport and no one will recognize us, anyway.”
Ramos was born in Uruguay, where his father had played professionally, but had moved with his family to New Jersey when he was 7. He knew very well the pecking order of American sports at the time.
“Soccer’s a way of life everywhere but in the U.S.,” he said. “Everywhere else, your team loses, you cry and stay home from work the next day because you’re so upset. Your team wins, you don’t go to work because you’re so happy.”
He wasn’t feeling sorry for himself to be an “American soccer player” (an oxymoron, in those days, like “living dead” or “definite maybe.”) He was appreciating his great (and unlikely, in those days) opportunity on the sport’s biggest stage.
One of Ramos’ teammates then—and another fellow whose name momentarily was tossed around as a possible Klinsmann successor—was Peter Vermes, who had spent two years playing in the lesser European pro leagues in Hungary and The Netherlands. Vermes recalled reading the Dutch newspapers shortly after he was hired by Holland’s F.C. Volendam club and seeing quotes from his new teammates, who wondered, “Why did we sign him? What do we need an American for?”
Now, the reality is markedly different. Major League Soccer, the U.S. professional league, is in its 21st season. American players regularly find jobs with European teams. Soccer, as a spectator sport in the States, now is on the order of ice hockey, just behind the big three of football, baseball and basketball. The United States, in fact, is one of only seven nations to have qualified for the past seven World Cups, a streak equaled only by global powers Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy and Spain, plus Far East regional force South Korea.
Enough people, from soccer fans to soccer officials, care enough about the national team’s recent struggles that Klinsmann’s ouster was inevitable. His record over six years was 55-28-15, a winning percentage (.638) second only to Arena’s (71-30-29, .658) for any of the 35 coaches who were around for more than two games in the national team’s 100-year history.
But it matters more than ever that Klinsmann lost those first two Cup qualifying games. And it was Arena, from 1998 to 2006, who managed the Yanks’ highest World Cup finish in 2002—a 1-0 quarterfinal loss to eventual runner-up Germany. Arena did so with the same clear-eyed awareness of America’s relative come-lately soccer status acknowledged by Ramos and Vermes in the horse-and-buggy days of 1990.
“I mean, if I said my philosophy was to play like [five-time World Cup champion] Brazil,” Arena said early in his first tour as national coach, “I’d look pretty stupid, wouldn’t I?” But, too: “You can only put 11 on the field,” he said. “If you could put 500 Brazilians on the field, or 500 Italians [winners of four World Cups], against 500 Americans, we’d have a problem.”
His only problem now is qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Because a lot of people will notice if he doesn’t.