Today it would be absurd, but once upon a time – actually, make it twice – the road to the Olympic Games ran through Seattle. Lured here under some extraordinary circumstances, U.S. Soccer sent its best team of the day to be road tested on a relatively narrow patch of plastic against some locals with much to prove.
Prior to both the 1972 and ’84 Summer Games, utilizing sheer will and a discretionary expense account, missionaries from the local footballing community convinced federation officials to make Northwest detours, essentially, for the good of the game. All right, so the second visit guarantee involved some wool blends, but more about that in a few paragraphs.
Of course nowadays Seattle would be a logical stop for a national team bound for a major tournament. Big, loud crowds and a beautiful stadium. A generation ago, both city and the sport were pariahs, and perhaps therein was the mutual appeal.
It was the opportunity of a lifetime, only to be trumped by something still more momentous.
Just after learning FC Seattle owner Bud Greer would be rewarding his team with a season-ending excursion to England, all-league midfielder Geoff Wall realized there was a problem. Wall was to wed his high school sweetheart a few days earlier. When the players would be boarding the plane for London, he planned to be honeymooning in Hawaii.
As the season progressed and the departure date neared, Wall experienced a change of heart. He and Ellen would still be married, all right. But much of the honeymoon would be charged to Greer. The newlywed Walls would be going with the team to Bournemouth instead.
“We talked about it,” recalls Wall. “We weren’t swimming in money; (the team) offered to pay for part of it. She knew a number of the guys from our teen years, so she fit right in. So we decided to go.”
Of course, Ellen wasn’t the only wife on the two-week trip. Jeff Stock and Greer were accompanied by their spouses as well. “She fit right in. Absolutely, she was a good sport,” Wall declares, adding, “It really was a proper honeymoon. It was a real fun trip with some good friends.”
No Fun in Sunderland
In 10 matches over two tours, in 1987 and ’88, the Storm earned three draws and proved competitive in the losses. Yet one defeat was more bitter than the rest. In the penultimate stop of the ’88 tour, Seattle played second division Sunderland at Roker Park. It was a comparatively big and boisterous crowd, and as if Black Cats needed more help, the referee was obliging.
Two debatable penalties were awarded, but it gets worse.
On the first spot kick, Seattle keeper Jeff Koch made a diving save, only for Sunderland to convert the rebound. Strangely, while Koch lay sprawling on the ground after the goal, the penalty taker screamed at him.
“He was a big, hairy monster and he got in my face, swearing at me, and I wondered why he was so angry,” Koch says. “At the postgame party, someone told me he hadn’t missed a penalty in like five years. Evidently I’d screwed up some kind of streak.”
A little later came another penalty call. Koch saved it again. Then a whistle. The referee claimed Koch moved–a call that can be made on just about any penalty, but rarely is. The Monster made good on the second attempt and Sunderland was on their way to a 3-nil win.
At full time, as the teams left the pitch, Seattle forward Peter Hattrup unloaded on the officials. “A few of us had some choice words,” confirms Hattrup. Says Jenkins: “The referee was a nightmare. I really can’t blame him.”
Aghast that this American dared question his officiating, the referee then summoned Hattrup to the officials’ dressing room. “I was called in. I apologized for my language, but not the direction of my rant,” relates Hattrup. “They threatened to report me to the authorities in Seattle. But who were they going to call?”
“There was no way we were going to win that game,” Jenkins concedes.
Without the luxury of a full squad and with the Storm playing matches every other day, fielding a proper lineup proved problematic by the second half of the tours.
“I was the only goalkeeper (on the trip),” notes Koch. “If I had a stinker, there was nobody to replace me. Fifteen minutes into our last game I dislocated my thumb. The ball was real hard, and their shots were much, much harder on a consistent basis.
“Anyway, I couldn’t do anything,” he explains. “It was killing me. We had nobody, so they shot me up with Novocain, and I played the rest of the game and later ended up in a cast for six weeks.”
At QPR, Seattle was thin at central defense due an injury. David Gillett, once a centerback for the Sounders, was along on the trip.
“So I asked Dave, ‘Are you up for playing?’ Great. Just do your stuff and kick some people,” says Jenkins. However, Gillett strained his groin during warm-ups, forcing Jenkins to do some last-minute shuffling. Jenkins just asks him to deliver some words to the team in the pregame huddle.
“He disappears and comes back about 10 minutes before we come out,” says Jenkins, “and he’s got a glass of whiskey in one hand and a smoke. So he puffs and his hand flies away to the side, very dramatic.
“So with the drink in one hand he says, ‘Boys, I’ll be up in the directors box so don’t spoil my f****** day.’ That was his talk to the team. I was expected some encouraging words or something. It was so funny. Anyway, we didn’t spoil his day; we drew 2-2.”
Amongst the Crowd
The 1987 tour ended with a night match at Portsmouth. Earlier in the day, however, the Storm planned to see the sights, first the Crown Jewels up in London, followed by a stop at Stonehenge en route to Pompey.
Peter Fewing says it was a tense atmosphere, given it was a friendly.
“Their field had barbed wire, a moat and then a second fence,” says Fewing. I thought that was pretty cool. But a policeman there told us, ‘No, you don’t want to go there.’
The Storm didn’t endear themselves to the Pompey fans. Stuck in a traffic jam outside of Stonehenge, the team bus was running more than an hour late, finally rolling up to Fratton Park near game time.
“We were all changing in the coach and got off the coach in our uniforms,” recalls Jenkins.
“We came right through their crowd, from the parking lot, through the gate and onto the field,” adds Fewing. “I remember saying my mom’s from Manchester and a guy spit at me.”
After an abbreviated warm-up of 20 minutes, the match ensued. Two Americans scored–Goulet for Seattle, John Kerr for Pompey–but the Storm fell, 3-1.
Nearly 30 years on, a discussion of the overseas tours brings on a flood of memories. Of the then-artificial turf surfaces at Oldham and QPR. Of a chance airport encounter between baseball superstar Reggie Jackson and Stock, whose father once was a coach for Jackson’s Yankees. Of spontaneous midnight talent shows in the hotel lounge. Of going to the old Wembley to watch England vs. The World, featuring Diego Maradona in his prime.
With each passing year, the players, now approaching middle age, further realize how these were experiences that can never be replicated. Back then, Americans were akin to aliens. Now they are regularly playing in Europe and appearing in World Cups. It was all new, for Seattle players and the Brits who watched and opposed them.
“They probably figured they could get 10 goals pretty easily,” figures Koch. “But it didn’t happen that way.”
Says Jenkins: “What I didn’t want to happen was to go out there and get beat 6- or 7-nil. But that never happened. We were competitive in every game. It was such a good experience we decided to go back.”
For certain, in a small yet significant way, FC Seattle gained American soccer a measure of newfound respect. For those Britons such as Jenkins and Gillett, who had first ventured to the U.S. to play, then stayed on to coach and develop players, it was validation.
Soon enough, says Gillett, the British clubs knew they would be tested. “They’re not going to waste a preseason game, selling tickets and going everything for a real game and waste it on a group that was s***.”
Most of all, there is a profound sense of gratitude for their owner, Bud Greer. For seven summers he kept outdoor professional soccer, however modest, alive in Seattle. Yet his most precious gift was that of exploring a new world, or more appropriately, the Old World.
“It was unlike anything we had encountered before,” claims Rick Blubaugh. “We were grateful and knew the invaluable experience gained transformed us into men.”
“Those trips for me were the top,” Koch confirms. “It was uncharted territory at the time.”
“The trip of a lifetime,” comments Fewing.
“God bless Bud,” remarks Jenkins. “It cost him a fortune. It’s a shame he was 30 years too early. He was a very generous man.”
What Greer provided went against a rushing tide that was sweeping pro soccer from the U.S. landscape at the time. The NASL was dead. The MISL was beginning to shed teams. When everyone else was retrenching, FC Seattle was stepping forward, planting a flag for the future.
“To be lucky enough to play for Bud who wants to take a team to England, to sponsor the entire trip for the experience of it, and for us to be in the right place at the right time,” recounts Hamel.
“We knew we were fortunate and we knew it was an opportunity,” he affirms. “It’s something that makes you want to get back in the game, because the game’s been good to you.”
Upon taking the pitch at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park, the first thing that hit John Hamel was a coin. Probably no more than a 50 pence piece, but it was priceless for Hamel. He picked up the rebound, slipped it into his sock and got back to business.
For a bunch of homegrown Seattle players, the derisive chants, slinging of slurs and hurling of currency was a big deal, but in a good way. It was a rite of passage.
Here they were, a mixture of Americans, amateur and pro, playing in football’s birthplace, its bedrock. They were facing some of the best in the business and holding their own, and they were doing so before a gallery of judging, cutting fans who knew the game, and who cared.
Getting Stuck In
On the field, the natives could be just as brutal. Each match was a battery of tests: Are you good enough, strong enough, tough enough? Each of the two tours, in 1987 and ’88, were concentrated, two-week courses in what’s required at the next level, and the next.
When DeAndre Yedlin’s name was slotted into the Sunderland team sheet earlier this season, it was largely handled as matter-of-fact news by the Makems. The fact that Yedlin is American was more interesting stateside than Wearside.
After all, U.S. internationals Claudio Reyna and Jozy Altidore had already worn the red and white strip. Dozens of other Yanks paved the way for Yedlin. Going back a generation there had been McBride and Dempsey and Hahnemann, before that Moore and Harkes and Friedel, with Kasey Keller breaking ground as Millwall’s first-choice keeper in 1992.
Maybe, just maybe, those once-startling signings were made a bit more palatable for the partisans of Millwall, Fulham, Spurs and Sunderland by preseason visits of an American club virtually unheard-of in the U.S., let alone in Britain.
Unlike Any Other
When FC Seattle landed in London, they were unlike any U.S. touring club before or since. Lamar Hunt’s Dallas Tornado had globe-trotted to announce the NASL’s existence in the Sixties. Warner Communications cashed in on the worldwide popularity of Pele´ in the Seventies, much like the Galaxy selling Beckham shirts more recently. In the Eighties, the San Jose Earthquakes accompanied George Best on his farewell tour of Britain, and other NASL clubs paid preseason or postseason visits.
International friendlies have been foisted upon the American soccer public for generations, but rare has been the occasion of a U.S. club traveling and playing abroad.
One club bucked that trend and did so when U.S. outdoor soccer was at its nadir. It was not about building a brand or selling so many tickets as much as it was exposing football’s home to an emerging product line: the American player.
Football Club Seattle seldom gets its due when discussion arises about soccer’s renaissance. Yet when North American professional clubs featuring a foreign nucleus were dying left and right, FC Seattle led a movement of fielding teams of primarily native-born talent. When the NASL and ASL were closing shop, FC Seattle forged a new league that, 30 years on, has grown into the established USL. And when British players and coaches stopped coming to our shores, FC Seattle took the game to them.
This is the tale of two summertime trips to face English and Scottish sides and how those sons of Seattle now view the experience a generation or so later.
State of Affairs
In 1987, the American soccer landscape was comparatively barren. The only action affording a livable wage was indoors with the MISL or second-tier AISA. Up north, the top-tier Canadian Soccer League was getting underway outdoors following Canada’s qualification for the 1986 World Cup. South of the border, where the U.S. National Team had not qualified in 37 years, the sole ‘professional’ outfit was the six-team Western Soccer Alliance.
Rolling through the years, there have been scores of international friendlies played round these parts, with a wide variety of match-ups and benefits.
They have benefitted widows and expectant mothers, state associations and school team formation. Over the generations we’ve hosted Cold War foes and Sister Cities, Olympic champions and Champions League victors.
This, the 10th friendly of the Sounders FC era, is billed as preparation for the upcoming return of Seattle to Champions League play. More than four months before the fact and with group stage opponents yet to be determined.