Long before there was a fully functioning United States Men’s National Soccer Team – and long before the USMNT fell into dysfunction – there was a professional franchise known as Team America.
Blink and you might’ve missed them, but for those of us who followed the original North American Soccer League during its spectacular rise and equally spectacular fall, this one-and-done club is a unique part of its history.
Formed on January 20, 1983, and disbanded on September 13 of that same year, Team America was an idea much better in theory than in practice.
“The establishment of Team America will serve as a tremendous vehicle to enhance our chances of qualifying for the World Cup, soccer’s greatest spectacle,” United States Soccer Federation President Gene Edwards told United Press International during the launch announcement in New York. “It’s an exciting new endeavor – no country has ever placed its national team in a professional league – and will serve as an important step towards making the United States a viable force in international competition.”
The USMNT hadn’t been relevant since 1950 – the last year it qualified for the World Cup. Thirty-three years later the plan was to test the mettle of an American team against foes in a circuit whose stars were primarily from soccer hotbeds around the world.
The 20-player roster would be formed by taking the top United States players (including naturalized citizens) from the NASL, American Soccer League and Major Indoor Soccer League. To make sure Team America had the best athletes available in an effort to earn a berth in the 1986 World Cup, each NASL team had to nominate 40 players for consideration, with the expansion team allowed to sign away any who wanted to join.
“Team America is a landmark development as the United States prepares for international competition,” NASL President Howard Samuels told UPI. “A total commitment is being made by the United States soccer community, which believes that the U.S. can and will become a force in world soccer.”
I was hopeful that Team America would not only give domestic soccer a boost, but provide a loft to the NASL as well.
After its late 1970s heyday when huge crowds showed up to see players like Pele, George Best and Johan Cruyff, the league was struggling in the early 1980s.
Boasting 24 franchises in 1978, it was down to 12 in 1983 and fan interest was waning. Perhaps Team America would inspire new soccer supporters who were looking for a team to call their own (even though its home games were played in Washington D.C.) and reinvigorate the fan base for the rest of the league.
The club averaged just over 13,000 fans for its matches at cavernous RFK Stadium. Plus, the team itself was punchless; some of the better American players such as Rick Davis of the New York Cosmos opted not to join.
“In the final analysis, it came down to a decision to where I could contribute to the development of the game more,” Davis told the Los Angeles Times. “The Cosmos have their own version of Team America. They have a very successful Americanization program that I’ve been an important part of. For many reasons, the best place for me at the moment is with the Cosmos.”
Due in part to the lack of top-tier U.S.-born players, Coach Alkis Panagoulias chose a team that had an abundance of naturalized citizens. He even added those who were in the process of applying for citizenship.
This would’ve been a non-story for any other NASL squad, but it strayed significantly from Team America’s “homegrown” mission.
Aside from finishing with a league-worst record of 10-20, Panagoulias’ charges netted just 33 goals the entire season and were shut out in 11 matches – making them unsuccessful and boring.
Less than eight months after it began, the experiment was over.
“The plan is to put Team America together next year as the U.S. team-in-training for the 1986 World Cup,” Samuels told the Chicago Tribune. “We’ll reassemble right after the indoor season.”
Spoiler alert: they did, but not as a member of the NASL. The franchise model was abandoned.
Team America owner Bob Lifton said he lost $1 million during the season and didn’t have many kind things to say about the experience.
“We were without the offensive strength we needed and that weakness showed up egregiously,” Lifton told the Tribune. “The team was certainly not a role model to the kids in this country.”
The USMNT would go on to reinvent itself and qualify for seven consecutive World Cups beginning in 1990 – including a quarterfinal run in 2002.
The squad missed the cut in 2018, however, and recent performances have done little to inspire confidence among supporters.
But while it’s interesting to look back at the tribulations of Team America, they really don’t have anything to do with the turbulent times the USMNT is going through now.
Then again, you know what they say about those who forget the past…