June 19, 2012
By Michael Lewis
Panagoulias coached U.S. team during a tough time in its history
Alketas (Alkis) Panagoulias died at the age of 78 on Monday.
Many soccer fans under the age of 30 probably never heard of the man or are not very familiar with his accomplishments.
He directed Greek-American Atlas to three consecutive Lamar Hunt/U.S. Open Cup championships, an achievement equaled most recently by the Seattle Sounders, who are vying for a fourth consecutive title this summer. He coached the Greek National Team during two tenures.
He also guided the U.S. National Team during a difficult time in its history
Panagoulias was brash, controversial and someone who was not afraid to speak his mind, especially when he was U.S. coach.
The time was the 1980s, not one of the best decades for U.S. Soccer and U.S. soccer at the international level. The U.S.'s bid to host the 1986 World Cup after Colombia pulled out was crushed by FIFA for many reasons and American missteps. The North American Soccer League was ready to call it quits and Panagoulias wound up using indoor soccer players and part-time players in the Americans' effort to reach soccer's promised land for the first time since 1950.
As it prepared to qualify for the World Cup, the U.S. thought it got a break-- no Mexico in the qualifiers.
However, there was only berth left for CONCACAF, so the U.S. wound up struggling against Caribbean and Central American teams. In fact, only four days after qualifying began, no one realized that the NASL had played its last game. The Chicago Sting defeated the Toronto Blizzard, 3-2, on Oct. 3. Several months later, with a number of teams dropping out, the NASL folded.
This time, the U.S. had a year's worth of preparation as Team America, which supposedly had the country's best native-born and naturalized citizens, play as a team based out of Washington, D.C. in the NASL. Not surprisingly, not every team wanted to give up its top Americans, and some of the players themselves did not want to leave their club teams. On paper, it was a great idea. On the field, it was something else altogether, a disaster.
Team America started out 8-5, but collapsed to finish at 10-20. Still, the concept was a bold move. "No country has ever placed it national team in a professional league," former U.S. Soccer president Gene Edwards said. "It will serve as an important first step towards making the United States a viable force in international competition."
The team's and National Team coach was Panagoulias, an outspoken and controversial gentleman who most recently directed Olympiakos of the Greek First Division and a former coach of the Greek National Team.
"We're not that far away -- really," Edwards said at the time. "We have to walk before we can run. Building a strong progream takes time. It takes patience."
That attempt to reach the World Cup started off with a scoreless tie in Curaco, the Netherlands Antilles, on Sept. 29, 1984 before rolling to a 4-0 victory in St. Louis as Ade Coker connected twice and Earhardt Kapp and Angelo DiBernardo once apiece. That set up a round-robin, home-and-home series with Trinidad & Tobago and Costa Rica in the spring.
Because of several restrictions, the U.S. was forced to play those four final matches over a 16-day period, a rather unhealthy situation for World Cup qualifying.
That was in the days before there were official FIFA playing dates.
There were players still competing in the Major Indoor Soccer League -- defenders Gregg Thompson and Mike Jeffries with the Minnesota Strikers and goalkeeper Jim Gorsek, defender Kevin Crow and midfielders Jacques Ladouceur and Jean Willrich with the San Diego Sockers.
There were players still going to school -- defender Paul Caligiuri had to return UCLA to take final exams, missing training sessions.
And there also were players trying to earn a living outside of league play. Defender Jeff Durgan was in New Jersey giving soccer clinics. Goalkeeper Winston DuBose was in Tampa, working as a salesman.
What transpired then could never happen today.
"It is frustrating because I'm not getting the players," Panagoulias told me in 1985. "Being on the other side of the world world [he coached in Greece, including the National Team for 10 years], and seeing the potential [in the U.S.] makes me upset and mad. everybody keeps telling me that this is a America and we have to live with American standards
"That's why I'm very outspoken for everyone. That's what the national coach has to do, sometimes be outspoken. We deserve a better place in international soccer."
Despite those obstacles, the first three results were rather positive. the U.S. stopped Trinidad & Tobago in St. Louis, 2-1, on a goal by Mark Peterson with 100 seconds left (Chico Borja scored the first goal) on May 15, edged Trinidad, 1-0, on Caligiuri's goal in Torrance, Calif. four days later, and played Costa Rica to a 1-1 draw in San Jose, Costa Rica behind a John Kerr, Jr. tally.
Those results placed the U.S. atop the group with a 2-0-1 record and five points, a point ahead of Costa Rica (1-0-2, four) setting up a confrontation in Torrance on May 31, exactly a year to the day of the start of the World Cup.
The U.S. needed only a tie. It got only more frustration in a match that could have been played in Costa Rica because the crowd of 11,800 at El Camino College was heavily partisan for the Ticos. At halftime, a Costa Rican folk dancing exhibition was held. What home-field advantage?
Still, the Americans played hard, creating a number of scoring opportunities, but the Costa Ricans cashed in on one of theirs -- on a goal by Evaristo Coronado in the 35th minute. Jorge Chevez sent a free kick into the penalty area that goalkeeper Arnie Mausser tried to punch away. A Costa Rican player, however, headed the ball to the right side, where Coronado knocked it into the net for a precious lead.
"The goalkeeper misjudged the distance," Panagoulias said in a stunned locker room. "He wanted to punch the ball. He should have caught the ball."
The Ticos wound up with a 1-0 victory and qualified to the final round with Canada and Honduras (Canada wound up qualifying for the cup).
The U.S. locker room was like a morgue the players were so shocked.
"Costa Rica beat us because of tradition," Panagoulias said. "We outplayed them, but they did what they had to do. They scored on a break. They stalled. They played hard. They did everything they had to do.
"This is one of the most frustrating days in my life. The boys played their hearts out. I'm very frustrated, very frustrated . . . We created so many chances. The team deserved to win."
It wasn't meant to be.
Several weeks later Panagoulias was out as U.S. coach.
U.S. Soccer learned a lot of lessons from that game -- on and off the field. While it it difficult to run and hide as a melting pot of nationalities, the country's organizing body tried to take extra efforts to give the U.S. as much a home-field advantage in qualifiers as possible.
As it turned out, the loss was the Americans' last home qualifying defeat before Honduras and Amado Guevara surprised them at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., 3-2, on Sept. 1, 2001.
Two years after that disaster, things started to turn around for the U.S., which placed a bid to FIFA in 1987 to host the 1994 World Cup. A year later, the U.S. was awarded the cup. In 1996, Major League Soccer took its first important steps. The rest, as they say, is history.
Panagoulias' career as a coach, incidentally, was far from finished. He eventually got to the World Cup -- returning to his homeland to direct Greece into its first World Cup -- USA 94, where the Greeks finished last among 24 teams.
Given what he had to work with in 1984 and 1985, had the U.S. reached Mexico 86, Panagoulias would have been considered a miracle worker.