The Melting Pot Takes To The Field U.s. Soccer Team Is A Mixture Of Backgrounds, From Uruguay To Greece

Posted: June 17, 1994

MISSION VIEJO, Calif. — When the United States national team begins World Cup play tomorrow, it will be three cheers for the red, white and blue . . . and for the green and the yellow and nearly all the colors of the world's flags.

The United States team, like the United States itself, is a melting pot of international cultures. Seven of the 22 players were born outside the United States, and more than two-thirds of the team members are either naturalized citizens or first-generation Americans.

Despite the continued growth of youth and college soccer - the U.S. Soccer Federation estimates that more than 16 million Americans participate in the game now - the national team is a reflection that true soccer fanaticism in this country remains the province of what English-born writer Paul Gardner calls "immigrants and hyphenated Americans."

Soccer supporters believe that will change within a short time as U.S. programs turn out more players capable of competing at the highest levels. It is hoped that the new professional league expected to start next year will give top players a place to develop their skills.

That is the future, however. For the present, the U.S. locker room is a medley of a dozen accents.

"We don't have any control over immigration laws and we operate within all the regulations of citizenship requirements," said U.S. general manager Bill Nuttall, who helped put the team together. "We're just trying to field the best team. Whatever competitive advantage we can get, we'll take advantage of it."

Taking that kind of advantage doesn't apply just to the United States. Many players on the Irish national team, for instance, were born and raised in England, and have used flexible citizenship requirements to get into the World Cup. In England, the joke is that a talented soccer player must only prove that he once sipped a pint of Guinness stout to gain Irish eligibility.

Roy Wegerle, an attacking player on the U.S. team, was born in South Africa. His father is German. His wife is American. He plays professionally for Coventry City in the English football league.

By virtue of his background and residences, Wegerle could have applied for membership with any of four different national teams.

"The English national team approached me, but the way they play is not the kind that suits me," Wegerle said. "When Bora (Milutinovic) got the coaching job here, I knew I'd be much more suited to the United States."

Wegerle's decision wasn't quite that mercenary. He obtained U.S. citizenship in 1991, but has been affiliated with the United States much longer. He played three seasons of professional soccer here in the mid-1980s, still has a residence in Tampa, Fla., and plans to live in the United States after he retires.

"I've always been an athlete and I've traveled where I've needed to for the sake of my career," Wegerle said. "It's taken me to three continents so far, but I know this is the country I'm going to settle in."

Three U.S. players - Tab Ramos, Fernando Clavijo and Hugo Perez - were born in Central or South America, Frank Klopas was born in Greece, and two players, Thomas Dooley and Ernie Stewart, are European-born sons of American servicemen. Dooley's mother was German, and Stewart's was Dutch.

Dooley's father abandoned his family when Thomas was an infant and the boy was raised in an entirely German environment. He only recently began speaking English and didn't consider joining the U.S. national team until he was recruited by a representative of the American federation.

The foreign-born players are vital to the team's success this summer. Most of them will be starting or playing key substitute roles for the U.S. team.

If there was any pressure on Milutinovic to select native-born players, even as deep reserves, that pressure isn't apparent. Selling soccer to marginal soccer fans, either to hype viewership for the World Cup or as a carrot for the new league, might be easier with a U.S. team that more closely represents the demographics of the country.

But Milutinovic, a native of Yugoslavia and something of a melting pot in his own right, sliced away some of the more all-American prospects in his final cuts.

Desmond Armstrong, a talented defender from Washington, D.C., who has given countless free soccer clinics to inner-city kids, didn't make the roster.

Neither did Chris Henderson, a speedy, former UCLA midfielder with Tiger Beat good looks. Both Armstrong and Henderson are 1990 World Cup veterans, as were John Doyle and Bruce Murray, who didn't get a long look in camp. But Milutinovic shrugs when the missing are mentioned.

"You put together a team, not worry about who are the individuals," said Milutinovic.

And not worry about where they were born or how they spell their names. In the World Cup, the idea is to win. For the United States, that still means a hands-across-the-water approach to recruiting.

"The level of play in this country is only going to get better," said Brian Quinn, a native of Northern Ireland who was also one of the last U.S. cuts. "When I arrived here in 1981, it wasn't like that. I came over and you couldn't find three Americans to put on a team. Now, you've got great athletes who could play other sports who have chosen soccer."

Said World Cup chairman Alan Rothenberg: "That old appellation that soccer is a foreign sport is dying and in short order will be dead."

Until it completely expires, however, it will be cheer, cheer, cheer for the U.S. of A. - with a grateful nod to Uruguay, El Salvador, the Netherlands, South Africa, Germany, Greece and wherever else huddled masses yearn to kick soccer balls in the World Cup.

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