When the United States’ men’s national soccer team arrived in the Kingdome to face Canada on Oct. 20, 1976, the team hadn’t won a game in more than three years, it was getting little attention in the media and had a coach whose previous job was coaching college soccer at Philadelphia Textile School.
Unlike the current U.S. team coming to CenturyLink Field on Tuesday to face Panama, the 1976 squad, the last one to play a World Cup qualifier here, was the unheralded little brother of American soccer. The North American Soccer League was breaking into the country’s consciousness, thanks to stars like Pelé, who arrived the year before. That league had a television contract in 1976 for the first time, but national team games were still years from being broadcast.
“The national team, it was just a non-entity at that point,” said U.S. soccer historian Dave Wasser. “Most NASL fans probably didn’t even know the national team existed.”
Not that there was much to know. The U.S. hadn’t made it to the final round of CONCACAF’s ever-evolving qualifying tournament since 1954 — when there was only one round. From 1973 to 1976, the team had four coaches, 12 defeats, and zero victories in international games.
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Actually, making the World Cup was a much more daunting task, as only 16 teams made the tournament, half as many as today. Unlike the three berths the region gets now, only one team from CONCACAF advanced; usually, that was Mexico.
In 1976, the U.S. Soccer Federation, which had only three full-time employees working at its offices in the Empire State Building (today it has more than 100), hired its first full-time coach in Walt Chyzowych. Before him, coaches were paid only per diem. The current national team coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, earns a base salary of $2.5 million.
Chyzowych, whose family fled from Ukraine in the 1940s to escape communism, often worked 18-hour days, doubling as the director of coaching and organizing seminars for coaches in an attempt to cobble together some sort of infrastructure for U.S. soccer.
His brother, Gene, who had coached the team in 1973 but quit because he couldn’t take any more time off from his full-time job as a high-school teacher in New Jersey, helped him select players for the 1976 qualifying round.
While it was the first time the majority of the national team was playing professionally full-time, many NASL owners wouldn’t let their best American players take time off to join the national squad, and the federation had little leverage to say otherwise.
“There were times we would be putting our hands over our faces and would want to cry,” said Gene, whose brother died in 1994. “We’d say: ‘Why did the professional league feel like that? Why can’t they release some players?’ ”
The players who did come to the team’s training camp that fall in Colorado Springs, where the Air Force Academy allowed the team to train at its facility, received only modest per diem pay. Midfielder Juli Veee, who grew up playing in the subsidized Hungarian youth system before defecting in 1969, said the program was in “total disarray.”
“They were giving us like $10 per diems,” Veee said. “You stay in a hotel and the breakfast was 10 bucks.”
Veee, who lives in San Diego coaching soccer and working as an artist, doesn’t even have a jersey from his four caps with the national team. Players only got one, he said, so they couldn’t even trade with opponents after the game.
It was as good as the cash-strapped federation could do. With its main income coming from ticket sales, U.S. Soccer, which celebrates its centennial this year, essentially gave away home-field advantage, scheduling qualifying matches primarily to bring in the most fans — it didn’t matter what team they were rooting for.
The NASL’s Sounders were averaging more than 23,000 spectators that year and Seattle already had a reputation as a soccer-friendly region, but for U.S. Soccer, its proximity to the Canadian border was more important in scheduling the October qualifier.
“Every time we played at that time, the United States was the underdog,” said Alex Skotarek, a defender who was a rare American playing in the powerful Dutch league that year. “Every team we played, everywhere we played, we were the underdog and never had the following that, pretty much, we thought we deserved playing in our own country.”
Their home game against Mexico was played in Los Angeles, where about 30,000 of the roughly 33,000 spectators were Mexico supporters.
“We got the fans in,” said Jim Pollihan, a defender who now works for a tax-collection bureau in Harrisburg, Pa. “But they weren’t our fans.”
The first round of qualifying in 1976 for the U.S. consisted of a home-and-home round-robin with Mexico and Canada, with the top two teams advancing to a six-team final round.
After a 1-1 draw with Canada in Vancouver and a surprising 0-0 tie in Los Angeles against the Mexicans, the Americans headed to Puebla, Mexico, where home-field advantage was taken to new levels.
At the team hotel, Skotarek said, players were served bad food and midfielder Al Trost had to leave the game the next day with diarrhea. The team’s hotel was less than an hour from the stadium, but the bus driver took the team on a three-hour route that got them to the stadium right at game time. And at halftime of the eventual 3-0 defeat, players returned to the locker room to discover wedding rings, gold chains and money stolen.
But what could they do? They were just the United States. Protesting to CONCACAF or FIFA, Skotarek said, “would have been an effort in futility, believe me.”
Even in Canada, viewed as the U.S.’s equal, the Americans felt slighted. After taking a 1-0 lead in Vancouver in their first qualifier, defender Steve Pecher got a red card, Skotarek recalled, for merely swearing within earshot of the Mexican referee after a hard foul. The Canadians scored to earn the 1-1 draw.
So coming into Seattle, the U.S. was 0-1-2 — not bad considering the draw against Mexico was its first point against the southern rival since 1965.
In Seattle, the Americans felt they needed a victory to edge out Canada, which had one game left in Mexico, for the second spot in the final round of qualifying. It wasn’t a given — the U.S. was 1-4-2 against the Canadians in qualifiers to that point.
In the first World Cup qualifying game played on artificial turf, the Americans played their best game of the year.
“It was like everything worked exactly the way you would want it to work during a game,” Skotarek said. “For whatever reason, that game clicked.”
In front of 17,675 spectators, Miro Rys, a skilled 19-year-old who would die a year later in a car accident in Germany after signing with a first-division team there, scored in his first start with the national team, poking a ball out of a crowd near the penalty spot and into the right corner of the goal. In the 81st minute, Veee sealed it with his first national-team goal off a cross from Mike Flater, and the Americans had their moment of triumph: a 2-0 victory they felt sure would send them through to the next round.
In fact, Walt Chyzowych, who was ejected from the game for rushing onto the field to hug Veee after his goal, declared after the game he would “donate my salary for the next three years to Canada” if the U.S. didn’t advance.
But then Canada delivered a shock, earning a 0-0 tie in Mexico, leaving the U.S. and Canada tied in points and goal differential. A playoff for the final spot was scheduled for Dec. 22 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
The Americans, albeit confident and feeling well-prepared after three warm-up games against the Haitian national team, lost 3-0. It was close most of the game, but Pecher was again sent off and Canada scored in the 80th and 87th minutes.
“I almost cried,” Veee said.
U.S. forward Boris Bandov still recalls a missed shot from just a few yards out that would’ve tied the game.
“That was probably the most disappointing game for me, ever,” he said.
There were few bright spots for soccer in the U.S. over the next decade. The NASL disappeared from TV and folded in 1985. Walt Chyzowych stayed on as head coach through 1980, continuing to recruit and train coaches to build the beginnings of player development in the U.S. He became the longest-tenured coach to that point and finished with a record of 8-14-10.
But as his brother sees the growth of the sport, a growth that will be on display here Tuesday, it makes the years of work in obscurity worth it.
“We did it with our heart, we did it with no money… ” Gene Chyzowych said. “We did it because we felt the game could develop.”