The future of American soccer tried on his tuxedo pants.They failed, by a foot or so, to reach the floor. "Halfway up my shins," Jeff Durgan said. This would never do for the rookie of the year in the North American Soccer League. In a few hours he would share an awards dais with, among others, that old German goalkeeper, Hank Kissinger.
Improvising, Durgan traded bottoms of monkey suits with a Cosmos teammate and now, turning in front of a mirror, the big kid from Tacoma, Wash., was a picture of elegance.
He also was barefoot. "Perhaps a fashion trend in soccer," someone said to Durgan.
"I tought," Durgan said in his best couturier tone, "I might wear shoes."
"No, no," a kibitizing Cosmos said, "you might ruin your image."
Jeff Durgan is 19 and a starting defenseman for the mighty Cosmos here today to play the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the NASL's Soccer Bowl at RFK Stadium. He is different. He is the future. Today the stars of American soccer have four z's in their name and need an interpreter to order a Big Mac. Tomorrow, the stars will be kids from Tacoma who would look good barefoot in a tux.
Soccer is a generation away. Americans are mad about baseball, basketball and football because they think they know the games. They played them as kids. When Reggie Jackson hits one, they think they know how it felt. If Julius Erving can fly, well, so could they on one special day of memory. To relieve our memories, Americans pay out real money to see the pros.
There is no such memory bank for soccer. There will be, though. The game makes too much sense for it to fail here. It is a lovely game, a kaleidoscope of grace. The players are real people, not behemoths or skyscrapers. It is all there in the open to be seen. No mysteries about soccer. And, for heaven's sake, every time you look up there is another field with a thousand little kids kicking a little ball.
Jeff Durgan first kicked a soccer ball 11 years ago.
He played soccer six years before he even knew there was such a thing as professional soccer.
Even when he was a 17-year-old national star, soccer as a major league sport was so remote he had only a casual interst in the NASL draft.
"I was kinda curious," Durgan said. "I was going to check the newspaper the next day to see what happened."
Check the newspaper the next day? Moses Malone coming out of high school had half the free world wanting to give him a tall pile of money to stuff a basketball through a hole. The Yankees wanted to give $350,000 to Billy Cannon Jr., a high school shortstop.
But here is Jeff Durgan, barefoot kid from Tacoma, who is good enough to become the rookie of the year while playing for the best team in America. And all he knows is that he would look in the sports page the next morning to see if maybe his name got mentioned. A generation from now, high school soccer players will have agents. Bet on it.
And it will happen because of Jeff Durgan. A handsome fellow with feline eyes and dark hair, he is the prototype of the American soccer star of 1990. This is no midget Czech playing out the string. If soccer players have been small guys, that's because Europeans are small people and American sports are best played by pituarity accidents or people who have spent years in communion with barbells, leaving only the shrimps to kick at soccer balls.
No more. At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, Durgan is big enough and strong enough to have been a running back, a shooting guard, a center field. Because Tacoma is crazy about soccer, Durgan at 8 joined the Norpoint Royals club, a union that in time would produce a series of championships bringing the Royals to a second-place finish in the 1978 national youth tournament.
It was the next February, 1979, that Durgan was curious about the soccer draft. Kind of curious, anyway.
"It was registration day for the last semester of our senior year," he said.
"So a bunch of us had stayed up all night at the school to be first in line. At 7 a.m., somebody told me my soccer coach, Rick Covert, wanted to see me. I was still asleep.I was in terrible shape.
"And he told me the Cosmos had drafated me."
That's enough to wake up a guy.
Durgan's reaction is instructive about him. He is no flake, no flighty teenager. He was proud of being drafted by the best team in America and one of the best in the world, proud that a team with Beckenbauer and Chinaglia and Carlos Alberto would want a kid from Tacoma. Proud, but cautious.
"I thought to myself. 'These guys have a reputation for just reaching out and grabbing any player they want and if they don't like you, they just throw you away. Do they really want me or are they just looking for a token American?'"
From February to graduation at the end of June, Durgan wrestled with the decision: go to college the way all nice upper-middle class sons of college graduates do, or go play soccer with the best team in America? His parents lobbied for school.
"But a chance to play in New York is hard to get out of your mind once it's placed there," Durgan said.
On July 1, 1979, he joined the Cosmos as an amateur player, keeping his amateur status in hopes of playing for the U.S. in the Moscow Olympics. He didn't play a second for the Cosmos in the NASL season last year. From the press box, he studies the pros. It was a long, long year for a gifted athlete who had played every minute since he was 8.
"Another year like that and I would have got out of the Cosmos," he said.
But he was learning. In practice drills, in 5-against-2 games, in pickup games as part of the KLM Airlines team, in studying the widely varied schools of soccer influence brought to the Cosmos from Germany and South America and England -- in all this, Jeff Durgan learned enough that when injuries took out the two Cosmos ahead of him early this season, he was ready. i
"It was the fourth game of the year, at Tampa, and they were forced to put me in there," Durgan said.
He's still there, good enough at it that he gets to wear a tuxedo to dinner with Henry Kissinger, and Jeff Durgan hopes this is just the start.
"My goal is just to become the best player I can be, and I would like nothing more than to stay with the Cosmos forever," he said. "I'm the kind of person who quickly sets roots. I grew up with one single team, the Norpoint Royals. I died for that team. I lived for it. I fought for my friends on that team, even if the fight was totally unrelated to soccer. To be part of a team, part of a group you can't beat.
"The corporate goal of the Cosmos is to be one of the best teams in the world, and I would like to be part of that. And I would like to see soccer really grab on here. I hope I could look back 20 years rom now and say I was a pioneer in something that took hold really good, not just a fad.
"I'd like to carve my name into a little bit of history."
This is not fake. Jeff Durgan thinks. He was thinking when he signed his pro contract this year.
Along with two other Cosmos, he rented an old house with three acres of land and a big barn at Upper Saddle River, N. J., 20 minutes from the Meadowlands stadium. No disco addict, no New Yorker, Durgan was looking, really, for Tacoma East, where he would have room enough for his girlfriend, ski racer Beth Sayer, and his old dog, Nathan.
But even if you were the fourth choice in the first round of the NASL round, a rookie defenseman doesn't make much more than, say, $50,000. So how do you afford a big house in the country a half hour from Manhattan?
"The three of us split the rent," Durgan said. "Then the other two guys were traded."
And now how does he afford it?
"Due to the smart business dealings of yours truly," Durgan said, smiling, "the Cosmos now pay two-thirds of the rent. When I signed, I had it put in the contract that if the Cosmos traded my roommates, they would have to pay their part of the rent.
"So my house and three acres cost me $265 a month."
The future is 19 years old and bright as ever.