Pete Mehlert candidly acknowledges he has to overcome numerous obstacles in his eight years as American University's soccer coach: no recruiting budget to speak of, few scholorships to offer, fierce competition from other local colleges for the top area high school players.
Not to mention the Ulitmate Frisbee Club and dogs that do what comes naturally on his one and only playing field.
It doesn't matter that AU's soccer team reached the NCAA quarterfinals last year, and was ranked ninth in the nation in preseason polls. Many times in practice Mehlert has had to move his team to one side of the field in order to let the rugby club, or everyone's favorite, the Ulitmate Frisbee Club, work out at the other side. Facilities are scarce at the Northwest Washington school, and Mehlert, a realist, has learned to compromise.
The dogs are another story.
"You can't imagine how bad it is," he said ruefully. "A lot of people in the cumminity use the track around the soccer field to run laps. Some of them bring their dogs."
Some dogs, it seems, have problems staying on the track. They stray onto the field, Mehlert said, rolling his eyes, "and leave us all kinds of presents."
But his laughter suggests that even this indignity is bearable. Part of it is his makeup: Mehlert is a battler who is neither bruised nor intimidated easily. Much of his childhood was spent in Hong Kong, where he, his four brothers and sisters and his parents lived in a hut with two other families.
At Bethesda's Walter Johnson High School, and at Boston University, he was an aggressive, combative halfback who regularly challenged players much bigger than himself. He is used to hard knocks and tends to forge ahead rather than brood.
More likely, however, Mehlart -- a small, slight, 32-year-old Chinese-American given to casual dress and a sharp tongue -- finds most everything a little easier to take these days. He and the soccer program are finally reaping the benefits of 8 1/2 years of hard work in which his teams have won more games (65-38-12) than AU squads had won in 22.
With a flock of local players in the starting lineup, American had its finest season ever in 1979, finishing with a 14-3-4 record. The Eagles won the East Coast Conference championship, the first title in any sport for AU, and Mehlart was voted coach of the year by his peers in the Mid-Atlantic region.
This year the Eagles are off to another good start, posting a 4-1 record and outscoring their opposition, 9-1. This is good enough to have them ranked third in the Mid-Atlantic region. The lone setback was dealt Sept. 27 by a highly ranked Old Dominion team, whose 1-0 victory ended the Eagles' 18-game unbeaten streak in regular-season play and dropped them out of the top 20 for the first time in 13 rankings over a two-year span. American plays at Navy Wednesday at 3 p.m.
Recruiting extensively in the Washington area -- often using money from his own pocket -- Mehlert has put together skilled, poised teams that attack with intelligence and defend with a purpose.
Mark De Blois, one of four AU players from McLean High School, and junior Kevin Barth of Jefferson High School are proficient goal scorers. The midfield is solid, with senior Eduardo Lopez (T. C. Williams) and Richard Burke, a freshman from Liverpool, England, providing able leadership. The defense is anchored by sweeper Charlie Davis, a junior from Mount Vernon, and senior goalie Bill Ruvo.
Mehlert's recruiting successes are all the more noteworthy because he has little to offer financially. No one on the team has a full scholarship. The best Mehlert can give is a half-tuition scholarhip, about $2, 300, which doesn't come close to covering the estimated annual cost of $8,210 for the average AU student. Loans and work-study programs help, but Mehlert admits it is difficult to compete with coaches at much less expensive state universities and with coaches who can offer a full ride.
Most players say the major reason they came to AU is Mehlert.
"I got offers from other schools," said DeBlois, the brash forward who as a freshman led AU with 13 goals last year. "But I knew I wanted to come here. The difference is Coach Mehlert. When I was a junior at McLean, I went to watch his team play an indoor game. I was amazed. The players were incredibly unselfish and composed. They moved with such poise and intelligence. They could make each other play better."
After years of being the upstart, the rebuilding team, American is the equal of the longtime local power, Howard. Correspondingly, that means the Eagles are no longer in the comfortable role of the spoiler.
After winning, 4-0, in its opener against Maryland two weeks ago, AU faced a Georgetown team that packed the middle and merely kicked the ball away. Frustrated by soccer's version of the stall, American played without its usual poise and needed a goal in overtime to win, 1-0. AU continued to play distractedly agianst Old Dominion and lost a game it easily could have won.
"I guess I've liked the underdog role because it always looked so good outplaying a team that's better than you," Mehlert admitted. "I know now that things will never be the same. Teams now are pointing to us as their big game of the year, and there's more pressure -- no doubt about it. I know the players feel it, and I probably feel it, too. It's nice to have the respect of other teams, though."
Now, if someone could just do something about those dogs.