Soccer, for years a weakling among professional sports in America, made a bid to capture some attention and make some converts today as the nation's soccer establishment formally launched Team America and 22 players reported for the team's first practice at the University of Tampa.
What Pele did for U.S. soccer in 2 1/2 years with the Cosmos in the mid-1970s, Team America will do in the '80s, confidently predicted Phil Woosnam, commissioner of the North American Soccer League, in which Team America will play a 30-game schedule as it trains for World Cup and, if rules permit, Olympic competition as America's official national team.
"Pele took us up the mountain, but we have slipped back," said Woosnam, whose soccer league has slipped from 24 to 12 teams since 1980 and lost an estimated $25 million last year. "We need a lift. We are on only the first or second rung of the ladder."
Team America players, who will be culled from the top native-born and naturalized American players in the NASL, the Major Indoor Soccer league and the American Soccer League, will be based in Washington and will play its 15 NASL home games at RFK Stadium. It will also play a schedule of international matches in the offseason.
T. Beauclerc Rogers IV, executive vice president and general manager of the team, said players will spend two to three weeks in training camp here before coming to Washington.He said it's likely the team will schedule an exhibition tour of Central America or South America before the opening of the NASL season in April.
Rogers, who was general manager of the Tampa Bay Rowdies when they won two NASL championships, said Team America has leased office space at 17th and K Streets NW and that he plans to hire a staff of 10 to 12 to launch a marketing and promotions operation.
"I'm going to sit down with the local soccer people to see how we can help them," said Rogers, 45, a soccer player in his college days at Duke. Rogers said that Gordon Bradley, former coach of the defunct Washington Diplomats, would likely play a part in the operation.
Although four professional soccer teams have folded in Washington, Rogers insists he's confident Team America will win the support of the community, mainly because of its status as the national team.
Despite the track record of most other NASL clubs, Rogers also predicted Team America will make money through a planned corporate sponsorship program in which major U.S. corporations will purchase the right to use the club's name and logo in promotional and advertising campaigns. Expenses during the first year are expected to be $3.5 million.
If the club does make money, the 20 players who make the team will get a share of it in the form of bonuses.
According to John Kerr, executive director of the NASL Players Association, said an agreement had been negotiated under which Team America players would will divide 10 percent of the first $1 million in profits, 15 percent of profits between $1 and $3 million and 25 percent of any profits over $3 million.
Alkis Panagoulias, Team America's coach and the coach of the Greek national soccer team from 1973 until 1981, said that when he agreed to coach Team America, "Even the Greek press said 'this man must be crazy.' But I have played here and coached here and that is why I believe in American soccer."
Darryl Gee of Columbia, Md., and Ricky Davis, two Cosmos starters who previously were critical of the Team American plan and who were not expected to try out, are expected here by the end of the week, one NASL official said.