For Rob Olson, 1982 was not a particularly good year.
Olson, 23, a native of Fairfax, tried out for four pro soccer teams and failed to make three. The one that did sign him, the Georgia Generals of the American Soccer League, folded after one season.
"The owners wanted to give up after four games," said Olson. "Everything was pretty cool with the team until the paychecks started bouncing in August."
Unwilling to give up soccer and put his degree in finance from William and Mary to work just yet, Olson kept in shape over the winter by running and lifting weights. His only source of income came from refereeing youth league games. Despite an apparent overwhelming rejection of his playing ability, Olson kept practicing and looking for tryouts.
"You have to believe in yourself and keep practicing," said Olson. "My parents told me to do whatever made me happy."
So Olson tried out for the North American Soccer League's Team America, ostensibly the best collection of American players in the world.
And made it.
"It was just a shot in the dark," said Olsen. "I figured, "What the heck, what have I got to lose?""
Olson, the only free agent named to Team America's original 16-man roster, wasn't invited to the February training camp in Tampa, Fla., and wasn't even allowed to room with the team until midway through the camp's first week. But two goals in four scrimmage games, along with heady midfield play, soon earned Olson a spot on the squad.
"We tried out a lot of people for Team America, but Rob was one of the good ones," said Coach Alkis Panagoulias. "He worked very hard and that is how he earned his position. He is very persistent and quick, and has a good feel for the game."
Despite his play, Olson still wasn't sure he had made the team when Panagoulias announced the final roster on the night of Feb. 20. "They called the players together in a room and he (Panagoulias) just read the list of names," Olson remembered. "He read my name last. I couldn't believe it.
"I just went back to my hotel room and sat on the corner of the bed. I remember looking out at the city and saying to myself, "I made this team.""
Olson's soccer skills are a product of Braddock Road youth teams and the Annandale Boys Club. He was a four-year starter at Robinson High School, and at William and Mary, Olson scored 33 career goals, three short of the all-time record, despite a subpar senior year.
"I missed six games with injuries, and in some other I played out of position," Olson said. "As a result, my senior year wasn't very good, and that hurt my chances with the pros."
Olson was not drafted by any pro-teams for tryouts, scanning injury lists, hoping he could perform well enough on a given day to make a team. After unsuccessful tryouts with the Denver Avalanche of the ASL, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the NASL and the Pittsburgh Spirit of the Major Indoor Soccer League, Olson was signed by Georgia.
Olson played in 26 games, starting 17 at midfield, and finished with three goals and three assists. After the Generals folded, Olson came home, confident he could play pro soccer.
Olson is the sort of player Panagoulias had hoped to stock Team America with. "He is the blond-haired, all-America college type," said Panagoulias. "Pro experience means nothing to me. If a player is good and is fit, that is what is important."
"He is very tough in meeting the opposition," Panagoulias continued. "He is good at going forward, asking for high balls in the air; if we miss, he falls back immediately on defense. That is what I like."