To get to Team America's locker room, you climb down stairs past a clumsy painting of a Diplomat (remember them?). You walk a minute through the subterranean chill of RFK Stadium. You pass the Redskins' carpeted quarters. You keep on walking a hundred yards through the shadows until you see, under a naked bulb, an arrow pointing down a concrete corridor leading . . . this is getting scary.
Turn right twice.
It's the last door on your right.
The room isn't much. Linoleum block floor. Wooden lockers, little chairs. A radio blaring. Words on a chalkboard: "If any of you at any time should go past a tall brunette driving a blue 280Z, license plate 'Z Baby,' please have her call (name deleted to protect a marriage)." Now the training room has machines to help the players heal, but those machines arrived only when players started grousing.
For a practice at Georgetown University, no one told the players how to find the place. Some showed up after two hours lost in the wilds of Virginia. The team conducted physical examinations in a van during practice, with players running off the field at their turn. Some players say they haven't been reimbursed for expenses of getting to Tampa to try out for the team.
This is Team America?
Sounds like Team Podunk.
The idea of Team America is grand. It is our national team, established to play in international soccer competition, including the World Cup. It also will play in the North American Soccer League (its first game coming tonight in Seattle). The idea is for Americans to show the world we can do more than slam dunk.
The idea is in big trouble, it says here, because the NASL failed to convince most of the best Americans to join a pioneer project in a city that has been a burial ground for five previous pro soccer teams. Without those stars, Team America will be a mediocrity. The dreary history of soccer here--two teams died with Johan Cruyff--suggests that Washingtonians want more than mediocrity wrapped in the flag.
In their warmup suits, if they stand just right, Team America's players form the U.S. flag.
Jeff Durgan, because it was an interview, tried to be positive. He's the team captain, 21, from Tacoma, Wash., a three-year starter on the Cosmos' Soccer Bowl teams. He believes in the idea of Team America. He wants Americans to whap the world upside the head in soccer. That's why he left the richest soccer team in America, sold his house and came here even while his wife was stuck there in school.
But Durgan admitted something is wrong.
"The team is holding together," he said. "I want to paint a positive portrait of that. We'll be a good team, very competitive. And I think a successful Team America will get to the heart of people in Virginia, Maryland and D.C."
Durgan's disappointment is with NASL officials who created Team America in a burst of visionary zeal and now seem to have forgotten its boys in red, white and blue.
"The players don't see that enthusiasm. We do feel disappointed. But we understand that Howard Samuels (the NASL president) is working on bigger and better things, like the World Cup," Durgan said.
"Just call it," he said with a wry smile, "the first two months of organizing blues."
Some of those blues were born for Durgan when other Americans refused to join Team America.
"The prevailing attitude in the NASL is that Americans can't play. Now it's come down to a chance to go on the field with all Americans and we'll see. This is the place to be for all Americans."
Those Americans who stayed away, Durgan said, are shortsighted. He named Mark Peterson and Jeff Stock of Seattle, and the Cosmos' Rick Davis and Steve Moyers.
"The NASL is in trouble. Everybody knows that. The success of Team America is critical to the league's survival. That should supersede all other problems. If you're American and you want to play pro soccer in this country, then you should be playing for Team America, because if it doesn't make it, the league might not make it."
Davis said he couldn't leave the Cosmos because of commercial and endorsement possibilities in New York.
"You have to look at the big picture," Durgan said. "Team America will exist. That's a given because Howard Samuels thinks it has great financial and political influence. But then you have to have the best players. I'm one of the best center backs. Because of that, I have to be here. Other players who are the best at their positions aren't here. We know their stated reasons, and it isn't enough."
Team America's 14-player roster includes six naturalized citizens and (on loan) two more men in the process of gaining citizenship. Against the possibility a wise guy could call this Team Some America, Durgan said, "Don't condemn naturalized Americans for coming here. We're all from somewhere. My grandmother was Japanese. Ask Davis and Moyers and Peterson and Stock what they think. They are true-born Americans who should be here."
Alkis Panagoulias can't understand it, either. He's the Team America coach, a native of Greece who became a U.S. citizen 15 years ago. As the equipment man washed uniforms next door, Panagoulias sat in his spartan office and wondered why so few Americans care about soccer.
"The U.S.A. is a sleeping giant in soccer," he said. "I feel a great responsibility to be the coach of the U.S.A. national team. Such a great nation, so strong. But no one else feels the responsibility. This is crazy.
"We play the Russians in St. Louis on May 25. I hope we lose, 10-0. You should put in big headlines: 'Shame on U.S.A.' In Greece, if we lose like that, they would be waiting at the airport to kill us. I don't hope we lose, really, but we need something to wake up the sleeping giant. This is not just another soccer team. This is Team America."
The coach slapped his open palm against a desk.