A decade ago, youth soccer players in this country were told repeatedly that the sport had a future in the United States, and they were it. As they grew and progressed from the youth level to the pros, they would carry the game to greatness. It was on their shoulders.
But today, some of the dreams remain unrealized. The professional leagues have struggled and no longer offer a haven for dreamers. Alkis Panagoulias, the coach of Team America, has been reduced to begging for players on the eve of his team's Washington debut against Tulsa Sunday at RFK Stadium. He was begging for American players, many of whom once assumed they would lead their country to soccer greatness. Reality has replaced fantasy.
Some former youth stars have begun to turn away from soccer. Hugh Ickrath, a graduate of the Prince George's youth leagues and an all-Met midfielder at Bowie High School in 1981, is currently a freshman at George Mason University. Ickrath recently scrimmaged Team America with the Patriots, played against his future, but now has decided to transfer to the Air Force Academy and drop soccer.
"It's funny. I used to dream about playing professionally, but now that the reality of it is so close, it's not so important," said Ickrath. "As I grew up the dream changed . . . The professional life in this country suddenly wasn't so glamorous. I decided to let soccer work for me, instead of the other way around."
Ironically, college soccer, which should serve as a training ground for the pros, often is its biggest enemy. The security of a college education and four years of soccer is more important to many players than an apprenticeship on the bench of a pro team.
"In other sports, players are hungry for something different--the money of professional sports," said Ickrath's mother Maureen, a Prince George's County youth league administrator and coach. "Soccer is different. Its goal has always been a college scholarship, nothing more, realistically.
"A player might also ask why he should take a chance on a struggling team. The whole league is perceived as unstable, so why should they give up a guaranteed college scholarship for the unknown?"
Kurt Dasbach started playing in the Montgomery Soccer Incorporated (MSI) youth league when he was 12. Last year, Dasbach was an all-America forward at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and tried out for the national youth team. But Dasbach turned down offers from national college soccer powers in favor of Columbia University. A career in engineering, he says, may be more realistic than a career in soccer.
"In other countries, people are killing themselves for the chance to play for their national teams," said Dasbach. "In this country people don't realize the importance of the national team, but it is on a scale with the Olympics. But Americans don't even consider that professional sports can be played internationally.
"They are going to have to glamorize the idea of the national team in this country more to make it work."
"Soccer is at a stage where, although many kids are playing, they're not from all economic levels of society," said Jule Barlow, coach of the Montgomery Silver Bullets 1962 select team and one of the founders of MSI. "Mostly it's middle-class and upper-middle-class kids, a group to whom athletics does not represent a significant improvement in life style compared to what they would otherwise do."
But some players still dream of a professional career. Bill Minturn, a top defender on the Silver Bullets, chose college three years ago over the pros, even as contemporaries like Darryl Gee signed lucrative pro contracts.
"I would love to play pro soccer and still toy with the idea," said Minturn, who will be the captain of the Denison College team next year as a senior. "Maybe what we need are more Darryl Gees, who'll take the chance to try it professionally. I've got to admit that it would be quite a thrill to represent my country on Team America. It wouldn't be easy to turn down their call."
Jeff Gaffney, an all-America forward at Whitman High School and the leading scorer for Virginia last year as a freshman, agrees.
"It is the duty of all players to try out for Team America if called," said Gaffney, who toured the Soviet Union with the national youth team last winter. "Once you pull on that jersey with 'USA' on it, that's when you feel the pride. It is embarrassing for America to have the national coach begging for players. I don't understand it. Maybe this country just doesn't have much pride in soccer."
Some feel that a soccer tradition in this country, or perhaps the lack of it, is at the crux of the problem.
"Basically, United States soccer will generate a lot of interest and enthusiasm, but it won't be an international contender until it becomes a playground sport," said Barlow. "But it's not there yet. We need hungry players."
"People, and that includes soccer players, are leery of the unknown," said Everett Germain, president of the Annandale Boys Club, which last year won the national McGuire Cup soccer tournament. "There isn't that energy about soccer that you find in other countries. When Team America wins a few games, people will start jumping on the bandwagon.
"The bandwagon just isn't playing a tune yet."