In February, Team America was still just an idea, a concept without players, a coach or a schedule. And Tony Bellinger was not impressed.
"I wouldn't want to play for them," said Bellinger at the time, then in midseason with the St. Louis Steamers of the Major Indoor Soccer League. "The NASL (North American Soccer League) forced a lot of us to choose between the leagues, and I chose to play indoors. For now my career is with St. Louis."
But Team America's stability has since caused Bellinger to change his mind, and he will play tonight for Team America in Tampa Bay against the Rowdies at 8 p.m. (WWDC-1260).
"One of the things that changed my mind is they are trying to do things the right way," said Bellinger yesterday. "There were a lot of 'ifs' and 'unknowns' before, but this team has proven itself now. I want to be a part of it."
Tonight's game will actually be Bellinger's second with Team America. The St. Louis native, 25, was a last-minute addition to the lineup in an exhibition against Dynamo Minsk last Wednesday, despite having worked out with the team for only an hour the day before the game. Bellinger's name was not even included in the official program.
"He played excellent against the Russians," said Team America Coach Alkis Panagoulias. "He is a very smart player and plays very well. He will take some time to adjust to outdoors, but he is the kind of player I need."
Bellinger has played previously with many of Team America's players on the national and Olympic teams, and had little trouble adjusting to their style.
"He's a professional," said Team America defender Jeff Durgan. "He fit right in."
Although the MISL recently banned its players from playing in the NASL, Bellinger's contract with St. Louis has a clause allowing him to play outdoors. Bellinger began his career in 1977 with the Dallas Tornado, but has not played outdoors regularly since the team folded after the 1981 season. In 115 outdoor games, Bellinger has scored nine goals, including a career-high three in 1980.
Bellinger also has played with the Steamers since 1979, scoring 27 goals in 96 games. He was an honorable mention MISL all-star in 1981.
"I also decided to come to Team America to see if I can open up some possibilities for the other MISL players," Bellinger said. "Few players have contracts like mine, but I know a lot of them would like to play for this team."
Bellinger's addition is expected to fill the holes on defense left by injuries to Alan Merrick and Boris Bandov, although both will travel to Tampa Bay. Panagoulias was forced to use midfielders Pedro DeBrito and Sonny Askew at left back against Golden Bay on Friday, but said yesterday he might start Bellinger against the Rowdies.
Team America's front line is also depleted with injuries. Forward Greg Villa, who has been trying out for Team America past two weeks and whose acquisition on loan from the Chicago Sting was completed yesterday, is nursing a groin pull and will stay home, as will Alan Green, out indefinitely with a torn hamstring. Defender Hayden Knight, out since preseason with a broken foot, is expected back within a week.
The Rowdies are tied with Team America for second place in the Southern Division, despite a 2-5 record. Tampa Bay has not played an NASL game in more than a week, competing instead in the Sunshine International Series, finishing third.
The Rowdies are led by Brazilian forwards Tatu (three goals, seven points) and Luis Fernando (two goals in the SIS) and Chilean midfielder Manny Rojas (three goals, 10 points). Coach Al Miller has decided to start Tom Boric, a 22-year-old Canadian, in goal ahead of veteran Jurgen Stars, who has allowed 17 goals in seven games. Boric started both games of the SIS, allowing two goals.