An early impression of first-generation Team America is first-generation U.S. America. The sounds of several of its most prominent members suggest an athletic melting pot: native British goalkeeper Paul Hammond on one side of the dressing room, Caribbean cutup Hayden Knight on another and the Greek coach who has them in first place in their division at the moment. With the accent on winning, there will be some accents in the dressing room for a while.
Bipartisan political America glitters, one investor (Mike Curb) being the current chairman of the Republican National Finance Committee and another (Howard Weingrow) being a former deputy finance chairman for the Democrats. If it weren't for corporate America, the keepers of our soccer faith would not exist.
Ah, but on the field Team America is rather un-American. The emphasis is on defense. Everybody realizes that to remain strong, safe and prosperous, America must protect its goal from future Jabba the Hutts and other nasties. However, Team America doesn't score very often, and we also know that part of what made this country chest-poppin' proud was its ability to go after something and get it.
"We lack good finishers," a distressed Coach Alkis Panagoulias said even in victory, that 1-0 drama over the Tampa Bay Rowdies Thursday night at RFK Stadium in which Team America was much more rowdy. "We lose some very easy goals."
When the Redskins lacked good finishers, they signed Bobby Mitchell and Sonny Jurgensen, who carried them into the end zone to uninterrupted sellouts. The problem for Team America is that Jurgensens and Mitchells haven't been growing on American soccer trees. Or that planters have been stifling them.
"I come out at 6 o'clock and watch the youngsters (in the preliminary games)," Panagoulias said. "Kids 12 to 14, and all I hear is, 'Get the ball to midfield.' It's run and mark, run and mark. They don't have the experience (being creative in tough offensive situations). The initiative is being taken out of the player.
"One of the principles of soccer is improvisation; nobody (in kid's soccer) improvises."
How can that be corrected?
"We're getting (as many national youth-level leagues as possible) to practice under match conditions," Panagoulias said. "Ninety per cent of all practices will be with the ball under match conditions."
Team America has averaged only a goal a game, yet it carries a 5-4 record in the North American Soccer League's Southern Division into today's game against Fort Lauderdale at RFK. If George Allen and George Washington would be proud of these plucky band of defenders, some Team Americans also would like a safer margin for error.
"Pressin' the law of averages," said the last line of defense, Hammond. "If you look at things logically, there has to be a breakdown sooner or later. We've been gritty."
Given all of its early problems this year, Team America's doing so well so far has astonished the small part of Washington that cares deeply for soccer. Having seen a good deal of the NASL since signing with Tampa Bay in 1975, Hammond is more delighted than surprised.
"But we got to do something (about the offense) sooner or later," he said. "The chances are there. But it doesn't do any good unless there's that final"--he snapped his finger--"bang."
Tony Crescitelli missed a few fine chances against the Rowdies and was the one player not smiling in victory, choosing instead to sit quietly deep in his locker stall.
Hayden Knight provided that one goal, and later thought the team could keep winning low-goal games. This can be accomplished, he said, with another bit of Americana.
"Our Pac-Man defense," he chirped. "We eat up the opposition. We chase like crazy, don't give you time to play. If we lose, it'll be 1-0. But right now, we're not giving the other team a chance to play."
Knight had mended well enough from a broken foot suffered in the preseason to play more than 1 1/2 halves against Tampa Bay. He wears an engaging personality and a chain about his neck that includes a large No. 1. He glanced over at the downcast Crescitelli.
"One of these days, he'll put three in the goal and we'll all go on a roller-coaster ride," Knight said. "This is a young team; he's Tony Crescitelli, not Georgio Chinaglia. Once he matures, he'll be fine. He's doing everything else right."
Knight's return is nice. To borrow a line from Pele or some other soccer sophisticate, he "makes things happen." At both ends of the field and in between.
The early returns suggest Team America has been built the smart, if slightly untraditional, way. It takes a patient, dedicated fan to appreciate defense in any sport. And especially soccer. More goals surely would attract more fans, but an above-.500 team at least keeps the area's attention.
Maybe a three-point shot would help Team America, or perhaps a few Federals who have been kicking away football games are able to kick a round ball into a rectangular net. Possibly, drastic action will not be necessary at all. As the optimistic Knight hints, today's game might be the one Team A goes on a scoring spree.
Better not make it too much of a binge, Hayden. Break the area in gradually. Too many goals and the 40,000 or so defensive devotees just might be too unnerved to hang around for the Beach Boys.