Team America Coach Alkis Panagoulias didn't have a chance to sit back and savor Friday night's 2-1 shootout victory over the Cosmos.
Barely 12 hours after the biggest victory in the NASL franchise's first year, Panagoulias was on the practice field adjoining RFK Stadium, this time overseeing the first of three tryout sessions he will hold around the country.
More than 30 players showed up at RFK on the day following Team America's fourth straight victory, hoping to get a shot at a professional contract. Most were from the Washington area, but some, such as striker Theodore Mitalas, came from as far away as the Pacific Northwest. They knew their chances of making the team were slim, but neither that fact nor a blistering midday sun dampened their enthusiasm.
Three hours later, following a tough scrimmage and a special workout for the six goalkeepers present, no one had really stood out. All Panagoulias would say was that he was "interested" in one striker, one midfielder and one defender.
But Panagoulias added that he is delighted with players' response to his team. His office phone has been ringing constantly with calls from eager players and he hopes to take advantage of that enthusiasm to strengthen his campaign for a competitive national team.
"I like the idea of Team America. I'd really like to play for them, and that's one of the reasons I came out here today," said goalkeeper Kevin Hunt, who played for Friendly High School and NCAA Division II finalist Alabama A&M. "We've got a lot of talent on the East Coast; the kind of guys who could really help a team like this. I've heard about guys like Ricky Davis who wouldn't play for Team America, but there were a lot of guys here today who would love to play. Even for $19-20,000 a year."
Although Panagoulias had little time to enjoy it, the victory over the Cosmos conveyed a message the coach has been emphasizing all season: the Americans can be as effective as the high-priced foreign players. "We don't have the skill the Cosmos have; I know that. But we tried very hard," Panagoulias said Friday night. "We don't have the players to try to play with the Cosmos. It would have been foolish for us to try."
Panagoulias is aware there is still work to be done, but he is pleased with the progress the team has made.
"I am very satisfied," he said with a smile. "Very satisfied."
His team has come together extremely well. The defense played nearly flawlessly against a Cosmos offense that routed European champion Hamburg SV, 7-2, last Wednesday.
Although Panagoulias paid special attention to the goalkeepers at yesterday's tryout, that position is one of the team's strong points. Paul Hammond was outstanding in goal Friday, making seven saves and allowing only a goal by Roberto Cabanas at 69:53 that sent the game into overtime. Hammond then made four saves in the shootout to pull out the win before 31,112.
Last Sunday, Arnie Mauser stopped Fort Lauderdale in another 2-1, shootout victory.
"It's a dilemma a coach faces," Panagoulis said at the tryout. "When you have two excellent goalies, you have the choice to go with one or the other. I went with Paul and he does a beautiful job."
Team America was also helped by the return of captain Jeff Durgan, who was allowed to play after the NASL board of directors overruled his suspension. Durgan, a member of the Cosmos the previous three years, shut down Giorgio Chinaglia with the aggressive play that has marked the team's four-game winning streak.
"We wanted this win because these American players are always being overshadowed by the big-name foreign players," Panagoulias said. "We beat Cosmos, all of a sudden we get the recognition. People want to play for us. I owe it all to the general manager, who all along has had the faith in a group of American players and has given them a chance to play soccer. I am very happy right now."