Team America Coach Alkis Panagoulias remembers having to beg some of this country's best players to join his team in March and April. Now he's being deluged with requests from players wanting to play for him.
"I told my players at the start of the season, 'For a while we'll be alone. No one will believe in us,' " said Panagoulias, whose team faces the Cosmos in New Jersey tonight at 9 (WWDC-1260). "But now everybody loves Team America. Everybody calls and asks for tryouts."
Stars like Montreal's Elvis Comrie, Angelo DiBernardo of the Cosmos and Ringo Cantillo of the New York Arrows of the Major Indoor Soccer League have stated publicly they'd like to play for Team America.
Seattle's Mark Peterson, possibly this country's best striker, flatly refused to try out for Team America in February. Now he says he would consider joining the team next year.
"The coaches, the players--everybody is starting to take us seriously now," said Panagoulias, whose team is 8-5 and in second place in the North American Soccer League's Southern Division. "I have no illusions, though. There is no substitute for victory. Everything goes to the winners, and we are fortunate to be doing so well."
Tony Crescitelli, Team America's player representative, said the team's lucrative bonuses and incentive clauses also have attracted players.
Qualifying games for the 1986 World Cup will begin next season, and many players feel they would have a better chance of making the national team if they also played for Team America. Panagoulias has said most of the national team will be taken from Team America's roster.
Comrie, a British-born striker who will become a U.S. citizen later this year, approached Panagoulias after Team America's game in Montreal May 15 and asked to join the team. A teammate of Team America midfielder Pedro DeBrito at the University of Connecticut, Comrie will have to leave Montreal when it becomes Team Canada after this season.
"To play for the U.S. and Team America is my No. 1 dream," Comrie said earlier this season. His nine goals and 22 assists make him one of the league's scoring leaders. "I don't mean to criticize Team America, but I think I could help them. But it is their decision. There is no chance for me here in Montreal."
DiBernardo, 27, was one of eight Cosmos who tried out for Team America, but was cut because Panagoulias could take no more than three from any one team. He joined the national team for a tour of Haiti and Colombia in April, but has played sporadically with the Cosmos.
"Some of the players may have realized they made a mistake in not joining Team America," said DiBernardo. "I like to think I'm part of the Cosmos' future, but I haven't been playing much lately. If the Cosmos feel I can't give them what they need, then I should join Team America."
Cantillo, 26, is the playmaking midfielder Panagoulias has sought all season. Panagoulias said negotiations with Cantillo have been slow, but a team official did not rule out the possibility of signing Cantillo this season.
Peterson, the league's highest-scoring American last year with 17 goals and 39 points, said he would stay with Seattle for the remainder this season, but was unsure where he would play next year.
"When I originally told Team America no, I only meant for this season," said Peterson. "After this year is over, I'll make a decision about next year."
The free-agent applications Team America has received are mostly from college players or professionals with little game experience, asking for tryouts. Panagoulias intends to give these players a chance by holding large tryout camps similar to the one held at RFK Stadium June 18. Panagoulias said camps likely would be held in the New York and St. Louis areas and on the West Coast.
The Cosmos will wear black armbands in honor of Hennes Weisweiler, their coach in 1980-81, who died yesterday in Switzerland after a heart attack. He was 63 . . . The United States will play Canada in a Pan American Games qualifying match at 6:30 before the Team America-Cosmos game. The winner of this game and a second match July 10 in Ontario will advance to the Pan American Games Aug. 15-23 in Venezuela. John Stollmeyer, a midfielder from Annandale, will start for the United States.