In March it was players. In May it was goals. Now, with Team America in the midst of a five-game losing streak and the playoffs slipping out of reach, Coach Alkis Panagoulias says Team America's greatest need is leadership.
"Every one of the players is afraid to assume responsibility for Team America," said Panagoulias, whose team played its worst game of the year Wednesday night in losing to San Diego, 2-0. Team America is in last place in the NASL's Southern Division and is 11th in the 12-team league in points with 56. The top eight teams advance to the playoffs.
"You need a blend of maturity and skill to be a leader, and our players don't have that," he said. "Someone has to stand up and take charge. We must have this leadership if we are to win again."
Panagoulias met for approximately three hours yesterday with team captain Jeff Durgan and veteran Alan Merrick, who has become Panagoulias' unofficial assistant coach, to discuss Team America's problems. The players will hold a similar meeting without Panagoulias today and then he will meet with the entire team prior to practice.
"I am trying to raise the morale of these players," said Panagoulias. "We are not going to be panicked. Up until now, we have done well. I know the problems. I knew going into the season we'd be questionable."
Despite Team America's losing streak, team owner Robert Lifton blames neither Panagoulias nor the players for the losses. "As long as there is a Team America, Alkis will be the coach," said Lifton, who attended Wednesday's loss.
"The problems aren't with the coach or the players. The problems are with the league, which hasn't given us the players they promised. The league is forcing us to do a halfway job."
Lifton said he will meet Monday with NASL President Howard Samuels in New York and demand that the other teams give Team America the players it needs.
Team America's limited roster has begun to take its toll. Unlike other coaches, Panagoulias cannot trade for more experienced players, relying instead on the goodwill of the other owners in the league to fill his roster. Against largely international teams like the Cosmos and Fort Lauderdale, the disparity in talent has become obvious.
"I said to Mr. Lifton the other day, 'You have done a good thing, but you only did it halfway,' " said Panagoulias. "He should have made the teams give us the players we need. I am supposed to be the national coach, but players like (Ricky) Davis, (Vidal) Fernandez, (Steve) Moyers don't want to play for me. How can I play teams like Juventus without these players?"
Team America's immaturity has been most evident on the field. The team continues to make fundamental mistakes such as bad passes or missed defensive assignments, and its spirit is also suspect. When Team America falls behind, as it did against San Diego, the team has a tendency to collapse. It has lost seven of the eight games in which it failed to score first.
Merrick, the team's oldest player at 32, agreed Team America lacked maturity, but said such qualities could not be expected of American players.
"Americans have always been support players," said Merrick. "They've never been asked to lead a team. But now the players are suddenly asked to be leaders, and the responsibility hasn't sunk in yet."
"My dream and target is the World Cup," said Panagoulias, "and I want the players to realize that. This is the challenge. They have to stand up with me and fight for it."