John Kerr, whose Scottish accent makes you ache to ask him to beam you up, says he knows what is wrong with American soccer today.
"The players just don't think on the field," said Kerr, coach of the Fairfax Spartans amateur team and a former player for the New York Cosmos and Washington Diplomats. "They're full of charge and hustle, but they forget about the subtleness and poetry of the game."
Kerr has done his best to change that, assembling and "teaching" -- he dislikes the term "coaching" -- the Spartans, an amateur team made up primarily of ex-college players, to the Eastern regional amateur championship. Today the Spartans will face a team from Seattle in the National Amateur Cup semifinals in St. Louis and, if the team wins that match, it will play the winner of the St. Louis-Atlanta game Sunday afternoon for the national championship.
Kerr said he believes a good head in soccer is better used for thinking than for drilling a good crossing pass. His philosophy concentrates on ball control and one-on-one confrontations a la Diego Maradona, rather than the European technique of kicking the ball deep and relying on speed and aggressiveness to do the rest. With skillful, one-touch passes, his team finesses opponents into defeat.
"We don't want to physically dominate our opponents," Kerr said. "And whether we win or lose, we want the fans to say afterwards, 'We really enjoyed watching that.' "
Despite Kerr's lack of emphasis on winning -- he says he has no idea what the team's record is -- the results have been impressive. Assistant coach and sweeper George Lidster, who also is an assistant soccer coach at George Mason University, said he believes the team has won 47 games and lost three since January. "We've got a good nucleus of ex-college players," Lidster said. "They play some delightful soccer."
Lidster and former Howard University star Sylvanus Oriakhi are the old-timers on the squad at 32. Most players are in their early 20s, have gone to school locally or are originally from Northern Virginia and have played college soccer. Almost all are American, unlike many of the European-dominated teams that play in these national tournaments.
Lidster calls the team "the cream of the crop" and his statement may have merit. Three Spartans played for the U.S. national team that lost to Costa Rica in preliminary World Cup play -- Bruce Murray, John Stohlmeyer and John Kerr Jr., the latter the coach's son and an all-America at Duke last season. Four players have been drafted by the Major Indoor Soccer League: Stohlmeyer and Desmond Armstrong by the Cleveland Force and Mike Reynolds and Fred Thompson by the Baltimore Blast.
Stohlmeyer, a three-time all-America midfielder at Indiana and member of two national championship squads and the U.S. national team, said this team is as good as any he's ever played on.
Few of the players had had any experience with Kerr's think-first approach prior to playing with the Spartans, but they have adjusted well. "I used to go as fast as I could all the time," Stohlmeyer said. "What Kerr has been working with me on is trying to make me see things better on the field, to think while I'm running. It's made me a better player, because I keep more of my options open."
Lidster, who grew up in England and was accustomed to European play, said he has not become a total convert to Kerr's style, but has adjusted to it.
Kerr took over coaching the team, which derives its money from local business sponsors, in November 1984. Last summer the Spartans got to the semifinals of the National Open Tournament, where they were beaten by St. Louis. This season he has had the 22-man squad for the entire year, subjecting them to 11:30 p.m. December practices and three-mile winter runs over the ice.
"That wasn't the fun part," Kerr said. "You can be sure I got a lot of calls from girlfriends and such, wondering if I'd lost my mind." He laughed. "Maybe I had."
One of the team's primary problems has been the lack of good local competition. So they made several trips to New York, often playing teams stocked with former pros. "We played these teams full of old Cosmos players, and they expected a bunch of young American kids with lots of hustle and no finesse, and we played them right out of the park," Lidster said.
Western region champion Seattle plays a physical game and has a talented team, Lidster said. But the Spartans are optimistic. "We're going in very upbeat," Kerr said. "I'm sure we'll do quite well."