John Kerr Sr., a prominent figure in American soccer’s development as a player, coach and union leader, and who was a key contributor to the sport’s growth in the Washington area, died June 19 of heart disease at his home in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was 67.
Mr. Kerr, a native of Scotland, played for the old Washington Darts and Washington Diplomats in the 1970s, coached the Fairfax-based Washington Stars from 1987 to 1990 and served as executive director of the first U.S. soccer players union.
From 1972 to 1975, he was an all-star midfielder for the New York Cosmos of the old North American Soccer League. In his final season with the Cosmos, one of his teammates was Pele, the Brazilian forward widely regarded as the greatest player in soccer history.
Mr. Kerr’s most influential work, however, came not as a player but as a union leader and as the coach of a generation of young soccer players in the Washington area, where he led youth soccer teams for more than 15 years.
In 1981, he guided Montgomery United Ponies to the North American championship in the under-16 age group. Two years later, the team won the McGuire Cup, a national championship for teams with players under 19. He also coached the Fairfax Spartans to the National Amateur Cup championship in 1986.
Many of his players went on to play for major college programs, international clubs and U.S. national teams.
Drawing from his experiences as a professional player and coach, Mr. Kerr emphasized individual creativity and quick ball movement. His style belied traditional European tactics and encouraged young players to express themselves on the field, an approach known as the Brazilian style.
“John played the Brazilian way and was years ahead of us English types,” said George Washington University men’s coach George Lidster, a friend and colleague of Mr. Kerr. “That was his philosophy — keeping possession, moving the ball, playing with flair. We were all playing the long ball down field, not a lot of creativity. John said, ‘No, this is the way it should be.’ ”
John Kerr was born in Glasgow on Oct. 15, 1943, and signed his first contract with the Scottish club Partick Thistle when he was 17. At 20, he joined his mother in Canada and played for small clubs in Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario, before signing with the Detroit Cougars of the United Soccer Association.
After one season, he joined the Washington Darts in 1969 and was named a first-team all-star. He played with the Diplomats in 1976 and 1977 and was a player-coach in his final season.
A naturalized Canadian citizen, Mr. Kerr made 10 appearances with the Canadian national team and played in several World Cup qualifiers.
As an early leader with the players association of the old NASL, Mr. Kerr helped lead a strike in 1979 that led to higher player salaries. He held several leadership positions, including executive director, in the union and various later incarnations for more than 20 years.
As a youth coach in the D.C. area, Mr. Kerr helped launch the career of Bruce Murray, a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
“I don’t think anyone has contributed more to soccer in the Washington area than John Kerr Sr.,” Murray said in an interview.
Mr. Kerr’s son, John Kerr Jr., played at Duke University and won the Hermann Trophy in 1986 as college soccer’s top player. He played professionally in England for many years and is now the head soccer coach at Duke.
John Kerr Sr. lived in Alexandria for many years before moving to Hilton Head, S.C., in 2004 and to North Carolina two years ago. He continued coaching youth teams until his death.
His first wife, the former Rena Rooney, died in 1988. His second marriage, to Ann Kerr, ended in divorce.
Besides his son, of Carrboro, N.C., survivors include two brothers; a sister; and three grandchildren.
Staff writer Matt Schudel contributed to this report.