In the summer of 1978, my U-14 club team undertook a two-week tour of England and Holland. On some abstract level, halfway through the Carter Administration, my teammates and I on the Wellesley (Mass.) Pilgrims — a squad whose core members played together from ages 8 to 18 — had already begun to recognize our status as American soccer pioneers. Our overseas tour only confirmed this trailblazing cred.
We would eventually learn that Generation Zero, the first truly native-born cohort of U.S. soccer players and fans, was bigger, broader, more accomplished and better traveled than we knew. Our elite contemporaries, for example — the guys who thrashed Pilgrims every time we progressed far enough in some tournament; the folks who would eventually play for the U.S. Men’s National Team and qualify this country for the 1990 World Cup — were undertaking overseas trips to England and Holland and Mexico as 9-year-olds.
These thoroughbreds are the de facto subjects and stars of “Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories and the Making of Soccer in America.” But their serial on-field breakthroughs would have been wasted if the 1970s had not produced, simultaneously, a massive cohort of soccer fans who also grew up with the game — regular folks, like me and my teammates on Pilgrims. We all participated in the Youth Soccer Revolution during the second Nixon administration. We all went wild over the North American Soccer League. This book also spotlights run-of-the-mill players and fans, who, come the 1990s, as adults, enabled the game’s success here by the sheer force of their ardent support: for U.S. national teams (men’s and women’s), for Major League Soccer, for the idea of America as a legitimate soccer nation.
I wanted the first blog piece here, in support this new book, to concentrate on the great unwashed masses of Generation Zero, because their stories and experiences are even more obscure and “hidden”, but in many ways no less important. We intrepid Pilgrims, for example, solidified our love for soccer by virtue of our many adventures on the road together between 1972 and 1982. However, on account of our exotic environs, the laxity of adult supervision, and (for some) the recent onset of puberty, we enjoyed a different caliber of escapade in England and Holland that summer of 1978.
What’s more, it was Over There that we first recognized and navigated what I have since dubbed the Development Sine Wave.
Our first full day in London, we trained in North London, at Bow Lane, under the watchful eye of Peter Shreeves, a Welshman who then served as reserves manager at the first division club, Tottenham Hotspur. Two nights later, my teammates Tom Wadlington and Lee Rhode ventured out into the Kensington night to have a look around. Walking back, they ran afoul of some local toughs who chased them back to The Ambassador, our fleabag hotel. They caught Lee on the steps, went for his wallet and whacked him over one shoulder with a billy club. “This North African guy in the hotel actually came running out and saved us,” Wad recalls. “He started doing this martial arts thing and they scattered!” Nonetheless, a parent/chaperone delivered Rhode “to hospital”, by taxi, where the National Health Service confirmed a broken clavicle. The good news: No charge for this expert and timely medical attention. The bad news: Lee Rhode, probably our best central midfielder, spent the rest of his trip on the sideline, his arm in a sling.
In addition to our session with Shreeves and Lee’s mishaps, Pilgrims played two matches in England — a win and a loss — before taking the boat-train to Hoek van Holland, from whence we traveled to Amsterdam for canal tours and the like. A group of us quickly slipped away and stumbled upon the city’s famed red-light district. For a single gilder, I saw my first X-rated film there, in a random sex shop where a half dozen mini-projectors were lined up against a wall like video games in an arcade. Before I could pop another gilder in the slot, our college-aged assistant coaches, Brian Crowley and John Sisk, walked through the door. They sure as hell were not looking for us, though they acted as though they had been.
Wisely, Pilgrim coach Vince Harackiewicz and our trip organizers, the American Cultural Exchange (ACE), hadn’t scheduled overnights in Amsterdam. Rather, our home base in The Netherlands was a small town outside Arnhem, a location that allowed for easy daily access to the Dutch National Training Center at Papendal. At first blush, Bemmel seemed the ideal place for us to train, hang out and spend some quiet, almost pastoral, authentically Dutch time between games and training sessions. However, it just so happened this tidy, sleepy village of 5,000 souls had been celebrating its 800th birthday all that Summer of 1978. Each evening Bemmel’s bars dispensed free beers to anyone who walked within 50 yards of their front gates. Several Pilgrims got hammered our first evening there, blew chow, and wrought havoc with the porcelain sink fixtures in their rooms. There were guys climbing out of windows and sneaking back in all week.
It wasn’t all mayhem: Back in Blighty, the team got dressed up and attended a West End play, “No Sex, Please, We’re British”. We hit the Tower of London, among other tourist spots. The remaining fixtures went well: A 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace Guards, followed by a 2-0 dispatch of Eaton Manor. We closed the campaign with a 3-1 victory over Garston Boys Athletic Club of Waterford. I remember little of these encounters. In fact, these match details come courtesy of one David Kostin, a Pilgrim of precocious journalistic ambition whose account of our trip appeared in the March 1979 edition of Soccer Corner, a magazine founded by unsung Seventies soccer impresario Mario Machado, who produced the English First Division highlight show Star Soccer starting in 1976, did a stint as commissioner of the second-tier American Soccer League, and appeared as newscaster Casey Wong in the original Robocop movies.
David Kostin was a first-rate outside midfielder in the Summer of ‘78: skilled, unselfish, fit, fast and clever. By the close of high school, however, he started but did not stand out among the same teammates. When I look back on Pilgrims and our many on-field experiences together, I’m most struck by these rises and falls, how each of our roles and relative skills fluctuated so wildly, like a Development Sine Wave played out over the course of years.
Peter Geddes, for example, ably embodied the role of absolute stud from ages nine to 13. Before leaving for England and Holland, however, he’d undergone a growth spurt, become somewhat gangly, slow and awkward, and didn’t even start for us. By the time we all arrived in high school, “Gates” had fully regained his thoroughbred standing.
I could detail for you a dozen different examples of this same dynamic. Eliot Putnam: a complete spaz in the fall of 1976, when he first joined our team. Two years later he started at sweeper and dominated there, through high school. By the time we all went off to college — his technical skills never having made the next leap — he was fast approaching ordinary… David Goganian, cut from U-10 tryouts, proved a marvelous, goal-scoring left wing by the time we were 12 year olds. He also held the all-important distinction as “fastest kid in town.” Two years later, in England, he’d grown hardly at all and proved unremarkable again. By the 9th grade, he’d left soccer altogether for the tennis team.
This phenomenon is surely familiar to the millions of men and women who latched onto soccer during the 1970s — who played any youth sport, at any point in time. And part of the puzzle, for boys, is surely when and how testosterone was introduced to an individual player. But that’s only part of the equation. One gathers a fuller sense of these individual career arcs when one plays alongside them over the course of many, many years. Soccer taught us these physio-sociological lessons, by turns humbling and heartening. Whatever you do, though, don’t pity David Kostin. Today he’s the chief U.S. equity strategist at Goldman Sachs.
Late one recent September night, I found myself in a hotel room partying alongside a dozen folks with whom I’d attended high school. When the cash bar closed at 11 p.m., the reunion crowd thinned out and moved upstairs to a pair of adjacent rooms someone had secured for the night. There I ran into Dana Golden, whose particular journey along the Sine Curve intersected meaningfully with my own.
When I first started playing soccer, I broke in as a goalkeeper, a pretty good one. I had size, an important attribute for nine-year-olds playing in full-sized goals. I had good hands and could safely whale the ball forward via punts and reliably air-born goal kicks. [As I later learned to appreciate, while coaching U-10 soccer myself, anything but an air-born goal kick is super dangerous — for the team taking the goal kick!] Alas, by the time we all turned 12, keepers were expected to starting diving and this proved beyond my capabilities. Soon Pilgrims brought in a kid who could dive, Darrell Briggs, and I spent the next year backing him up and subbing at outside fullback. In the spring of 1977, as 7th graders, Pilgrims more or less stayed together as the younger B or second team in the U-14 age group. The A team chose me as its back-up goalie, playing behind another kid who dove and kept goal even better than Diggs did: Dana Golden.
Dana resembled a bi-pedal rock: not particularly elastic, as many first-rate keepers are, but big, fearless and positionally sound. He would eventually become a top-drawer high school hockey goalie, as well. On the soccer field, he proved an able diver, with great hands. He was big and burly but had the smallest feet I ever saw on someone his size. Looking back, he reminds me of Bob Parr, the not-so subtly ursine dad from The Incredibles movies.
Most of that 1977 club season sucked. Dana never got hurt and I didn’t play much, in goal or out. Late in the season, we were killing some team from Dedham and our coach, a fellow named Al Nattachione, subbed me in at striker. This he did on a lark, perhaps out of pity. For this act I owe him a debt of gratitude: I scored in that game. Then I scored a couple times more — in games that mattered. That summer, our team traveled to the Montreal suburb of Mont St. Bruno for a huge U-14 tournament. I scored half a dozen times in 5 games and we lost in the final. When I rejoined Pilgrims the following Fall, out of nowhere the role of go-to striker had fallen to me. I held down that assignment the next summer, in England, and for every team I played on through my sophomore year in college.
“I didn’t realize that season playing for Mr. Nattachione was such a turning point for you,” Dana said to me, even later that reunion evening, a bit glassy-eyed and clutching a Bud Light.
“Neither did I,” I answered him. “Not until just now.”
It’s instructive to bear in mind that youthful promise at any particular stage is only rarely a reliable indicator of what’s to come. The Development Sine Curve giveth, then it taketh away. This fickle algorithm is further complicated by the fact that opportunity can often be presented or removed, more or less at random. My old teammate on Ajax, my very first club side, G.T. Wright, was a 10-year-old, world-beating striker when we met. Four years later, in Quebec together, he was quickly becoming an also-ran. Early in high school, he ruined a knee; his preternatural speed, the one thing that hadn’t fluctuated over time, left him forever. Blond and strapping, popular but always kind, G.T. was also resourceful: He turned himself into a capable high school goalkeeper, one good enough to start on our 1980 state championship side, where Dana Golden served as his backup. Thirty-four years later, on March 2, 2014, G.T. took his own life, a sobering fact of which Facebook reminds us each year on his birthday.