[See here an excerpt from Chapter 5 of “Generation Zero: Founders, Framers and Two Chaotic Decades that Forged a Soccer Nation,“ a manuscript now in the final-editing stage. It’s scheduled for publication in late 2021.]
At left: Mike Windischmann, U.S. Men’s National Team central defender and team captain from 1988 forward. Windy led by example. Here he can be seen rocking the ultimate in period coiffure, the mullet: “business in front, party in the back.”
5. The Primordial Soup (1986-88)
“Our team is too homogenous,” Lothar Osiander told the Associated Press in the run-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics. “They’re all the same age, all college students, all middle class. They all go to good schools, read the same books, like the same music, probably chase the same type of women. Everything’s equal. It’s flat as a pancake.”
Osiander served as coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) from 1986-89. His charge of rampant homogeneity within his new roster of players was both spot-on and richly ironic. For these were precisely the suburban kids to whom organized soccer had been intentionally delivered, in the early 1970s, by ethnic immigrants like Osiander himself, like Ray Copeland in Wellesley and Reuben Mendoza in Granite City, Illinois. Like the fathers of John Harkes, Peter Vermes, John Stollmeyer and Marcelo Balboa in the suburban hotbeds of North Jersey, South Jersey, Northern Virginia and Southern California.
These still-hyphenated Americans had moved to those suburbs after initial stints in the country’s big cities. There they had helped establish ethnic enclaves where the outdoor game thrived but never went mainstream — not until the Seventies.
By 1986, professional but league-less (and largely clueless about their abilities to play abroad), Generation Zero was obliged to reverse this process — to go back into those cities to play their club soccer, to play somewhere competitively worthwhile when not engaged with Osiander’s USMNT program.
And honestly, what better way to take the edge off that white-bread veneer than an extended run in the ethnic leagues, which, in the absence of the North American Soccer League (NASL), were now home to the best outdoor soccer being contested north of the Rio Grande?
“After NASL folded, that was the best option,” says Mike Windischmann, who would captain the U.S. team at the Italian World Cup in 1990. “My dream had been to play in NASL, but when I got out of college, it had folded. Perfect timing, right? I played one season indoors but I consciously tried to stay outdoors and that’s what led me to the Brooklyn Italians, where I got to play with [Adrianik] Eskandarian and Hubert Birkenmeier, a lot of really good players. How can you go wrong playing with guys like that?”
The Italians, twice U.S. Open Cup champions during this period, illustrate just how competitive, professional and technically advanced New York’s Cosmopolitan League could be. Eskandarian (father of Alecko, who played in MLS and made a single appearance for the USMNT) and Birkenmeier were both former Cosmos, after all — in their 30s, but not completely over the hill.
For Osiander’s crew, there was money to be made with these ethnic clubs. There was fitness to be maintained and on-field savvy to be gained. Most of these organizations maintained regular practice schedules and reserve squads — full teams of players who aren’t quite good enough or old enough to appear for the first team, but remain under contract or otherwise affiliated with the club. Every Major League Soccer club fields a reserve side; today they all compete in the third-tier USL Pro league. It’s telling that NASL clubs never invested in such things, but reserve sides have been de rigeur at European clubs since the 1950s.
Even today, with three tiers of U.S. pro soccer fully operational above it, the Cosmopolitan League’s top two divisions still require maintenance of full reserve squads.
Commonly known as The Cosmo (and not to be confused with the NASL’s most famous club, the N.Y. Cosmos), the Cosmopolitan League was formed in 1923 as the German American Football Association. Along with the SFSL and other elite city circuits, GAFA represented the top tier of U.S. soccer for many decades prior to 1967, notwithstanding serial-but-invariably-fleeting incarnations of the American Soccer League. The formation of NASL naturally put a serious crimp in the GAFA, SFSL and their like, draining them of talent and attention. In 1977, GAFA changed its name to the Cosmopolitan Soccer League, to better represent its multi-ethnic makeup — and perhaps to cleverly play on the New York Cosmos’ popularity, then at its peak.
When NASL gave up the ghost in 1984, the Cosmopolitan League returned to its place atop the American soccer pyramid — where it would stay, for all intents and purposes, until the launch of MLS in 1996.
Walter Bahr and Harry Keough spent their entire club careers in the ethnic leagues. To their eyes, 35 years after the Miracle in Belo Horizonte, all too little had changed. It must be said, however, that in the mid-Eighties, when U.S. soccer needed them most, these ethnic leagues, these largely urban clubs with their aging stars took Windischmann and the entirety of GenZero under their capable wings.
“There were just a ton of talented guys on Brooklyn Italians — former Cosmos, guys from Colombia and all over the world. They were great players,” Windischmann recalls. “I think the entire time I played for the Italians, we may have lost twice. Just incredible players. Later on they had Tab Ramos. Harkes played there. That was some quality soccer. I was learning stuff all the time.”
When the American Soccer League re-emerged again, in 1988, options for young players of quality were naturally increased. But the bottom line did not change all that much. There is wide agreement that the class of soccer remained quite a bit higher in the Cosmo, in the SFSL, in the Luso-American Soccer Association (LASA) in Eastern Massachusetts, and other ethnic leagues across the country. The new “A League” and these various ethnic circuits were all similarly semi-professional, but while A League players generally ran to the bank to cash checks of dubious backing, this was never an issue for members of the Brooklyn Italians, or LASA outfits like mine, Greek Sportsmen of Somerville.
“It was all cash,” Windischmann reports. “Those guys who ran the club, I’m sure they were betting on games, too.”