[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.”


There is nothing quite like playing soccer for cash money. No one got rich, and winning was always its own sweet reward — but victory and a C-note is that much sweeter. What’s more, the ethnic leagues operated on a highly practical, fully incentivized pay structure: If you wanted to guarantee payment for a particular match appearance, you had to win.

A fellow named Gus administered Greek Sportsmen, the LASA club I played for in the late Eighties. Never in the course of three years did I get his last name, but he was definitely Greek, through and through. He managed the team, ran practices, and presided over food and drink back at the club, located on Highland Avenue in Somerville, Massachusetts, an urban community of some 100,000 located adjacent to Cambridge and across the Charles River from Boston.

But Gus was not the club money man. That fellow was a somewhat mysterious figure named Niko, who showed up at most every game but always watched from a safe remove. If there were bleachers, he sat apart from the crowd. At less formal venues, we could see him leaning against his gold late-model Mercedes sedan, always off by himself. If we happened to win the match, Niko would waltz onto the field, slap backs, pinch cheeks and distribute crisp $50 bills — $100s if the victim happened to be rivals Hellenica or Italica. If we lost, Niko was gone before the final whistle. One time we surrendered a golden goal to lose a Cup tie — to some Irish team across the Charles, in Brighton — and Niko chased the referee and linesmen to their cars while showering them with all manner of Greek and English invective.

The Brooklyn Italians operated at a higher level. They were, in many ways, the Cosmos of ethnic soccer. Their players were paid regularly, win, lose or draw, according to Windischmann. But Greek Sportsmen and most semi-pro ethnic clubs from this primordial era worked on less formal understandings: win, and in all likelihood you get paid; lose, and you could pretty much forget about any money.

“Most of the time you got paid win or lose, but there were times when you lost and didn’t get anything, only a meal back at the club, which, in college, we thought that was pretty great too,” says Brian Bliss, who first partook of the ethnic scene while attending Division II power Southern Connecticut State in Bridgeport. “During my junior and senior years, we’d get on the train in New Haven and truck it down to Mt. Vernon, just north of the city, and play games in the Cosmopolitan League. Some times we’d practice twice a week, then we’d take the train down on the weekends to play the games.

“But yeah, as a kid, you win a game, you walk out of there with 150 bucks in your pocket — you thought you were a king! I’m sure the NCAA doesn’t want to hear that, but that’s the way it was. Guys that I knew, when I was a freshman and sophomore, the seniors — Sammy Joseph and Ronnie Becile — these guys were making big bucks at the time, $400-500 a game, if they won. That was unheard of money at the time.”

Bliss makes an important point: When NASL folded, several members of Generation Zero didn’t resort to the ethnic leagues. They simply continued to play there, as they’d been doing throughout their college careers.


The Brothers Phillips patrol the manicured fields of Greater Boston’s Industrial League.

When I graduated from college in May 1986, I was frankly burned out on playing the game, having not missed a Spring/club or Fall/school season since I was 8. For the first time in 14 years, I went on hiatus, looked for a newspaper job, landed one, and that August reveled in the fact that I’d never endure another double-session again. Ever. Less than a year later, my younger brother Matthew coaxed me out of retirement and onto his team in Boston’s so-called Industrial League, which was organized on the softball model — basically a bunch of company teams composed of soccer-playing employees and ringers.

I was a ringer on a team sponsored by Shawmut Bank. Matthew was there doing some telemarketing after he’d crashed out of UMass Amherst. (As he cannily explained at the time, “I felt like I needed some time off; my parents felt I needed some time off; UMass felt I needed some time off…”). The level of play in the Industrial League wasn’t half bad, and it was a blast playing stopper in front of my nineteen-year-old brother at sweeper. Though we had grown up together, three years apart, we’d never really played soccer together. It was casual and great fun.

Fate extended me another competitive olive branch in the Fall of 1987, on some field over near Fresh Pond, in Cambridge. I don’t remember anything about the match itself but the ref — a gangly dude of what I took to be Arab extraction — approached me afterward. “Who do you play for?” These Shawmut guys, I told him. “You are too good for this league. You should come play for my brother’s club.” And what club would that be? “Greek Sportsmen, of Somerville.”

Hell, I lived in Somerville at the time, with three roommates on the first floor of a vinyl-sided Victorian on Medford Street. I was 23 and reasonably fit. I had also been a classical Greek history major at Wesleyan. I could even look pretty damned Greek — if I didn’t shave for three days. So I did as everyone else of a certain skill level did at the time: I reversed the Seventies trend, took my suburban soccer pedigree to the city, and entered the surreal world of semi-professional, ethnic-league soccer.

My first practice with the Greeks took place under the lights at a field in Cambridgeport, between Prospect Street and Western Avenue, kitty corner from Greater Boston’s finest reggae club, The Western Front. So I knew where to park.

Greek Sportsmen, as it turned out, were quite good — the most technically skilled side I’d ever played with, but not entirely out of my league. I availed myself well that first night and eventually settled in at right back and, on occasion, sweeper in the diamond back-four then in vogue. I can’t say the Greeks ever really accepted me into their bosom, but they saw I could play a bit. I was big, quite good in the air, and unconcerned with my physical well being. What’s more, because I was willing to pass the ball and toil in the back — where the team’s half-dozen showboats and divas had no interest in playing — they considered me useful, like a custodial figure. After my third or fourth practice, in Arlington, across Route 2 from Alewife Station, a few of the boys even invited me back to Davis Square, to the Greek Sportsmen Club itself.

At that tender age, I had not been inside a lot of these hyphenated (insert ethnic group here)-American clubs, but the Greek Sportsmen Club of Somerville was fabulously typical, or so I would learn after many years of subsequent experience. Windowless, a single story and sided with dark-gray vinyl clapboard, the edifice sat inconspicuously and sign-less on Highland Avenue, just east of Davis Square. Inside, the club was basically a big box, no frills, with a small bar, satellite TV, a few tables, and cafeteria-style chairs where plump, aging Greek-American men sat smoking cigarette after cigarette while gesticulating wildly. “If Greece qualifies for the next World Cup,” I thought to myself, noting the satellite dish, “this is the place to watch the games.”

Back then, of course, American futbol junkies had to think strategically about how and where to watch live soccer. Alas, Greece did not qualify for Italia ’90 (they would in ’94), and I’d return to the club only a few times more. A year later, after we beat Hellenica of Roslindale for the unofficial Greek City Championship, we were hailed there as conquering heroes. One tipsy, middle-aged character in particular took a shine to me that night. He bought me several Budweisers, two shots of ouzo, and seemed genuinely intrigued by my presence there. “Are you Greek?” he finally asked me, after a period of polite banter. “No. But I was an ancient Greek history major at college.” He seemed to appreciate this and ordered us another round of Buds.

Greek Sportsmen played twice a week, all over Eastern Mass. from April through September. There were playoffs, but the season was divided into so many sections and competitions that few of the players knew exactly what was happening half the time. The schedule was akin to the Apertura and Clausura tournaments crowning first- and second-half champions in the Argentinian or Mexican leagues — except that we appeared to have three or four competitions going at any one time, plus Cup matches. Pretty damned dizzying.

Not everyone on the team was Greek. Nuno, a central defender who often played that ball-winning role atop the diamond, fit that description. As did Thanos, a pretty good striker in the classic English no. 9 mold. But the keeper, the ref’s brother, was Middle Eastern — Lebanese, I soon learned— and the two best players were Argentinian brothers of Italian descent, Paolo and Tony. Paolo was older, maybe 30. Tony was a spectacular attacking midfielder of enormous technical skill who played almost entirely with his left foot. When he deigned to attend our matches — never a sure thing for such a mercurial fellow — he was invariably the finest player on the pitch.

America’s supposed to be a footballing melting pot, and while this influence has run the gamut from Italian to Iberian to South and Central American, somehow the British and German models invariably prevailed here, especially in the suburbs where I learned the game. Alas, the lily-white cultural dynamic in Wellesley or Needham, even the more Latin alchemies on hand in Kearny, New Jersey or Cerritos, California, while it produced players of national caliber, simply didn’t produce anyone like Tony.

As Osiander implied, American futbol operated back then on a northern European model that stressed teamwork over individual expression, work rate over style, stretching defenses over beating the man in front of you. Sadly, over time these imperatives and traits take one’s game only so far.

I’m obliged to report, however, that Tony didn’t always make Greek Sportsmen a better, more competitive unit. He didn’t always show up, to begin with. If the mood struck him, he could pout and lash out at those of us who didn’t meet his high technical standards. He didn’t necessarily want people making runs for him. He preferred to play the ball short, in tight spaces. “Stay close to me!” he’d yell at us. Many refer to the give-and-go as a “wall pass.” In Tony’s view, teammates of lower skill levels were mere walls.

He also had a temper. One Saturday afternoon in Medford, against Italica, Tony picked up a first-half yellow for dissent. After halftime he cynically dropped some guy who had dared dispossess him of the ball. Soon enough the ref, a short African fellow who never said a word, drew up alongside Tony, who went into abject apology mode, clasping hands together as in prayer and frantically pleading his case. When the red card was inevitably produced, Tony turned away — only to turn back and slap the referee across the face. The man in black was stunned. We were all stunned. The ref picked up the ball and walked off the field to his car — game over. Greek Sportsmen were obliged to forfeit that match, and later that month we heard vague rumors of fines. I never saw Tony again.


Four times, starting in 1921, soccer impresarios have attempted to sell professional futbol to U.S. sporting consumers using the name “American Soccer League”. The first ASL launched in 1921 and lasted 12 seasons. The final iteration formed in 2014 and expired in 2017, having failed to achieve viable third-division status, below MLS and the second-division United Soccer League.

In between, another American Soccer League would take shape, in 1934, and existed in various loose, regional, semi-professional forms through 1983. At times, during the 1950s for example, the league clearly existed atop the U.S. soccer pyramid. Many of the urban/ethnic clubs we’ve discussed participated in this version of the ASL, in some way, shape or form. Come the NASL era, the league clearly served a minor league/Triple-A function. Through the decades, however, the old ASL delivered some of the great team names in soccer history: Lusitania Recreation, Brooklyn Hispano, Uhrik Truckers, Pennsylvania Stoners and St. Louis Frogs.

In the Spring of 1988, precisely as U.S. Soccer had promised it would, during negotiations with FIFA to land World Cup ’94, the American Soccer League re-launched yet again. The newly branded “A League” was restricted to the eastern United States and Boston was bestowed the honor of a franchise. The Bolts played where the Minutemen had played, where Wellesley High School had claimed the 1980 state title, where Pelé had faced off with Eusébio that unforgettable night in 1975 — good ol’ Nickerson Field.

The response on the ground amongst my teammates on Greek Sportsmen was muted to the point of non-existence. This is somewhat surprising, in retrospect. LASA League clubs were rife with talented players who might reasonably have seen the Bolts as an opportunity to “play up”, to participate in a more organized, lucrative setting. Nonetheless, there was no such talk — nor any interaction between LASA and the A League. The Bolts never entertained our club nor any LASA sides there at Boston University, or anywhere else, in any context.

“That’s because they’d get beat,” says Bliss, who played for the Bolts after spending his first A League campaign with the vaunted Albany Capitals. “I played one year with the Capitals, and the next year I went to Boston to play, because I had spent some time after college working some camps up there and it was just easier for me to be there in Boston — so I went to play with the Bolts and Sid Mazzola.

“But if you went into the Greek league in NYC, the Cosmopolitan Super League in southern Connecticut and New York City, and obviously the LASA league in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, you would find a better squad of 11 guys than a lot of the A League teams were putting together — because of the experience. A lot of guys [in the ethnic leagues] were foreigners who were still playing, had played previously in Europe or South America. They were a little more savvy about their games. That’s where I learned to play, to be honest. Cosmopolitan in the Fall and the New York Greek league in the Spring.”

No one got rich playing semi-pro, ethnic-league soccer in America. Not Harry Keough in the 1950s, not Lothar Osiander, the man who replaced him, Bob Gansler, or Federation president Werner Fricker during the 1960s. Not Bliss, Windischmann, Vermes — nor myself — during the 1980s.

On either side of The NASL Era, however, these ethnic leagues served up the best club soccer the U.S. and Canada had to offer. Thus, they are critical to our story. The late-Eighties A League wasn’t just substandard from a technical, quality-of-play standpoint. It was damned late in coming. It took shape only after NASL had been gone four long years — exactly the period when Generation Zero graduated college and was attempting to professionalize itself.

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of urban/ethnic clubs to the evolution of American soccer during the mid 1980s.

As a bonus, we suburbanites also learned how to cuss in multiple languages.

The LASA League was strongly Portuguese in its make-up, but there were multiple ethnicities represented from side to side. Because I spent most of my LASA time (1988-91) with Greek Sportsmen of Somerville, I can report that the playfully derisive comment of choice among these particular sportsmen was “malaka”, meaning masturbator — though it’s useful to translate it more colloquially as wanker, especially here in the footballing context. The term was nearly always playful (“you fuckin’ malaka”), offered and received with a smile.

“Skata” means shit, and often the fluent Greek-speakers mixed it with English, as in “Fuck this skata, man.” On the field, one made himself clear enough with these staples. If one wanted to stir things up, “Gama stavros sou!” took things up a notch — or two. According to Sportsmen manager Gus, whom I consulted on the matter, this phrase meant, I fuck your cross, thereby combining both obscenity and blasphemy. There was also a derivative that spoke poorly of someone’s mother — not that I well understood nor dared utter this epithet, in any form. Despite my knowledge of the Syracuse Expedition and my vaguely Mediterranean complexion, I was the team’s token suburbanite. No way could some fuckin’ white-bread malaka dish out gama stavros sou and make it stick.