By Paul Gardner
I'm trying to retrieve my memories of past McGuire Cups. Sometime in the 1970s (I think) I saw a final -- inevitably it featured a team from St. Louis -- probably two teams from St. Louis. I think it was Imo’s Pizza that won it.
The only recollection I have is of a relentless workmanlike team, made up of very stocky-looking, all-white athletes. That was St. Louis soccer in those days. I’d already seen quite a lot of it before at the college level, when it was usual for St. Louis University, or maybe Southern Illinois, to sweep up the Division I title.
St. Louis University was coached by Harry Keough -- the same guy who’d played for the USA in that famous 1950 World Cup victory over England -- and I don’t think I’ve ever met a nicer guy in soccer. Which made it difficult to go to him and criticize his team’s players.
So I cleverly disguised the criticism. I pointed out that his players had small numbers on their shirts, that there was also a diagonal line running through them, and this made it almost impossible to identify his players. We joked about it, and soon -- probably the following year -- Harry gleefully pointed out to me that the numbers were bigger. Fine -- then I owned up that the reason I needed the numbers so urgently was because I was having trouble telling his players apart. They all seemed to me to look the same, to be built the same, and to play the same. Harry demurred, of course.
But that was how I saw St. Louis soccer. Obviously, my criticisms didn’t cut much ice. Why would they when St. Louis clubs were winning everything in sight, including 13 out of the 16 McGuire Cups played between 1960 and 1975?
Things changed in 1976. A club from Annandale, Virginia took the crown. St. Louis was losing its monopoly grip on youth soccer, a new wave of youth soccer clubs, generated by the NASL, was entering the picture. Annandale took the trophy again in 1982, and in 1986 it was the turn of California’s Fram-Culver, which I still think of as the best McGuire Cup team.
I saw the next two finals, ‘87 and ‘88, both won by New Jersey’s Union Lancers, coached by Manny Schellscheidt. The point being that the soccer was now much more stylistically varied -- and, for my tastes, much more enjoyable.
All of that is much in my mind at the moment. I watched the most recent McGuire Cup final over the past weekend -- FC Delco Hammerheads vs. Columbus Crew Academy -- and could hardly believe my eyes. Yes, I might just as well have been watching any of those 1970s St Louis teams. Big, all-white, athletic guys playing fast, aggressive physical soccer.
Over thirty years separates my memory of St. Louis soccer in the 1970s and last week’s game -- but my feeling is that the St. Louis teams were better. Marginally.
OK. The McGuire Cup is not what it used to be -- it no longer features the best teams, who reserve their efforts for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy championship. Even so -- these were two established, highly coached, teams. And where was the soccer?
Nowhere. It is pointless to single out any players -- indeed, that is a major part of the problem, because this was soccer without personalities ... back to the days when I was bewildered by the St. Louis look-alikes and play-alikes, complaining about not being able to read the St. Louis numbers.
I have no doubt that every Delco player and every Crew player did his best. But the fact that their best has not moved forward from where we were 35 years ago is not encouraging.
I assume that these are all college players. Certainly this bore the indelible stamp of a college game, and not a particularly good one. To put it another way, this was typical of the white, middle-class suburban soccer that has become the staple feeder line for college soccer. Unimaginative, frantic, monotonous in its banality and its inability to show even a flash or two of something different, something other than honest running and hard work and scrappy battles to gain possession of the ball.
I will name a player. Not from this game, but a player from the past. He was on the Union Lancers team in 1988. Richie Williams, now an assistant coach at the New York Red Bulls. Coach Schellscheidt told me back then: “If people ask what does a good soccer player look like, I say ‘Look at him.’” And looking at Richie you would have seen a player of a mere 5-foot-3 and 135 pounds. Richie doesn’t look much different even now, apart from the graying hair. But there was no sign of a Richie Williams in this year’s McGuire Cup final, no sign of a smaller player who could, indeed would have to, rely on something other than sheer strength.
If I believe the constant MLS publicity about how important the college draft is, then MLS should be very worried. But I’m not that inclined to believe all the MLS hype about the draft because they surely have to know it’s approaching a farce. Sadly, this McGuire Cup final in no way represented, even came close to representing, the soccer talent that we have in this country. A game with only one goal, that on a set piece. A game with, in the first half, just two shots on goal.
And I wonder just how the coaches, Delco’s Alan Mezger and Columbus’ Brian Bliss -- to say nothing of their players -- can possibly be satisfied with such a no-frills, barren version of the world’s No. 1 sport.