Clive Charles: A Blessing in Disguise

Once upon a time, Clive Charles was an up-and-coming defender with World Cup dreams. When those faded away, he found his true calling in the Pacific Northwest

Things didn't turn out as Clive Charles expected them to, certainly not as he'd planned, but blessings often are disguised as something else.

When the native Londoner first arrived on this continent 30 years ago, for an offseason stint in the North American Soccer League, he was a young pro with a little international experience and big plans. He was going to be England's left back, play in a World Cup or two, star for West Ham United.

It didn't work out that way, perhaps for the better. Had Charles' dreams come true, he would not be where he is, in Portland. It's hard to imagine him anywhere else.

He's been an Oregonian for more than two decades now, since arriving to play for the Portland Timbers during the NASL's golden age. His imprint on soccer along the Willamette River - indeed, across the United States - is broad and deep.

Charles, 49, has created a college powerhouse at University of Portland, developed scores of young players at FC Portland and played a significant role in seasoning the likes of Kasey Keller and Tiffeny Milbrett, Shannon MacMillan and Steve Cherundolo.

And he's served his adopted homeland well, contributing to the women's glory as U.S. U-20 coach in the mid-'90s, assisting Steve Sampson in the successes prior to and failure during the '98 World Cup, and, of course, sticking to his guns amid criticism and guiding the U-23 men to fourth place at the Sydney Olympics.

'CONQUER THE WORLD.' It wasn't what he was looking for back when.

"At that time," he says, meaning 1971, when at 19 he joined the Montreal Olympique on loan from West Ham, "I wanted to conquer the world in Europe. I didn't think I'd come back to the United States."

He'd arrived at West Ham a year after England's 1966 World Cup triumph and impressed on the youth team's back line. That led to a role with England's U-19 team, and the loan to Montreal was meant to aid in his preparation for First Division soccer.

It proved far more important.

"It's where I met my wife [Clarena] ... that first season," Charles reports. "She was a stewardess [from Montreal, and after I returned to West Ham, she had] flights backward and forward to England. I went back [to Montreal for the 1972 season], and we decided to get engaged. She came over [to Britain] the following season, and that was it."

The NASL was strictly minor-league then, just eight teams and with none of the big-name stars it would feast upon in coming years. Montreal was the worst team in the league in '71, allowing 59 goals in a 4-15-5 campaign, but Charles was a second-team All-NASL selection - and again in '72, when he played just half of his team's 14 games. Graeme Souness, now Blackburn Rovers' coach, was a teammate that second season.

Playing for West Ham was wonderful - it was the team Charles had cheered on while growing up the youngest of nine Charles children in London's East End. An older brother, John, also played at West Ham.

Charles was an apprentice at first, training in the morning and cleaning the first-teamers' boots and gear, the locker room and the bathroom in the afternoon. West Ham was filled with stars: Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Jimmy Greaves.

"Bobby Moore was everybody's hero, even of the established players on the team," Charles said a few years ago. "I learned a lot from Moore. I learned from the simplicity he played with. I saw how he always took time to help the youngest players. Here's one of the best players in the world looking after other people."

Charles never was able to find a permanent spot in West Ham's lineup. He didn't make his first-team debut until 1973, getting the call while Frank Lampard was off making his England debut, and played just 14 games for West Ham before departing in 1975 for Cardiff City. He played three seasons for the Bluebirds, serving as captain, but decided to give the NASL another try when Bristol Rovers coach Don Megson took charge in Portland for the '78 season.

It was to be among the most important decisions he'd ever make.

COMING TO AMERICA. "Don called and asked me if I want to come to America," Charles said. "Willie Anderson had been at Cardiff, and he'd signed for Portland [in 1977], and he told me how great it was. All these guys were coming back, saying how great it was. At that time a lot of people wanted to come to the States."

Charles, then 27, joined the exodus in part because of how his career in England had gone. He'd enjoyed three productive seasons in Wales, but Cardiff City wasn't a First Division team. His aspirations of international soccer had disappeared.

"I think everyone is always disappointed [when their careers don't go as far as hoped]," Charles said. "I wasn't going to play for England, whereas when I was 18 I played for the England youth team and I thought one day I would play in the World Cup team. That never panned out for me."

He and Clarena, who by then had a son and daughter, fell in love with Portland right away.

"I was thinking in terms of signing a contract for [one] season," Charles said, "but after the first year, it was very clear to us this was where we wanted to settle."

They - like many of the British Timbers who remained in the area - were captivated by the natural beauty of the area, by the friendliness of the people and by the standard of life.

"We moved into a nice apartment, and if I'd tried to live in that apartment in London, it would have cost twice as much," he said. "You could do more with the dollar, go out to eat more, and places were still open at 7 o'clock at night. There was a lot of stuff going on among the players and fans - barbecues on Sundays - and summer in Oregon is beautiful. We could go to the lakes and mountains, a lot of things not accessible in London."

The NASL was a far different league than it had been six years earlier. There were 24 teams, big crowds and big stars.

"When I played in Montreal, there were more players either over the hill or very young," Charles said. "When I came over in '78, it was a whole other level."

END OF THE ROAD. Charles spent four years with the Timbers, starting 59 of 65 games his first two seasons. Injuries deprived him of playing time after that, and he switched to indoor soccer after the '81 season. The Timbers folded in 1982, the NASL was gone after the '84 campaign, and Charles retired in 1983, following his third MISL season.

"My hamstrings were shot," he said. "I was trying to play three games a week, and it was a young man's game. I was done."

And that's where Charles' story really begins. He began coaching at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Ore., started FC Portland and soon took charge at University of Portland. He's won 371 games in 15 years as the Pilots' men's head coach and 12 years with the women's team, reached the NCAA final four six times (men in '88 and '95, women in '94-96 and '98) and is gunning for another Soccer Cup with his 10th-ranked women's team this fall.

It's not where he thought he'd be, but he has no complaints.

"I enjoy the kids, enjoy coming to work every day," he said. "This isn't work to me."

by Soccer America senior editor Scott French

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