Jeff Agoos: 1996 was the Year of the Goose

U.S. defender Jeff Agoos takes two D.C. United titles and national team security into the new year.

Jeff Agoos' younger brother, Brad, has a simple explanation for Jeff's rise in the soccer world.

"He owes it all to me," Brad says, with a chuckle. "I got hurt and being the good brother that he is, he went to the store with my Mom to buy band-aids for me. At the store, they saw a sign for tryouts for a select U-12 team. Up to that point, we had just been playing recreational soccer and the sport wasn't something we knew a whole about."

Jeff tried out and made it. From then on, soccer became an integral part of life for the Agoos family. Both sons would star in Dallas club soccer scene and move on to the University of Virginia, where Jeff won one national title and Brad won three.

Father Andy coached Jeff's first recreational team.

"I had smudged that part of the registration form that asked whether I was willing to volunteer," Andy said. "Then I got a call from the league from someone who said if I didn't coach the team it would disband. That's probably the ruse used all the time to get coaches."

Andy -- a former running back and track star -- started reading soccer books and taking coaching courses. Eventually, he became the chairman of coaches for North Texas Youth Soccer Association and wife Betsy the manager of the state U-19 team -- a Soccer Mom before the term was bandied around in presidential debates.

Jeff's decision to tryout for the U-12 select team revealed what would be his modus operandi for years to come: Take aim at a goal and then work like mad to achieve it. It's taken him far.

1996 saw Jeff Agoos, now 28, win the MLS title and the U.S. Open Cup with D.C. United. 'The Goose," as teammates call him, is a key part of the U.S. qualifying campaign for the 1998 World Cup and wore the captain's band against El Salvador in the final game of 1996.

The banner year of 1996 came two years after a trying 1994. Agoos was one of the final cuts from the 1994 World Cup team. With the MLS launch delayed, he went to Germany to play and landed with one of the worst teams in the Third Division, SV Wehen. Most of the teammates had 9-to-5 jobs, and players washed their own uniforms.

"Some of the teams we played, like Unterhaching, were real professional," Agoos said. "They had a great stadium and thousands of fans. We got maybe 200 or 300 fans. And they came out and booed! Only 200 fans and we're getting booed."

But it kept Agoos fit, and Bora Milutinovic, who had cut Agoos before the World Cup, called him in for all the post-World Cup games.

When Steve Sampson took over the team, he threw some more tests at Agoos. He left him off the Copa America team, after telling him he needed to work on his attacking skills. When he brought Agoos back, for the Parmalat Cup, Agoos proved he was the best player for a spot on the left flank, whether in midfield, or at outside back.

A sweeper since he was a boy and through his UVa career, and a central defender with the champion D.C. United, Agoos also offers Sampson a viable option to fill holes in a central defense that struggled during the first round of qualifiers. Since Eddie Pope has established himself with the U.S., Sampson also has the opportunity of using the two D.C. United defenders as a tandem.

Goalkeeper? No thank you

Jeff Agoos arrived on the national scene early. He learned that the path was through the Olympic Development Program teams and in his early teens learned of the district tryouts. He went to one in his own district, and to play it safe, also attended a neighboring district's trials.

His district was stocked with talent, and he didn't make it. But he was selected at the second tryout and that led him to the U-16 national team, for which he started as it won the CONCACAF championship in Trinidad. That should have taken him to the first U-16 World Cup. But because FIFA delayed the tournament, the U.S. sent the next generation of players to the tournament in China in 1985, though the Agoos team deserves credit for having qualified it.

Agoos was deeply disappointed, but he had already learned how to deal with setbacks.

"One of my first soccer memories was playing for the recreational team my father coached, the Golden Bears," Agoos said. "I really wanted to be the goalkeeper and begged my Dad to let me play that position. So I was in goal for three quarters -- we played quarters in that league -- and I didn't get the ball at all. I was bored.

"During the break before the last quarter, I stormed off the field and insisted I play midfield or forward. I told him to switch me. He put me back in goal. Later he told me he had been planning to move me into attack, but I made such a mess of things that he changed his mind."

Andy doesn't recall the incident. But Jeff remembers it as a valuable lesson. When things don't go the way you want, work, don't talk, to change it.

Arena enters the picture

Before graduating from high school, Jeff Agoos represented the U.S. at the 1985 Maccabiah Games -- a kind of quadrennial Jewish Olympics -- in Israel. Only 17, he was the youngest player on the team and roomed with then-Virginia assistant coach Dave Sarachan. But Agoos seemed headed for Duke, which had developed a pipeline of talent from Dallas.

"I had five or six friends at Duke," Agoos said. "I had a good visit to the Virginia campus, but a great visit to Duke."

Agoos had planned on going to Duke but a practical matter intervened: the lure of Virginia's renowned business school. During winter break of his senior year, he called coach UVa coach Bruce Arena.

"I told him, 'If Virginia will have me, I would like to go," Agoos said. "And Bruce said something that I'll always remember. He said, 'You've made my Christmas.'"

Agoos arrived late in Charlottesville -- after preseason and the first game --
because he was with the U.S. U-20 team in Trinidad.

"At the first team meeting I attended," Agoos said, "Bruce told the team that I was going to be the starting sweeper. He told them, 'I have a lot of confidence in him and so should you.' I hadn't kicked a ball in college play at that point."

Agoos was all-America each year -- he took 1987 off to play in the U-20 World Cup -- and in 1989 helped lead the Cavaliers to a shared national title with Santa Clara.

"You know how critical I can be about players," said Arena, now Agoos' boss at D.C. United. "I'm not as inclined to give accolades like other coaches. But I'm not reserved when it comes to Jeff. He's an outstanding player.

"He leaves it all on the field. He's a smart player. He obviously has a great left foot. He's certainly composed on the ball and is a great passer. He's a defender, but with the ball resembles a quality midfielder.

"He's certainly not the fastest player. But because he's smart and anticipates well, and his first step is very quick, he's not slow. I question the criticism that he's slow."

Clothes go with World Cup '94 dream

While Arena has long sworn by Agoos, Milutinovic's heart was harder to win. Going into 1994, Agoos had represented the U.S. 31 times. In the famous 2-0 win over England in 1993, Agoos' cross had found Tab Ramos, who set up Tom Dooley for the first goal. Though he had managed to keep a spot when foreign-based players arrived for U.S. Cup '93, things soured at the start of 1994.

He had started against Germany in the last game of 1993 -- his second start against the defending world champion -- but a decline began on a February trip to Hong Kong.

Before playing Romania, Milutinovic was angered when he found Agoos riding a stationary bike in a training room. Agoos' attempt to loosen up was interpreted an other way by the coach.

"He didn't approve," Agoos said. "He didn't like us exerting any energy on game day."

Agoos was benched and saw infrequent action as the roster deadline approached.

"I played well against Moldova on a Sunday," Agoos recalled. "On Monday, we ran on the beach, and afterward Brian Quinn got cut. I was glad I survived another day. Tuesday, Bora tells us we're going to the beach again. Afterward, I'm almost at my car and [assistant coach] Timo Liekoski calls me and says Bora needs to talk.

"Bora says, 'I can't use you. We're going into a different direction.' I asked him what he meant by that and he just kept on with some coaching talk.

"Here I'd been, every day, giving blood, sweet and tears and all that, and my World Cup is gone. I had sand in my shoes, sand in my clothes. I went in the shower and thought and thought, and then I burned my clothes in the fireplace.

"But I promised myself, I'm not going to let one person dictate whether I fail or succeed. I would keep working to play in a World Cup, which I had dreamed about since I was a kid."

Even as a teen-ager, Agoos scrupulously planned his life. He carried a diary with him, to keep note of his chores.

"At Virginia," Andy Agoos said, "If he had a paper due next Friday, he finish it this Friday. He's so driven and he plans everything out."

Brad says, "Jeff is like my father, their both ruthlessly practical. That works out well for me, because I'm ruthlessly impractical."

Agoos' climb back to the top started in the A-League and in the Bush Leagues of Germany. Once again, he settled with a less than optimal stage for his skills.

After missing the 1995 U.S. Cup with an injury and being left off the Copa America squad, he again found himself without a league. So he joined the U.S. Olympic team camp and worked out with them for 10 weeks.

"With the MLS start delayed, Jeff had nowhere to go," Sampson said. "What really impressed me is that he came into the Olympic training camp on his own time, with no pay."

Agoos worked on the attacking skills that Sampson had demanded of him. After the MLS Cup win, World Cup qualifying started and Agoos proved himself indispensable to the U.S. The only game he missed -- due to a yellow-card suspension -- was the only game the U.S. lost, 2-1 to Costa Rica.

"At certain moments in his professional career he's taken a step backward," Arena said, "but he's always responded with two steps forward."

by Soccer America Senior Editor Mike Woitalla

(Note: this story originally appeared in the Jan. 27, 1997 issue of SA.)

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