Thomas Dooley: No answer yet to the age-old question

U.S. veteran Thomas Dooley ponders if the time is right for a move to America

On the one hand, the outlook of Thomas Dooley regarding age is not unlike that expressed two decades ago by German international goalkeeper Sepp Maier.

Asked if the years were slowing him down, Maier -- West Germany's starting keeper on the 1974 world championship squad -- replied that he was like a fine wine; he just got better with age.

Dooley may not be getting better with each passing year, yet he's still an invaluable member of the U.S. team. Head coach Steve Sampson's dilemma is when will he break down, and who can take his place?

His age -- he'll be 36 this summer -- came up again during the recent phase of World Cup qualifiers. He's had no shortage of injuries the past few years, and he's less and less likely to dominate a match as he did often when he first joined the U.S. team in 1992.

Every once in a while, though, he turns in a blinder. Against Trinidad & Tobago Nov. 10 in Richmond, Va., he scored the first U.S. goal on a header after being denied by a brilliant save, and repeatedly snuffed out T&T attacks.

Named as the game's MVP, Dooley had some pithy comments about the age-old question of age.

"Soccer has nothing to do with age," he said. "You're good or you're not good. The same is with speed. You don't have to be very [fast] if you play with a sweeper.

"You have to read the soccer. So many people are very fast but they can't kick the ball. It's easy to say `he's 35-years-old.' But how can it be you are MVP and 35-years-old if you're not good enough?"

But on the other hand, Dooley knows his playing days cannot last forever. So as he plays indoor games with his club team and works himself into shape for the second half of the Bundesliga season, he is nearing a crossroads.

His contract with FC Schalke terminates this June. It's unlikely he can garner a Bundesliga offer that can pay him anything close to the approximately $400,000 (counting salary and bonuses) he earns annually at Schalke. His age and his obligations to the U.S. team would mitigate any top team from acquiring him.

He does have numerous inquiries from teams in the Second and Third Divisions. Such a team would pay him handsomely and he'd be the unquestioned star, spearheading its quest to move up a division. He'd also get the hell kicked out of him, a tasty target for the clumsier denizens who infest the lower divisions.

Coming to America

His other alternative, of course, is Major League Soccer. Dooley says he's willing to take the MLS maximum salary (be it the current $175,000 or the proposed $192,500), but Gulati is reluctant to add a hefty signing bonus and Dooley is reticent about moving to America without one.

Yet America is where he wants to be, sooner or later. His agent, Michael Becker, has also proposed a long-term, playing-coaching deal in which he's paid a player's salary as long as he plays, then makes an appropriate amount when he moves into coaching.

"I know I would like to play in MLS and be a coach in the future," says Dooley. "It's still my business to play soccer and to make money, and that's why I have to look at what's the best thing for my family and myself in the next two or three years."

Although his father was American and he bought a Corvette as soon as he could afford one, Dooley had lived his entire life in Germany prior to his first U.S. appearance against Ireland in May, 1992. By the end of that year, he'd established himself as a dominant force in the U.S. midfield, and had signed a deal with U.S. Soccer to stay with the national team until after the 1994 World Cup.

That necessitated a move to Southern California, which sharply disrupted the life he'd known in Germany. But California soon entranced the Dooleys, who enjoyed the lifestyle, the weather, and the people.

"The first couple of months in America, it was very hard," he says. "My wife [Elke] was homesick, my son [Marke] would like to go home immediately because school was very tough for him.

"But now, she has told me after I'm finished playing in Germany, we're looking for a nice home in California. Marke is 16, and he can't wait to leave Germany. He's changed a lot. He was happy when he came back [to Germany], but now he knows how good it was."

Injured in the 10th minute

The 1996-97 season started roughly for Dooley. He reported for summer training less than two weeks after the final game of U.S. Cup '96, a 2-2 tie with Mexico in the Rose Bowl June 16.

Hoping for a longer rest period, he told his coaches of the U.S. team's schedule and cross-country trip. They agreed his schedule had been heavy, but since he'd reported, they asked him to train anyway and to accompany the team to East Germany for a pair of weekend games.

"He told me, `Do you want to play for 45 minutes?'", said Dooley. "Well, what do you say, 'No, I don't want to play?' I didn't want to make the trip -- 600 miles -- for nothing. After 10 minutes, I tore my ligament. The rest of the team had another week off, and I was working on the gym machines for four to six hours a day."

Dooley missed the first month of the Bundesliga season, and got his first start in the first game for new head coach Juub Stevens, who had replaced Joerg Berger.

A week later, he played the full 90 minutes in a 1-0 UEFA Cup win over the Turkish club Trabzonspor, and a few days later came off the bench to score in a 2-0 victory over Hamburg.

He's always had a penchant for scoring, as befits someone who played forward as a youth and went to bed each night as a youngster staring at a full-size cutout of former Schalke and West German striker Klaus Fischer.

"Yes, that was my team, and because I was a forward I had his picture in my room," says Dooley, who has scored seven goals in 62 U.S. appearances. "I played for Homburg, because that's where I grew up, and I played for Kaiserslautern, where we won the championship and the [German] Cup.

"Leverkusen was the team for money, and now I play for my favorite team when I was young."

Like several U.S. players, he's been working nearly constantly when not coming back from injuries. "That's why I think my body needs a break," he says.

But taking a break not only requires a break in the seemingly endless procession of preseason training, league games, domestic cup games, European games, and U.S. games -- it also costs a player money.

Schalke has reached the quarterfinals of the UEFA Cup (to face Spanish club Valencia) and the club pays well for European success. For the first three rounds of the competition, bonuses were scaled at 30,000/40,000/50,000 deutschemark per round.

That translates to $12,000/$16,000/$20,000 per player. For Bundesliga games, bonuses are scaled both by the quality of the opposition and the result. Beating a top-five team is worth $5,000, and a win over a mid-table team returns about $3,500.

"You get a game bonus if you walk onto the field," he says. "If you play 45 minutes, you get money. If you win, you get money. If you don't play, you don't get playing money, you don't get bonus money. That's why you don't want to take a break."

For comparison, playing a friendly for the U.S. pays $1,500, and a World Cup qualifier is worth $3,000. "It's less money, but it's more important to me," says Dooley.

"To play against Mexico or Argentina, to me is more important than Valencia or Bayern Munich. I've played against Bayern Munich 20 times."

Finding a spot

With another heavy qualifying schedule starting in March, Dooley will not be called for U.S. Cup nor the two-game swing to China. Dooley may have decided his future by the time the U.S. opens the final qualifying round in Jamaica March 2, but he and Gulati may wait until the summer.

Sampson must also make some decisions regarding the oldest U.S. player. Dooley did not play any of the qualifying games in which the U.S. used a 4-4-2 formation. Instead of a flat back four, Sampson deployed a central defender just behind or just in front of the other three defenders.

Last summer at the U.S. Cup, Dooley swept in the 3-5-2 during the first U.S. game against Ireland, then shifted to midfield when Sampson changed to a 4-4-2 for games with Bolivia and Mexico.

More pressing is the need to replace Dooley should he suffer another injury. Jeff Agoos is the first choice to slide into Dooley's spot, but then there is no proven replacement for Agoos at left back.

In Germany, Dooley sometimes plays sweeper, but more often is a marking back or in midfield. Injuries, tactics, and Schalke's shaky performances often require him to switch roles during a game.

"Sometimes we play with four in midfield, sometimes with five," he says. "Against [Bayer] Leverkusen, I first played man-marker, than dropped off into midfield. Against Dusseldorf, I play in midfield. When we were leading 2-1, they brought in a new forward player, so then I marked a forward."

Dooley played in midfield for former U.S. head coach Bora Milutinovic. His disdain for Milutinovic's sessions of two hours or more is well-documented.

"We train more like a team in Germany or Europe," he says of Sampson's approach. "One hour, one-and-a-half, sharp, short. Let's go, boom-boom-boom. Like in a game.

"Bora liked to play one side, then the other side, get the ball to the sweeper, left side, right side, switch, long balls, then we go forward.

"Steve's system is more direct, looking to go forward. Get the ball, look what's going on in front, boom, play here, play there. Not every time long balls, but pass forward."

Dooley believes MLS has been both a boon and a curse to the U.S. team. "After the World Cup, we had a lot of players in professional leagues," he says. "Now, we have MLS. Some players came back and I don't know if it's good for them to play in MLS or stay overseas at a higher level.

"For players like Eddie Pope and Frankie Hejduk, it's very good to be in the league. With the younger players we have now, the level is a little higher than before the World Cup with Bora."

And America, whether or not he plays in MLS, is where he wants to be in the near future.

"I would like to buy a home in Southern California where we lived for one year," he says. "That's the area where we have some friends, the weather's beautiful, the area's nice, there's a lot to do. I'm definitely coming back and live a couple of years."

by Soccer America Senior Editor Ridge Mahoney.

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

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