Jan Osborne on Werner Fricker and Sunil Gulati, national teams in 1980s and '90s and barnstorming Project-40 team

Jan Osborne, currently a consultant to MLS, became the U.S. Soccer National Teams Administrator in the late 1980s, when players were paid a $5 per diem, the USA was aiming to qualify for the men’s World Cup for the first time in 40 years, and having a woman in such a position was unprecedented in the soccer world.

Osborne also served as general manager of the MLS Project-40 team for three seasons in which a team of young MLS players -- including the likes of Kyle Beckerman, Josh Wolff and Dema Kovalenko – competed in the USISL A-League, playing a 28-game schedule of road games.

As MLS consultant, she has organized more than 20 player combines, beginning with the first MLS combine in 1996, which was comprised of more than 250 players and served as scouting opportunity for the 10 MLS teams, who drafted 160 of them for the inaugural 1996 season. Osborne also has served as a Player and Team Consultant for MLS Cups and MLS All-Star Games.

The #MeToo movement has brought to the forefront to a disturbing degree how hostile the work environment can be for women. Has it caused you to reflect on your career, which you started in very male-dominated conditions?

JAN OSBORNE: Yes, very much so. In a couple of ways. I have total compassion for women who have faced work-place harassment, and in fact I am no stranger to it either. I know men have behaved badly in some cases.

But it also made me want to share my voice on the men who supported a female in a very male-dominated sport at a time when there were no women in soccer – especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

How did you get your start with U.S. Soccer?

My father was the state chairman for the United States Olympic Committee for the state of Montana. And my sister, Mary, was a 1980 Olympian in the javelin. I went to Colorado Springs in the fall of 1986 and just fell in love with the Olympic Training Center, where U.S. Soccer was based at the time.

I had no background in soccer. It didn't exist in Montana when I was a child. But I was hired originally to do data entry, and I quickly became the meeting planner.

To give you an idea of what salaries in soccer were at the time, I was paid $11,000 [annually] and all of us worked 60 hours a week.

The first big meeting I did was the 1987 U.S. Soccer Annual General Meeting and I was doing everything from the hotel contract to soliciting exhibitors, and got to know a lot of good people.

And then U.S. Soccer president Werner Fricker named you National Teams Administrator …

Which was an unreal opportunity. I don't think that any woman had held that type of role with men's national teams in the past. Werner's job description was I was in charge of everything off the field, and the coach was in charge of everything on the field. And he liked that I didn't know anything about soccer. He thought that was actually a plus, because he didn't want any administrators telling coaches what to do.

During that time, I worked with many good coaches who never made me feel unwelcome as a female. Lothar Osiander, Bob Gansler, Glenn "Mooch" Myernick, Roy Rees, John Ellinger and Tom Fitzgerald ... I was really, really fortunate that they treated me with respect and I felt that I had a unique opportunity to be working with those men.

What did the job entail?

I was in charge the administration of all of the teams and that position grew greatly over the years. Initially, the national team and Olympic team were one in the same, and then they split. We had the men's national team, the U-23s, we had the U-20s, we had the U-17s. We just started funding the women's team. If I saved a little bit of money from this camp or that camp, we'd have enough money for the U-20 women's camp, and if we were lucky, for one foreign tour.

I hired team administrators and we paid people to go on the road, and eventually we had a staff. In the years between 1988 and 1995, when I left U.S. Soccer, somewhere in there I became the Director of National Teams, and we had a fairly large staff supporting all of these different teams.

You traveled often abroad with the national teams. Did you get any odd reactions because you were a woman?

I was thrown out of the locker room area at the 1990 World Cup because the Italian security thought my credential was fraudulent.

Before the 1995 Pan American Games in Argentina, John Martin, the team administrator, and I went down in advance checking out venues for the team to stay. We met with the mayor. He would ask a question, and I would answer, and he would look at John Martin. He would not accept my answer. And then John would repeat what I would say. And then the mayor would listen to him.

This went on for about an hour during this lunch, and finally he just looked at me and said, "In Argentina, there are no women in futbol." ... I had a few of those types of experience.

I also had several occasions when people I were surprised I was a woman when we eventually met. They thought they had been dealing when a man named “Yan.”

Do you have a sense of what it has been like generally for women involved in American soccer?

That's a tough question. First of all, there weren't a lot of women, so it’s hard to know. Secondly, I can only speak to my experience, which I consider unique.

I had two champions who made sure my career was fostered and cared for and supported. And that was Werner Fricker and Sunil Gulati. I can't speak to other women's experiences. I can't imagine that anyone could have had the tremendous support I had. It was just an amazing gift to be in the situation where I had those two gentlemen’s support.

Jan Osborne with Werner Fricker in 1996. Fricker, who served U.S. Soccer in various roles, including president, beginning in 1975, died in 2001 at age 65.

Fricker was U.S. Soccer President from 1984 to 1990, a tenure that saw the USA qualify for the World Cup for the first time in four decades and win the bid to host the 1994 World Cup. …

One of the things Werner was constantly doing -- he was always putting me into opportunities where I could grow, where I could experience things that were above my pay grade.

Being with the national team in Italy for the 1990 World Cup -- what an amazing opportunity it was. Even though the losses were painful, I was absolutely aware of how special that experience was.

After the team lost and we all flew home, Werner asked me to help with some parties and meetings because we were going to host the World Cup in 1994.

When we were doing the Federation’s 75th anniversary dinner, we invited all these dignitaries. We had a private dinner at his restaurant, called the Homestead (in Horsham, Pennsylvania). He had politicians, including Henry Kissinger, and here I am, a very low-level employee. And I'm seated at the table. Because that's the way Werner worked. He wanted to have me in that environment to learn and to grow. And he was always doing that type of thing. And I really appreciated that.

And your experiences with Sunil Gulati?

It goes back to when I was with U.S. Soccer and he was on the International Games Committee, and so I worked with him quite a bit on the scheduling of men's national team, youth national teams, women's teams. And while he wasn't an employee, he was the person I worked with the most. And I remember after Alan Rothenberg was elected U.S. Soccer President [in 1990, replacing Fricker] and Sunil had initially resigned.

And every time they asked a question in any department about this, that or the other thing, the answer was always, "Well, Sunil did that."

Sunil was a very important part of the organization. He was asked to come back very quickly.

Gulati is not running for reelection as U.S. Soccer President [a position he’s held since 2006]. How do feel about the criticism he’s faced recently?

Soccer as I know it in the past 31 years doesn't even exist without Sunil. I'm not into the politics at all. I'm just talking about everything he did from starting out as being on the International Games Committee and all the work there, and all the work to bid to host the 1994 World Cup, and all the work hosting, and all the work with the national teams, and then as president. I mean, I don't agree with him on every decision, but U.S. soccer since I've been involved doesn't exist without Sunil.

How much work did you do on the women’s national team side?

A lot early on. I was the Director of National Teams at the time -- this is before Pam Perkins -- and we had a much smaller staff. I was involved at the time when Michelle Akers was around. Just when it was starting. I had to work on all the budgets and I would try and find as much money as I could for the women's side. It was never equal but we did try.

What we were doing -- not that it was enough -- what U.S. Soccer was doing for the women's game was way ahead of most countries.

How did you end up working with MLS?

I left U.S. Soccer in 1995 for professional and personal reasons and went home to Montana. And that Thanksgiving Day. Sunil [MLS Deputy Commissioner] called me at my parents’ house and he said, "Hey, we're going to start a professional league. Can you put on a combine?" I said, I'll need a little more information than that.

He said, "It's like a national team training camp meets the annual general meeting. Can you do that?" OK, sure.

We put on that original combine and he did talk to me about a position in L.A.'s MLS office, but that wasn't what I needed to do personally at that time, so I stayed in Montana.

It wasn't too long after that when I got a call from Sunil saying, “I finally have a team you can be the general manager of from Montana.” And that was Project 40. Again, an incredible opportunity. And gratitude for that phone call and Sunil having faith in me.

The inaugural Project 40 team: Front row (L-R): Eric Quill, Jose Botello, Barry Swift, Joe DiGiamarino. Standing: Brian Dunseth, Ubusuku Abukusumo, Juan Sastoque, Carlos Parra.

Project-40 was created in 1997, to give young players an entry into MLS and, while they’re trying to break through, provide them with playing experience by fielding a team in the USISL A-League (in the 1998, 1999, 2000 seasons) …

I'm not a soccer person but I do think Project 40 was valuable. It put young players in a tough environment because the A-League guys were always trying to prove they were better. It was all away games, which taught them how to travel and be on the road.

We had guys like Tim Howard, DaMarcus Beasley, Carlos Bocanegra, Nick Rimando, Dema Kovalenko. Kyle Beckerman played quite a few games and so did Josh Wolff. I do think it was good and all those away games was a unique experience for them.

So you had to coordinate players from the various MLS teams to convene for the weekend’s A-League game?

I was living on a ranch in Montana, so I would drive from the ranch to Helena. Fly from Helena to Billings. Get on a plane to Denver, to go to wherever our weekend games were. Come back from the weekend and start all over with a new roster.

So, I basically had Monday and Tuesday to go to the 10 teams and ask, who's not going to play in the MLS game this weekend? Who will you release -- and get them booked to travel that weekend for our A-League games. And arrange hotels.

We actually made it into the playoffs in 1999.

[Editor’s note: Tim Hankinson, Alfonso Mondelo, Lothar Osiander and Glenn “Mooch” Myernick had stints as Project-40 team’s coach.]

You kept working in MLS after Project-40 stopped fielding a team …

After Project 40 ended, MLS kept me as a consultant and I'm very appreciative of all the opportunities I've had to working their events from combines, to MLS Cups, to All-Star Games. I've interacted with amazing talent. Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry, David Beckham, David Villa … Currently I do the combine and the All-Star Game, managing the player and team logistics for the All-Star Team.

What is like working with the players?

The players are great. Something like an All-Star Game, it’s an incredible amount of work and the schedule for the players is really, really heavy -- and as soon as the guys arrive, it's just great. They are wonderful.

All positive experiences. They certainly never behaved poorly toward me. ...

Yes, some of the Project 40 guys were pretty unhappy because they wanted to be with their MLS clubs playing. They didn't like being sent down to Project 40. But it was never personal. … And I was very hard on them.

For example?

Little things. We're in one town going to the next town. We're getting off the bus I noticed a player has a pillow. I asked, Where did you get that pillow? And he says, "From the hotel." I said, you stole it! He says, "I'm going to leave it at this hotel." Wait a minute, that was a Marriott, this is a Days Inn. How is that Marriott going to get its pillow back? And I made him ship the pillow back.

And guys would intentionally get cards to go home and I would make them stay. I was trying to make them professionals.

Jan Osborne with her mother Irene, field side in Bermuda in 1994 before a U.S. 'B' national team game.

While traveling with the national team, did you ever encounter any tense experiences?

1989. Trinidad, November 19, you know the date. Sunil, Art Walls and I are in the stands in the family section. And, of course, after we won I was trying to get down to the locker room. And there was a moat you had to go through. There were so many people and I got crushed against the wall. And a Trinidadian military guy came and basically saved me. I was getting crushed. …

There have been many accounts of the challenges of playing in Concacaf on the road, especially from the early years ...

One of things I found interesting is that in this country we try and have these really pristine fields. And back in the late 1980s, the fields that we were going to were not in good condition. So I always wondered, shouldn't we be training on poor quality fields to replicate the conditions?

We were with the U-20s in Jamaica training before the game and it was basically just a park. And there was broken glass and things like that. And there where these little kids watching. They had come out from like a tent community. And these little kids had knives stuck in their underpants.

And they were looking at our guys in their bright red, white and blue during this training session after getting off the plane. And the kids were just staring at them.

The kids -- they were little kids -- were sort of trying to do the warmups to imitate the players. I told them I'd take them jogging around the field if they took the knives out of their pants and put them on the grass. ... They followed us back to the hotel and were looking through the gates. The hotel had gates because I guess it was a dicey part of town.

I went in and got the pins and the badges for the gift exchange before the game with the other team. I gave them to those kids. So, I didn't have them for the Jamaica team. It was a totally bad decision, but I had this mental picture of these little kids in these tents with U.S. Soccer pins on their tent walls.

You may have come into the game without a soccer background, but now that you’ve witnessed the evolution of American soccer over three decades, how would you rate the progress?

It's amazing. Everything from the fact that team that went to Italy were college players who got a $5 per diem -- and now players can make a living. The facilities are amazing. In every way.

Yes, it's a huge disappointment that we're not going to the World Cup. It breaks your heart, but it doesn't mean that we haven't had accomplished a great deal.

Anything else you’d like to add?

In my role at MLS, I’m the lead of what is called the “Player Administration Team.” My team consists of myself, Diane Johnson, Josh Miller and Steve Foulke. I would like to give my team a shout out.

6 comments about "Jan Osborne on Werner Fricker and Sunil Gulati, national teams in 1980s and '90s and barnstorming Project-40 team".
  1. Rob Lepley, December 22, 2017 at 9:31 a.m.

    This a great article, thanks for writing it. It gives a great perspective of where soccer has come from in this country. I think too many of newer fans don't have the perspective of where we came from.

  2. Ginger Peeler, December 22, 2017 at 7:18 p.m.

    Why isn’t she running for U.S, Soccer President?

  3. Roger Faulkner replied, December 23, 2017 at 9 a.m.

    Terrific article. Jan is an absolute jewel and has long deserved this recognition.

  4. Wooden Ships replied, December 23, 2017 at 3:26 p.m.

    Good to see you back Ginger.

  5. Ric Fonseca, December 27, 2017 at 10:16 p.m.

    With all respect to Ms. Osborne, I really do not remember her since I was with the WCUSA'94. Where or what venue did she call home, or was it NYC, or even Chicago?

  6. Ric Fonseca, December 27, 2017 at 10:20 p.m.

    Actually, my stay with the WC group, started during the USSF AGM when Alan Rothenberg was elected, and I was WC USA Volunteer Nr. 2 in the Century City Headquarters. Before and during those years I was with the old CYSA-S, first as a local club team coach, and then as District Commissioner.

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