Commentary

Francisco Marcos: 'The impatient train left a long time ago'

Few people can offer a better appraisal of how far American soccer has come -- and how far it has yet to go -- than Francisco Marcos. By the same token, there are few people who can speak as well about both American sports and soccer, as it is played internationally, than the Portuguese-born Marcos.

Fifty years ago, Marcos graduated from Hartwick College. He aspired to get a master’s degree and work at the United Nations as a translator. But he was hit by the soccer bug at Hartwick, where he played soccer, and when the soccer team went on tour of Europe in the spring of his senior year in 1968, well ... Soon after he graduated, he started organizing soccer tours for Americans interested in traveling to Europe.

By then, he was already heavily involved in selling a sport that was just starting, tentatively, at the pro level. He did local radio and served as the away-games correspondent covering the Hartwick matches he played in for the Oneonta Star. While at Hartwick, he started his first league — the Empire State Soccer League — with teams across upstate New York. Oneonta United, which went on to compete in U.S. Open and Amateur Cups, was Marcos’ team, drawing, he says, “three dogs, a cat and half a dozen girlfriends" to watch the best Hartwick and Oneonta State players of the day.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hartwick was just starting to make a name for itself as a soccer power, attracting other players who like Marcos would spend their lives in soccer: Timo Liekoski, Terry Fisher and Alec Papadakis.

Marcos started Soccer Monthly magazine and got his first full-time job in the NASL in 1975, doing p.r. for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, who won the Soccer Bowl in their first season. Connections he made on his trips to Liverpool helped fill the roster of the 1973 NASL champion Philadelphia Atoms, coached by his mentor and Hartwick coach Al Miller. Players recruited from the Merseyside area would form a core of Hartwick's 1977 NCAA Division I championship team. Hartwick, which just announced plans to downgrade men's soccer to a Division III sport, is still the smallest school that has ever won an NCAA Division I title in any sport.

Marcos, the founder of the United Soccer Leagues, now lives most of the year in Portugal with his wife Beverly, and most weekends they can be found following Sporting Lisbon home and away. He was awarded the Werner Fricker Builder Award in 2007 and is a U.S. Soccer life member. As a life member, he had a vote in the recent presidential election in Orlando.



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Marcos had been to games in his native Portugal, but the experience of traveling around Europe in 1968 with Hartwick opened up an entirely new view of the Old World.

"We went 17 days, played 14 games, had first and second teams, so to speak," he says. "It was a fantastic experience. We went to Liverpool, Chelsea, the first games I ever saw in Europe outside Portugal. We went to Holland and played Ajax's reserves. One of the players on the other team was a skinny kid named Johan. We lost, 1-0. We went to Berlin, to Cologne, where the famous German coaching school began, and to Copenhagen. A whirlwind deal, and I got so enamored by the whole thing. It was my first trip back to Europe since I left Portugal at the age of 16 in 1961."

Within a week of graduation, Marcos organized a tour of young players from Washingtonville, New York, where a former Hartwick star, Tony Martelli, was coaching.

"I organized a tour of England, Spain and Portugal," he says. "Just retracing my steps on the Hartwick tour, adding Portugal and Spain because that made sense for me. I used a lot of the connections I made on the Hartwick tour. Things stuck in my mind. I started to take down names and telephone numbers and all that. And that's how I began American International Soccer Exchange, which I did for seven years.

"We did the same steps: keep it simple, stupid. I'd find connections in Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin, Amsterdam. I found representatives. I'd go to the hotel desk and find a fan and go from there. When I got to Barcelona and checked into the Hotel Oriente, I met the desk guy and told him why I was there, trying to find some games and watch. The guy says he's a Barcelona member and has some connections, so I signed him up as a rep. I'd pay that guy a dollar a day per person on the tour. I had six or seven guys like this. The guy in Barcelona does it for two or three years. In 2000, he was elected president of Barcelona: Joan Gaspart, my first rep in Barcelona. I couldn't believe it. You can't make this stuff up."

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Marcos' work took him to the NASL, where he worked for the Rowdies, making $12,000 a year in his first job, and then moved to the Dallas Tornado and Calgary Boomers, where he worked with Miller. With the Rowdies, he set up a partnership with Sao Paulo, which later led to the signing of Tatu. Marcos became Tatu's agent when the Brazilian played indoors in Dallas and that led to the formation of the Southwest Indoor Soccer League, which Marcos started. He had a team in Austin, the Sockadillos, coached by Portuguese great Tony Simoes and assisted by Wolfgang Suhnholz.

In the next decade, Marcos' league changed names five times, from the Southwest Indoor Soccer League to Southwest Independent Soccer League, Sunbelt Independent Soccer League, United States Interregional Soccer League, United States International Soccer League and United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues. In 1999, it finally became United Soccer Leagues. Hundreds of amateur and pro teams started in the USL, including four current MLS teams from Marcos' days as USL president.

Marcos says he had no ambitions of turning the USL into a Division 1 league, but it played a critical role in the launch of Major League Soccer. Its vote for incumbent Alan Rothenberg, who was working to get MLS off the ground, swung the 1994 U.S. Soccer presidential election.

"I suppose anyone can say they cast the decisive vote." says Marcos. "Alan Rothenberg won the election by a minimal difference [2 percent on the first ballot, 7.2 percent on the second ballot over Richard Groff] thanks to the 7 point-something percent the USL had vs. the APSL on the other side. Richard Groff would become the commissioner of the APSL, the A-League shortly after that. He was a friend. He became a closer friend later on.

"Alan Rothenberg headed the World Cup but there was no relationship there. But I believed the future of the pro game was MLS. It was not going to be the A-League with a new logo and new colors. It was not going to be League One America. Conceptually, it was quite strong, with shopping centers, but I didn't think Jim Paglia had the wherewithal to get all the connections.

"Richard begged -- I don't want to say that negatively -- that I give him half of my vote because he had calculated correctly -- he's very good with numbers -- that half of the vote would be enough to flip it and win. It was tough. There was an almost two-year interruption in our relationship. We didn't speak for two years. Sunil [Gulati] was a little bit in the same boat. Sunil was very close because of the national team [which Groff and Gulati worked on together]. I believe I did the right thing. I needed to be on the right side of history. And I believed it would get to the level it is at today."

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But Marcos is critical of U.S. Soccer for not filling the vacuum in terms of producing leaders -- coaches and administrators -- who will take the game to the next level. Just like players move abroad, Marcos says coaches should pack up and move abroad to learn from the inside at foreign clubs, not just spend a week or two as a guest or as part of a licensing course. In the same way, he adds, former players must be trained to be the next generation of leaders, like Bayern Munich did with Franz Beckenbauer, Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.

American isolationism.
"Coaches pick their buddies as assistants, former players that are not going to challenge them, that don't know as much as they do. It's like me not knowing computers going to pick as my chief technology officer someone who knows even less than me. I need for him to be my mentor, I need him to teach me. I can't be embarrassed by that. I think a lot of American coaches have that problem. They don't want to be shown up. They should welcome being shown up.

"American national team candidates at all levels should have to go elsewhere to do their sabbatical, do a master's, their junior year abroad, whatever we want to call it. They should go live in a different environment. If players are doing that, why shouldn't  coaches? If the players come back and they're listening to a coach who doesn't have any of that in their baggage or in terms of experience, they're going to say, 'You're all wet. You don't know what you're talking about.' That becomes a problem with the American isolationism. The federation should mandate that. And I know a lot of technical guys have resisted that concept. I'd make them go. The language is something that can be overcome. There are half a dozen countries in Europe, three or four in South America. We need to develop relationships with those federations and clubs, which these days should be a piece of cake for our federation and MLS to get people to agree."

Revolution needed of the entire process.
"We have to bring in ex-players and literally test them. Some of them have no clue and never will. Some are born organizers and leaders. The federation needs to set up a quasi-course, a political course, and put people on real committees, technical committees, marketing committees. In addition, they should work with state associations. This is something that has to happen so when they come [to the AGM] they are not associated as an ex-player, they are associated as vice president, say, of Cal South. They need to be thought of as working in the grassroots as opposed to on the Athlete Council, which comes here once a year, they've been in a couple of meetings, sometimes on the phone, that's all there is and it's easy to do. That's just not good enough.

"There has to be a revolution of the entire process to make people more accountable for what they do and who they support and what they do on these committees, and I think the federation needs to take a leadership role. Otherwise, we are going to continue to do things without really knowing much. I don't mean it as a criticism, but [presidential candidate] Michael Winograd was asked how many national team games he saw. You can't become the president of a country and hire the national team coach and say you've seen the national team once in the last year. He may know all about it, but I don't know he does and have no proof. I know I could become the president of the Portuguese national federation or the national team's manager tomorrow because I could speak about all the team needs to do. I see every single game. If I haven't seen all the away games, I have seen them on TV."

Soccer culture is not there yet.
"We are not yet there as a soccer culture. It isn't an automatic. The Italians [at the AGM] are all lined up watching Juventus-Fiorentina. I'm sitting in another place watching Portugal play Spain in futsal in Slovenia. I don't see too many other people do that. I don't want any medals for that. But that process -- we're still not there yet. The culturalization process is a long way from being achieved."


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Marcos also says it should be a given that a soccer person follows his or her local MLS club and not treat it as the enemy. In that regard, he says soccer should be closest to American college sports in how fans follow teams automatically.

"It has to be what you aspire to, playing-wise and what you want to root for every day," he says. "And never mind the Eagles or Packers. I don't want to see soccer people talking about how great it was the Eagles won their first championship since 1960. Who do you follow? I follow one team, everything else is secondary."

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Marcos has been waiting 50 years for that passion to take hold. The rub is, soccer has advanced farther than he ever imagined.

"I was asked 45 years ago where do I see soccer going," he says, "and I said that I just want soccer to grow up and be somebody. Well, we're so far past that point of being something we're saying we're the kings of the hill. I don't know about that. And we don't need to be the No. 1 preeminent sport in the country and we may never be. We just want to be one of the big boys and we're getting close. But I'm not impatient. The impatient train left a long time ago."

12 comments about "Francisco Marcos: 'The impatient train left a long time ago'".
  1. frank schoon, March 8, 2018 at 11:25 a.m.

    WOW. What a great read. I agree with everything Marcos says. Interesting, I played against him in '68. After Maryland beat soccer power, 5x time NCAA champs, StLouis 3-1, Hartwick tried to shut us down causing a low scoring win of 1-0 by MD.  Good luck to you Marco!!
    As I read this great interview by Kennedy, the first thing that came to my mind was why couldn't this guy have run for president. Compare this guy to Cordeiro who doesn't even know if a soccer ball is round or square, like Gulati. What Marco states, has so much meat and substance to it and than  compare this interview to that of Cordeiro or even the other candidates...what a joke. 
    He mentioned Mike Winograd who is a perfect example why our soccer is "stuck' for it allows people like him, more of the administrative kind who never kicked a ball to be involved to be involved.  This is why Johan Cruyff was against the licensing system of coaches for it allowed anyone with a license, who don't have much playing experience teaching kids technical aspects...Similar to Administrative types who never kicked a ball as result effect the game negatively.
    Marco has been involved in soccer at all levels, Notice his love, excitement, his drive, his ability, his insights, all of his expressions for the game just drips off his lips. A true soccer ANIMAL in every way. Than I compare Cordeiro to Marco ,I become pessimistic for American soccer improvements.
    I kept hoping, while I scroll back up  to find the person interviewd was named Cordeiro...but alas, NO SUCH LUCK!!
    I totally agree that American coaches under the auspices of the USSF should go to Europe for a year.  For example, pay Manchester City, to have a couple coaches to be as assistants to learn the real ropes by being with Guardiola, or some other great coach, like Conte, Morinho. It is here where we learn the real insights of the game not as some two-bit USSF Pro Coach course..
    THis is why we can't have an American coaching the MNT but a good European employing American as assistants to mentor them. 
    MLS coaches should hire as assistants good coaches from Europe for mentorships and not worry about their egos. I remember the  previous coach of Red Bulls Mike Petke when he had Henri as  a player, stated that talking to the Henri about soccer was like talking to a physicist, for he knew so much. It was an eye-opening experience for Petke for Henri knew so much more about the game than Petke ever learned from a USSF coaching school. 
    There definitely has to be a REVOLUTION in American soccer and I don't see this coming from the Cordeiros of this world....
    Again, Thank You Marco for such a good read....


  2. Right Winger replied, March 8, 2018 at 2:01 p.m.

    Ditto!!!!!!!  A great read.  I wonder if anyone in US Soccer will be able to understand it.

  3. beautiful game replied, March 8, 2018 at 2:40 p.m.

    It's the American soccer culture that needs total resucitation.

  4. Wooden Ships replied, March 8, 2018 at 6:15 p.m.

    Frank, you were the first guy I thought of after reading this. Francisco addressed so much of what some of us here have shared. I shared some work and ideas with him during the SISL years. Very impressive leader and as you noted, passionate. He did a diplomatic tip toe, regarding USSF’s arrogance. Too many don’t want to hear what he and some others have said. Soccer has been very political for as long as I’ve played, 60’s-forward. Unfathomable, how thin skinned and soft our soccer playing culture has become. But, we sure have a ton of foux soccer people. Not their fault I guess.  Try good article SA. Thanks.

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, March 8, 2018 at 6:28 p.m.

    When I read this, I immediately thought of Frank too. 

    I am optimistic. I don't expect USSF to be innovative. I look to the professional clubs for progress. As long as there is profit in developing players, there is hope.  

  6. frank schoon replied, March 8, 2018 at 8:41 p.m.

    Bob, I suppose your right, innovative  changes will come from the professional side and not from the USSF , which has always been the case. Ships , what fond memories of the past you had for I'm sure you have met interesting people in your years of soccer, such a small world....six degrees of separation......

  7. Kevin Geisler, March 8, 2018 at 11:36 a.m.

    This is the best written, best edited piece of journalism I've seen from Soccer America or any other soccer news source apart from the BBC for some time. While I don't agree with the feasibility of everything Marcos has to say, it is intelligently expressed.

    More stuff like this, please!!!

  8. beautiful game replied, March 8, 2018 at 5:12 p.m.

    Kevin G.; whenever their is a will, "feasibility" becomes a probability with energy and due time. Example; as a high school referee in Bergen County, NJ, I made it a point to listen to team coaches instruct their players before the start of the game and half-time. I would estimate that over a 7-year period of time, there were about 50 different coaches (boys/girls teams) in this "spy" effort.  I would say, that there were only a handful of coaches that possessed tactical knowledge and were able to communicate with the players in a "keep it simple" fashion. The majority of coaches were wannabe coaches/teachers. It all starts at the bottom of the barrel where the soccer culture becomes tainted.

  9. R2 Dad, March 8, 2018 at 11:49 a.m.

    Great interview--this guy is a wonderful fan of the game in every aspect. Unfortunately, even though he has been a big suporter of MLS, USSF can ignore his wisdom because administrators know better.

  10. beautiful game, March 8, 2018 at 2:37 p.m.

    Terrific article and spot on about the USSF. It mirror's how FIFA administers to the current game with lots of talk and no walk.

  11. John Soares, March 9, 2018 at 6:32 a.m.

    We DO have knowledgeable people.
    Unfortunately, the right people are not listening!!!

  12. Wooden Ships replied, March 9, 2018 at 5:59 p.m.

    Yes, we have knowledgeable people and have had, but they’ve been excluded-dismissed. It really has been about style of play choices, unfortunately those that have maintained control all these years have not had the ability-talent-acumen to play the more technical side of the game. We are reaping what’s been sown since the 60’s. John, the leadership at USSF doesn’t and hasn’t wanted to listen. Not questioning their commitment, their just the wrong people. If anyone, I mean anyone, can dispute intelligibly what Francisco stated, any rebuttal, I’d love to hear it.

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