Jim Trecker on American soccer's remarkable rise in popularity

Jim Trecker, recipient of the National Soccer Hall of Fame's 2017 Colin Jose Media Award, headed media relations for the 1994 World Cup and has worked in soccer since late 1960s, including a stint with the star-studded New York Cosmos after time with the New York Jets during the Joe Namath era. Trecker is helping with the reopening of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, in Frisco, Texas, which in October will coincide with the celebration of the NASL 50th anniversary.

Jim Trecker on …

Joe Namath
I won’t say that the image was entirely wrong, but what isn’t always known is that he was a wonderfully cooperative and gentle guy. For every story about Bachelors III and Broadway Joe, there could have been dozens of others about how he stood on very aching knees after practice for as long it took to sign autographs; dozens of stories about how he made sure he knew the staff members’ families and always had a good word.

Something very special. I have to say that in the 1970s he was in a stratosphere of international fame that was occupied only by Muhammad Ali and, perhaps, Frank Sinatra. (A hint as to how long I’ve been around!) He created a maelstrom of public emotion everywhere he went, yet he remained a quiet, smiling, humble man at all times. We met at least once a week in his office to go over the list of interview and autograph requests; he always, always did as many as he possibly could, never putting down any preconditions or displaying any attitudes. Just a level-headed man who understood that he was “Pele” but who also knew what that required.

Johan Cruyff
“That is impossible.” Johan would blurt that out frequently when confronted with something he didn’t like. He was a keenly intelligent, perceptive guy, supremely self-confident. I think his career as a player, manager, executive pretty much display his ability to get things right. Some days it took longer to get to “yes”!

Franz Beckenbauer
About the kindest, gentlest man I came across in my career. He had no airs whatsoever. During the frantic Cosmos championship season, he quietly stood in line in the corridor outside the Cosmos Rockefeller Center ticket office to buy playoff tickets until our ticket manager saw him and basically dragged him inside. He would never ask for anything special just because he was Franz.

Joao Havelange
Politics or controversy aside, Havelange was a very supportive leader to many of us who were new to the world’s stage in the '70s and onward. I remember well his coming to the 1976 Bicentennial Cup and wanting to make sure that he could help us all have a success; he wasn’t there to swan as FIFA President, but more as a person willing to lend his name quietly to exciting goings-on in the USA. When I was on the FIFA Media Committee, he couldn’t have been more supportive when other members from longer-standing soccer nations would express skepticism.

SOCCER AMERICA: How did you first get involved in soccer? Was there a connection between you and your brother Jerry [the first Colin Jose Award recipient, in 2004] having an affinity for the sport? Was it a soccer family from a young age?

JIM TRECKER: Soccer was always part of the family life. We went to ISL [International Soccer League] games, and internationals at Randall's Island frequently. I had a fascination with the international aspect of the game, and I was always yearning to travel to all these countries where big games were played. That ultimately turned out to be a reality, but I think it was the romance, the idea of travel, the idea of different cultures that drew me into the game.

I grew up in Connecticut, where scholastic soccer was an important part of high school life. I learned nearly immediately that I had no on-field talent, but I began to write about it and follow it. My brother, Jerry, was a journalist following soccer for the Hartford Courant, and we shared the same interest. Short-wave radio was the way to stay informed in a timely manner back in the '50s and '60s, and never a day went by without the whistling, whining sound of the BBC carefully reading the scores.

The New York Skyliners -- was that your first media communications soccer job? What were the New York Skyliners and did you succeed in getting them media coverage?

I guess you would say the Skyliners job was my first soccer job, but I had spent three years working in the Columbia University sports information department while going to college. For a kid, I was already pretty seasoned to the profession. Columbia had a decent football team, especially the quarterback Marty Domres, and good basketball at that time (Dave Newmark, Jim McMillian), and I was part of the group that did the publicity for the athletic department.

That opened lots of doors to the New York City media. As for the Skyliners, I think we achieved as much as could be expected for 1967. The team was known in New York, the league had some visibility (along with the NPSL), and I made more media contacts that were to remain for my entire career. We certainly didn’t have dozens and dozens of journalists coming to games, but we were able to get coverage in the Times, the Herald Tribune, and the other NYC dailies of the era. Soccer had been prominent in the early '60s with the ISL matches, and the NPSL and USA really put down the sport’s roots deeper in 1967.

How'd you end up working for the Cosmos?

I’d like to say it was all part of a career plan, but for from it! I was with the New York Jets, and our training facility at Hofstra University was adjacent to the Cosmos’ practice field. I must say it was quite enticing to have Joe Namath on one side of the parking lot and Pele on the other, and if I said I stole a glimpse or two, it wouldn’t be wrong!

One day we arranged to have Joe and Pele pose for a joint photograph, but that was the only contact I ever had with anyone at the soccer team in 1975 until entirely out of the blue I was contacted and asked if I’d meet with Clive Toye. I did, and to the bewilderment of some of my NFL colleagues, I gambled and went into soccer. I say gambled because the NASL wasn’t yet the legendary league that it ultimately became, and who really knew where the game was going here? Turned out to be a good bet.

How much of your job in the early years was educating media about the game of soccer? Any examples of what you had to explain to reporters?

Much of the job was education. Except for a tiny group of soccer-savvy journalists there wasn’t much knowledge of the game. The entire concept of clubs, country, European Cup, FA Cup ... those were totally baffling to media only used to unified leagues like MLB, NFL, NBA. Trying to explain why Manchester United could play Liverpool in one league on a weekend and then play Red Star Belgrade in a European Cup on a Wednesday was tough.

All of us in the NASL and prior to that spent countless patient hours trying to demystify the game. I’ve always felt that if we could get media simply to attend the games, watch the artistry and athletic ability, they would love it. It took time, but that is what happened.

With the arrival of Pele, that process took off. He was charming, willing, patient with everyone, and what better calling card could there be than Pele? The Cosmos held a Pele news session in every city we played in, partly to discharge the hundreds of requests for interviews, but mostly to promote the game. And, Pele was so remarkable in every one of those that it is amazing even in retrospect. He cooperated fully with our attempts to break through the media’s soccer resistance, and we sat him down with the biggest names in the industry at that time, guys like Ed Pope in Miami, Sid Hartman in Minneapolis, Dick Young in New York, Jim McKay of ABC. They were opinion makers, trend-setters of the day, and really came on board.

What was the difference between reporters who you thought did good a job and those you thought didn't?

The reporters who took to the sport -- print, radio, TV -- were the people who took time to learn about the landscape of the game, the leagues, the international aspect, the fact that players from different nations could play for the same team. They were adept at trying to explain what the soccer growth was all about in the USA at that time.

There were very few soccer reporters in any medium in the 1970s, but some real quality journalists came to the game over time and were stars at their outlets, too; people like Lawrie Mifflin of the New York Daily News, Steve Goff and John Feinstein at the Washington Post, Steve Davis in Dallas. The entire soccer initiative of the '60s, '70s, and '80s -- before World Cups and MLS came around -- was open and welcoming. We wanted publicity, we wanted to be noticed, and we had a missionary zeal about being available and willing any time of day!

One anecdote about that early era, something it is quite likely that modern-era journalists or public relations people don’t know. Nowadays there are female commentators on sidelines, female writers in locker rooms, female public relations pros, and generally it is a gender-blind profession. Not so in the late '70s, when the Cosmos were informed that Lawrie Mifflin was being assigned to the Cosmos beat.

There had been a nasty confrontation between the MLB, the Yankees and Melissa Ludtke of Sports Illustrated about locker-room access, and we decided rapidly that the Cosmos would not go that route at all. We consulted, more or less informed, the players, who weren’t used to any locker-room access, let alone by women, that our policy was to welcome Lawrie just as we did everyone else. Honestly, it was a very significant moment in New York sports public relations, but it went off without much of a tussle. We just did it, and it’s a proud moment.

Jim Trecker on …
The greatest games he saw in person

Pele Farewell, Oct. 1, 1977, Giants Stadium
He played half for Santos, half for the Cosmos. A day of incredible emotions for all of us. Pouring rain, 76,891 fans, and a tearful O Rei at the end. The post-match news session was one of the most graceful moments I’ve ever been involved in as Pele gathered himself together to speak one last time in the media mob scene.

England-Germany, semifinal, Euro ’96, Wembley
Loudest crowd I’ve ever been in, and that includes Azteca’s noise machine. I could not even speak to my mate sitting next to me. And, oh that penalty miss by Gareth Southgate.

South Africa-Tunisia, African Nations Cup Final 1995, FNB Stadium Johannesburg
Could not have been a more storybook day for the new Nelson Mandela government (elected in 1994); I was in the stands with some Japanese colleagues to my right and a South African lady to my left. When Mark Williams scored the first goal, both she and I leapt up from excitement, and out of nowhere she grabbed me and kissed me from pure joy! Soccer at its very best.

D.C. United-San Jose Clash, Spartan Stadium, 1996, MLS Inaugural
Not the greatest game ever played, that’s for sure, but for a guy who’d been in the USA [United Soccer Association], the NASL, the APSL and seen so many ups and so many downs, this afternoon was a thing of marvels. A first division league, well funded, and here it was in reality. It was a long road to get there.

Argentina-Cameroon, 1990 World Cup opening match, San Siro
The goal by Francois Omam-Biyak might not have been the cleanest strike in World Cup history! But what an outcome with Cameroon toppling defending champion Argentina. We didn’t know that day that Cameroon would go on to the quarterfinals that year, but it was an electrifying moment right at the start of the tournament.

France-Italy, 1998 World Cup, quarterfinals, Stade de France
What tension that afternoon. France as a nation as all-in as this World Cup progressed, and here it was 0-0 after 120 minutes. At risk of offending my Italian friends, I was all-in for France and the penalty phase was churning when Laurent Blanc went for the fifth kick to win. Great Metro ride back to center city.

France-Italy, Euro 2000 Final, Rotterdam
Never seen a game change like this one did. Italy had it locked down, 1-0, in stoppage time. Who is going to topple Italy’s generations of defenders at that point? The answer was to come in Sylvain Wiltord who scored on the final kick of stoppage time and then David Trezeguet at 103 with the Golden Goal. Absolutely stupendous event. After the match, the UEFA press officer brought in Italy coach Dino Zoff, who was asked just one or two questions before the entire enormous media room went quiet, effectively excusing him interrogation about one of the darkest moments possible. And the tram trip back to central Rotterdam was a rollicking ride with French fans singing "Uno, Due, Trezeguet."

SOCCER AMERICA: The 1994 World Cup in the USA is still holds the all-time World Cup attendance record -- even though it had 12 fewer games than the following five World Cups. When you started your work on the 1994 World Cup, did you believe it was going to be such a huge success?

JIM TRECKER: To quote the old-time Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster Bob Prince, “We had ‘em all the way.” There was never a doubt in my mind that it would take America by storm and absolutely bowl people over. Never in doubt. When Alan Rothenberg declared that we would sell out every game and that we would stage the Greatest World Cup Ever, I admit I was a bit troubled, but from having been in the game and seen many great moments for a few decades prior, I knew that once the broader population saw the games, befriended the dancing/chanting/singing international fans, we would all embrace it. We sure did. US Cup ’93 and its huge crowds, the USA’s win over England in Foxboro, the Silverdome game on grass … the success and sheer energy of that event left no doubt what was to come in ’94.

You've been spending a lot of time inspecting the items that should be kept by the Hall of Fame. How hard is it to decide what's worthy of keeping for prosperity? Any examples of stuff that's hard to make the call on?

Through the years, from the Philadelphia Old-Timers Association in 1950 to the present day, the Hall of Fame has been privileged to collect some really historic items. There’s no question about the artifacts -- we keep all of them! But there is also an enormous -- I say millions of pages -- cache of documents, correspondence, publications, scrapbooks, photos, news clippings. Very hard to make the call on some of the material since time degrades paper significantly. We will have to be methodical about re-organizing the archives and figure out what should be digitized. I’m a bit of a hoarder, so it’s hard for me to let go of the originals.

Any examples of particularly fascinating memorabilia that you've come across?

I think it’s always important to remember that most fans don’t ever get to see the real trophies, the real medals, or the real “stuff” from events. Everyone has seen Olympic Gold medals or trophies being distributed, but almost no one gets the chance to view a real one. Those types of things we will have on display; we have 1930 World Cup captain Tom Florie’s medal from the tournament; we have Landon Donovan’s soccer ball from 2010 vs. Algeria; we have a trove of things from the 1999 Women’s World Cup; we have all of Billy Gonsalves' ASL and Open Cup medals. And we are reaching out now to modern-era players and executives to get even more on loan. I can’t enough of these things, and I hope my excitement will be shared by the visitors.

In this day and age, the Internet, with sites such as YouTube, gives fans access to all kinds of historical material. Why do you think the new Hall of Fame will be worth a pilgrimage for soccer fans?

It will be a WOW! Factor experience. When visitors arrive, they will be immersed in a stunning experience of interactive displays, traditional historical displays, 96-inch video walls, every one of which will tell stories of the history, the stars, and the moments that made soccer what it is today. No matter how much devotees may have experienced or seen, I can pretty much assure them that they ain’t seen nothing yet!

Tell us about NASL 50th that will coincide with the Hall of Fame opening and what you're role is in organizing it?

I’ve been pitching in alongside Bobby Moffat to try and pull together a social weekend reunion to bring together as many NASL old-timers as we can. We have gotten dozens and dozens of responses from players, owners, and administrators who date back to the very beginnings of the NASL, and they are planning to attend. It’s a big undertaking, but through Bobby’s energy and a pretty good group of talented helpers, we think it will be a terrific event. The Hall of Fame up in Oneonta always had a “Liars Retreat” for all the old-timers who came to the annual induction ceremony. I think a gathering of a few hundred NASLers from the 60s-70s-80s will be a memorable “Liars Club.”

What's your opinion of MLS, now in its 23rd season? What influence may the old NASL have had on MLS's success -- whether lessons learned of what didn't work or groundwork that the NASL laid?

MLS is a huge success from just about any standpoint and is occupying a good spot in the sports scene. A big factor in my mind is stability. The original NASL frequently had franchises come and go or relocate. The map had to be redrawn every year. But with MLS, we have a league with steady franchises, steady fan bases, and a continuum of upward growth. That’s huge. I would say that the NASL groundwork of decades ago can’t be overlooked. Is there a direct link to MLS? Not sure I can draw a straight line, but I can certainly say that there was a “before-NASL” and an “after-NASL” in terms of youth and college player participation, and fan awareness of soccer. The NASL left a territory deeply seeded so that when other major moments came along, plenty of untapped energy was available. The women’s game, World Cup ’94, they each contributed mightily, but I would argue that the NASL turned on the switch.

What do you think about the general state of American soccer, especially in the wake of the World Cup qualification failure?

Let’s everybody take a deep breath. And using that metaphor, I do think the game could use some fresh air, but to tear down everything, declare disaster? That’s not the case. I won’t pooh-pooh the failure to qualify for Russia 2018, but I wouldn’t kill myself either. MLS is expanding, academies are replete with athletes, women are flocking to the game, fans are watching on TV. These are good things and continuing things. My prediction is that with a bit of time, the 2018 failure will be seen as a blip in an upward growth curve that has been remarkable for three decades now. If it creates an opportunity to self-examine and recalibrate, that’s good; you don’t throw the patient out because he or she got sick. You cure it and work that it doesn’t happen again.

Anything else you'd like to address?

There is little understanding I fear nowadays among the new generation of soccer people about how much lonely work went into creating today’s landscape. A lot is taken for granted, so to speak. Of course, there are highlights on SportsCenter; of course, we have crowded press boxes; of course, coaches are peppered with questions after matches. It wasn’t always like this. The NASL was a huge creator of media interest. World Cup ’94 certainly was an enormous impetus. It’s important to realize that the amount of media coverage -- social media, YouTube channels, endless hours of TV coverage -- didn’t just occur. It took decades of toil and tireless “preaching” to bring the game to skeptics. It was never fruitless effort; frustrating at times, though. Sure, the media landscape is different today; I didn’t have to deal with Twitter feeds, but people need to understand that just 30 years ago, when the USA was chosen to host the 1994 World Cup, our media team had only five journalists who were significantly interested, whom we had to call after the Zurich news conference. That’s not so terribly long ago, and how things have changed!

And one last anecdote: When we were awarded the World Cup, the most dominant question from the media was “where will the game be held?” The Game. That meant hundreds and hundreds of repetitions of 30 days, 52 games, up to a dozen cities, all across America ...” Nobody makes that mistake anymore.

3 comments about "Jim Trecker on American soccer's remarkable rise in popularity".
  1. Dan Woog, March 13, 2018 at 9:22 a.m.

    Jim Trecker is the real deal. He's a pioneer who has never stopped working for the game. He's a pro, a passionate supporter of soccer, a realist who always called it like he saw it, and one of the reasons American soccer -- particularly the wide knowledge of it, and the respect for our long heritage -- is where it is. Thanks, Jim, for all you've done, for all of us. 

  2. frank schoon, March 13, 2018 at 10:23 a.m.

    Enjoyed the interview and looking back those 50 years, and to think of how many other individuals at all levels of the game contributed to it's growth. The Ric Fonsecas ,the Ships, the Marcos's, the Ashpoles and so many, many more, whose names will not be necessarily known but also spend an inordinate amount of time organizing working with kids, adults, reffing, playing,etc , all who contribute to creating a "soccer subculture" that wasn't there in the early 60's. 
    To think the NASL was really where it all began placing the seeds in the American public, bringing in all these great stars. Remembering all the "naysayers", those who thought this sport will never go anywhere, who thought it is a sport for girls, remembering those athletic directors who were former football or baseball players who looked down on soccer, or though it was a foreign sport and boring to watch. But just a couple of years, in Ann Arbor, Michigan a college town, Real Madrid played Manchester United, friendly, with a crowd of over 100,000, WOW.. Yes, we have arrived, we've grown in Quantity , but now we have to grow in Quality, which will take another 50 years.

  3. Ric Fonseca, March 15, 2018 at 4:01 p.m.

    I first got to know Jim Trecker back in the years before we launched WC USA 1994 at the Century City (Los Angeles) Towering Headquarters, and can say that he was/is indeed a gentleman, having given me some pointers for my task as the newly minted WC USA Historian, advise that was well used and taken to heart. My task was to ensure that we collected as much memorabilia from all of the venues, catalog and prepare for shipment to the Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, NY and eventual housing at the Hall.  I must also mention Jack Huckel who took great interest as did Will Lunn in enrusing that the entire 60 ft long trailer that shipped the hundreds of mementos were properly stored and then put on display when the then HoF was inaugurated, but it was a sad day when it closed several years later.
    Jim's hard work and dedication was to me very evident and I heartily congratulate him for all of his hard work and dedication to the Jogo Bonito and most recent accolades.  Saludos Mi Amigo!!!  Ric F.

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