A visit with Lothar Osiander: The man who guided the USA to two Olympics while working as a San Francisco waiter

I arrive 10 minutes early to meet Lothar Osiander for coffee, but he’s already there. “I don’t even try, but I’ve always been early,” says Osiander as we wait in line at Starbucks in downtown Walnut Creek, a city 25 miles east of San Francisco.

When we seat ourselves, I recall interviewing Osiander three decades ago at Graziano’s, a restaurant in the San Francisco Financial District. He had just he finished his lunch shift. This was shortly before the 1988 Olympics and the headline for article turned out as, “Yes, the national team coach is a waiter.”

After the 1988 Olympics, Osiander guided the USA over its first hurdle in 1990 World Cup qualifying and coached the 1992 Olympic team. All while working at Graziano’s.

“I was in heaven,” says Osiander. “I worked 22 years at Graziano’s. On the soccer field was heaven and Graziano’s was heaven. Great place. The food was outstanding. The customers were big time. I had stockbrokers. And that was when the market was going up and up and up.”

Was he ever offered a salary to coach the USA?

“No,” he says. “The players got $10 a per diem and the staff got a $15 per diem. … We had nothing. And all three times we made it!”

Made it to the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, and the 1990 World Cup, the qualifying campaign that started with a two-leg knockout series against Jamaica that the Osiander-coached team won 5-1 on aggregate -- before Bob Gansler took over.

Osiander, who emigrated from Germany in 1956 at age 17, had coached the San Francisco Greek-Americans to the U.S. Open Cup title in 1985. Since the 1970s, he had been charged with selecting players and coaching the West team that competed in the four-region Olympic Festivals that U.S. Soccer used to form national teams. The national team coaching position came about when he got a call from Keith Walker, U.S. Soccer Federation’s executive director.

Osiander recalls the phone conversation that led to him becoming the U.S. national team coach, without giving up his day job:

Walker: Hey coach, you want to take a team?

Osiander: Yeah, why not.

Walker: You got time?

Osiander: Yeah, I got weekends.

Walker: Good enough. We’ll fly you in on Saturday morning. You play Saturday evening, and you fly out on Sunday.

Osiander: How many players do it I get?

Walker: 14.

Osiander: No. I need 16.

Walker: OK, you get 16.

“He threw me the team for the Marlboro Cups,” says Osiander. “Remember the Marlboro Cups?”

They were the beginning of the lucrative American international exhibition tournaments. Importantly for the U.S. national team, the Marlboro Cups provided a rare chance for friendly games against international competition in an era before foreign teams started flocking to the USA to reap from the U.S. soccer fan base. In Osiander’s case, in 1987, the USA went to Miami to play Colombia’s Deportivo Cali and Millonarios.

Osiander's team beat Deportivo Cali 1-0 on a Brent Goulet goal and lost 3-1 to Millonarios in the final. In 1988, Bruce Murray, Tab Ramos and Peter Vermes scored against Millonarios and Atletico Nacional while also finishing runner-up. They played against Colombian stars such as Carlos Valderrama, Rene Higuita and Lionel Alvarez.

“It was a great coaching experience and great for my team,” said Osiander, who during that time successfully qualified the USA for the 1988 Olympics.

USA 1988 Olympic team. Standing L to R: Paul Krumpe, Kevin Crow, Desmond Armstrong, David Vanole, Bruce Murray; kneeling: Paul Caligiuri, Brian Bliss, Peter Vermes, Tab Ramos, Brent Goulet.

Osiander was born in Germany less than a year before the start of World War II.

OSIANDER: I was born in Munich in 1938. I turn 80 next week. During the war, my mom, my brother and I went to live in the country on my grandfather’s farm. A one-man farm. Munich was bombed out 85 percent, they said.

My dad stayed in Munich throughout. He was called in by the military like everybody else in those days. But then they found out he was a tool and die guy. He got deferred, didn’t have to join the army, and they expected him to work. He had to make tank engines. He stayed in the factory they worked in.

In 1946, my mom and my brother, we went back to Munich. You know those old houses?  Ours, where we lived in the third floor, was the only one in the neighborhood that didn’t go down.

Descriptions of America from his great uncle on a visit home from San Francisco prompted Osiander’s emigration.

OSIANDER: I came in 1956. I was not even 18. My grandfather’s brother lived here. He was a brewer, at a brewery where the freeway is now. He had visited us in Germany and I talked to him for hours about America. So, he sponsored me. And I had the green card before I came here! I went to the American consulate in Munich, got my green card, and was ready to travel.

Osiander started playing in the San Francisco Soccer Football League, which led to him winning an NCAA national title with University of San Francisco in 1966. (With a 5-2 win over Joe Machnik-coached LIU.)

OSIANDER: I hadn’t planned on going to college. I had gone through a four-year apprenticeship in Munich to be a hotel and restaurant guy and I drifted over to the restaurant side because it seemed more to my liking.

College? No. I piddled around a little bit. I worked as a busboy because I was too young to be a waiter.

But I played in at Balboa Stadium and [USF coach] Stephen Negoesco saw me. The first thing he said was, “Do you want to have an education?”

I said I don’t know. He said, "Come over, I’ll give you a scholarship.”

Until age 42 in 1970, Osiander continued to play San Francisco Soccer League ball with clubs such as Concordia and Union Espanola. He then turned to coaching, with the ambitious Greek Americans, who won five straight San Francisco Soccer Football League titles from 1984 to 1989, won two U.S. Open Cups (1985 and 1994) and finished runner-up in 1988, and played in the 1989 Concacaf Champions Cup. The 1994 Greek Americans were the last amateur team to win the U.S. Open Cup title.

OSIANDER: We played UNAM at home and we’re up 1-0 at halftime. I said holy shit! We ended up tying 1-1. Then we went to Mexico City with 12 players. Two of my guys said if they left the country they wouldn’t be let back in. One keeper and 11 field players. When we were walking around, people asked us if we were a tennis team because we weren’t big enough to be a friggin soccer team. UNAM beat us 5-1.

When I coached Greek-Americans for eight years, it was great. They were all good players. ... You should have seen my Greek American practices. The Stanford coach asked if Julie Foudy could practice with us and we said sure. It was fun to see.

The 1994 San Francisco Greek Americans. Standing L to R: Lothar Osiander, Mike Deleray, Richard McBride, Godwin Odiye, Jan Elberse, Justin Wall, Todd Brockman, Steve Petuskey, Peter Pelle, Paul Bravo, Tim Martin; kneeling: Dan McNevin, Aram Kardzair, Swami Alvarez, Ugoharris Opara, Derek Van Rheenen, Mark Semioli.

Osiander was one of the first USSF-licensed coaches and quickly became an instructor. He also took charge of the search for U.S. talent on the West Coast.

OSIANDER: Rudy Studnik was the president of the North California Soccer Association. He was a good guy. No. 1, he made me Northern California coach. No. 2, he brought in foreign teams. We, the Northern Cal All-Stars, played Bayern Munich, Grasshopper Zurich, all the Mexican clubs, like UNAM, Chivas, who came to the neighborhood.

I went scouting everywhere. Talk about losing money on your hobby. I went to Portland. I went to Seattle. I went to L.A., always looking at the big tournaments. Sigi Schmid was my guy in Southern California. Even during the college season, he let me take his guys.

Osiander's first competitive game at U.S. helm was the first leg of a two-game series against Canada to advance to the final round of qualifying for the 1988 Olympics. The USA fell, 2-0, in St. John, Canada in May of 1987. The return leg took place a week later at the St. Louis Soccer Park.

OSIANDER: We had a stinker in Canada, lost 2-0, and had to win 3-0. And we did! That was the best win ever. Paul Krumpe scored twice and Jim Gabarra got the other one.

That set up a three-team group with Trinidad & Tobago and El Salvador, the winner of which would qualify for the Olympic Games in South Korea.

OSIANDER: I went to El Salvador with 14 players. Two goalkeepers and 12 field players. And two guys ate ice cream, even though I told them not to eat anything outside of the hotel, and they got sicker than dogs.

Hugo Perez [who had emigrated from El Salvador to the USA at age 11] was on my team. When we were in El Salvador, I gave him the choice. I said, Hugo you don’t have to play. And he said, I want to play. And he played. He scored twice and we won 4-2.

He and I got along well. And I tell you what. He was a big-time player. Fabulous. He did stuff you couldn’t teach. He did stuff that was fabulous. I loved the guy

The kickoff was supposed to be at 2 p.m., but they changed it to 4. I think on purpose because it would be even hotter.

You know, the Cuscatlán Stadium is a cement block. The Indians outside sold rolled up paper bags, which the fans sit on because your ass is gets too hot on the cement. So we’re winning 4-2 and the people get pissed. They light those things with matches and throw them at us. We’re out on the field dodging those friggen flaming frisbees.

The USA wrapped up qualification with a 1-0 home win over El Salvador. In South Korea, Osiander’s team tied Argentina, 1-1, tied the host, 0-0, and fell to the Soviet Union, 4-2.

OSIANDER: The problem was, we had no preparation. The indoor league, the MISL, messed things up. The MISL had all the good players, and they didn’t release them. They said, we pay them.

I struggled getting players. I had Ricky Davis, Kevin Crow. Those were good guys. The most experienced players I had. UCLA was a big help. Sigi always said, take all the players you want, and I took six. David Vanole was solid in goal. Good guy, really good man. He died at age 43. That was very sad.

Brent Goulet was a goalscorer, solid. Bruce Murray, you give him a pair of shoes and he loses them in two minutes, but a good guy. I liked him. Tab Ramos was solid. He should now maybe be national team coach or Olympic coach, he knows all the players. He’s had the U-20s for four cycles. He makes a lot more sense than the Austrian guy [Andi Herzog, coach of the failed 2016 Olympic qualifying campaign].

That 1988 team had potential. The problem was I couldn't get them together. We didn't have training sessions. But it was a beginning.

Werner Fricker was U.S. Soccer President from 1984 to 1990 and before that served as vice president, starting in 1974.

OSIANDER: We really had nothing. But it was the beginning. Werner Fricker was the man. We only started because Werner Fricker went to a bank and put his business up as collateral to borrow money for the national team. He was the guy who started everything.

When we talk about soccer revolution, he’s the guy. He’s Pancho Villa. He brought in Dettmar Cramer. Cramer brought in Walt Chyzowych. And Walt Chyzowych brought in Gansler, and then we were another eight or nine guys who hung around with them.

Fricker and I had an understanding that if Bob Gansler became available, he would take the national team.

(Photo courtesy of William Gordon/Open Source Soccer/America’s Soccer Story)

Before the 1998 Olympics, Osiander led the USA past Jamaica to advance to the final round of 1990 World Cup qualifying, for which Gansler took over and succeeded to get the USA to the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. Next up for Osiander was qualifying for the 1992 Olympics, which would be a U-23 tournament. His team qualified while outscoring its opponents 35-12 in 10 games.

OSIANDER: We played in Haiti with a 4 p.m. kickoff and the stadium was full at 1 p.m. Everybody was smoking a joint. I mean everybody. You got high walking into that field.

We won [2-0] and they threw rocks at the bus. The friggin front window breaks. They hit the driver on the head and the driver was a solid guy. He was bleeding and driving like this [stooped down] so he wouldn’t get hit again.

In Mexico, we get to the stadium and they won’t let us park in front of the stadium. So we park a few blocks away and drag all the equipment to the gate, and the policeman won’t let us in. We say we’re the opponent and he says he hasn’t heard.

I speak Spanish. I tell him either you let us in or you play against your own team. He said, OK, and opened the door.

The Azulgrana stadium is supposed to hold 41,000, but they’ve got people sitting on the friggin stairs. Which is the interesting part. Mexico fines if the stadium if over crowded. The problem is they fine them a 100 dollars for letting 50,000 people in.

Chris Henderson and Mike Lapper score, and we win 2-1.

It was the first time USA beat Mexico on Mexican soil in official competition. Following that, the USA beat Honduras 4-3 in St. Louis and also 4-3 in San Pedro Sula.

OSIANDER: San Pedro Sula is a tough place to play, man. First thing I did in San Pedro Sula is bought uniforms. The second, I bought a fan.

The uniforms they gave us weren’t different enough from the opponents. I sent my guy Dan Bugna – good guy – to the store for uniforms and a fan. And he bought one of those really big fans. That wasn't the first time I had to buy stuff on a trip. In the late 1980s they gave us these ugly, colorful balls that were so heavy, I went out and bought good balls. One time I had to buy shorts for the team before the game.

In San Pedro Sula. It was 104 degrees. You have to imagine, 104 degrees on the soccer field. And we won!

At the 1992 Olympics, the USA opened with a 2-1 loss to Italy, beat Kuwait, 3-1, and tied eventual silver medalist Poland, 2-2.

OSIANDER: It was a bummer. Usually a win and a tie gets you through. But it was good.

The Italian team we played, they were all already pros, except for left back Giuseppe Favalli, who ended up 15 years in Serie A with [Lazio, Inter Milan and AC Milan]. Cesare Maldini was the coach and he was sweating bullets when he shook my hands, because if he doesn't beat the USA … and we gave them a tough game. Almost came back to tie it.

The guys on that team were good. I took them everywhere. France, Portugal, Uruguay, Brazil. Even Alexi Lalas said at one point, I’m tired of traveling. I said, Lalas, this is good for you. They were hardened guys.

My guys had a good adventure. And I think that’s why so many are still in the game. Because they learned the hard way.

The majority of Osiander’s 1992 team is still heavily involved in the game, including Claudio Reyna (NYCFC sporting director), Cam Rast (Santa Clara University head coach),  Brad Friedel (New England Revolution head coach) Mike Burns (New England Revolution general manager), Mike Lapper (New England Revolution assistant coach), Chris Henderson (Seattle Sounders sporting director). Curt Onalfo had coaching stints with D.C. United, Kansas City and the LA Galaxy. Troy Dayak runs Northern California club West Coast SC. Dante Washinton, Alexi Lalas, who had GM stints in MLS, and Cobi Jones are TV commentators. ... Among current MLS head coaches, Dominic Kinnear (Greek Americans) Friedel, Peter Vermes, Greg Vanney (LA Galaxy) and Chris Armas (LA Galaxy) played for Osiander. Also from the 1988 Olympians, Tab Ramos is U.S. U-20 coach Youth Technical Director, Brian Bliss is Sporting KC Director of Player Personnel, John Harkes is head coach of USL League One's Greenville Triumph)

USA 1992 Olympic team. Standing L to R: Cam Rast, Mike Burns, Mike Lapper, Yari Allnutt, Dante Washington, Erik Imler; kneeling: Troy Dayak, Brad Friedel, Cobi Jones, Claudio Reyna, Mike Huwiler.

His thoughts on the USA failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup:

OSIANDER: We all called each other and said, I’m crying. Everybody said the same thing. Yeah, we’re crying. But I don’t think that’s the worst. I think the worst is that we’ve gone years without qualifying for the Olympics. That’s sad. There’s no reason.

We have enough players to qualify for the Olympics. It pissed me off when we didn’t make it in 2012 or 2016. The Olympics have prestige, and we can’t even get there. Come on.

When Graziano’s closed, Osiander got took an A-League job.

OSIANDER: In 1995, the guy calls me and says, Do you want to coach the Ruckus? I say, What’s the Ruckus? It’s a little A-league team in Atlanta. I said, I’ll go.

We drew maybe 1,500 people. And I brought in John Doyle and Timmy Martin. We had Bruce Murray. We lost in final to Seattle.

When MLS launched in 1996, Osiander took the helm at the Los Angeles Galaxy, a team that included Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos and Salvadoran playmaker Mauricio Cienfuegos.

OSIANDER: It was beginning. We practiced on the parking lot of the Rose Bowl, which was hard a as rock. They didn’t want to water it because when the cars came they’d tear up the grass.

After 45 minutes my players said, my feet hurt. We couldn’t do anything because their ankles were done. The whole season. But the players made the money and they were happy to be here. It was my first full-time soccer job. I even got paid. Not what they get paid today. But I got paid.

A crowd of 69,225 attended LA Galaxy opener at the Rose Bowl.

OSIANDER: They opened the gates at halftime because so many people were waiting to get in. Cienfuegos was solid. I had a great defense. Dan Calichman, Rob Fraser, Mark Semioli, Greg Vanney. Campos was great to be with, but I played him half in goal and half in field and he was in heaven.

Some things were a bit crazy. Campos would fly back to Mexico and play for UNAM during our season. Remember we had a movie star on the team? Andrew Shue.

The Galaxy lost, 3-2, to D.C. United in the first MLS Cup. After the 1997 season, Osiander spent two years as Tampa Bay Mutiny assistant coach, was head coach of the Project-40 team in 1999 and of the San Jose Earthquakes in 2000.

OSIANDER: When I took over in San Jose, they were dead last. It was a league-run team that got all the outcasts. But we were set to get No. 1 draft picks and allocations, and the league sent them Landon Donovan. I suffered through that season and looked forward to the next, with all these players coming. But everybody got fired. Frank Yallop got a superb team and he he did a great job with that team [winning MLS Cup in 2001 and 2003].

I was 62 and I retired. I took a year or two off, then started coaching youth soccer at the Tri Valley Soccer Club. I had one team with 14 guys, and seven made it to Division I. Now I'm an advisor to the club. I go to games, big events, barbecues, stuff like that.

I have to say my soccer career, as a hobby, was an outstanding experience. Outstanding.

14 comments about "A visit with Lothar Osiander: The man who guided the USA to two Olympics while working as a San Francisco waiter".
  1. Mark Landefeld, October 31, 2018 at 6:30 p.m.

    How the heck is Lothar NOT in our soccer Hall of Fame?  Has any MNT or Olympic coach done as much with so few resources provided?

  2. Theodore Eison replied, November 3, 2018 at 2:12 a.m.

    Wait. All that and not in the HOF? Really?!! SMH

  3. Kevin Leahy, October 31, 2018 at 6:43 p.m.

    My favorite national team coach ever. The federation needs to understand how important the olympics are to non soccer people. Great interview!

  4. Wooden Ships, October 31, 2018 at 6:57 p.m.

    Great Interview. Great man. Great times.

  5. Blane Shepard, October 31, 2018 at 7:28 p.m.

    Some of my favorite times were when Lothar would allow me to sit in and watch training with his teams. Always had time to talk about the game and life. My time spent with him, Ralph Perez and Sigi are memorable and have always enjoyed spending time with him when at coaching conventions. In Europe (and even Mexico) the senior coaches are well respected and held in high regard by most if not all but unfortunately our Country is behind in that category as well. 

  6. Ric Fonseca, October 31, 2018 at 8:57 p.m.

    I share the sentiments above, and also ask why Coach Lothqar isn't in the Soccer HoF???  I too had the unique distinction of getting to know Lothar, and was present when Coach Dettmar Cramer taught us the first US Soccer Coaching Course in 1971 at UCLA, and others that followed in  Southern California.  SALUDOS CORDIALES A UN GRANDISIMO AMIGO!!!

  7. frank schoon, October 31, 2018 at 9:47 p.m.

    Wow, the history of it all. It makes me think of all of those who have contributed to the growth of US soccer when it was in its incipient stages, the many characters who simply contributed because of the love for the game but will never receive any credit. There is indeed a rich tapestry and I wish to thank them all for their contribution.......

  8. Craig Cummings, October 31, 2018 at 10:07 p.m.

    Great stuff.

  9. R2 Dad, November 1, 2018 at 1:41 a.m.

    Good interview--this is what I really value from SA. As a sidenote, I had no idea that a guy I ref with, who is an excellent official, had a previous life as a member of that 94 Greek American team.

  10. humble 1, November 1, 2018 at 11:37 a.m.

    Great article Mike.  I will share with my son, good feelings, and possibilities eb from this piece.  I like Coach Lothar - whom I was introduced to in this article - I like the way he thinks - especially about the Olympics - I do not understand why men's Olympic soccer is seemingly diminished in importance, but even so, I am still dumfounded that USA has failed to qualify given that there is not one, not two, but 'THREE' chances for CONCACAF teams to get to the Olympics, the first and second spots in the qualifier and the playoff.  I hope this time around they get it right.  One thing is clear from this article - for players and teams to make it in our region - there is no room for 'coddled', 'soft' or 'elite' players.  American players must be gritty hardened - they won't be welcomed with open arms  - rather - flaming frizbies and bricks!

  11. Giorgio Cabanas, November 1, 2018 at 9:52 p.m.

    Best interview and content since I’ve been a subscriber. I wasn’t happy with the content so I didn’t renew my subscription. But a piece like this may make me rethink my stance. Just wish there were more like it.

  12. Theodore Eison, November 3, 2018 at 2:19 a.m.

    So Bob Bradley, Tony DiCicco & Bruce Arena. That’s it. No other coaches in the HOF. Unless website inaccurate

  13. Nick Gabris, November 3, 2018 at 1:01 p.m.

    Enjoyed the story, brought back great memories! Great guy and coach. My brother and I played for Concordia mentioned in the interview at the time Lothar was player / coach. He should have been in the HOF a long time ago, he paid his "dues". 

  14. James Madison, November 6, 2018 at 7:14 p.m.

    Together with Bob Gansler, the two most under-rated National Team coaches the US has ever had.

    In addition, although Mike didn't touch on Osiander's experience as a US Soccer Coaching Instructor, he was, in my experience, the best ever.  Both he and Gansler had mpeccable demonstration technique and deep understanding of the game, but his clear and mild, but firm direction earns him top billing.

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