Every week NASL.com will take a look back in time and recall memories of the North American Soccer League in a regular ‘Throwback Thursday’ feature. From players, coaches and fans to landmark games, each Thursday will offer a new memory from years gone by.
This week, on the eve of the U.S. Men’s National Team taking on Costa Rica in 2014 World Cup Qualifying on Friday evening in Colorado, former NASLforward Mike Flater recalls the lack of expectation when representing America at international level in the 1970s.
Mike Flater hopes the current crop of American soccer internationals are spared the sinking emotion of disappointment that was synonymous with World Cup qualifying campaigns when he played for the U.S. Men’s National Team back in the 1970s.
A less than inspiring first stage of qualification and a 2-1 defeat in Honduras to open the hexagonal series has put added pressure on Jurgen Klinsmann’s team to secure its first win when Costa Rica visits Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Colorado on Friday night. For today’s generation, failure to rub shoulders with the game’s elite in Brazil next summer is as unthinkable as managing to reach the FIFA showpiece was for Flater’s edition of the national team almost 40 years ago.
“They need a break or two and in qualifying it doesn’t mind how pretty the win is, you just have to get the result,” said Flater, who played for Denver, Minnesota, Oakland and Portland in the NASL, and will be cheering on the U.S. from his home in San Antonio. “The two defenders will have dreamed of that goal in Honduras over and over so they’ll learn and will come back stronger. It will be interesting to see how the U.S. coaching staff raises the bar.”
Flater was a member of the U.S. team that harbored lofty dreams of qualifying for the World Cup Finals to be held in Argentina in 1978. The legend of U.S. heroics in beating England in 1950, the same year as Flater was born, had faded firmly into the annuls of obscurity, so there was no pressure to cause a similar upset in qualifying.
“In those years the national team was completely off the radar as far as press and the local populous were concerned, explained Flater. “The awareness and the fan base and the youth soccer level have changed so much since then. It is a completely different sport today.
“My first game was against Poland in ‘75 and I remember we didn’t play that many games in any given year and we zoomed in and zoomed out of a country or a home venue and trying to get any suggestion of cohesiveness in the team took some time.
We tried to make a team out of it, but really we were a group of players who came together briefly to try and win games.”
The U.S. played just six times in 1975, underlining Flater’s point, and with former Philadelphia Ukes star Walter Chyzowich at the helm, the Americans dived into the qualifying campaign for Argentina. A 1-1 draw with Canada and more surprisingly, holding Mexico scoreless in Los Angeles, created a sense of optimism in the camp, but then the U.S. had to venture into unfriendly Mexican territory for the return game.
“Playing in different countries was a whole new learning experience,” remembered Flater. “Our guys were college kids. We had some naturalized citizens who knew a little more about the world, but fair play differs in college from when you’re playing in a different country.
“It put things in perspective when playing in Guatemala or Mexico because you were playing the entire country not just the team. The country and press would all get behind the team and to give them the edge, they’d keep you up all night with noise outside lousy hotels and then there would be the poor condition of the of dressing room to demoralize you.
“The first time I was in Guatemala I started seeing things coming from stands and wondered how it would be possible to play, but you forget those things once the game starts, but there is still all that pressure out there. Whether you’re dealing with that today or back then you have to be mentally tough to handle the situation. We had some seasoned players out there but they were overwhelmed and it’s a battle.
“In Mexico the bus got stopped and everybody was pounding at you, throwing rocks at the dressing rooms. It was the kind of intimidation that made you think twice about going in 100 percent to a tackle knowing the ref with the crowd pressure might react with a yellow card. You had to be absolutely sure.
“Guys on the team today have been through the same thing in some places.”
Whether it was the intimidation factor, or the talent level at their disposal, the U.S. lost 3-0 in Mexico and then followed up bizarrely with a string of three games in the space of five days all in Port au Prince, all against the host nation Haiti. All three ended in a 0-0 final score.
Flater continued: “It was a short qualifying and only two of the three went on to the second round, so fighting for one place behind Mexico among those teams was tough.
“We ended up in a playoff against Canada, which we had to play in Haiti in December. We were trying all sorts of combinations up front at that time and we had our chances against Canada but didn’t put them away. We went behind and then conceded a second goal very quickly and were fighting an uphill battle then.
“We employed man to man marking so did a lot of running and chasing and tactically we’d have done a better job not to man-mark, which is more defensive orientated, at a time we needed to score goals.
“For me it was frustrating because I was a forward and they put me in midfield and while I’d played a little bit on the wing in Minnesota, it was tough. I just remember I was up and down that field a lot and trying to set up chances and then get back. I wanted to be in the attack but had to get back.”
Canada’s 2-0 win dashed U.S. hopes of a trip to Argentina, where it was Mexico that represented the CONCACAF region and finished bottom of group B, winless and beaten by Poland, West Germany and Tunisia.
Flater, who learned to love soccer while living in England, France, Belgium and Turkey as his father’s work as an international harvester took the family around the world, has had seven knee surgeries and both knees replaced since playing in his final NASL game back in 1980. A 25-year employee of Federal Express, he has coached at the junior and high school level and will be cheering as passionately as the next American when Friday night’s game kicks off in Colorado.
“The talent level is a lot better than when we came in,” he added. “They’re quicker, faster, bigger and that’s good. We’re catching up with the world and I think metal toughness is the challenge.
“I remember when Clint Dempsey started off and now he’s a quality player who has developed and its essential to have players like him. The important part for the current team is the chemistry in the group. You have to get the guys to bust a gut for each other. When the effort is there, the results will come and we will get the results we need.”
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