U.S. Soccer is celebrating its Centennial year in 2013 and throughout the year ussoccer.com will provide historical content to commemorate 100 Years of the Federation. “Hidden Caps” looks back at former U.S. internationals who made one appearance for the National Team and investigates some of the unique stories behind the players and the game in which they played.
“Our preparation for that game was sitting in the hotel lobby and drinking scotch.”
Bruce Arena, the most successful American coach in the modern era, played one game for the United States Men’s National Team against Israel in November 1973, and it was an adventure unlike any the team has taken in recent years.
“In 1973, I was coaching freshman lacrosse at Cornell and teaching business education in a junior high school up there,” Arena tells U.S. Soccer. “I was called up by the then-national team coach Gordon Bradley to join the U.S. team on tour. The first game, I believe, was going to be in Haiti and I couldn't make it. I think I had to do Study Hall or something that day at the junior high.”
Arena had picked up soccer at junior college before transferring to Cornell, under the tutelage of national team goalkeeper Shepp Messing at Nassau Community College on Long Island. Though lacrosse was his first sport, Arena made his name known in soccer circles as a starting goalkeeper for Cornell, leading the Big Red to the semifinals of the 1972 NCAA soccer championship.
Bradley was a known admirer of Arena, who had made remarkable strides in just three years of playing the game. In February 1973, Bradley - whose full-time job was coaching and playing for the New York Cosmos - selected Arena in the fifth round of the NASL Draft, though the 21-year-old didn’t play for the Cosmos that summer.
In the fall of 1973, Bradley, who had taken charge of the national team on a part-time basis in the summer, needed a backup goalkeeper for a tour of Italy and Israel, with Messing out injured. He told Arena to head out from New York to meet up with the team. There was no media coverage and no training camp, no journalists profiling the lacrosse coach called up to represent his country at soccer. In the 1970s, the national press was largely oblivious to a team that was scratched together from game to game and usually met each other for the first time at the airport.
The Italian trip saw the U.S. record a decent result with a 0-0 draw in Florence against Italy’s Under-21 team, featuring a young Paolo Rossi. Arena didn’t see any action, however, with Bob Rigby - who had been the first pick in the 1973 NASL Draft - playing the full 90 minutes in goal.
It was remarkable that the following trip to Israel even took place that November. The previous month, Israel had been attacked by Egyptian and Syrian forces on Yom Kippur, and a shaky ceasefire had only been agreed in the last week of October. Soviet and American nuclear alerts had placed the world on notice that the Israeli-Arab conflict was a tinderbox that could potentially ignite a global conflagration.
Just a couple of weeks later in early November, off went the U.S. National Team to Israel for a two-game series in Tel-Aviv and Bersheeba. The U.S. team’s arrival was greeted by friendly but strict Israeli security, every bag checked and identified individually by each player in front of a military escort. The U.S. team was welcomed warmly despite the emergency situation, meeting the Mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek and riding a bus that stopped to give rides to army personnel heading the same way as the team.
“When we checked into the hotel in Bersheeba, where we were playing Israel, none of the workers were there because they were out to war,” Arena recalls. “We got in late at night and there wasn't anything to eat. They may have brought us a plate of tomatoes and celery but we had a couple of bottles of scotch. Our preparation for that game was sitting in the hotel lobby and drinking scotch. I don't know whether U.S. Soccer is making progress or going backwards from those days (he says laughing) but that was our preparation for that game and that's when I got my first cap, against Israel. It was a good experience.”
Arena didn’t play in the first game in Tel-Aviv. It was a 3-1 loss that his teammate, U.S. forward Willy Roy, remembers as notable for a crowd containing a large corps of Israeli soldiers carrying machine guns roaming the stands (Roy says he played the best game of his life, running non-stop to ensure he was always a moving target).
Arena’s chance came in the USA’s second game in Bersheeba, appearing for 45 minutes in a 2-0 defeat to Israel on Nov. 15, coming on at halftime for Rigby with the U.S. already two goals down. It proved to be Arena’s only cap. Arena did not pursue a career in the NASL, and went on to try his luck at playing professional lacrosse in Montreal instead, before returning to soccer as a college coach and making his name with the University of Virginia.
Curiously enough, Arena wasn’t the only American player to earn his single international cap that day. The coach himself, 42-year-old English-born Gordon Bradley, also played in his one and only game for the American team against Israel alongside Arena. With the U.S. team struggling for starters due to injuries, Bradley - who was also a player-coach for the Cosmos - played the whole game as the team’s sweeper.
The trip meant a lot to Bradley, who passed away in 2008 and had seen the visit to Israel as a diplomatic mission during a time of crisis as much as it was international competition. The U.S. was the first country to play against Israel after the Yom Kippur conflict, and no-one else would do so again for another six months.
“Those two games with Israel did so much for the Israeli people," Bradley told the Las Vegas Sun in 1996. "I firmly believe there's a world family of soccer."
It was a different age for the U.S. National Team, in the midst of a wilderness from World Cup play that lasted from 1950 to 1990, when most National Team players worked other jobs and waited for a phone call from the Federation asking if they were in shape to play in the next game. When he became the U.S. National Team head coach himself over two decades later, Arena would look back at his single appearance for the U.S. and ponder how much had changed.
“I remember when that trip ended I went to the Empire State Building in New York where U.S. Soccer offices were and negotiated my payment with Kurt Lamm, who was then the secretary general of U.S. Soccer,” Arena recalled. “I think I got like 600 bucks and I thought it was great. He wrote me a check right there. It was a whole different animal in those days, but it was a fun experience and something that, believe me, I reflected back on at times when I was the manager of the U.S. National Team.”