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Center Circle Extra: Going Back With Balboa

Former U.S. internationals Marcelo Balboa, John Harkes and Tab Ramos were elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame on Tuesday (April 19), each gaining entry in their first year on the ballot.

Balboa is the second-most capped defender in U.S. history with 128 international appearances, and is the all-time leading scorer for defenders with 13 career goals. A three-time World Cup veteran famous for his long locks as well as his flair for connecting on bicycle kicks, he was honored as the U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year award twice during his 13-year national team career (1992, 1994).

Balboa sat down with to talk about his time with the U.S. national team and what his aspirations are in the near future. What does it mean to be elected in your first time on the ballot?
Marcelo Balboa: “It was a little surprising. When you talk about the ‘90s, everyone talks about (Tony) Meola, (John) Harkes, and (Tab) Ramos. I thought with (Carlos) Valderrama being in there and Peter Nowak and a few other former players that it would be very tough. But it’s an honor. When you play you never know if the fans like you. You have the fans that like you and don’t like you. In the media it is the same way, you don’t know how they really rate you and to me this shows that all the hard work on and off the field has paid off.” Second-most capped defender, three World Cups, two-time U.S. Soccer Player of the Year…what are you most proud of in your career?

MB: “There’s so many great moments I’ve had over my 12 years with the national team it’s hard to pinpoint just one. There are a few that stick out in my head. Just getting to play in one World Cup – let alone three – was amazing and especially having the chance to play in a World Cup in the United States. There are just so many great moments. If I don’t pick the obvious one which is the bicycle kick in the Colombia game (in the ’94 World Cup) then everyone laughs at me. It wasn’t just the bicycle kick though, that entire game was one of the best experiences I had in my life because of the way everything went with upsetting one of the favorites in our group and then we were able to get into the next round with that victory. Overall, I was proud to wear a national team jersey for 12 years to represent my country was pretty big.” Somewhat of a similar question, but was there one game in particular where you were extremely proud to be wearing the national team jersey?
MB: “Like I said, anytime I put on the jersey was a proud moment for me. That’s the way I took it. We got paid to play for the national team and we got paid to play in a World Cup when I would have played for free 100 times. My proudest moment to put on the jersey was the first game in the World Cup in 1994 because of the year I had leading up to the tournament. I tore my ACL in April and the World Cup was in June, and I didn’t know if I’d be able to make it back in time. When I was able to put on that jersey for the first time against Switzerland, that was a personal moment. Not a lot of people thought I’d make it back, but (head coach) Bora (Milutinovic) hung in there, (team doctor) Bert Mandelbaum did an absolutely phenomenal job with surgery, (trainer) Rudy Rudawsky spent time away from his family and friends to help me get back for the World Cup, along with (teammate) Fernando Clavijo (editor’s note: Clavijo was also recovering from recovering from knee surgery for a tear in his medial meniscus). That was a special moment for me.” What do you miss most about competing for your country?
MB: Do I miss the game of soccer? No doubt. You miss putting on the U.S. national team jersey and representing your country. You miss playing in front of big crowds. Fortunately, we got to do it with the ’94 reunion game and those are moments that will always be special. You can’t relive them, so it’s not even worth trying. It was a pretty tight group from about 1990-98. The things you miss is hanging out on the road and listening to (Eric) Wynalda and (John) Harkes try to outdo each other with jokes and stuff like that. For me it though, putting on the national team jersey is what I miss the most.” What was your first, “welcome to international soccer” moment?

MB: “Sitting on the bench in Guatemala. I had come in from the Under-20 national team and in my first experience I got to sit on the bench and watch everyone else play. And that sucked. That sucked big time. We were getting oranges thrown at us in the dugout and it was hilarious. I said to myself, ‘If this is what international soccer is like then I’ve got to bust my ass to get on the field because I don’t want to sit on the bench.’ I won’t even tell you half the things they were throwing at us in the dugout. When your first experience is sitting on the bench and they are throwing little bags of stuff at you, you work pretty hard to stay on the field.” Out of the 13, best goal of you ever scored?
MB: “Out of the 13 goals, my best one? Man, that is tough. There are a few that come to mind. I’m going to say the one that sticks out in my mind was against Paraguay in San Diego. The ball comes across from Alexi (Lalas) and it looks like I slip and I head the ball right before I hit the ground and it just rockets into the upper-90. All I had to do was really just hit it with my left foot, but I don’t have a left foot so I decided to head it and I put it in the upper-90. That was pretty cool. That and the game against Trinidad in the ’91 CONCACAF Gold Cup where we came back from 1-0 and I scored a bicycle kick.” What international player was the most difficult for you to defend against?

MB: “We’re going to go back to the early 90’s and everyone was very difficult for us because we hadn’t played a lot of international soccer. The more we played and played against better teams, the better defenders we became. The toughest guys we had to mark were (Roberto) Baggio who was pretty tough to mark up front. (Thomas) Skuhravy from Czechoslovakia. Bebeto and Romario from Brazil were pains in the rear. They were short, but real quick. I had to mark (Gabriel) Batistuta at one point in a game. As you can see, we didn’t have very easy defenders to mark. I think probably the combination of Bebeto and Romario were probably one of the toughest we had to face. ” You came up through the U.S. youth system and played for the U-20s at the 1987 FIFA World Youth Championship in Chile. Talk a little bit about coming up through the youth teams to making it on the full Men’s National Team.
MB: “The only time I made the ODP teams or the Regional teams was when I was 17 or 18, all the other times I didn’t get invited in. I got lucky to tell you the truth. Derrick Armstrong was the coach of the San Diego Nomads and at UCSB and he saw me play in my last camp I went to when I was 17 or 18 up in Colorado Springs. Later he became a national team coach and he called me up and gave me a tryout. That’s how I made the Under-20 team because Derrick Armstrong saw me play. I later became the captain of that team and after the World Championship Lothar Osiander included me in ’88 as an alternate on the Olympic team. From there Bob Gansler took over and he was the one who got my career rolling with the national team.” How did Gansler, or any other coach, help you succeed?
MB: “I give Gansler and Bora (Milutinovic) a lot of credit for helping me in my career. Bora didn’t have to keep me around in ’94 when I tore my ACL. He could have picked up another player, but he kept me around to give me the opportunity to see if I could come back healthy. And Gansler kept calling me into camp when I was younger. I was a kid that ran and hustled and kicked people and I don’t know what Gansler saw in me, but he kept bringing me back into camp after camp.” Now you’ve been doing some coaching as an assistant with the U-20s. Is coaching something you are looking to do in the future?
MB: “I don’t know if I want to coach yet. There is still an interest there. I enjoyed my time with the Under-20s, no doubt and I appreciate the chance Sigi gave me to go with those guys. It may be something that I’d like to do, but I also really enjoy what I’m doing with Kroenke Sports as an advisor. I also like the opportunity to stay on the administrative side and maybe move into other roles down the road. I can see both sides, but I’m probably leaning more, maybe 70-30, towards the administrative side than becoming a coach. But, there is that 30 percent that as a player you want to see if you can do the job of putting a team together and then coaching it and win. As time goes on that kind of intrigues me a bit.” How has the development of the youth player changed since you were involved?
MB: “I would say the young guys have a lot more of an opportunity to play professional soccer than we ever had. For us it was high school to college and then if you were lucky enough to get picked for the national team you would go for two weeks, play a game and then back to college. If you ask most of us right now if there would have been a Project-40 or something similar when we were seniors, I can guarantee you probably 95 percent of players would have not gone to college. We all wanted to play professional soccer, but we just never had as much of an opportunity in the United States. We had a lot of amateur divisions back in the old days, but it is different now as soccer is more popular. There are residency programs, more soccer camps and universities are opening more doors for both men and women. It’s great to see how far soccer has come. We weren’t a huge part, but we were a small part that helped get the ball rolling in the right direction from 1990-98.” Now you’re working as a television broadcaster and doing color for MNT games. Is it harder than you thought? Have you learned anything more about the game or at least given you a different perspective?
MB: “You definitely get a different perspective. Television wasn’t something I thought I would do, but I had an opportunity with HD Net. When I did my first ever game and the game is getting ready to start and I was basically given a head set and told to go. I had no clue what I was doing, but it was fun. I think being an analyst that has played at a high level, you are going to pick out things that maybe some people don’t see. I’m still learning and I’m an OK broadcaster.  I’m getting better every year and JP Dellacamera, Glen Davis, Rob Stone and all the other guys are a huge help to me. I have a long way to go, but I enjoy it and I try to broadcast the way I think people want to see it. I try not to talk too much, but I try to get involved when I think it is needed. It’s a lot of fun, but it is a lot of work. You have to do a lot of studying because you have to know the player’s background and find interesting stories. I’m studying now more than I did in college.”