This week's installment of U.S. Soccer's ongoing 90-Year Anniversary Articles Series is a Q&A with Bob Gansler, whose career with the U.S. National Teams began in the 1960s. Now, 40 years later, Gansler reflects on the beginning of his soccer career, and the state of the game in the U.S. in the 1960s.
Ganlser, who played with the U.S. in the Pan-Am Games, Olympic qualifying and at the Full National Team level, served as the head coach of the U.S. MNT at the 1990 World Cup. In all, Gansler posted a 14-15-6 record as a head coach, and he earned five caps with the full U.S. Men's National Team.
Q&A with Bob Gansler
Describe the soccer landscape in the United States in the beginning of the 1960’s.
Bob Gansler: "At the beginning of the decade, your top soccer was played by the amateur/semi-professional teams in the big cities. College soccer was a miniscule dot on the landscape. In Chicago you had Schwaben, Kickers and the Greeks among others. In Milwaukee you had the Bavarians. In Detroit you had the Carpathian Kickers. In Philadelphia you had the Ukrainians, where Walter Chyzowych was playing, and there were clubs like this all over the country. The national team was about to compete in the Pan American Games in 1963, and shortly thereafter you had the trials for the World Cup team. Basically those teams were the same guys who were playing in the ethnic leagues. Not by accident, the trials for the 1963 Pan Am Games were held in St. Louis. More often than not, and justifiably so, half of the team was from St. Louis. That was the soccer environment."
Where were you at this point?
BG: "I was in Milwaukee, attending Marquette University, but they didn’t have a soccer team. I was playing for the Milwaukee Bavarians in the Wisconsin State League, and every weekend it was a real battle. Definitely the teams were drawn along ethnic lines. By and large the language on the field for our team was German. The other teams were the Polish team, the Serbian team, the Croatian team, the Italian team… and the same thing was happening in New York, L.A. and Philly. I’ve said it many times: it was the ethnic community that was keeping soccer alive at the time; youth soccer came later. The game was kept alive in the 50’s and 60’s by the ethnic community until the suburbs discovered that this is a great game for kids to develop coordination and the cardiovascular system, as well as being fun. The one big exception was St. Louis, where the players were a couple generations removed. There were still Italians and Germans playing, but it was their grandfathers or great grandfathers that came to populate St. Louis."
In addition to the local rivalries, did you have opportunities to compete against the other great clubs from around the country?
BG: "Well, every year there was the Amateur Cup and the U.S. Open Cup, and invariably it was the same teams. We played the same teams from Illinois, Missouri, and Michigan in both competitions. What also became very popular at that time was getting together for summer tournaments. A favorite one for us was the Schwaben Tournament in Chicago [which still exists today], as well as the Danube Swabian Tournament in Cleveland. These tournaments were almost exclusively played by German teams that came from all over the Midwest and beyond. The “tournamentitis” of youth soccer had a forerunner in those kinds of tournaments, but they were played for a different reason."
You mentioned the ethnic pride associated with individual clubs. What made life inside those clubs so much different than the youth and adult clubs of today?
BG: "Quite often, the social part of it was just as important as the soccer part. The soccer was played pretty well and fought extremely hard, but the camaraderie after the games – singing and dancing - were of huge importance too. I grew up at the Bavarian Club facilities. As a soccer player, yes, but as a person as well. We practiced twice a week, had fish fry on Friday, a dance Saturday night, and then the game on Sunday. It was a way for us to keep our heritage alive while growing up in an American society."
Tell us about your national team career.
BG: "After the 1963 Pan American Games, I played Olympic qualifying in 1964. I tried out and made the World Cup team in 1965, which was going to participate in qualifying in 1966. I pulled myself off that team, because if I played in World Cup qualifying, even though I was an amateur, I couldn’t have played in the Olympics in 1968, and I figured our chances would be better there. In 1967 I made the Olympic team, but we got knocked out in the first round of qualifying, so I never achieved my dream of playing in the Olympics. Back then, the chances of playing on national teams were so few and far between. From 1962-69, I made about every national team there was to make – Pan Am, Olympics, full national team – and I got up to about 25 appearances. Now you can do that in a year."
Without a professional league in place, what was the process like to be selected for the national team?
BG: "At that time, the way to do it was trials. There would be a trial or two out East, the same in the Midwest and West. Then you’d come together in one central location to be selected for the squad. It was an inexact science. There was no scouting; state associations would send their best players. You’d spend a weekend playing games, and they would either pick you or not. Later on, when I got into the national coaching scheme, Walt Chyzowych, among many others, decided we needed to get away from the trial format. That’s when the Select Team process was developed."
Was there a feeling of pride representing the United States at that time, or did the efforts of the teams go largely unnoticed?
BG: "When I went to the Pan Am games, the local papers covered it a little bit, but for the most part no one knew we were going down to Brazil in 1963 or Canada in 1967. Playing for the national team was self-serving. To be picked made you feel good. You were thought of as one of the better players in the whole country. The fact that we didn’t get much attention didn’t concern us. It goes back to the purpose of belonging to a club. Around the world, soccer is played at the club level, and those clubs are more than just athletic entities, they are the center of the social scene. For us it was a continuation of that when we made the national team. For sure we enjoyed our soccer, but there was much more to it… the social in general, as well as staying connected to our ethnic heritage."
You mentioned the rivalries that existed between clubs, especially those of different backgrounds. Was it ever a problem mixing such a diverse group of players at the national team level?
BG: "It was difficult. You never envied the coaches. Not only was it different nationalities, lifestyles and people from different parts of the country, but there was no budget to prepare these teams. Before we went to the Pan Am Games in 1963, we ran around a park in St. Louis for a few days, had a practice or two, and then headed to Sao Paolo to play against the budding stars of Brazil, Argentina, and the other great teams in South America. For example, we played against a Brazilian team whose starting right back was Carlos Alberto. I’m not saying ‘woe is us’, because I’ve said forever that the growth of soccer in this country is an evolutionary trek, and that’s where we were at that time. There were no camps, no exhibition tours in order to prepare; it was just something that you did and you did the best you could. I’d like to think that we had a pretty talented group of guys, but there was never any time to develop a great sense of a team. Sometimes it would happen that you had a well-knit group, and other times it was the East players not passing to the West players, and the Midwest guys were stuck in between."
When the NASL began in 1968, were there many opportunities for players like you to join the professional ranks?
BG: "Once the professional leagues merged in 1968, they had a draft. That year the NASL had 17 teams, and we played a schedule of 32 games. About half the players in the league, if not more, were from the ethnic leagues I grew up in. The Detroit Cougars drafted me, but I wanted to play in Chicago because it was closer to Milwaukee. A trade was enacted, and I played that season with the Chicago Mustangs. The team was owned by the Allen brothers, who also owned the Chicago White Sox, so we played at the old Comiskey Park. We dressed in the same locker room as the White Sox, and I had the same locker as Luis Aparicio. Games were drawing anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 fans. We made it to the playoffs, and it was the Atlanta Chiefs who won the title that year. The problem was there was no underpinning for that league. After 17 teams in ’68, a lot of owners said ‘this isn’t working out’. Some owners wanted to downsize and go to more of a regional schedule, even going so far as to becoming a semi-professional league. Our owners were in the minority that wanted to keep going the way it had been, and if it wasn’t going to be fully professional, they weren’t going to continue. So all of a sudden you went from 17 teams in 1968 to five teams in 1969. There were more than a few of us who realized we weren’t going to earn our living that way, so we went back to what we did before. I was a high school teacher when I was drafted by Detroit, and I wasn’t smart enough to ask for a leave of absence because I thought I’d be playing professionally for the next ten years. I did manage to get my old job back at Marquette High in Milwaukee, and went back to teaching and playing with the Bavarians. That was the story for quite a few of us."
Overall, did the arrival of professional soccer in the United States appreciably alter awareness of the sport?
BG: "I think it made more people aware of it, but what you heard was a continuation of what you heard in the early 60’s: that soccer was a game for foreigners, played by foreigners. I think that as the NASL built itself back up, they played a critical role in making more people aware of this game. I don’t know when, but slowly the suburban parents discovered this game as something that made a lot of sense for their kids. Did they fall in love with the sport? Not really. But soccer started to be an accepted participation sport. We need to continue to work diligently to make it a desirable spectator sport as well. I think the fact that a professional league came in the late ‘60’s sped up the evolution, both in terms of the numbers of people playing and watching."