Where are They Now: U.S. MNT Forward Ted Eck
Ted Eck remembers walking off the field in Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium and Bob Gansler approaching him.
It was Sept. 28, 1990, immediately after a select team of indoor players from the Major Soccer League had just drawn 1-1 with the U.S. Men’s National Team – an exhibition game suggested by the MSL as a way to choose the roster ahead of the United States’ first appearance at the FIFA World Cup in 40 years.
Eck was not selected to be a part of the World Cup team, and the U.S. coach wanted him to know why.
“Your pro team wouldn’t let me pick you,” Gansler told him.
“I was playing indoors with the Kansas City Comets, and on two different clubs, and when the National Team called, your pro team wouldn’t let you go,” Eck said. “It was a tough time. You wanted to be loyal, but also wanted to play for your country.
“My manager was making me feel guilty. If he lost the game, he could get fired. There were several instances where that happened.”
It was typical for many players who turned pro in the years immediately following the 1984 demise of the North American Soccer League. They were forced to play indoors in the winter and outdoors in the summer – wherever they could just to make a living – and had little time for much else.
It was an especially difficult time for a player like Eck: a tall, powerful forward with a knack for scoring goals. He made his way to England after attending Western Illinois, caught on for a few weeks with non-league Buxton FC and scored 10 goals in his first 10 games.
“I was paid under the table, in cash. It probably was not completely legal,” he said. “Big clubs were coming out to look at me. I asked a player I was staying with to be my agent, which was not good representation.”
Without some familial tie to England to claim citizenship or international playing status, a work permit was very unlikely. He returned home and began a vagabond career, still scoring goals: 38 in three seasons with the indoor Kansas City Comets and leading the Canadian Soccer League with 21 goals in 26 games in 1989.
“He was a tank,” said U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame defender Marcelo Balboa, a teammate of Eck’s on the 1992 APSL champion Colorado Foxes. “He was hard to mark. A big guy who liked to run around like he did was unheard of. He was a handful.”
It was a talent that served him well on five different indoor teams – and earned him a silver medal at the 1992 Futsal World Championship. When Major League Soccer launched in 1996, Eck’s coach on the Colorado Foxes, Dave Dir, selected him with his first pick in the inaugural draft to be part of the Dallas Burn.
“He was a defender who was a forward,” Dir said. “He could score goals, but no one could run with him. He could run all day. He always tried to play with skill, but he was a bull in a china shop. He had an engine.”
That engine resulted in one of Eck’s most memorable goals, a 60-yard run through the East German defense in a 2-1 friendly loss in Milwaukee, one month after the 1990 World Cup.
“It’s right up there with the bicycle kick I scored in the CSL,” Eck said, recalling one of 13 appearances he made for the National Team. “I tackled the ball from an East German in our defensive half, took the ball the length of field and slotted it inside the far post.
“Philip Gyau kind of made a run across the field, pulled two defenders with him, and left me one-on-one with a defender. Not only was it one my highlights for the National Team, it was one of the best goals I scored in all of my pro career.”
While his career included leading the CSL in scoring, winning the APSL championship and recording highlight-reel goals, by the time MLS launched, Eck was nearly 30. His competition for recognition and time with the national team had grown to include the likes Eric Wynalda, Cobi Jones, Earnie Stewart, Roy Lassiter, Joe-Max Moore and Jason Kreis, among others.
He still added accolades to his CV, winning the 1997 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title with Dallas before he retired after the 2001 season – which included one last indoor escapade with the Dallas Sidekicks in his final year as an active player.
“When we were putting Dallas together, Hugo Sanchez was already assigned to us,” Dir explained. “Hugo was, and I’m trying to be polite, ‘up in age.’ So with Ted’s work ethic in the APSL, the number of goals he scored, he seemed like a very good balance to Hugo.
“When you put team a together, it’s like a puzzle. He seemed to complement those others best. He had some intangibles you just can’t account for. That was special.”
But by age 35, Eck just “wanted to get away from soccer,” he said.
He went to Hawaii, went into banking and ended up in Maui. But unable to completely stay away, he ended up running the Maui United Soccer club for four years.
“I felt isolated from the pro game,” Eck said. “I wanted to come back to the mainland. I felt Maui was a great experience.”
Enticed by Kreis, who had become the head coach at Real Salt Lake, and his assistant Jeff Cassar, Eck was lured to coach the PDL Ogden Outlaws in 2009, but RSL dissolved its affiliation with the club after a year. Eck became the director of Firebirds FC, a Salt Lake City youth club that offers professional coaching for teams from U-9 to U-17.
Occasionally used as a scout by the U.S. Soccer Federation, he was in California when he crossed paths with Chris Klein, then the head of the LA Galaxy’s Development Academy program and now the club’s vice president.
Since last year, Eck has been in charge of the reigning two-time MLS Cup winner’s U-12 team.
His young students may not know or understand Eck’s experiences, but he brings a lot of it.
“I would say we filled a gap after the NASL to MLS,” Eck said looking back on his 14-year career. “We were pros: there was not a lot of money, tougher conditions, it hardened us a little bit.
“We were more resilient players: travelling by bus cross-county to play a game, in a certain environment where you had to perform or you were out. Even if you had a guaranteed contract, you didn’t know if the paycheck would come or not. All of us, the Americans between NASL and MLS, had a strong desire to get better. We were willing to play for next to nothing. We wanted to see the game grow.”