It wasn’t uncommon on the U.S. National Team bus for U.S. Soccer Federation General Secretary Kurt Lamm to be one of the last people to board. And when he did, Mike Windischmann loved to announce it by making the sound of a bleating lamb: “Baaaaaaaa”!
Clearly annoyed, Lamm would spin around. “Who said that?”
When he turned back around to sit down, Windischmann would bleat again, this time usually with the rest of his flocking teammates.
“Now the whole bus is doing it,” teammate Bruce Murray remembers. “Windischmann, he and his buddy, Brian Bliss.”
“Windy” was the team captain and class clown. He hung the nickname “Beetlejuice” on Murray because of the movie character that he said looked like him – big body, little head.
“I don’t want that,” Murray pleaded. “I wanted something cool, but it spread. Windy was a character. “
And he had character, according to his former coaches and teammates. That character was needed in 1990 to lead a young, mostly college-age group to the USA’s first FIFA World Cup in 40 years.
“When we made Michael the captain, I know in America, it’s a democracy, you’re supposed to put it to a vote,” said Bob Gansler, coach of the 1990 team. “No, you don’t. You know who the guy is that the other guys can rely on. Who, in the middle of things, when the ship starts to rock, ‘OK, who do we give the wheel to?’ That was Michael.”
It was aplomb he learned alongside older players at immigrant soccer clubs in New York City after he and his family moved to the United States from Nuremberg, Germany, when he was three.
First it was Blau-Weiss Gotschee, a German-speaking southern region of what is now Slovenia.
Then it was Sporting Club Gjoa in Brooklyn and Queens United.
When he arrived in the United States in 1968, the North American Soccer League was just getting started. He went to see Pele with the New York Cosmos in 1975, became a ball boy for the club, and when Franz Beckenbauer arrived from Germany to join the team, Windischmann and his youth club team were there to greet him.
During his playing days he ran into Gary Etherington, an English-born midfielder who played for the Cosmos from 1977-1979 and also earned seven caps for the United States Windischmann teased him.
“’Hey, Gary, I gave you a ball when you were playing for the Cosmos,” said Windischman. “He’d be like, ‘Hey, don’t tell me that. You make me feel old.’”
Growing up watching the Cosmos and the NASL, Windischmann looked forward to a possible professional career when he grew up. He made his debut with the U.S. National Team in 1984 at 18 against Ecuador before a hometown crowd on Long Island. But by the time he graduated from Adelphi University in 1986, the Cosmos and the NASL had died.
“I kind of got caught in between (the NASL and Major League Soccer),” said Windischmann. “Basically we were trying for the next generation. It’s disappointing when you get caught between leagues.
“The focus was going to college, but after that the only thing you can do is make the National Team. That was the focus.”
After college, instead of heading to the Major Indoor Soccer League where most of his fellow graduating contemporaries went, Windischmann chose to stay in New York and play semi-pro ball with the Brooklyn Italians.
“If you were not established in the MISL, you were not making any money,” said Windischmann. “For me it was about the environment with the Brooklyn Italians, and playing with guys like Hubert Birkenmeier and Andranik Eskandarian.
“Most guys in MISL were making $22,000 a year. Guys with club teams were making maybe a couple hundred dollars, but it wasn’t a concern at that point.”
Birkenmeier, a goalkeeper, and Eskandarian, a fellow defender, were members of the Cosmos when the team closed its doors. Both migrated indoors to finish their professional careers but played with the Brooklyn Italians in the offseason.
Windischmann would make his way to the turf-covered hockey rinks for one season, playing in 1987-88 with the Los Angeles Lazers, scoring four goals in 21 games.
After that, the priority was the 1988 Olympics and beyond that, the 1990 World Cup.
One of his career highlights came in the opening match at the Seoul Games when he scored a goal to earn the United States a 1-1 draw with Argentina.
But it would be after the Olympics and after Gansler replaced Lothar Osiander that Windischmann would get the captain’s armband. Rick Davis had been captain and many expected the veteran would lead the team through qualifying and the World Cup.
However, a knee injury hampered Davis and Gansler turned the armband over to Windischmann.
“They’re trite phrases, but the intangibles were intact: confidence, composure, soccer intelligence,” Gansler said. “He didn’t have to run faster or jump higher, but he anticipated better and he knew angles. He had other qualities outside of the physical. He would have lost 40-yard dashes to anybody, but he wouldn’t have lost at Scrabble. He wouldn’t have lost at chess.”
They were qualities that were of use in Italy in 1990, especially after Eric Wynalda was ejected in the opening game against Czechoslovakia and the United States lost 5-1. The Americans recovered by holding World Cup favorite and host Italy to one goal in a 1-0 loss that surprised many.
“It helped,” Gansler said, explaining how Windischmann’s calmness enabled the Americans to rebuild. “What is one of the shortcomings of relatively young players? Immaturity. They will lose composure. They will get nervous. Windy wouldn’t get frazzled. Windy would say, ‘My brain will get me out of this.’”
The core of the 1990 team would go on to anchor the United States for the next decade and be the early attractions in MLS: Marcelo Balboa, Paul Caligiuri, Wynalda, John Doyle, John Harkes, Tab Ramos, Peter Vermes, and others.
Unfortunately for Windischmann, a knee injury would end his potential. While playing against Trinidad & Tobago in September 1990, a tackle from behind put a small tear in his anterior cruciate ligament. Later, while playing racquetball, the rest of the ligament went.
Surgery and rehabilitation got him back for the 1992 Futsal World Cup in Hong Kong, where the United States reached the final before losing 4-1 to Brazil.
But with MLS still years away, Windischmann realized it was time to do something else. He finished with 50 caps and was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2004.
“Obviously you have to make a living,” Windischmann said. “I’m staying in the game.
It was hard. I’m a believer that things happen for a reason. I had been injury free my entire career. The injury I got is one where, now, it’s about 6-8 months to recover, then it was a whole year in rehab. It was difficult. But this is what happens. Sports doesn’t last, and injuries are part of it. That’s what I teach kids now.”
Relying on his physical education degree, he became a teacher at the inner-city Susan B. Anthony Academy-I.S. 238 in New York City’s borough of Queens.
Acknowledging he missed out on playing overseas like some of his teammates such as Harkes, Ramos, Bliss and Wynalda, he has used his experiences for the past 18 years, teaching soccer in after-school programs.
His history has some effect, giving at least his young soccer-knowledgeable charges a notion that Windischmann speaks from experience.
“My soccer guys around, they know,” Windischmann said. “They bring CDs, seeing Olympic rings, World Cup stuff. They know. They appreciate it. Sports is a way to get in. Giving my experiences to them, this is a way to teach inner-city schools how important education is.
“I always tell them, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re Pelé, you’re not going to get a scholarship if you don’t have the grades.’”