Walter Bahr was an American soccer icon, a renaissance man and one of the most beloved figures in the history of the sport in the United States. He excelled at the game at several levels, most notably as a member of the history-making U.S. Men’s National Team that upset England 1-0 at the 1950 FIFA World Cup.
He also was a successful coach at Penn State University and became an ambassador of the game, heading the U.S. delegation for many international matches and competitions. He also was the patriarch of an athletically talented family that included three sons who played professional soccer and a daughter who was an all-American gymnast.
Bahr, who was the last surviving member of the 1950 U.S. team that stunned England and the rest of the world, passed away on June 18, 2018. Few, if any other players, enjoyed the influence Bahr had over his many decades being associated with the beautiful game.
ussoccer.com spoke with several colleagues, former players, opponents and people that Bahr inspired over the years about Walter Bahr, the man, and his influence in American soccer over seven decades.
He inspired countless players, coaches, fans, media and people through several generations. His impact went further than just another participant in the beautiful game.
“Walter Bahr is one of the true legends of the game, one of the true gentlemen of the game. As great a soccer personality as he is, he's probably a better human being. No one would say a bad word about Walter Bahr." - JP Dellacamera
JP Dellacamera, long-time soccer play-by-play announcer: “When you think about the legends of the game, his name obviously comes to mind. Last survivor of the 1950 World Cup team, a very successful college coach, had three sons that played the game at the professional level. A great ambassador for the game. One of the classiest people I've ever met in the sport.”
Al Miller, who directed the Philadelphia Atoms to the 1973 North American Soccer League championship, played against Bahr in the Philadelphia leagues: “Walter was unique from this standpoint – sometimes you become famous because of timing not because of a long time career of doing great things like a Pele or a [Franz] Beckenbauer. Walt was the guy on the front end of the goal that beat England. So he got enormous fame in America for that. Not what he should have gotten in those days. Certainly over the years, the legend grew bigger and bigger.”
Hank Steinbrecher, former Secretary General and Chief Executive Officer of U.S. Soccer: “If you could pick your dad, he would be the kind of dad you would want to pick. He set such an example for all of us. Just to get to know him and hang around him. He was really modest, as funny as he could be. Loved a good laugh. Completely dedicated to what he was doing. He was a very, very good player. Look at his sons. They say like father, like sons. He's got some great boys who have done some great things.”
Jerry Moyer, who played at Penn State from 1981-84: “Other than my father, he is a male figure that has had the most impact on my life. He's such an amazing man who has changed so many people's lives, mine being one of them.”
His son Chris Bahr: “You let guys play. You see it in all sports. There's over-coaching. That's what I got from him: play it simple, make it easy. That was his life. It wasn't really complicated. He was a pretty simple guy. He coached. He worked and raised his kids. A pretty modest guy all along.”
Dr. Joe Machnik, former player, coach, referee and indoor soccer commissioner who currently serves as a Rules Analyst for Fox Sports: “Walter was the 2010 recipient of the Walter Chyzowych Lifetime Achievement Award (named after the late U.S. MNT head coach). He was really humbled and really touched by the award. According to Gene (Walter's brother), when the Walter Chyzowych family arrived in Philadelphia, Walter somehow found out about them and embraced them. Gene got a job at a school where Walter was working at, according to Gene. If it wasn't for Walter, the family would not have been able to make it happen in the Philadelphia area. Walter had a lot to do with that.”
Former U.S. international and TV announcer Ty Keough, son of Bahr's former teammate, Harry Keough: “I got to know Walt pretty well especially in later years with all of the Hall of Fame events, and especially around the time of the filming of the feature motion picture then called “The Game of Their Lives”.
“One thing which always impressed me was the deep friendship and respect evident between my dad and Walt. It’s obvious that this was forged both on and off the field. After my dad retired, he and my mom (who is from Guadalajara) began spending their winters in Mexico. My mom’s uncle had given her a decent house in a modest neighborhood in Guadalajara, which had a very nice garden with mango, grapefruit and avocado trees.
“When someone mentioned that my dad was now spending his time gardening in Mexico, Walt said, ‘No way, I’ve got to see this for myself!’ So, Walt and [his wife] Davies flew down and spent a couple of weeks in the nice weather. Around the corner along the curb was a “Puesto” or small food stand offering typical local fare. The Puesto was run by Miguel, and Walt became a regular. Despite the language barrier Walt became a favorite to Miguel and the guys of the neighborhood. He could just make friends anywhere.”
Beginning his international career at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, Bahr was capped 19 times through 1957, during an era when the USA would play as few as one game a year (in fact, during the 1950s, the MNT played in only 15 matches).
Underlining his longevity during that era, Bahr joined teammate Harry Keough as the first two USA players to appear in qualifiers for the three different FIFA World Cups (1950, 1954 and 1958). He started all three U.S. matches during the 1950 FIFA World Cup in Brazil and is best known for providing the assist on Joe Gaetjens’ 37th-minute game-winner in the USA’s 1-0 upset of England on June 29. He would go on to captain the USA in its final group match, a 5-2 defeat to Chile.
Dr. Joe Machnik: “That 1950 game has more relevance today than it did way back then when I was a kid and growing up because nobody even knew about it back then. We know more about it now than we knew back then. It received so little publicity.”
George Brown, former MNT teammate of Bahr and son of 1930 World Cup team member Jim Brown: “It got virtually no publicity anywhere in the States. It was like a page 14 story. We were tuned in. My father played in the first World Cup in 1930. So he appreciated the World Cup. He knew how important it was. Yet, we had been in the States for two years at that point and I was just starting to play amateur soccer. I was about 15 at the time, but it was never a subject of discussion. It was a passing observation. Frankly, it was an outlier and nobody appreciated the significance except, of course, England.”
J.P. Dellacamera: “I think he and Harry Keough and the other members of that team didn't make it out as big a deal as it should have been. Until 1990 that was it. We hadn't qualified for the World Cup since then. It was a big deal to be on that 1950 team. If there was social media going on in that day, those guys would have been heroes. They would be much more well known. That was a shocking result. If you remember, that was a result that people were saying it was a misprint or written wrong. That was not the right score. People were shocked at it.”
Hank Steinbrecher: “Remember, we were not supposed to do anything in that tournament. We were the young boys, the dishwashers from New York. What they did in that tournament was like climbing Everest without any equipment. For the longest time, no one could match it. It took 40 years and Walter certainly was the leader.”
National Soccer Hall of Famer Paul Caligiuri, who scored the goal in the 1-0 victory at Trinidad & Tobago on Nov. 19, 1989, that lifted the USA to its first World Cup in 40 years: “I wasn't there in 1950. I wasn't born. but getting to know Walter Bahr, I can almost guarantee that gentleman was a leader. Between his determination, his grit, his abilities, his talent, his character, his personality, I can be almost certain that Walter Bahr was the kind of leader a team needs to be successful. Yes, you have great players and great moments like Joe Gaetjens and Paul Caligiuri. You have those moments in the game. But at the end of the day, who were those leaders that led that team behind the scenes, in the hotel, on the plane. When things aren't going right for everybody, what's it going to take?”
Jack Huckel, former executive director of the National Soccer Hall of Fame: “Walter was a natural leader and was a physical education teacher. He did a lot with getting the players in better condition that Bill Jeffrey [the 1950 U.S. coach] or other coaches might not have done. He took pride in what he was doing and he wanted others to take pride.
“So he was into fitness, helping guys get more fit and he tended to lead the team that way. I don't know whether that was a role Bill Jeffrey or any other coach gave to him or one that he just assumed. That's what Harry Keough told me. He just took the lead for many of those things.
“Harry tells a funny story. He said they let me be the captain for the Spain game because he spoke Spanish and let Ed McIlvenny be the captain for the England game because he was from Britain and Walter was the captain for the last game against Chile because he was the captain anyways.
“He was finally the guy who was the captain because he really was the captain.”
Bob Gansler, who coached the USA to the 1990 FIFA World Cup: “We obviously were aware of it and got constantly reminded of the bad time we had since '50. We had a heck of a lot more going for us in '90 than he had in '50. And for them to accomplish that, was immense. We were thankful. We were the pioneers at that time. We knew the folks that paved the way and we were following what they had done, but for them it was even more difficult. They made do and not only made do, they thrived in those circumstances. We were extremely thankful for Walter and Harry Keough. Those two always went hand in hand. I know those guys were friends forever. They were in constant touch over the years. It was really fantastic when we had one of them, when we had two of them around the team. The stories would flow. It was like Broadway. It was immensely entertaining.”
National Soccer Hall of Famer Tony Meola, who backstopped the USA at the 1990 World Cup: “Walter is what we strive for. Because of guys like him, we dreamed about being in the World Cup. We wanted to be where they were. He just did it before us. I hope people get through your story or anywhere else that if you're a soccer historian, he is a name that you should know. Frank Borghi gets a lot of credit for being the goalkeeper in 1950, but there's a lot of other guys that we should all know and be thankful for because they really set the tone for who we wanted to be. It took us a little while to get there. When you think back to him and his era, I think people really take it for granted now how difficult it is and what an honor it is to get to the World Cup. It's never easy. But in this day and age, these guys have resources. they're playing full-time. These guys got to the World Cup with nothing. They should be commended as much as anybody for sure.”
George Brown: “I used to host what was affectionately known as the Liar's Retreat (during Hall of Fame weekend in Oneonta, N.Y.). Walter would come here all the time. We would sometimes have 20 or 30 Hall of Famers here at the house. It was a good escape for them. Walter was a great raconteur. He could tell stories. He used to pal at these sessions with Harry Keough and they would be swapping stories. Many of which were true.
“Walter was very humble. He never bragged about anything he did. He had kind of a self-deprecating sense of humor. For instance, in his description of his game against England, it was classic stuff. I remember him saying, ‘You know, George, they hit the crossbar. They hit the post. They hit Borghi in the back of his head. They hit a ball off his butt. We tripped them. We fouled them. Somehow we hung on for a 1-0 score.’ But he never said, "We played great.’”
Jim Stamatis, 1979 MAC Hermann Trophy winner who played at Penn State from 1975-1979: “If you didn't ask him, he never brought it up. I found out as an after-thought. I remember there was some event there were four or five of them (1950 USA players) that were there. He introduced me to them. I was fascinated to hear about it all.
“He said, ‘Jimmy, we were just a bunch of construction workers. We were playing against guys who were professionals that are getting paid on the weekends. They have the best equipment and facilities to train. Meanwhile we are taken out of our construction jobs and begging to take a few weeks off to go to a World Cup.’
“He said it was laughable. ‘Would you believe it?’ he said. ‘We ended up beating them.’ He never spoke about that. He always figured out a way to talk about some of his adventures and foibles and all the other things that he went through.”
It would be easy to forget that Bahr enjoyed an 11-year playing career, mostly for Philadelphia-area teams in the local leagues and the old American Soccer League. Among the clubs he proudly wore jerseys for included Philadelphia Lighthouse, Philadelphia Nationals (American Soccer League champions in 1950, 1951 1953 and 1955), Uhrik Truckers (ASL crown in 1956) and Philadelphia United German-Hungarians. He also played soccer while attending Temple University. During his playing career, Bahr taught physical education at Frankford High School in Philadelphia and coached its soccer team.
Al Miller, who directed the Philadelphia Atoms to the 1973 North American Soccer League championship, played against Bahr in the Philadelphia leagues: “He was a hell of a player. He was solid. just tough to play against. Great defender. Anticipated well. Read the game beautifully. Pretty skillful for back in those days for an American.”
George Brown, who played for the German-Hungarians in the German American Soccer League in New York City in the early 1950s: “Our teams would occasionally meet for either U.S. Open Cup matches or the Lewis Cup. I played with him on the National Team one time and in several all-star games when I was in the American Soccer League. It's very easy to remember Walter. You have to understand, Walter was unique for an American-born college player, because of his combination of ball skills and his ability to read the game. He had a great sense of the game. And he combined that with what was a uniquely American technique at the time, which was run, run, run, run, run, run.”
“Walter had the drive and the energy of a typical American college player, but with all the skills of a good professional player. In fact, Walter could have played anywhere in the first division in Europe. He was what we called a chesty player. He played tight up against somebody, very strong in the tackle, very methodical. And when he delivered the ball, he did it with a game presence. He knew where he was. He didn't have to hold the ball and look around. He knew precisely where everybody was. Not only was he a good technician, he was a good tactician. He would have fit very well in Scottish football.”
Dr. Joe Machnik: “I saw him play at the Metropolitan Oval (in New York City) when I was a junior player for the New York Ukrainians. He still had a name. Late 1950s or early 1960s. I remember him. He was big, he was strong. He was either bald or shaved his head tight like some of the people today. That was the only time I saw him play. He had a presence on field. Maybe it had to do with his name because you were looking for him. Certain guys back then in the old German-American League had field presence. The games who revolved around them. There were all kinds of great players playing in the league back then.”
Jack Huckel: “He was offered an opportunity to go to England to play. He could make more money as a school teacher and playing on the weekends in Philadelphia in the fifties than with the maximum wage in England. He told me a story that he used to play in the summers in Montreal because he worked at a summer camp in the Adirondacks.”
Bahr was never one to brag or wear his accomplishments on his sleeve. He was a humble man, who would never bring up the fact he played in that historic game in Belo Horizonte in 1950. On the flip side, Bahr also could be the life of the party.
Arnie Ramirez, former Long Island University coach whose teams played against Penn State: I met him during a Fourth of July weekend at the Pennington School in the 1970s. We were getting our “C” coaching license with Dettmar Cramer. I got in early and it wasn't open yet, so I went to a bar to get something to eat and who was right there next to me? Walter Bahr, who I didn't know.
“We sat next to each other and he said to me, ‘My name is Walter Bahr. Are you here for the coaching?’ I said, ‘Yes I am.’ He goes, "I just got back with my wife Davies from Barcelona.’
“So we started talking about Real Madrid, Barcelona, Santos. We hit it off right away. This is soccer people. When they're genuine soccer people you hit it off right away. He never mentioned whether he played or not. Our interest was talking about international soccer. I respected him when I first met him because he was such a gentleman. He was such a genuine person. He wasn't the type to say, ‘I played in the World Cup. Dettmar Cramer never said anything to the group that Walter was a World Cup player. I don't know why.”
Chris Bahr, one of his sons: “That was him. He always thought he would have done more on the national level, coaching-wise if he had been a little more self-promoting like other guys. He sort of did his stuff. Do your job and let other people talk. You wouldn't have known he played unless someone brought him up. It was just the way he did things.”
Dr. Joe Machnik: “He also was great with one liners. He had joke for just about everything. He was a great public speaker with his stories. You didn't want to come up to the podium after he spoke.”
Barry Gorman: Walt could come out with these little stories and just nail it. I remember him telling a story about he was so into the game, he was prowling the sidelines, mumbling more to himself than to the players on the bench.
He said, ‘Jimmy get up and go in. Go and take so-and-so out.’ Well, the wrong Jimmy gets up, goes in, takes out the wrong player and scores the winning goal.
Walt turns to the bench and says, ‘Now, that's coaching.’”
Former Penn State goalkeeper Greg Kenney: “We played at the University of Connecticut on a Sunday. We won, 2-1. Three balls hit the post. I think I got hit in the face with two shots. We dodged a few bullets. At the University of Connecticut, you had a meal with the UConn players before we got on the bus to head home.
UConn head coach Joe Morrone gets up and says, ‘I always loved playing against Walter. I thought we were a little bit unlucky today. A couple of those balls looked like they were going in. Somehow they didn't. But it was a great match and great crowd.’
Then Walter walks up and he goes, ‘Joe, I think I just outcoached you today.’
The players were just cracking up. Obviously he and Joe Morrone were great old friends. It was classic Walter Bahr – a short, succinct statement that lightened everything and put everything into perspective.”
When you think of the Bahr family, you have to think athleticism.
Casey Bahr, who attended the U.S. Naval Academy, was a member of the Olympic team that performed at the 1972 Olympics. He went on to play for the Philadelphia Atoms (North American Soccer League) and Philadelphia Fever (Major Indoor Soccer League).
Chris Bahr, who played for Walter for one year at Penn State, was named 1975 NASL rookie of the year before he went on to a 14-year NFL career with the Cincinnati Bengals, Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders and San Diego Chargers. He won two Super Bowls.
Matt Bahr also performed for his dad at Penn State before playing for the Colorado Caribous and Tulsa Roughnecks in the NASL. He enjoyed a 16-year NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots, winning two Super Bowls as well.
Walter's daughter Davies Ann, was an All-American gymnast with the Nittany Lions. Her son, Casey Desiderio, went on to play college soccer at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.
Chris Bahr: The one thing that I will say is the thing that sticks out about growing up in our family the most, I don't remember our dad teaching us anything athletically. I'm sure we played together and we did things – a catch and kicked around like every other father and son and daughters. But I don't recall him teaching us anything. I'm sure he taught us a lot. The fact that he did it without us knowing is pretty special.”
Huckel: “It's an amazing group. I met Matt a few times, Chris once, Davies Ann once or twice and Casey once or twice. They're all humble about who they are. That's something he taught them. It's interesting to see the family trait come through that way.”
Gorman: “Davies used to sort of joke she was the one that didn't get enough recognition for being on the all-Bahr team. She used to laugh at that. It really came from her side of the family. That was the way they were. They deflected stuff. They realized that the athleticism in the general scheme of things was fleeting and you're one second away from an injury.”
Walter Bahr flanked by his sons Chris, Casey and Matthew
Chris Bahr on he and Matt deciding to go from pro soccer to the NFL: “I'm sure he understood completely. I could play soccer, which I really enjoyed and I was really involved in. It got down to do I play soccer or do I eat? Do I play soccer or do I put a roof over my head? There was no money then. It was a fairly easy decision financially for both of us. People don't believe it, but it's true. The year I came out of college, after playing one year in the North American Soccer League, the following year I was offered $5,000 to play for the team, a $1,000 a month. If I could make 15 grand playing soccer. I would have never kicked.”
Kenney: “In my freshman and sophomore years, they were home and worked the camps with us. They would come and play in the evenings. The most unbelievable thing was that they would work on their kicking. I'm 99 percent sure it was Matt. Matt was kicking and coach Bahr was standing directly in front of him. Matt was just thundering the ball over his head. I was like, if he slips, if he mishits it, he was like eight yards away -- I was in goal and I felt how hard Matt could kick the ball. I have no idea how coach Bahr could stand there. I know I certainly wouldn't stand there.”
In the late 1980s, Bahr became an ambassador for the game and head of the delegation for many games and tournaments. Sometimes he would team up with his former international teammate Harry Keough, another member of that 1950 team. They both were with the team in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago on Nov. 19, 1989, when the USA qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. Bahr also traveled with the national team to the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Bahr and Keough became an inspiration to the team and players.
Hank Steinbrecher: “We sent him all over the place. The first trip was to China. What a great face for American soccer. Tell me who's going to do better? Even today there's nobody better. He was very politically sensitive. What it all boils down to, he's a smart man.”
Paul Caligiuri: “To have a former World Cup player there when we're going to the first World Cup in 40 years is like, 'Wow, we do have World Cup players around.’ It was kind of cool. I remember, not just me, but generally speaking with the players, you wanted to reach out and talk to him. You wanted to get a moment alone with him. He was willing to do that. He really connected with the players. We thought that was awesome. The guy played in the World Cup in a different period, a different era from what we were embarking upon. It put things into perspective that we had it a lot better than we thought. It made us look at what we had in the current situation and be grateful for that and remain focused on what we needed to do on the field, rather than be distracted in other places. He was a joy to have around.”
Jack Huckel: “He was the head of delegation when the team went to Italy. When people greeted the team, they realized when they greeted Walter. He was more important than the rest of the team because he was the guy on the team that beat England. So, there was a lot of deference to him because of that.”
Paul Caligiuri: “Wearing a U.S. soccer blazer or badge, that wasn't enough for him. I would say he was part of that team. He was older. He couldn't play on the field. He certainly was part of what makes a team successful. I can only imagine he was that same type of role model when he was playing and had that same affect with us, inspiring us, mentoring us through different things, becoming part of the team.”
Bob Gansler: “I remember one trip he was with the Under-20 team that (I had that went to Saudi Arabia and did quite well in 1989. Saudi was a little bit of closed society when you are looking for some things that us Westerners consider necessary. They have their ways of getting their alcohol as well. There was Walter setting (things) up. We had an excursion to the U.S. Embassy and then we had boat rides in the Red Sea and then lo and behold there would be American beer. We were calling him a miracle worker.”
“Walter Bahr was super positive no matter what difficult question we asked. ‘What would you do differently?’ He would come up with a perfect answer and it's inspired. He spoke with a sophisticated knowledge and history. So much wisdom. I think it's because of who he is as a person.” - Paul Caligiuri
You can ask a dozen people what a man's legacy will be and you can get as many answers. Walter Bahr definitely fell into that category, given his influence on the sport. His impact on the game can be measured today and probably will be in the decades to come as well.
Arnie Ramirez: “Penn State, the legacy that he's left with so many teams. I just have a feeling that Penn State will do something for him, maybe build a statue. He's had some excellent players, excellent teams. And they tried to play nice soccer. He always liked the Brazilian type of soccer. He also was the ambassador. He has a great legacy in soccer, college soccer and in international soccer.”
Barry Gorman: “Personally, I just think it's a shame that he never coached any of our national groups because I know every national coach who was ever around him when he was going along as head of delegation or it was coming along as an ambassador of U.S. Soccer, all of those guys spoke highly of him: Bruce Arena, Bob Gansler, the players as well. His legacy is that he is a true icon of American soccer, player and a coach. He was a fan of the game. He was a player. He was a part of the German-Hungarian set up in Philadelphia, a father who had his kids playing soccer at a time when it wasn't maybe as attractive as it is today. But he kept everything in perspective.”
Al Miller: “As Walter got older as he got outside the game, he got more inside of the game. His name became more noticeable. His name became more reputable. People started looking up to him a and the legend. His fame increased rather than decreased, which is interesting, isn't it?”
Bob Gansler: “He's one of the bright lights because he was an integral part of that 1950 team. It's difficult to get to a World Cup and it's even more difficult to be successful and they had one of the best games of all-time. In every book you read about the World Cup, the 1950 game, U.S.-England is going to be mentioned, if not featured. The fact that Walter was an integral part of that, a leader with that squad, makes him one of the shining lights as part of that evolution.
Hank Steinbrecher: “You can get to the very top of your game, beating England in the World Cup and maintain humility, dignity and integrity. That's his legacy. More of us should model ourselves after him, should emulate him.”
Paul Caligiuri: “He was there 40 years before we were. His story itself is a legacy and he is a living legacy of U.S. Soccer that can be definitely beneficial today. He did coach at Penn State. He had two sons who were successful in the NFL. You also can talk about what they did in 1950. They performed the unthinkable and the impact he has had with past World Cup teams. The success he had at Penn State University. He understands the college system, how it's grown from one step to another. When you think of U.S. Soccer, you have to think of Walter Bahr.”
Dr. Joe Machnik: “First as a good guy. Obviously that. His humility, his good humor, his coaching record at Penn State. He was a member of the Red Aprons of the NSCAA (a honor given to distinguished members of the organization), a leader in that organization as well. Just a lifetime achievement. His legacy is his achievements and dedication to the game.”
George Brown: “He will be remembered for that one shining moment against England. What he should be remembered for was the class he brought to the game at all levels as an American-born individual, including high school, college and professional leagues. It was very unusual. He clearly was the role model for a number of coaches. He ran a lot of soccer camps in the summer. He affected the growth of soccer in this country and particularly because he was American-born so he had unusual credibility. Normally it would be if you had an accent, you clearly were an expert in soccer and that was just the way it was. Walter earned his respect on the field and as a coach.”
Jack Huckel: “His legacy is for those who know his coaching record. For his 14 years at Penn State they made the NCAA tournament 12 times. If you talk to the players who played for him, they have an incredible amount of respect for him.”
Greg Kenney: “You never felt like you had to win at Penn State. It wasn't about winning. It was about working. He obviously did want to win. You were trying to do the things we worked on at practice.
“‘Work hard and we'll win enough games.’ It was really an interesting philosophy. When you're at that level, people are judging it on winning and losing. But that is such a moving target. If the team was hard working and we did the things we were supposed to do, you're probably going to win most of the games. You never felt like winning or losing was the ultimate goal. You felt there was something greater.”
Chris Bahr: “He was well respected in the soccer community as a player and a coach. People thought he did stuff, hopefully, the right way. All I know is I’ve never gone back to visit a coach I had. He’s had tons of guys that come back every year to see him. So he had an effect on a lot of kids lives. People enjoyed playing for him. I'm sure there was a bunch who didn't enjoy it. People come back and see him. and that to me indicates an awful lot.”
Moyer: "He's impacted the game of soccer in more ways than any other person than I know or that I know of. As we all know, there has been thousands and thousands of great people, coaches, players and people who have put their stamp on the game in different ways. I honestly can't think of a person who has touched the game of soccer and include soccer from so many different levels, as a player, as a coach, as a mentor, as a friend. Coach Bahr literally has touched millions of people. I guess that is a legacy. He has touched more people in this beautiful game."
Touching tributes poured in on social media from all corners of the soccer community as news spread that Hall of Fame coach Sigi Schmid had passed away on Christmas Day 2018. And amid the sadness shared by so many who knew him, the messages also provided the rest of us a glimpse into the kind of man that Sigi was, and reminded everyone of the influence Sigi had on the American soccer landscape.
For newer fans of the game, Sigi will be remembered as one of the greatest of MLS coaches, leading the Columbus Crew, Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy to multiple trophies each. Older fans may recall the soccer factory he created while coaching UCLA to numerous NCAA Championships in the 1980 and ‘90s, churning out future U.S. Soccer legends like Cobi Jones, Brad Friedel, Paul Caligiuri, Joe Max-Moore, Frankie Hejduk, Eddie Lewis and Chris Henderson, among others.
It’s also important to highlight the impact he had with two teams he coached for shorter time frames: the U.S. U-20 MNTs that participated in the 1999 and 2005 FIFA U-20 World Youth Championships, each time advancing to the knockout stage while facing the likes of Argentina, England, Germany, Spain and Italy.
Seven players from those U-20 teams would go on to represent the MNT at senior FIFA World Cups, while many others also had solid pro careers. And if not for Schmid, we may never have known some of those players. We caught up with a few from each team:
1999 FIFA U-20 World Cup Championship:
While at UCLA, Sigi also assisted the MNT at 1994 FIFA World Cup and coached the following year’s Pan-American Games. In 1997, he was also coaching the U-18 MNT when he went to scout a player who had just played in the U-17 FIFA World Youth Championship and was playing for his high school in Southern California. However, as Carlos Bocanegra tells it, there was a mistake on the published schedule and the team that Sigi went to see was not playing. Sigi stuck around anyway, and watched the promising football wide receiver, Bocanegra, play soccer for his Alta Loma High School.
“I think about that all the time,” the two-time World Cup veteran Bocanegra told ussoccer.com this week. “That was my break. That was my chance. He gave me the opportunity and I was able to take that opportunity. That’s how I was able to kick-start my soccer career – pure coincidence that he was watching my game that got mixed up and he saw me play.”
Schmid invited Bocanegra, a junior at the time, to a U-18 camp. The next year he continued his pursuit of the talented defender and recruited Bocanegra to join him at UCLA. Their bond strengthened when Schmid took over the U-20 MNT and made Bocanegra a key member of the USA’s 1999 FIFA World Youth Championship side in Nigeria.
That team also included fellow future senior World Cup players Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Nick Rimando and Chris Albright, as well as long-time pros Danny Califf, Nick Garcia, Cory Gibbs, John Thorrington and Taylor Twellman, who became one of the most prolific American goalscorers in the pro ranks.
“That World Cup, playing with Sigi, had a massive impact on me and ultimately convinced me that I needed to go pro,” said Twellman, who at the time was also contemplating if his future would be in baseball, where he also excelled.
At the tournament, the USA defeated an England side that featured Ashley Cole and Peter Crouch, fell to Shinji Ono’s Japan, and defeated Cameroon in group play before falling by a score of 3-2 in the Round of 16 to eventual champions Spain that included Iker Casillas and Xavi.
In the lead up to that tournament, Sigi broke from the past and brought the team overseas for training, including to Morocco for two games and on a two-week fitness camp in Germany, where the team stayed at a bed-and-breakfast.
Bocanegra in action vs. Argentina in 2003, a few short years after graduating from Schmid's tutelage.
“He really tried to give us good experiences that he thought would help us later in our career,” said Bocanegra. “He always tried to set trips up around where we could watch games at a higher level and get experiences to challenge ourselves in different ways than was maybe common practice. He always wanted the best for the group and to give us the best experiences to try to better ourselves, not only on the field but in life and to become well-rounded in the game.”
As a reward for the hard work in Germany, Sigi brought the U20s to France to attend the 1998 World Cup match between the USA and Germany.
“Sigi had such a feel for the game of soccer, domestically and globally,” said Chris Albright. “He always communicated that we were putting on our nations colors and flag, representing the country. He drilled that in us that this was not to take it for granted, that it was not to be taken lightly.”
Like Bocanegra, Sigi introduced Albright to the National Team scene. Later he helped pick him up when things were not going well at D.C., trading for him in LA. At the suggestion of then MNT coach Bruce Arena, Sigi helped convert Albright from a forward into a defender, a move that later landed Chris on the 2006 World Cup team.
“He had an excellent ability to teach multiple positions; he could make me a better forward, wide midfielder, defender,” Albright said. “He could teach principles of different positions to help each player grow, and that teaching element in developing us at that time was unique.”
Twellman scored four goals in the tournament, good for third overall, thus becoming the first American to capture a scoring award (Bronze Boot) in a FIFA World Youth Championship.
Twellman accepts the Bronze Boot alongside then U.S. Soccer president Dr. Robert S. Contiguglia.
“When people talk about Sigi, they talk about his love of the game,” Twellman said, who a few months later would leave Maryland to sign with 1860 Munich in Germany. “But he was also a gentleman and was kind off the field. Every single one of us on that team, if we saw Sigi 3-4-5-10 years down the road…he always watched our games, even when he was not our coach. He was always willing to talk to us, showed interested in us, asked us about our lives.”
Now the Technical Director of MLS Cup champion Atlanta United, Bocanegra draws from those early experiences under Schmid.
“Even though we were young, he really tried to instill the professionalism in us,” Bocanegra said. “The detail, structure, organization – challenging us. He always made time to make people feel important. He never stopped, through college, through pros, was always available. He was pretty special.”
2005 Under-20 World Youth Championship
A week after that 1999 U-20 tournament came to an end for the USA, Sigi also began his pro career, taking the helm of his hometown LA Galaxy for the next five seasons.
He returned to coach the U-20 MNT in October 2014, having only a couple months to scout and prep players for January’s U-20 Concacaf Championship.
Two years earlier, Schmid’s Galaxy had eliminated Kansas City and veteran National Team player Peter Vermes from the MLS Cup Playoffs. After the game, Vermes recalled this week, Schmid approached him and told him he’d like to have him on his staff one day.
Fast-forward to fall 2014, a since-retired Vermes called Sigi and reminded him of that conversation. Schmid held true and invited Vermes to a three-week U-20 camp. After a week of evaluating, Schmid told Vermes he had earned one of the assistant coach positions.
“It was a great opportunity for me just to be around somebody like him with as much knowledge and experience that he had,” Vermes said, who enters the 2019 season as the longest tenured MLS coach, having taken the reigns of Sporting KC in 2009. “I already knew I wanted to coach for a long time, but what those experiences give you is like anything – when you first want to do something, you’re excited, you’re ambitious, you’re motivated, you’re all those things. But sometimes you lack the confidence. For me, Sigi gave me a direction that I felt comfortable with because I had gotten a chance to see a lot of different things that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t get that chance to be with him and spend all that time, and the preparation, and everything. It was a great experience.”
Schmid’s first friendly was in November in Ft. Lauderdale. Due to College Cup, some would-be regulars were not available, so Schmid called in four new players, including UCLA speedster Marvell Wynne, who had never been called to any YNT camp before.
“I think I should have been more in the moment with everything that happened,” Wynne admits. “When I got called in I remember thinking ‘these guys are way better than me.’ But Sigi kept calling me back. When he said I made the team, I was definitely shocked.”
For a mid-December camp Schmid called in 30 players, including UCLA walk-on midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who also had never been on any Youth National Team. Like Wynne, Feilhaber also made a formidable impression.
Wynne and Feilhaber were instrumental in helping the USA qualify for the
2005 FIFA U-20 World Youth Championship three weeks later.
Let’s back up for a second. Sigi’s sons also played college soccer in the LA area around that era. And, family man that he was, he would always attend their games, first Kurt’s at UCLA, and later Kyle’s at UC-Irvine.
“It’s what jump-started my entire career,” said newly retired 12-year pro Brad Evans. “The only reason I made that U-20 team is because Kyle Schmid transferred to UC Irvine. Without Kyle transferring there was absolutely no reason for Sigi to come watch UCI play.”
Schmid had spotted Evans that fall at UCI, but it wasn’t until after the U-20s had qualified for the World Cup that he called in the versatile player to his first National Team camp at any level.
Vermes explained how Sigi gave the preliminary roster to rest of the coaching staff and told them that they could each make a case for one player to either be replaced or be added.
“A lot of guys in that position would never consult the rest of staff,” Vermes said. “I thought that showed a lot of security and confidence on his part, to know what his decisions were but also want to know what his staff’s decisions were, and ultimately to make the best decision. There’s no doubt that that has helped me, and I would say that a lot of the players that were identified are players that are still playing or who had great careers because they were identified correctly.”
Wynne, Feilhaber and Evans were on the final 21-player roster, along with Jonathan Spector, Sacha Kljestan, Lee Nguyen, Freddy Adu, Chad Barret and Eddie Gaven, among others who also had solid pro careers.
The team shocked the world in the tournament opener, defeating Argentina 1-0 thanks to a Barrett goal assisted by Wynne. It would be the only loss and shutout suffered by the South Americans, who won their next six matches en route the lifting the championship trophy with future international stars Sergio Aguero, Lucas Biglia, Pablo Zabaleta, Fernando Gago and Golden Ball and Golden Boot winner, Lionel Messi.
Chad Barrett, who would go on to play professionally under Schmid in MLS, scored the game-winner vs. Argentina at the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship.
The 20s then played Germany to a scoreless draw and defeated Egypt 1-0 before losing 3-1 to Italy in the Round of 16. The experience and exposure provided opportunities to a number of players.
Feilhaber would soon sign with Hamburg, and later would score one of the best goals of the USA’s rivalry against Mexico, helping the MNT win the 2007 Gold Cup. And despite interest from international clubs, Wynne and Evans returned to school. Wynne became the top pick in the next MLS SuperDraft and Evans was selected 15th overall the following year by Columbus’s new coach, Sigi Schmid.
“He means more than I can really describe,” Feilhaber said, who along with Spector also made the 2010 FIFA World Cup roster. “Getting that opportunity with the 20s led to everything else in my life. I have no idea if I would have become a pro. I know I would not have been as successful financially, [and] going to Europe that early helped me immensely as a player. I don’t know if I would have ever played on the National Team let alone in a World Cup. I’m really grateful for Sigi having that keen eye and for giving me that opportunity.”
Sigi not only gave Evans his international debut and professional debut but would also bring him to Seattle on their way to spending 10 pro seasons together.
“He was the pivot for me in my entire career,” Evans said. “You have youth coaches, parents, but if you want to talk about the person who I’m able to talk about 12 years later and say I played professionally because of them…yes, it comes from within, but you have to have someone who pushes you and really believed in you, and Sigi was the guy for me.”
Sigi’s memorial took place on Friday, Jan. 18 in Los Angeles.
In March 2017, after more than 300 MLS games and having also represented the USA in the 2008 Olympics and 2009 Confederations Cup, Wynne’s career came to an end after undergoing a heart procedure.
When he came to from the operation, one of the first voicemails he listened to was from Sigi Schmid.
“Sigi was the reason I became a pro,” Wynne said. “He got me on to the scene, kept me there, had confidence in me and he kept me going. In terms of coaching, it was more, ‘get the basics right and perfect them.’ He was the first one to hammer that home, and if you ever saw my career, it was basic.”
A reflective Wynne made a special trip to an LA Galaxy game last year to meet up with his former coach.
“We talked about my heart situation, and caught up about everything,” Wynne said. “And I told him, ‘you’re the reason I went pro.’ I was able to tell him face to face, but I hoped he knew.”
“Yea, the opportunity, experience and all those other things were great, but the best thing for me, to be honest, was that he and I became friends after that 2005 Youth Championship,” Vermes said. “We always, always talked and kept in touch and spent time with each other. We had a very good relationship.”
“I sense that he knew what he meant to me,” Feilhaber said. “The way that we spoke was not in a way that most coaches to ex-players do. We were friends - he understood how much of an influence he had on me. We had respect for each other, and I’m going to miss him a lot, but it’s so important to have these memories about him.”
“We talk about a coaching tree a lot, but Sigi’s got the player tree, the coaching tree, the soccer tree really,” Bocanegra said. “So many people spiraled off the opportunities he gave them. Through soccer he gave so many people their start. But the biggest part that everybody remembers is that he cared about each and every person. He wanted to get the best out of them, and did not give up. He would give second chances, third chances - if you were his guys, and you worked for him he was going to his damndest to get the best out of you and make you a better player or person in general.”
“When I think back on it, especially the last couple of weeks, we always talked about getting the ‘Sigi shirt-tug,’” Evans reminisced. “Once he got a hold of your shirt and put his arm around you, there was no getting away from it. But I remember him being very honest with me in everything. He never blew smoke up my tail or thought that I was better or worse than I was. He always believed in me. We really trusted each other when it came to soccer and had an unspoken relationship that just worked. It’s something that I’ll cherish and remember forever.”Read more