We conclude our series of Q&A with Philadelphia-born National Hall of Famer Len Oliver.
SASH: You write in the final part of your article from 1992, “Ironically, our nation’s inner cities, just as they were when we were playing on the streets of Kensington, are once again America’s future in soccer.” What’s your assessment of how well we’ve done at fulfilling the promise of that future?
Len Oliver: There has been greater interest in inner-city soccer for youngsters over the past decade, thanks in great part to the US Soccer Foundation, to Organizations like DC SCORES and Soccer in the Streets, and to the MLS clubs becoming more interested in player development at the younger ages. For example, DC United has established United Soccer Club, reaching some 800 youngsters in inner-city Washington, DC every week. United SC provides equipment, training, and coaching, with the school providing the facilities. There’s great potential here, and my belief is that we will only become a strong, international contender in world soccer when we finally engage inner-city youth.
Note that there is little baseball in our inner-cities because of the slow pace, little ice hockey because of the lack of facilities, and declining interest in football because of the risk of injury and the costs of equipment and liability insurance. Soccer can fill this niche. My experience, from giving inner-city clinics for both coaches and players, is that once exposed to soccer, the kids love it. They are being physical, making their own decisions, and participating in an international sport.
SASH: You describe the impact the NASL had on growing the game in the US. How did you experience that growth as a youth soccer coach?
LO: We went to most NASL games by the Washington Diplomats over the years from 1968-1984 at RFK Stadium. The NASL kept the game alive, exposed our young players to Pele, Johan Cruyff, Hans Beckenbauer, Georgio Chinaglia, and other international stars, and kept the pro game alive in the media and the public eye for many years. The major problems with the NASL were three-fold: (1) Most of the foreign stars were aging, in their mid-30s, and past their prime. They could only give a season or two. (2) There were only a handful of American players who could play at this level, e.g., Kyle Rote, Ricky Davis, and without American players, the kids could not identify with the teams. And (3) The rapid expansion in the late 1970s to 24 teams far exceeded the existing fan base.
Our DC Stoddert Soccer League, founded in 1977, like so many clubs of that era, was created because of the intense interest Pele, and others, brought to our sport. You’ll find that most of our youth clubs were founded in the mid-1970s, in my opinion, a direct result of the influence of NASL and stars like Pele.
SASH: Just a few years after you wrote your article the US was host to the 1994 World Cup. Can you describe what that meant to you as someone who had represented the US on the field some 30 years before?
LO: We were all proud to host the World Cup in 1994, attending all the games in Washington, DC and going to games in New York as well. The World Cup helped to put the US on the “soccer map,” even though we did not have a functioning pro league at the team. Nevertheless, the success of our World Cup led directly to the establishment of Major League Soccer with its maiden season in 1996, and helped to encourage the development of youth soccer clubs throughout the country.
SASH: Not long after that MLS began. You’ve played as a pro in the ASL, seen the NASL come and go, what were your thoughts when MLS came into the picture?
SASH: I had great trust in Alan Rothenberg, President of the US Soccer Federation, and Hank Steinbrecher, Secretary-General, to get MLS on the path to success. They made all the right moves at the time, in establishing franchises, in recruiting both player and coaching talent, and in creating a positive atmosphere for fans in pro stadiums, mostly football, across the country.
In fact, the top reasons MLS went to a March-November calendar, from the beginning, was to take on baseball for media attention, use the pro football stadiums converted to soccer, and to avoid winter play. Basically, this scheme worked to soccer’s advantage, although I believe we should now get on the FIFA Calendar. We used to play all winter, without a problem, but like most European leagues, MLS could always close down for a month or two in the winter. This would free up our clubs and players for international competition.
The most promising development for MLS, in my opinion, is the creation of soccer-specific stadiums in some 14 cities. At RFK, for example, DC United derives neither parking fees or concession fees during game days, and that would be corrected over time with our own stadium.
SASH: You’ve lived in the DC area for some time now. Am I right that you are a fan of DC United?
LO: I have held season tickets for DC United since inception in 1996, sitting in the same seats: Section 306, Row 1. I also have credentials to move around the stadium, and we hold numerous events there, e.g., our “Recognition Night” for our Virginia-DC Soccer Hall of Fame members, usually held at halftime of a DC United game. I attend DC United events and try to promote the club with our soccer community whenever possible.
SASH: As someone born and raised in Philadelphia, what were your thoughts when the city finally got an MLS team? Have you followed the fortunes of the Union, even if from afar?
LO: I was overjoyed when Philadelphia received a MLS franchise. I do follow the fortunes of the Philly Union, and I am on personal terms with President Nick Sakiewicz and Coach John Hackworth. Great franchise, good people, and I hope they do well (except when playing DC United!). I think the PPL Park is a model for other MLS franchises seeking stadium facilities. Good organization!
SASH: Do you still have contacts in the Philly soccer community?
LO: Yes, I get calls from several people on a regular basis. For example, Marty Phillips, senior referee, always calls me when there is news about Philly soccer players and personalities. Just last week, Marty called with news that Benny McLaughlin had passed away. That was sad and Benny was both my hero and eventually a fellow teammate on the field.
SASH: You’ve participated in or witnessed so many important moments in soccer’s history in America. Where do you see its place in the American sporting landscape now?
LO: That’s a difficult question. We are obviously competing for fans, media attention, and youth with our other, more-established pro sports—football, baseball, basketball, and in some areas ice hockey. Even so, I feel good about our future. We have 4.3 million youngsters registered with US Soccer who play our sport. There are 900,000 coaches and administrators at all levels. Youth competition, both male and female, has evolved. With our Olympic Development Program (ODP), the new pro-sponsored Youth Soccer Academies, the thousands of coaches who have achieved their advanced US Soccer and NSCAA licenses (I’ve personally trained 5,000 coaches from 91 countries here in DC!), the emergence of high-caliber play in the college ranks, the semi-pro leagues just below MLS, and our National Open Cup competition—we are getting there. In addition, our national teams are becoming more competitive internationally. Both in the region and in the World Cup. MLS is becoming established, with MLS teams competing well in international competition.
We still have a long way to go, to overcome media bias towards soccer, to gain the final rounds of the World Cup and Olympic competitions, and to establish soccer as the premier youth sport in America. We are on our way!
SASH: Looking ahead, what’s your vision of soccer’s place in America 20 years from now?
LO: Twenty years from now, I see soccer, as I just said, as the premier youth sport in America. I see us competing regularly for regional championships, for the World Cup, both male and female, with our players in great demand, vindicating my lifetime in the sport. Hopefully, we’ll arrive to the place in media attention where other soccer nations are today—the top topic for sports enthusiasts.
SASH: The quote I mentioned from your article at the beginning of this Q&A comes from what I think is a beautiful passage that continues, “We played because we saw something in the game we liked. As urban, low-income kids, we mastered a skill, we worked together on teams, we traveled to other cities, and we grew with the sport. We left the neighborhood, primarily because of the exposure from soccer to a larger world, but the neighborhood never left us.” I can’t help but read that passage of your ongoing personal history and growth as a metaphor for the ongoing history and growth of the sport in America.
LO: You got it! That’s my dream.