Brutal tests, but better for it

Seattle traveled as far north as Dundee and as far south as Portsmouth. Photo courtesy of John Hamel)
Seattle traveled as far north as Dundee and as far south as Portsmouth. Photo courtesy of John Hamel

Frank MacDonald’s series on FC Seattle’s UK tours in the late 1980s continues.

Upon taking the pitch at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park, the first thing that hit John Hamel was a coin. Probably no more than a 50 pence piece, but it was priceless for Hamel. He picked up the rebound, slipped it into his sock and got back to business.

For a bunch of homegrown Seattle players, the derisive chants, slinging of slurs and hurling of currency was a big deal, but in a good way. It was a rite of passage.

Here they were, a mixture of Americans, amateur and pro, playing in football’s birthplace, its bedrock. They were facing some of the best in the business and holding their own, and they were doing so before a gallery of judging, cutting fans who knew the game, and who cared.

Getting stuck in

On the field, the natives could be just as brutal. Each match was a battery of tests: Are you good enough, strong enough, tough enough? Each of the two tours, in 1987 and ’88, were concentrated, two-week courses in what’s required at the next level, and the next.

A few members of the FC Seattle travel squad had already played a couple rungs above the Western Soccer Alliance. Brent Goulet, who in 1987 was anxious to land a pro contract in Europe, was a breakout star for the U.S. senior national and Olympic team. Jeff Stock had seven pro seasons under his belt, most of them with the NASL Sounders and MISL Stars.

In the first match at Middlesbrough, Stock sent a message–both to his team and to Boro–straightaway: We are stuck in.

“The very first play he gets into, (Jeff) takes a guy out with a slide tackle,” recalls Goulet. “The ref’s going over to him and you’re thinking he’s going to get a yellow. Jeff pops up and says, ‘Ref, I’m sorry. I just came in and my timing’s a little off.’ He gets out of it without a card, and we thought it was hilarious.”

Soon enough, Goulet scores and Seattle’s tour is off and running.

Fans could be supportive, or not

There was a good turnout (reportedly in excess of 5,000) of Boro fans for the preseason friendly, and immediately they made an impression on Hamel.

“They appreciated the art of the game, and I remember how different that was from what we were used to,” he observes. “Back then, not many American fans appreciated the nuances or the skill and art of soccer.

“I can vividly remember being in Bournemouth and Middlesbrough,” Hamel explains, “and someone would play a long ball and you would make a real nice trap, take it off your chest, nice touch, play it out wide and the crowd would cheer. I remember that feeling of being appreciated by people who understood the game. And they’re cheering for you.”

While retrieving a ball at Loftus Road, Peter Fewing recalls an encounter with a QPR fan asking, What kind of name is Fewing? “I said, It’s English. He said, ‘Fewing, you’re my favorite player now.’”

At the fifth and final stop in Portsmouth, the mood was a bit darker than Boro. “We were the enemy. They were chanting, making fun of our names, laughing at our mistakes,” says Hamel. “But we were thankful for that experience too.”

Americans playing in England was akin to Brits coming to the states for baseball. FC Seattle knew full well they were in uncharted territory. Those fans who attended the friendlies were likely diehards wishing to get a sneak peak of their own club, yet the visitors certainly introduced a curiosity factor.

“At that point, there were no Americans over there except John Kerr (UK passport) from Duke. He was at Portsmouth,” notes Jeff Koch, goalkeeper. “Really it was our chance to see what we could do against the big boys. To go there and show them and their fans what we have, it added more intrigue to it.”

‘Well done, son.’

Virtually every Storm player could tell a tale of full-on challenges and tackles. Getting little protection from the officials, it was open season on Koch. He was a strapping specimen himself, but at Middlesbrough he felt overmatched.

“I’d never seen a guy as big; he had legs up to my neck,” says Koch. He beat the hell out of me on every cross. He put an elbow to the side of my head and nothing (was called).” At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, the Seattle backstop figured that he either continued to get pummeled, or become the aggressor.

“On the next cross he came in and I shoved (my foot) into his thigh as far as I could go,” Koch says. “I swear I felt bone; I raked him (with his studs). We both got up, and there’s three streams of blood going down his leg.

“All he did was pat me on the ass and say, ‘Well done, son.’ I’d hit him with everything I had,” says Koch. “He didn’t come after me as dirty from there out.”

At Dundee a week later, Seattle was under constant pressure, with Koch repeatedly called upon to come out for crosses and stop shots. “They killed us (3-0),” he reports, “but I had the best day of my life. I walked away from that thinking, Man, I’m not so bad.”

The tour’s most shocking result came at QPR. A goal by Hamel earned a draw with the first division Rangers.

“Even at the time I remember thinking, Wow, I’ve just scored at QPR,” remembers Hamel. “It’s a nice feather in your hat and a source of pride. But the main source of pride is being on a team that went there to play.”

All the better for it

A few days after returning to Seattle, Hamel, Koch and a few others from the University of Washington started training for the college season. They felt like world beaters.

“We felt like we were on a different planet,” describes Hamel. “Every touch, every move. We played quicker, faster, better. It was such an argument for what makes you better. We just felt very sharp, very focused.”

Many coaches begin each season trying to build unity through retreats or extended training camps. For FC Seattle, the ’87 tour effectively served that purpose for the following season. The shared experience–heckling supporters, imposing opponents inflicting bruises to both body and psyche, plus all the off-field excursion–can create a lasting connection to one another, a common point of reference from which to build.

“Anytime you can bond in such things off the field, it translates to better play on the field,” remarks Hamel. “To be there with Tommy Jenkins and Dave Gillett–our idols with the Sounders growing up–we were becoming peers to our heroes.”

The effect was evident in 1988, when a united Storm proved much stronger. Seattle won 10 of 12 league matches, beat Middlesbrough in a return friendly and crushed San Jose, 5-0, in the Western Soccer League final.

“We all experienced (the tour) together, and when we reassembled again seven months later, it was easy to tell there was a difference in us, right off the bat,” says Koch. “An amateur American team taking on some of the English powerhouses. People (back home) didn’t understand what it meant. But we came back with a confidence and a swagger.”

The series concludes later this week. A version of this article first appeared at the Frank MacDonald blog on October 13, 2015.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.