Our series of Q&As with Philadelphia-born National Soccer Hall of Famer Len Oliver continues.
SASH: You describe, “You cannot develop a player in high school, you can only further talents already developed and raise a player’s awareness of the game.” Can you tell me more about your high school coaches? Did they have an awareness of what you described and simply tried to focus you and your fellow players’ talents?
Len Oliver: Our Northeast High School Coach, a winning coach because he always got the Lighthouse and local talent from the clubs, was not a “soccer guy.” He was a physical education teacher, as many were, coaching several sports, but he knew enough to let us play without extensive instruction, but with plenty of encouragement. Coach Mullan found a winning lineup and just stuck with it, winning three city titles while we were at Northeast, and going undefeated during this time.
By the time a player reaches high school soccer, he/she has already developed the skills and soccer savvy to be highly competitive in high school soccer. So what the coaches did, and what they should do today, is find the best combination of talents to bring out the players’ skills and sense of the game.
SASH: You describe how high school talent came out of the Philadelphia club soccer scene. Was it the same in terms of the coaches?
LO: There were few coaches in the Philly high school ranks who had played the game. They were entirely dependent on the talent that came to them, rather than developing talent. Some of the high schools were extremely competitive, and these were the schools that had several foreign-born players in their lineups. Also, we played against few black players as most of these kids went into basketball, not having played soccer growing up as we did because of immigrant fathers and uncles.
SASH: With the local club scene being reflected in the rosters of the local high school teams, was there a sense that the high games were something of a continuation of club rivalries in a different context?
LO: Not really. We had a few competitors in high school soccer, especially Central High School, Frankfort High School, and Girard College. Frankford, for example, had as its star player Lefty Didriksen, one of our teammates for many years with the Lighthouse Boys Club.
SASH: You mention 3,000 spectators being on hand for the annual match between Philadelphia’s high school all-stars and New York’s high school all-stars. How did Philadelphia fare in that annual contest when you were playing?
LO: The high school all-star games versus New York’s high school stars were always competitive, with low scores and plenty of good soccer before outstanding crowds for a high school game.
SASH: Was the same club-high school dynamic going on in New York?
LO: I am not sure, but the young players had to go somewhere to high school, and I assume the ethnic youth clubs, like Kohlsman in the German-American League’s youth division, provided its share of the high school talent in New York City. Brooklyn, Astoria, and Queens where youth soccer flourished.
SASH: You mentioned when we talked about you trying out for the Olympic team that you played against players from St. Louis that you had previously played against when you won the National Junior Challenge Cup with Lighthouse. Do you remember if you later played against players in college or on New York ASL teams when you played for Uhrik Truckers in the ASL?
LO: No, with the Philly Uhriks, we basically played against mostly foreign-born players, both amateur and professional, not former high school players.
SASH: Can you give us a sense of what the City Title games were like, particularly against a perennial rival like Girard College? With 5,000 fans on hand, they must have been pretty intense games.
LO: The Philly city title games brought into competition all the private and public schools playing for the City Title. Girard College, for example, was a high school for orphans, funded by a dowry from Stephen Girard, a Philanthropist, and attracting some of the area’s best young soccer players. Most of these players went on to excel in college soccer careers. The games were well promoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer (morning) and Philadelphia Daily News (evening), helping to draw a sizable soccer public, in addition to the high school students.
SASH: A 24-hour cross country flight to face University of San Francisco in the 1951 College Bowl at a time when air travel wasn’t the most common experience, and then playing in front of 10,000 spectators with you captaining the Temple team as a freshman—that must have been quite a heady experience!
LO: I also had several close family members present who lived in the San Francisco area—that helped. But many of us had already been through two national championship games in the Junior Cup, so this was one more. The game was intriguing, as USF included mostly foreign-born players in their ranks, a formidable force with a great soccer record. Ed Tatoian, our Inside Left, scored both goals and we hung on to win the National Title. This was before NCAA established formal national championships in soccer, starting in 1959, through its sponsorship of the annual Soccer Bowl, bringing together the two best college teams in the final.
SASH: You describe some interesting rule innovations that were put in place for the American college game. How were these rules accepted by players and coaches like yourself who had spent a lifetime playing under FIFA rules?
LO: I wrote about these rule innovations in my article, “The College Cup: 60 Years Later.” They tried kick ins instead of throw ins, which meant a free kick on every throw. They tried a semi-circle instead of the penalty box to make penalty kicks fairer. These were the major innovations, among others, none of which lasted very long. Even today, NCAA soccer rules deviate from the FIFA Laws of the Game, a travesty on our game.
SASH: When you describe the heated game against Penn State in which referees Jimmy Walder and Harry Rogers issued what, in a time before the implementation of the card system, amounted to a mass yellow card, there’s a clear sense that the authority of match officials was not challenged in a way that is more common today. Am I correct in that?
LO: Interesting point. We had great respect for referees at all levels of play—amateur, pro, college. We seldom challenged official calls, accepting them as part of the game. With no cards, players were simply not expelled. This meant hard, but mostly fair tackling, no diving, no shirt pulling, fairness and a strong sense of “the spirit of the game” all around. Most of the officials talked to the players (”Number 4, that’s enough!” or “Lenny, Cool it!”). For example, Jimmy Walders, who refereed our games at all levels, from youth to college, to pro, lived around the corner in my Kensington neighborhood and often came by to deliver some English soccer papers. We all had great respect for the officials and for the game.
SASH: You talk about a real boom in the college game across the country during your time at Temple, “fueled by American-born youngsters.” What was at work here? Why do you think that growth in the game took place? I imagine it can’t be that players had a professional league like the ASL to aspire to play in.
LO: This was the post-war period. Many of the players were on the GI Bill, had served overseas, had seen good soccer, and brought the game back when they attended college. We had several of these players on our Temple team. In addition, the booming youth soccer movement of the times, fueled by the ethnic clubs, meant that the players wanted to continue their careers as college opportunities opened up.
SASH: You describe how there was no club soccer, and so no high school soccer, for girls and how women’s varsity soccer in college would not appear until Title IX in 1972. Do you remember growing up with girls who wanted to play but simply didn’t have the opportunity to do so without a club system to play in to develop their skill?
LO: Even if they were interested, girls were discouraged from playing both unorganized (“pickup”) and organized soccer (high school, college). For example, if a girl appeared to play in one of our street (or cemetery) soccer games, we would simply say, “No, this is not for girls!” So girls were discouraged at home from playing our sport, were discouraged by the pick-up players, and were unable to find high school or college teams because there were none. It was simply a “man’s game.” Unfortunately, because we lost a generation of potential female soccer players.
SASH: Just as club soccer fed high school and college soccer for boys and young men, was the eventual growth of club soccer for girls a major part of the growth of the women’s game in high school and college?
LO: We are now talking about the mid-1970s when parents, in particular, forced the issue of having their young girls play soccer. Reinforced by Title IX, girls flocked to the sport, including my two daughters, both of whom I coached. The real breakthrough came with the formation of the US Women’s National Team in the late 1980s, a team that went on to win the first Women’s International Soccer Championship (the first name for the title—not a “World Cup” at this time), held in China where the U.S. defeated China 2-1.
SASH: What are your thoughts on the influence of club soccer today in terms of high school and college soccer? Might it be even more important?
LO: Club soccer, with kids starting soccer at very young ages, across the country, has been instrumental in the development of high school and college soccer, now found in every city in the U.S. Remember, there are 4.3 million youngsters now registered under U.S. Soccer auspices, with some 52% being female. I doubt a player would be on a high school or college team today, unless foreign-born, if they hadn’t come through the U.S. club soccer system.