The first of a four-part series on FC Seattle’s UK tours in the late 1980s.
International friendlies have been foisted upon the American soccer public for generations, but rare has been the occasion of a U.S. club traveling and playing abroad.
One club bucked that trend and did so when U.S. outdoor soccer was at its nadir. It was not about building a brand or selling so many tickets as much as it was exposing football’s home to an emerging product line: the American player.
Football Club Seattle seldom gets its due when discussion arises about soccer’s renaissance. Yet when North American professional clubs featuring a foreign nucleus were dying left and right, FC Seattle led a movement of fielding teams of primarily native-born talent. When the NASL and ASL were closing shop, FC Seattle forged a new league that, 30 years on, has grown into the established USL. And when British players and coaches stopped coming to our shores, FC Seattle took the game to them.
This is the tale of two summertime trips to face English and Scottish sides and how those sons of Seattle now view the experience a generation or so later.
State of Affairs
In 1987, the American soccer landscape was comparatively barren. The only action affording a livable wage was indoors with the MISL or second-tier AISA. Up north, the top-tier Canadian Soccer League was getting underway outdoors following Canada’s qualification for the 1986 World Cup. South of the border, where the U.S. National Team had not qualified in 37 years, the sole ‘professional’ outfit was the six-team Western Soccer Alliance.
WSA bylaws did not include a salary cap. In fact, for the most part, there were no salaries. Still, there was quality. David Vanole, John Doyle and Marcelo Balboa would feature in the 1990 World Cup team and Portland’s Brent Goulet, the league MVP, would emerge as U.S. Soccer Player of the Year.
Seattle’s roster was stocked with a handful of pros, four of them ex-Sounders. Not only were all of the regular players American, all 25 either grew up or played amateur soccer in the Puget Sound area. They were also young, ages 20-28.
“It was mostly made-up of college guys,” says Tommy Jenkins, the English league and Sounders veteran who was FC Seattle coach. To maintain their eligibility, the players could not be paid. Instead they were provided the experience of a lifetime.
It’s Who You Know
Former Sounders and FC Seattle coach Jimmy Gabriel had first hatched the idea of a tour. Gabriel left to join Harry Redknapp at Bournemouth following the ’86 season, but owner Bud Greer was sold on the idea as a means of rewarding the players’ dedication. Despite the considerable expense, Greer still considers the two excursions as the most enjoyable experience.
With Greer’s blessing, Jenkins and general manager David Gillett, another Sounders alum, began piecing together the framework for the first tour.
“We had loads of connections from the players who played for the Sounders,” recalls Gillett.
Redknapp and Gabriel offered a game at second-tier Bournemouth, determined to be Seattle’s base of operations. Redknapp helped convince Alan Ball at top-tier (now Premier League) Portsmouth. Jocky Scott was managing Scotland’s Dundee, which had played in Seattle the prior two summers. Bruce Rioch, who also had coached FC Seattle, agreed to host a preseason friendly at second-division Middlesbrough. Squeezed into the middle was a fixture at first division QPR.
For a practically all-amateur, all-American club, the five matches in 11 days while driving over a thousand miles, round trip, to the last two installments was beyond ambitious.
“To the best of my knowledge, no teams from the United States had gone over and played the top teams,” says Jeff Koch, the Seattle keeper. “I didn’t even know who we were going to play, but I was very excited.
“It was totally exciting, especially being so young,” adds Koch, then a University of Washington junior. “You knew that (England) was the league everyone looked up to at that point, so going there was going to the holy land.”
John Hamel, then 20 and a UW teammate to Koch, remembers hearing about the trip late in the season, and just a few days after the final game they found themselves boarding the flight for Gatwick.
“We knew it was something incredibly unique,” he shares. “We knew we were fortunate, and we knew it was an opportunity.”
At the time, there was very little European soccer televised back to America. Maybe an FA Cup Final, but most glimpses of the game in Great Britain and beyond was confined to films and reports in publications such as Soccer America and World Soccer. The rest was pure fable, experiences shared by word of mouth.
Peter Fewing admits he really didn’t know what to expect. “We were a bit unaware of what a great lifetime opportunity it was until we got there,” Fewing says.
Straight from the plane, the FC Seattle bus drove south to Bournemouth, where the Cherries were facing Tottenham, featuring Spurs and England star winger Chris Waddle. Jetlagged but buzzing, Fewing remembers standing alongside his onetime Sounders heroes, Jeff Stock and Gillett. That’s when it hit him.
“Holy crap, we’re in England.”
The series continues later this week. A version of this article first appeared at the Frank MacDonald blog on October 8, 2015.