I started compiling soccer stories from different players and coaches last year with hopes of assembling a nice blend of tales. But it turned into a scattered ransom note that wouldn’t hold together. Since the guys took time for the interviews and had good insights, I wanted to share what I have.

Old introduction

John Purtteman, an underemployed American professional soccer player, broke up with his girlfriend on a cold January Thursday in 1993. He immediately called a former girlfriend and was lucky to secure shelter for Friday. On Sunday, he got a tip from a teammate at his soccer game in Seattle: An indoor team in Denver needed players pronto. So Purtteman headed to Colorado the next morning. On Wednesday, less than a week after getting dumped, he played his first game for the Denver Thunder in the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL).

Purtteman played 12 games in 19 days. Despite taking a few teams to overtime, they lost all 12. But they weren’t as bad as the players before them, the guys who jumped ship after losing 21 in a row. The franchise died with a 33-game losing streak and an average attendance of 2,127.

Purtteman was 30 years old when the Denver Thunder rumbled to silence in 1993. He continued playing professionally until his final game for the Portland Pythons in 1999, twice earning a spot on the Continental Indoor Soccer League (CISL) All-star team and winning the title in 1997 with the Seattle Seadogs.

But this book is not about a six-year period on John Purtteman’s resume. The original title for this book was The Lost Generation of American Professional Soccer Players, an inaccurate characterization that misses the point.

“I think one of the things that helped me was I never had a goal to play professional soccer,” Purtteman told The Olympian during an interview about his Washington State Soccer Association Hall of Fame induction in 2009. “I just wanted to see how good I could be. I was happy to accept the next challenge.”

“I still feel that way today,” Purtteman explained in June 2013 after scoring the game-winner to capture his 15th national championship.

This book is about “excellence,” the reward for people who approach their craft with passion first and payment later.

By my definition, the “American soccer player” is a guy who helps elevate the game of soccer in America. As of November 2013, I play on seven teams in three states. This book includes stories from a full roster of — as I define it — American soccer players who bring something from almost all the continents on the planet. You’ll learn the story of the Maccabi Games (a.k.a. the “Jewlympics”), as told by an Iranian-American Jew representing the U.S. team. Odds are you haven’t heard the story of Mexican-Americans playing exhibition matches in SuperMax prison facilities in Florence, Colorado. And when the Peruvian delegation pulled out of the World Cup of indoor soccer, a collection of Colorado players led by an Iranian-American played admirably and snuck out of the hotel to celebrate all night with members of the Israeli team. Soccer in America is full of unexpected puzzles and surprises.

Chapter Three: Extra drive

Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, Jason Kreis pushed himself to be the best player he could be, shooting a bag of balls well past more than one sunset and into the night. While other kids ate dinner, Kreis perfected his shot. Kreis scored the first goal for the Dallas Burn during the inaugural season of MLS in 1996. His play improved every year and he became the first American-born player to earn the MLS MVP honor when he scored 18 goals and registered 15 assists for the Burn in 1999. When Kreis arrived at Real Salt Lake, he scored the first goal for that franchise too. He eventually became the head coach.

“When we look at potential players,” coach Kreis explained. “We want to watch them train with their teams so we can see their natural work habits.”

One key player for Kreis, Kyle Beckerman, credited Carlos Valderrama for helping him develop good training habits as a young professional. Beckerman joined the Colorado Rapids in 2002 and worked with “El Pibe” every day.

“He’s one of the guys,” Beckerman recalled. “I was lucky to play with a lot of great players in Colorado, Miami, and Salt Lake. I always tried to soak up as much as I could. He was an amazing passer with amazing vision. To see him train day in and day out was very important for my development. It was the way he focused, the way he dressed, the way he conducted himself with the media, and every day in practice. When guys mouthed off, he didn’t take it lightly and made sure he put them in their place.”

Discipline steered Beckerman, Kreis, and Valderrama to success as professionals, but above all they became excellent players through their passion for the sport.

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Throughout his playing career, Purtteman continued to learn the finer details of the game and worked his way up the coaching license achievement list. An “A” license coach, Purtteman has been back at the helm of his alma mater since 2006. Prior to coaching at Evergreen State College in Olympia, John served as head coach at South Puget Sound Community College.

Former FC Dallas head coach Schellas Hyndman coached college soccer from 1974 to 2008, finishing 24 years at Southern Methodist University with a record of 368-96-38.

“My previous life was a college coach,” Hyndman recalled after his team faced the Colorado Rapids at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City in 2013.  “For a lot of those years, there was no professional soccer. So we instilled two things in our players. First, get your education. Second, continue to share your passion for the sport with others. Give something back to the game. The sport got to the point where we had so many six- and seven-year-old players with nothing but parent coaches. If the kids wanted to play hockey, their parents would have become hockey coaches. I saw a lot of disciples who are my best friends turn into high school coaches, college coaches, or club coaches. Or they work camps. Soccer itself has become like a family. That’s the key. Sure, we’re competitive with each other, but our shared passion for the sport has kept us going.”

When the Dallas Tornado died down along with the NASL, many players remained in the area to start soccer camps, soccer programs, and high school and collegiate soccer legacies. Hyndman rattled off the names of many ex-pros who stuck with the sport to seed a new generation of players.

  • Bobby Moffat: Arrived in Dallas with a preliminary F.A. coaching license and earned his USSF A license. He initiated soccer camps in the Dallas area and has since expanded operations.
  • Dick Hall: In 1971, Hall started coaching the boys’ team at the Greenhill School in nearby Addison, Texas. Although Hall continued to play with the Tornado until 1976, he coached at the same time, amassing more than 500 wins in 36 seasons.
  • Ken Cooper, Sr.: After tending the goal for 170 Tornado games in the 1970s, Cooper coached four indoor teams and fathered an MLS forward, Kenny Jr.
  • Charlie DeLong: More than 500 wins for Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas. DeLong also was among the first coaches at Solar SC.

“Some of them left,” Hyndman noted of Tornado players following the NASL collapse. “But a lot of them stuck around. They shared their knowledge in coaching. For a long time, Dallas was considered a hotbed of youth soccer, mostly from the ex-Tornado players who started coaching.”

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Chapter ?: Tryouts

Opinions about tryouts range from thumbs-up to thumbs-down, but the process has improved over the years. Today’s coaches prefer to combine tryouts with scouting, personal recommendation, and as much background research as possible.

“I’m a big fan of tryouts,” noted Seattle Sounders top assistant coach Brian Schmetzer. “In the first open tryout for the [Sounders] USL team in 2002, we were playing in Memorial stadium. Chance [Fry] and I sat in the stands watching 100-some guys. I remember Chance saying, ‘you gotta look at this this guy [Zach Scott]. He has won every headball that has come his way.’ He was head and shoulders above everybody else. He was tenacious. But he wasn’t very technical. All he could really do was head the ball. The more I watched him, I said I’d take him. We only took two guys. So Zach signed with us. I sent him to Andy [Schmetzer, Brian’s younger brother] who was coaching the Cleveland Crunch. I told Zach, “Your feet are terrible. Go play some indoor soccer, and maybe that will get your feet better.’ Andy called me up and asked, ‘why did you send me him. He’s terrible.’ Testament to Zach’s character, he kept working and working. Now he’s improved, and he’s a starting center back on one of the better teams in MLS. We got him from an open tryout.”

I’ve described four tryouts for the press since 1985, personal accounts of failed attempts to make a team. Working as a reporter for the Gazette Telegraph in Colorado Springs, I received an assignment to cover the local Olympic soccer team trials at the United States Air Force Academy in 1985. I threw my cleats in the trunk just in case, and after waiting out the drizzling rain in my car, I ended up filling the number 22 spot so we could have a full scrimmage. As it turned out, the coach spent less time with us than the amount of time he was late, and not a single player received an invitation.

When Dave Dir directed the MLS open tryouts in Colorado during November, 1995, I was one of the 185 guys angling for a slice of the league payroll. Dir and the coaching crew were very thorough, and even though the first-year Rapids ended up with a few pylons on the bench, the overall process seemed fairly fair. I made it through three cuts, but no one advanced from that event. I tried out again in 2006, a much tougher challenge with a lot more talent.

Former USMNT and MLS star Eric Wynalda gave a very fair shot for all the guys who auditioned for “The Game of Their Lives,” a movie about the famous U.S. victory over England in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. For the Denver tryout in 2004, a little under 200 of us showed up at Rafael Amaya’s indoor facility in Westminster. I made it through the three soccer cuts and was selected to act out a part on camera. I rehearsed my lines and tried my best, but that marked the end of my road to Hollywood.

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