Today it would be absurd, but once upon a time – actually, make it twice – the road to the Olympic Games ran through Seattle. Lured here under some extraordinary circumstances, U.S. Soccer sent its best team of the day to be road tested on a relatively narrow patch of plastic against some locals with much to prove.
Prior to both the 1972 and ’84 Summer Games, utilizing sheer will and a discretionary expense account, missionaries from the local footballing community convinced federation officials to make Northwest detours, essentially, for the good of the game. All right, so the second visit guarantee involved some wool blends, but more about that in a few paragraphs.
Of course nowadays Seattle would be a logical stop for a national team bound for a major tournament. Big, loud crowds and a beautiful stadium. A generation ago, both city and the sport were pariahs, and perhaps therein was the mutual appeal.
Can't Join 'Em? Bring 'Em On
The genesis of the first Olympians’ first visit was a snub. In early 1971 a dozen of the best local amateur players traveled to San Jose for tryouts. None made the cut, and that got Mike Ryan fuming. A handful of picked-over players belong to Ryan, the University of Washington coach.
"Missouri gets five (primarily St. Louis players) and Illinois lands four," lamented Ryan to The Seattle Times. "That’s almost half the squad."
His Irish blood up, Ryan swiftly issued a challenge to the Olympic team coach, Julie Menendez of San Jose State: Bring your team to Seattle and we will change your mind. It would be a doubleheader featuring Ryan’s state champion club, Triumph Continentals, and a second game featuring a picked team from the local ranks. Those two teams accounted for most, if not all the rejected trialists.
"We’re going to prove they were wrong in their selections," Ryan added. "It will either shut my big mouth or make them do a recount."
With considerable advance publicity, 3,000 tickets were sold, making it the best attended local amateur game to date.
Chance of a Lifetime
It was heady stuff for a 16-year-old Paul Mendes. Not only was Mendes, the Newport High School junior, playing on a men’s league juggernaut but against the best American amateurs, and with Seattle’s honor hanging in the balance.
"There was a big crowd and I know for me it was a thrill, playing against basically the best team the U.S. fielded at the time," recalls Mendes. "There was definitely something to prove; we wanted to show them we could give them a good game."
Ryan’s young select team started the night strong, winning, 2-1. Goals from the Huskies’ John Goldingay and Auburn teen Tim Allen was enough to beat an Olympic B team, featuring two-time Hermann Award winner Al Trost.
The featured game was tied at half, 1-1, after a long-range blast beat Shep Messing (the future Cosmos keeper). But the Olympians finished strong, scoring two late goals.
Come Dressed to Play
McCrath, the SPU coach, was an amused observer that first time around. New in town, he was amused by Ryan and his like-minded Seattle soccer zealots. If it involved promoting their city and soccer it was damn the details and full speed ahead. Two months after the Olympic team came an international friendly featuring West Ham United and Germany’s Rot Weiss Essen that pulled nearly 10,000.
Thirteen years later, McCrath himself was out and about, banging the drum. He was closely involved with an aspiring amateur startup branded Football Club Seattle. Bud Greer, FC Seattle owner, had passed on an opportunity to save the NASL from their demise in 1983.
FC Seattle’s purpose must’ve resonated with Ryan: Prove that the best local players could compete with the best teams in the land. In the spring of 1984 Seattle put together a so-called Challenge Series featuring the Vancouver Whitecaps, Minnesota Strikers and New York Cosmos of the doomed NASL. And, believing they could capitalize on swelling Olympic fervor for the Games that summer, FCS leaders dispatched McCrath to LA to beckon the national team.
In the pre-World Cup days when money was scarce at US Soccer, deals could get done between friends. McCrath had known U.S. coach Alkis Panagoulias for many years and after watching the friendly between the Olympians and Sigi Schmid’s UCLA they agreed to meet during a nearby postgame reception. It was a posh affair, with key LOC officials and community bigwigs socializing amid giant ice sculptures. The team entered through a side door, under-dressed in their sideline track suits.
Panagoulias shook his head in disgust. "Cliff, look," he said in his thick Greek accent. "Everywhere in the world a national team gets off the plane and they are dressed in proper attire. They are respected and people step aside. Here, we have nothing to wear. We get no respect."
McCrath saw an opportunity to both help Panagoulias’ plight and possibly secure the play date.
"What do you want? How would you like to be dressed: jackets, pants, shirts, ties?" he asked.
"Cliff," answered Panagoulias, "if you do that, we will come."
McCrath rushed to a pay phone and reached Greer. "I just spent about $7000 of your money, but they said if we dress them they will come."
It was a done deal: Navy blazers, gray pants, broadcloth shirt and silk ties from Nordstrom. The federation sprung for the travel. It was game on.
Rising to the Challenge
Come July 13, 1984, FC Seattle and the Olympic team met amid significant fanfare. Well over 8,000 poured into Memorial on a warm evening. For most of the Seattle players, it would be the biggest crowd they had played before. Some, much like in 1971, had entertained dreams of representing their country at the Olympics. But the only local connection was Tacoma product Jeff Durgan, a central defender from the Cosmos (who would join FC Seattle the following season).
"It’s a thrill to play against the national team, and to do it at our home, before our fans, was a big added benefit," remembers Tad Willoughby, a former UW midfielder.
Rising to the occasion, Willoughby set-up Seattle’s surprising opener in the 6th minute. Soon, though, the Olympians got a grip on the game, equalizing through Rick Davis and going ahead just before halftime, 2-1. A late second-half goal sealed it.
While Seattle was unable to pull off the upset, Willoughby felt they had made a favorable impression, both with the home fans and those associated with the national team.
"When I was growing up all the (national team) players seemed to be from St. Louis, then some from the northeast and California," he says, echoing the sentiments of Mendes. "We always thought they should look at Seattle, where we had good player and good teams.
"We gave them a good test," assesses Willoughby. "We provided them high quality opposition, we pushed all the way. Maybe we turned a few heads."
That 1984 gate remains the largest to see a game featuring an amateur team in Seattle, and it would be the biggest for outdoor soccer over the next nine years, until 1994, when the U.S. faced Russia in the Kingdome before 43,651.
Two weeks later after visting Seattle, the Olympic team opened tournament play at Stanford, beating Costa Rica, 3-0, before 78,000–a then-record crowd to see a U.S. team. As it turned out, soccer became the LA Games' biggest spectator attraction (1.4 million), including more than 101,000 for the final in the Rose Bowl. Four years later, the U.S. was named host to the 1994 World Cup.
Mike Ryan's initial challenge may have paid dividends over the long haul. Beginning with Tony Crudo in 1980 (although the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games) at least one Washington player made the national team for five consecutive Olympiads, through Kasey Keller in 1996. The women's Olympic team has featured Washington players in five of the six tournaments, including Hope Solo making her third appearance at Rio 2016.
Frank MacDonald is a Seattle soccer journalist and historian. This story first appeared on his website and has been republished here with his permission.