At that time in my life, I never wanted to play pro soccer. Never thought of it. At that time, the US didn’t have an outdoor league. It just wasn’t an option. All I wanted from soccer was Busch Soccer Club and Indiana University, or UCLA. I didn't care about girlfriends or a career in my adult life, nothing like that. Only thoughts about wearing that uniform. To me, that was the equivalent of playing pro.
Before trying out for Busch, I had about two years experience in SLYSA (St. Louis Youth Soccer Association), the top league in the US. I was an outsider, with a team from Cape Girardeau, and we were number one in SLYSA, kicking ass left and right. There were many teams that were equally talented: Busch, Scott Gallagher, Coke, Pepsi, River City, Johnny Mac (super-nice guys). Yet, I never wanted to play with any of them, accept Busch. They had Soccer Park (where St. Louis University and the national team held games), four uniforms, a major sponsor, great players, and a stellar reputation. Back to Soccer Park: there were four or five fields all in beautiful condition, a concession stand, a balcony overlooking the fields, conference rooms, bleachers, lights, a parking lot. I forget exactly, but back then Busch and Scott Gallagher had the most national club titles in youth soccer history. I think Busch may have had the most. Regardless, when I tried out as a fourteen-year-old that’s all I wanted. It was the first of three tryouts, the only one I could attend. I'd been away from SLYSA for two full years, playing for my hometown, Carbondale. Essentially, my mom got a job in St. Louis to further my soccer ambitions. (Carbondale had many good players but it was the backwater of American soccer, the backwater of Illinois soccer, the backwater of Southern Illinois soccer.) When George called me up to the top of the bleachers that early morning, telling me he wanted to give me a uniform, I couldn’t believe it, and played it cool. Holding in my emotion, I might have come across like, yeah, sure, whatever. Though I’m pretty sure I was respectful, just caught in a daze. I had wanted to make the team but actually making the team was something else altogether. A dream coming true is hard to explain. I have George to thank for that.
Being an outsider – which I was for the vast majority of my soccer-playing days – is very difficult. Often times, if not all the time, you can be the best player, but if you’re from outside the group it’s very difficult to get in. Why? Because the insiders are territorial and use their connections to keep their place on the team. Team sports are tough that way; you need the cooperation of the other guys to play at your best. George dismissed all that outsider-insider stuff. To his credit, he took this nobody from Carbondale and made him the starting center midfielder for one of the best youth programs in the country. As a result, to my recollection, one player, who was very talented, quit. Imagine that, George had every reason to play it safe, with players he’d coached for many years, with relationships, and as far as I could tell he pushed me into the inside of that group without hesitation.
At a tournament in Cincinnati, George and I stayed in the same room. He was all class. He talked to me about college, and where I wanted to go. To my recollection, no other coach had talked about college with me. A few, probably, but not in the encouraging way George did. Kids need that. Unfortunately, soon after, I began to go off track, straying away from college as an option.
I suppose I would’ve continued playing with George and that team, but after a season there was a takeover, with another coach coming in, bringing his players, causing the team to disband. I believe only one player stuck around. The offices of Busch contacted me about returning my uniform. My attitude was, “Egggh, you can go straight to hell.” I wasn’t giving up those shirts for anything. Still have them. An old friend of mine hounded me for the Busch jacket for years.
I learned a lot from George. I remember him telling us how he wanted to play (paraphrasing): “We’re going to have the defense of Uruguay, the passing of Germany, the flair of Brazil,” and something else, if I could only remember. He knew his craft and really had us performing well. After playing with a myriad of youth teams – Carbondale, Cape Girardeau, Granite City, Troy, Busch, Edwardsville, Collinsville and maybe something else, I’m forgetting – my best experience would probably have been with George and Busch Soccer Club.
About a year or two ago, after my book came out, I caught up with George via email. He had some thoughtful things to say about modern soccer. As usual.