The U.S. Men’s National Team That Almost Was
Part 1 of a 2 part article telling the inside story of a 2005 U.S. Men’s National Team that Almost Was.
Most, if not all, American soccer players hope to one day take the field as a member of the US National Team. This path can be a long one involving years of playing though different levels of competition, waiting for their play to be recognized, and finally an invitation to a national team camp. Even then an appearance is not guaranteed. However, in 2005 a situation arose that nearly propelled a group of USL players onto the international stage in a matter of weeks.
Late in 2004 the US Soccer Federation (USSF) was deep into a labor dispute with the US Men’s National Team players. After a successful run in the 2002 World Cup, the national team players were asking for more money than the Federation was willing to give. As a result a player strike became a possibility, which put the US’s chance to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in jeopardy. The US was scheduled to continue their qualification campaign with a game against Trinidad and Tobago taking place in the first week of February.
In an attempt to hinder a strike the USSF announced that, if forced, they would use replacement players to represent the US in the qualifier. As the game neared, the Players Union had not budged and the USSF made the decision search for alternate players. It was believed that with the number of MLS players currently part of the national team strike, other MLS players may not be willing to go into camp so the Federation looked to the USL First Division as the next best option.
The qualifying game against Trinidad and Tobago was less than a month away so the USSF had to move quickly to get the off-season USL players into training.
USL Vice President Tim Holt received the first call while attending the NSCAA convention. It was the first night and Holt was surrounded by action. “Opening night on the exhibition floor is mayhem,” explained Holt. “It’s 7:00 pm, they open the door and there’s a deluge of people that come in. You can barely hear anything and it’s crazy in there.”
Despite all that was taking place within the convention, the events unfolding with the national team came to the forefront of the night’s activities. Early into the night, Holt’s cell phone began to ring. He tried to ignore it, but it continued to ring, so he looked at his phone to see what the commotion was about.
“I notice maybe an hour into the thing my phone is going crazy, more than usual,” recalls Holt. ”It had three or four missed calls from [US Soccer Secretary General] Dan Flynn. I go: ‘Wow! OK, this is probably something I should step away from. One missed call and I will check my message, but three or four, obviously he wants to talk.”
When Holt called back, Flynn explained the situation with the labor dispute and asked if the USL could help. Holt agreed and a few minutes after talking with Flynn, National Team head coach Bruce Arena called. Arena told Holt that he was going to be flying from LA on a redeye to the NSCAA convention and that he needed all of the USL coaches together for a 9 am meeting the next morning. “My reaction was: ‘sure we’ll take care of it,’” said Holt, “and then I hung up the phone and thought: What did I just agree to? How am I going to do this?”
Fortunately most of the USL coaches were already at the convention and Holt was able to get ahold of the others. By 9 am the next morning the USL coaches had compiled a list of players under contract and spent a good 2-3 hours with Arena selecting the players that would be invited to the national team camp just 2 days later.
Included in the player pool was Minnesota Thunder goalkeeper Joe Warren, who was just as surprised by the news as the USL. “I couldn’t believe that I had been selected by the legendary Bruce Arena to compete for a spot on the National Team roster,” said Warren.
Though he was honored to be selected to possibly represent his country, the situation with the players union weighed on Warren’s mind. “I was acutely aware of the fact we were selected because the best players in the country were on strike,” said Warren. “I felt like I was akin to the Vikings ‘scabs’ from the NFL strike in 1982.” However, the possibility to represent his country quickly pushed those thoughts out of his head only to be replaced by others. “I had reservations. I was going to be flying to LA for an unknown amount of time two weeks before I was going to marry my love, Christina.” Luckily Warren’s soon-to-be wife was very supportive and told him to go.
The first day at the training ground was a bit of a culture shock for the USL players, recalled Warren. “We were told to check in with the equipment manager down the hall, where we were given about a thousand dollars’ worth of Nike gear.” In addition to the top-of-the-line equipment and the eventual training by the best coaching staff the country had to offer, the USL players were even impressed by the food selection offered. “I was amazed at how well the [Men’s National Team] was taken care of.” The experience of the first day got even better when Bruce Arena came around and introduced himself to each player. “I remember being a little starstruck.”
The next morning the players began their first day of two-a-day training sessions. It was tough going from the start. The USL was in its off-season, so while players may have been continuing to do workouts, they were not at full match fitness. This was something Warren and the three other goalkeepers called into camp were made aware of early. “[We] were all exceptional goalkeepers, but we all quickly realized the poor shape we were in once we started training with ‘keeper coach Phil Wheddon.”
Luckily there was time before the qualifying game against Trinidad and Tobago, but after finishing an intense morning fitness session the players received the news they had been hoping wouldn’t come: the labor dispute had come to an end and they would be sent back home the following day. “I think it is safe to say that we were all disappointed to be heading home after making the trip to Carson, training with hopes to be on the starting 11, and then before we knew it we were on planes back to our respective homes,” admitted Warren.
While it was a heartbreaking development, there were good points that lessened the players’ disappointment. “All in all, it was a great experience. We had an amazing opportunity to train in front of the best coaches in the country. I got to know guys from around the league who, before, were always just opponents.” When the coaches broke the news it was also announced that each player would receive the bonus they could have earned by being selected for the roster against Trinidad and Tobago. Each player also received a US jersey with their name and number to remember their time at camp.
Though Joe Warren was disappointed, there was also a sense of relief when he heard the news. “I had the biggest day of my life coming up that next weekend. Had I stayed on in camp, it would have been a whirlwind wedding and then heading back to camp. So, while I was sad the strike ended, I was relieved to be able to come home and enjoy the buildup to our beautiful wedding. Although I was disappointed, I am grateful for the opportunity, and will always remember fondly my time at the USMNT camp, as brief as it was.”