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The 1965 United German Hungarians squad that won the U.S. Amateur Cup. Werner Fricker is the fourth player from the left kneeling
United German Hungarians

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More Than a Game Part II: Werner Fricker’s quest to change perceptions of American soccer

UGH legend was a champion for the sport of soccer well beyond Philadelphia

This is the second part of a four-part series about the night the USMNT played the United German Hungarians in Oakford, Pa. in a tune-up for the 1990 World Cup. Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

To say that soccer wasn’t followed much in 1990 would be an understatement.

Yes, the game didn’t have the national attention that it does now, but in the United Soccer League of Pennsylvania where ethnic clubs battled for decades on clubhouse fields in and around Philadelphia, the local papers posted scores from Sunday games alongside the ASL, MISL, and colleges.

The period preceding World Cup 1990 produced regurgitated stories of soccer phobia, fan violence, U.S. National Team woes, and player features with clichés of so-and-so “getting their kicks” or “heading in the right direction,” but nonetheless, soccer coverage existed, even in the traditional hotbed of the Philadelphia.

On the day of the game between the U.S. Men’s National Team and the United German Hungarians, the Philadelphia Daily News ran an advertisement, stuffed at the bottom after three pages of scores and statistics titled “Soccer Tonight” that announced a “training game between Team USA and a team of local college players.” Above it in bolder, bigger letters, another advertisement:

“Scores, 24 Hours a Day, All Calls 75 Cents”

The day after the game, the Daily News posted a photo of Tab Ramos missing a header against Mike Connors with a caption “Heads Up Play.” In the Inquirer, behind many pages of scores and horse racing statistics, beside the Oilers beating the Blackhawks 5-2 in the Campbell Conference opener, and above the advertisement for Keystone Tires offering 20% off the purchase of four major brand radial tires, a soccer score:

“UEFA Cup Final, First Leg: Juventus (Italy) 3, Fiorentina (Italy) 1”

The following day’s soccer news included a line about the Penn-Jersey Spirit’s game against the Washington Diplomats and a story about armed fans in Andizhan, Uzbekistan, rioting, setting fire to police cars, and beating up the club chairman after the visitors from Tashkent failed to show for a game. This was outdone by a story titled “Soccer Player Gets AIDS on Field.

The day after the U.S. game against Malta, a succinct article about Wynalda’s goal in the 1-0 victory pointed out that the U.S. had only scored thirteen goals in ten games and that Malta had a 0-6-2 record during World Cup qualifying and were outscored 18-3. Three pages later, we learned that fans pelted riot police with bricks and bottles in the resort town of Bournemouth on the final day of the English soccer season.

The game’s coverage didn’t appear until six days later in the Neighbors section of the Inquirer, following three pages about the decline of female coaches, a full-page story about the Soviet women’s basketball team versus the Philadelphia Belles at Colonial Elementary School, and two pages of high school baseball and softball. The paper’s spread of photos, one with mislabeled players, presented warmth and community pride. But the article criticized the U.S. team’s performance, quipping that “there seems little evidence that the United States has come of international age.” The author even asked, “If the United States labored for a goal against a regional team, how will it ever fare against the Europeans in World Cup competition?”

Even the players involved in Serban’s near goal were wrong.

Following the UGH game, the rest of the coverage before the World Cup was filled with mockery and pessimism defined by the soccer’s-not-a-sport era that we are only barely escaping today. The Daily News, who rode the anti-soccer wave, shared the May 8th story “No Sex Until End of World Cup for Italian Players,” aptly placed on Page 69. The day after the U.S.’s 3-1 victory over Poland, instead of articulating on the win, Rich Hoffman wrote that “more than a century later, we continue to wait for soccer to become popular” and called the action “more than watchable.”

His deepest dig:

“A game between two good teams played before a loud crowd can really be as much fun as your average baseball game if you give it a chance.”

Below the article, a vivid advertisement: “Northeast Philly Pin Ups Presents Loesha. 58-22-34. Today Through Saturday.”

Although journalists dismissed Poland as a non-World Cup qualifier, Poland finished third in their qualification group behind Sweden and England, who eventually lost in the semi-finals on penalty kicks to champions West Germany, also a second-place group finisher. Poland tied England in Chorzów the previous October.

Ten days after playing UGH, the national team drew 1-1 with Ajax at RFK Stadium on a late John Harkes goal. But Ajax were only a club team, and seven of their best players, among them Aaron Winter, Richard Witschge, and Danny Blind, were preparing for the World Cup with the Netherlands and did not play. So the U.S. faced the likes of Frank and Ronald de Boer, Denis Bergkamp, and a group of kids who two years later won the UEFA Cup. Then lifted the Champions League trophy in the most prolific period in Ajax history since the Johan Cruyff-era. Nine years before John O’Brien made his Ajax debut and twenty-nine years before Sergiño Dest chose the United States over the Netherlands. But overshadowing the game recap, Ayrton Senna won his sixth consecutive San Marino Grand Prix pole and Charles Barkley wanted you to win a free trip to the NBA Finals.

Dutch Soccer - Eredivisie - Utrecht v Roda JC Kerkrade
John O’Brien
Photo by Matthew Ashton/EMPICS via Getty Images

On May 31st, the Daily News spared a few lines after the U.S. defeated Liechtenstein’s “part-time” squad 4-1 in their penultimate game before the World Cup. Above that, Clarence “Shorty” Stoner resigned as Penn State’s baseball coach after nine seasons to take a full-time faculty position.

But it wasn’t all negative. Among the riots in Zagreb between Dinamo and Red Star fans, the $5 million-dollar renovations needed to make Franklin Field an ideal host for the 1994 World Cup, and Fiorentina fans throwing rocks outside the club headquarters after selling Roberto Baggio to Juventus for $13 million, the Inquirer ran an update on UGH’s state Amateur and Open Cup wins, events that occurred two months prior. Bob Wilkinson was listed as Jim.

Werner Fricker tried to change these perceptions.

Fricker, a carpenter by trade, served as the President of the United States Soccer Federation from 1984-1990. Born in Karlsdorf, an ethnic German section of Yugoslavia, Fricker immigrated to the United States in 1952 via Austria and played for UGH from 1954 until 1969. He was the President of UGH until 1976 and remained on the board throughout his time with U.S. Soccer.

From his player’s perspective, Fricker saw the need for improving the performance on the field. But as a craftsman, he recognized the weak foundation of an organization operating at $1.4 million in debt, repeatedly failing to qualify for the World Cup after 1950, and dedicated his administrative career to fixing it. Fricker believed in the development of youth at the club level, something he’d experienced with building UGH into a national amateur soccer powerhouse. He believed that our best players should compete against top competition, which would create more fan interest. But he also stressed patience. For soccer to progress, players had to pass the game on to their children, and that was not something anyone could achieve in a two-year term.

After the collapse of the NASL, many of the country’s best players moved to the MISL, where the fast-paced action inside a turfed-out hockey court brought new fans familiar with the end-to-end action of hockey and basketball. But as the U.S. attempted to qualify for the 1986 World Cup, many of the MISL clubs refused to release their players, citing financial and health risks. MISL threatened to pull out of USSF when a series of key qualifiers coincided with playoffs, which would have left those national team players ineligible. Dan Cantor, a Penn State All-American from Plainfield, N.J., had a clause in his contract with the New York Cosmos that allowed him to report for national team duty, but the Cosmos told him he’d be released if he left.

Another problem for Fricker that required a solution.

Fricker prioritized payment for national players, sometimes out his own pockets. He secured loans with local banks using the reputation of his construction business so that players had meal money on road trips and were compensated for the time away from home or their teams. He even turned the national team into a full-time gig, so players could train year-round and compete with the best in the world. Then he pledged more support for the youth national system and tried to restore a professional structure with tiered levels.

Brazil v Italy - 1994 FIFA World Cup Final
Daniele Massaro of Italy and Claudio Taffarel of Brazil during the 1994 FIFA World Cup final match between Brazil and Italy at Rose Bowl on July 17, 1994 in Los Angeles Pasadena, California.
Photo by Onze/Icon Sport via Getty Images

Perhaps Werner Fricker’s second-biggest achievement was spearheading the years-long process of submitting a viable bid for the United States to host the World Cup in 1994, which FIFA awarded on July 4th, 1988. Hosting the World Cup may be the single greatest event to propel U.S. soccer into the modern era, and it might not have happened if not for the vision and fortitude of a former captain of UGH from Horsham.

In 1990, nearly three months after the U.S. played his home club, Fricker lost his re-election for President of USSF to Alan Rothenberg, a prominent California attorney who had entered the race two weeks prior to the election. Rothenberg owned the California Aztecs in the NASL, served as President for the L.A. Clippers, and had been the Commissioner of Soccer in the 1984 Olympics. Jerry Trecker of the Hartford Courant wrote that Fricker “helped yank soccer from anonymity to the front pages of American newspapers and was focused on building soccer, Rothenberg on building the brand.” Both men were valuable, but MISL made up one-third of the voting representatives.

Fricker was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1992. Each year, U.S. Soccer honors an individual with the Werner Fricker Builder Award for service to the game. Soon after Fricker’s death in 2001, U.S. Soccer built a memorial outside its training center in Carson, Calif.

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