This is the third 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.
In the mid-1980s, when UGH sought good, young players, they found Peter Vermes, a youth national team player from Rutgers who later captained the U.S. national team and pioneered the MLS movement. Vermes, the current head coach at Sporting Kansas City, missed the USMNT game against UGH in May 1990 by a week due to the conclusion of the Dutch season, but he returned to face Poland and scored a 57th minute penalty.
“I wanted to play as much soccer as I could,” Vermes said about his time with UGH between college seasons. “I always thought the league was competitive. It was a tough league played in tough environments.”
“Wow,” Bob Wilkinson said of the first time he stepped on the field with Peter. “He was an intense guy, ahead of his time. He was fit, strong, could run fast, could body defenders off the ball. You could tell was into weights when most of us didn’t train that way. And he was competitive.”
Vermes became the first American-born player in a top European league when he signed with Györ ETO FC in Hungary in 1988 following his All-American career at Rutgers and a season with the New Jersey Eagles in the ASL. But Vermes’ ties to UGH go back decades earlier.
His father, Michael, was a member of Budapest Honvéd FC in Hungary in the early 1950s, a team that included Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Koscis, Zoltan Czibor, and several others who made up the Mighty Magyars. From May 1950 to 1956, Hungary lost one game, the 1954 World Cup final, nicknamed “The Miracle at Bern” in which West Germany came from behind to defeat Hungary 3-2. Hungary had beaten West Germany in the first round 8-3, a game in which Puskas suffered a broken ankle and continued playing in the later rounds. Before then, Hungary had captured the 1952 Olympics with ease and had embarrassed England at Wembley 6-3 in the match known as the “Match of the Century” in 1953. It was the first time England had ever lost at home to a team outside of the British Isles. Elo Ratings System, a modern analytical tool for determining world soccer rankings, lists Hungary in 1954 as the greatest team of all time, ahead of Germany in 2014, England in 1912, Spain in 2010, and Brazil in 1962.
Hungary, and particularly Honvéd in the early fifties played a free-flowing style of new tactics and movements later termed Total Football when it was made popular by the Dutch in the late 1960s. Still under Soviet occupation and communist rule, Hungary created a nationalized system of soccer that channeled through Honvéd, which meant Michael Vermes was on track to play in the 1958 World Cup.
In 1956, however, local protests in Budapest led to the arrival of Russian soldiers, who fired on protestors and bombed the home of Peter’s mother, Magdalena, who had been blocks away at a local supermarket. Michael fought the Russians alongside Hungarian revolutionaries in front of a local police station and was wanted for his role in the event. His paternal uncle had been kidnapped and tortured then left in front of their house six months later with his teeth knocked out. Michael and Magdalena tried to flee to Austria multiple times and on their fifth attempt, Magdalena six weeks pregnant with Peter’s older brother, Irvine, they were stopped again and boarded onto a boxcar headed back to Budapest. Michael and Magdalena jumped, and soldiers shot Michael in the leg, but after fixing a field dressing, he and Magdalena hiked nearly thirty-five miles to Austria then joined many Hungarians who were flown into Fort Dix and moved into a refugee camp.
Camp life had become so dire that at one point, Michael sold his shoes so that he and Magdalena could eat. Sponsorship was their only way out, but luckily, Michael’s soccer reputation followed him to America. Members of a local soccer club offered him a job and a place to live if he agreed to play for them. For Michael, a first-class machinist, the decision was easy.
Michael played for UGH with Werner Fricker and had a spell in the ASL with a New Jersey team filled with Brazilians, Uruguayans, and Peruvians. Later in Michael’s career, which continued into his fifties, he played for the Hungarian Soccer Club on Southampton Road in the Somerton section of Northeast Philadelphia. When asked about his time watching his dad play, Vermes’ voice softens as he recalls spending weekends at the Hungarian Club with his family. “I see it like it was yesterday,” he said. “We’d arrive Sunday before lunch, eat, watch the reserves play, then the majors. They had one field below that looked like it’d been dynamited. We’d sit up above on the hill, watch the games, and play in between. We’d have dinner, the men would go to the bar, and the kids would dribble soccer balls through the bar all night long.”
One of Peter’s fondest memories of the Hungarian Club happened when Puskás toured the United States in the late ’70s. Puskás had always been revered in the Vermes household, but Peter and his older brothers laughed at the intimacy in which Michael spoke of his protagonist. Even as Michael drove them to the Hungarian Club to meet Puskás, the Vermes boys had their reservations. But when they walked into the clubhouse and saw Puskás sitting in a chair in the banquet area, Puskás squinted at Michael and called him by his nickname, “The Crow.”
Peter went back to Hungary with his family often and remembers one night when he was eleven years old that had a profound impact on his career. Peter, his dad, and his uncle attended a 1978 World Cup qualifier in Budapest between Hungary and the Soviet Union in the Népstadion, later renamed the Puskás. “Mesmerized” by the atmosphere, Peter turned to his dad. “One day I’m going to play in this stadium against Hungary,” he said. “My dad kind of laughed because he knew the U.S.’s reputation.”
Michael watched from the stands when Peter returned to that same stadium in March of 1990 for a friendly against Hungary. Peter by then wasn’t known as the American but the Hungarian-American. “It was pretty cool,” he said.
Vermes called the years playing for the U.S. ahead of the World Cup in 1990 unique. “It’s what you want as a player. Coming back for games were special moments.” When Vermes arrived in Hershey for the Poland game, his family and friends attended, many of whom he hadn’t seen in a while. “Since age 18, I was gone. Playing in college, the Olympics, the national team, then Hungary and Holland.”
Vermes’ experience in Europe pushed him to the forefront of U.S. soccer’s progression in the early ’90s. “We were well aware that the U.S. hadn’t qualified for the World Cup in over 40 years. It was a big challenge, a watershed moment. We faced a lot of pressure from FIFA because they didn’t want it to look like we got in because we were hosting. And it was meant to be a jumpstart for the MLS, which was supposed to start in 1995.“
As a player’s representative, Vermes sat on the U.S. Soccer board along with Werner Fricker, and listened to three proposals, of which one was to be chosen for the next American soccer professional league. “I always believed that MLS was the right league and the right model.” Vermes structured the end of his contract in Europe to align with the start of MLS, but when the league was pushed back a year he played with the New York Fever in the USL before his first season with the MetroStars. “I wanted to be part of it.”
Vermes earned 66 caps for the U.S. and spent several seasons with Colorado before finishing his career with Kansas City, where he became the first person to win an MLS Cup as a player and coach with the same franchise. He was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2013.
Mike Serban was another Hungarian-American responsible for UGH’s rise in the late 1980s.
“I had the ball about thirty yards out,” Serban said of a near goal that almost changed the game against the U.S. “I cut to my right, looked up and saw Meola was off his line.” Serban’s shot carried over Meola but Doyle raced back and headed the ball off the line. “If I’d have driven it, it would have gone in. I remember Doyle’s big blond hair knocking it over the bar.”
When asked his reaction if he’d scored against the U.S., Serban said, “My shirt would’ve been off.”
Serban ranks among the leading scorers at Abington High School, a list that includes current Union Academy coach Phil Karn as well as Mike Gorni and Randy Garber, two of the most revered youth coaches in Southeastern P.A. He scored 46 goals in his career at Drexel and sits sixth in total points with 96. A two-time MVP of the East Coast Conference, Serban was the first Drexel player to be invited to play in the Senior Bowl, where he played with and against several national team players, including Brian Bliss. After college, the Cleveland Force of the MISL offered him a contract, but he wasn’t thrilled about the thin turf over concrete with its worn seems.
Stuck in the Dark Ages of American professional soccer history between the NASL and MLS, Serban joined UGH and enjoyed the professional environment that drew many of the top local players. “Three-quarters of our team would have played in the MLS. But back then, it was either play majors or indoor.”
Serban played with and against many of the U.S. players during prior club and college seasons, so he knew they wouldn’t be embarrassed. “The club teams were better than the colleges.” He also remembers the mindset of the game, especially Bill Sr.’s. “It wasn’t a situation where he wanted everyone to say they had a chance to play against the U.S. He wanted to win.”
Serban’s dad, George, a tailor, escaped Hungary via Austria during the Hungarian Revolution and settled in the area through a sponsorship. George played with Michael Vermes at the Hungarian Club while Mike Serban played on a youth team at six years old alongside ten and eleven year-olds. His coach stuck him in goal because of his age and he once stopped a penalty kick against UGH.
When Serban was twelve, his dad also drove him to the Hungarian Club to see Puskás, who’d been the mysterious figure in his dad’s stories of home. When they got there, Serban envisioned this giant of a man, his dad’s hero, and was surprised when he saw Puskás, who wasn’t the most dedicated athlete during his playing days and had been known to let himself go. “I saw this little fat dude on the chair and thought, ‘This is the guy?’ “
In high school, after Serban traveled through Europe with a club team, he took a twenty-one hour train ride from Brussels to Budapest to attend his cousin’s wedding. He was the last of his family to fly home when armed soldiers stopped him prior to boarding, pulled him into a room, and told him he wasn’t allowed to leave. His passport hadn’t been stamped on the way in. Nervous, speaking broken Hungarian, Serban finally asked if he could pay a fine.
“They said they’d let me go if I gave them ten dollars, so I gave them a twenty and ran to the bus that took me to the plane.”
Serban spent a number of years with UGH, Sunburst, and the Freedom, eventually finishing his career at VE where he played in the National Amateur semi-final in 1997 and won the Over-30 National Cup in 2000.