This is the final 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.
Quick American soccer trivia. Who scored the first hat trick in MLS history?
The answer—Steve Rammel, nicknamed “Rammelade” by his classmates at West Deptford High after Gatorade sent cases of their sports drink to the school in honor of Rammel being named Parade’s High School Player of the Year in 1986.
“Everything was unknown,” Rammel said when he started at UGH after two patchy years at UConn and had to sit out a year due to NCAA transfer rules following his switch to Rutgers. “It settled the dust, made me feel more at ease.” He’d been a member of the youth national team and chose Rutgers over UNC because they were on the verge and needed a missing piece. Peter Vermes had just graduated and Rutgers had been eliminated in the 1987 NCAA second round by Clemson.
Rammel took the train down from Piscataway on game days, and Bill Wilkinson Jr. picked him up at the station and drove him back when the game was over. Joining a veteran UGH squad also on the verge, Rammel said, “I wanted to be a silent participant. Lead on the field but follow off it.” He fit right in with the competitive environment where players battled over places in the starting team. Despite his reputation, Rammel had to earn his time among senior players like Mike Serban, John Reynard, and Jeff Vantiem. “They were in my ear, supported me. I knew they wanted me to succeed.”
“We instantly knew how much he could play,” Bill Wilkinson said. “It took him awhile to get that first goal, but the second year he scored the first five minutes he was on the field.”
Wilkinson called Rammel the type of player who was into every drill and wanted to be first in every run. “He was the guy on that first cup run. He contributed to a higher standard.”
Bob Wilkinson said Rammel had an incredible soccer IQ. “Once, I played a ball into his feet really strong, and he had a guy at his back. He said, ‘leave it short. I’m fast enough that when I check, I’ll get there first. If he comes I’ll turn him, if he doesn’t I’ll turn him and burn him.’ ”
Though the U.S. game may have been the most important game for some of the other UGH players, Rammel saw it as an opportunity to measure his place in the American soccer fold.
“I wanted to be the best college soccer player,” he said. “And this was a place where they were going to challenge me.”
Following the U.S. game and his second season with UGH in which he scored 20 goals, Rammel returned for his senior year and led the Scarlet Knights to the NCAA final where they lost on penalty kicks to Brad Friedel’s UCLA. Rammel’s 17 goals and 9 assists earned him All-American honors and a runner up finish for the Hermann Trophy. But following his college career, he faced the same question, “Where do we play?”
That winter, Rammel was called into the U.S. national team with Peter Vermes, who Rammel referred to as an older brother that took him under his wings. In ’91 while some of the World Cup veterans ventured overseas, Rammel was one of 13 players with full-time contracts.
“We’d spend a week or two together, training, playing, then leave and come home for about five days and meet again somewhere else,” he said.
Rammel sat on the plane with Vermes, who’d offer advice on everything from fitness to agents. Tony Meola was his other roommate. “They were totally different,” Rammel said. “Tony liked to have more fun.”
After Werner Fricker lost his re-election, his public endorsement of Bob Gansler following the World Cup fizzled. Gansler resigned on February 23rd, and the new administration hired Bora Milutinović to lead the program into the 1994 World Cup. Rammel played on the team that traveled to South Korea to play against the Olympic team on April 5th and 7th. Milutinović watched from the stands in an observational period, and at half-time of the first game, one in which the U.S. lost 2-1, he sent an assistant to the locker room to address the team. The players, anxious to hear the thoughts of their new coach asked, “What did he say?”
The assistant said, “He thinks only two people in this locker room will be in the ’94 World Cup.”
But Rammel had his sights set on ’94 and after playing in the World University Games, he left for trials in Germany and spent two seasons playing for FC Norderstedt and Tus Celle in the lower German leagues, returning to train with UGH whenever he was home.
Leading up to the ’94 World Cup, however, Rammel transitioned into coaching and returned to school at UMass Amherst where he served as an assistant soccer coach while pursuing an MBA in finance. “I had already given up,” he said when the MLS season opened on April 6, 1996. He watched from a bar in Amherst while Eric Wynalda scored the game-winner for the San Jose Clash in a 1-0 win over D.C. United.
A week later, the Monday after D.C. was trounced by the Columbus Crew 4-0, Rammel received a phone call from D.C.’s assistant, Bob Bradley, former head coach at Princeton. Not only did Bradley and Bruce Arena want to sign Rammel, but they intended to start him in the home opener that Saturday.
“I had no idea I’d be going to the MLS,” Rammel said.
Because of MLS rules, Rammel couldn’t play unless he had a contract with a lower-tier club. So he signed with the Washington Mustangs of the USISL and played one game so they could loan him out. That Friday night, hours before his debut with D.C., Rammel appeared for the Mustangs with the instructions that he wasn’t playing long and not to get hurt. At halftime, the coach told him he was going in, but Rammel, not wanting to squander his second chance said, “Put me in for the last five minutes.”
Rammel didn’t tell his family or his friends about playing again, only his boss at UMass. His friend called him the next day and asked, “Did I just see you on TV?”
After a 1-6 start, with two of those losses in the infamous 35-yard breakaway shootout, D.C. United turned the season around. Playing up front with Raul Diaz Arce, Rammel rejuvenated the D.C. attack, beginning with his three-goal performance against the Crew just over a month after signing with the club. He scored 17 goals in his first season on the way to D.C.’s U.S. Open Cup and MLS Cup double. In August that season, D.C. acquired Jaime Moreno, but despite a lesser role toward the end of the season, Rammel scored pivotal goals for D.C., including the first in a 2-1 win over the MetroStars in Game 3 of their conference semi-final series, and the opener in a 4-1 win over Tampa Bay in the conference finals.
The next season, D.C. traded Rammel to the Colorado Rapids, where he joined Vermes on a team that finished last in 1996 and struggled all season in ’97. Colorado “snuck in to the playoffs through the back door,” pulled off two upsets, and met D.C. in the MLS Cup final. Rammel played 90 minutes in the 2-1 loss. He retired the next season and returned to coaching, spending time at UCLA, St. Mary’s, and the LA Galaxy before a role as the Executive Director at Orlando City SC.
Rammel recalls his time at UGH as a special period of his life. “It opened up a door and helped me realize my goals.”
Two weeks after playing the U.S. National Team, UGH lost to the Hota Bavarians in the Regional Amateur Cup final, their first defeat in 36 games, not counting the U.S. and Malta national teams. The next day, they lost to the Brooklyn Italians in the Open Cup final, ending one of the greatest seasons in club history. UGH continued to play in four straight regional finals, reaching the National Amateur final in ’93 and the National Open final in ’94. Yet they were still unable to wrap their fingers around those coveted trophies. Bob Wilkinson was a player-coach in 1999 when UGH beat the Milwaukee Bavarians 2-1 to claim their first National Open Cup. The next day, playing their fourth game of the weekend, UGH lost to Michigan Arsenal 2-1 in what could have been an historic open-amateur cup double.
In 1989, when Bill Wilkinson Sr. and his sons watched the U.S. play Russian club Dnepr at Franklin Field, Bill Sr. was amazed that a Philadelphia stadium could draw 40,000 soccer fans. “He never thought he’d ever see it,” Bill Jr. said.
Six weeks after the USA-UGH game, Bob and Bill Jr. watched from the stands of the Stadio Olympico in Rome as Peter Vermes’ late second-half rebound skipped through the legs of Walter Zenga and spun a foot from the goal line before an Italian defender cleared it away. Despite losing 1-0 to the Italians, U.S. soccer proved to the world that night that it belonged. And if not for several Philadelphia-area figures between the 1950 and 1990 World Cups who elevated the game, one generation at a time, on clubhouse fields, some of which no longer exist, the U.S. may still be raking in the gravel of the post-NASL era, waiting for that chance.
“Guys like Werner Fricker, Werner Jr., Dad, Bobby, Vermes, Rammel,” Bill Jr. said, “they paved the way.”