This is the first 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.
Thirty-nine days before the U.S. National Team’s 1990 World Cup opener against Czechoslovakia, Eric Wynalda scored a half-volley in the seventy-fifth minute to lead the U.S. to a 1-0 victory over the United German Hungarians in a friendly in Oakford, Pa.
Many outsiders at the time found it disturbing that a World Cup qualifier nudged past a local Philadelphia amateur team. The U.S. had Tony Meola, Tab Ramos, Bruce Murray, and Wynalda, all destined to become national soccer icons. But UGH were no ordinary amateur side, and had the U.S. possessed a viable professional league, many of their players could have been wearing white on that hot May night in Oakford, Pennsylvania. And if John Doyle hadn’t dove across the goal to head Mike Serban’s floater off the goal line in the 58th minute, UGH may have done more than just represent the Philly area.
Bob Wilkinson, the current head men’s soccer coach at Moravian College was captain and center back for a UGH team that hadn’t been beaten in 26 games. Running away with the United Soccer League title, UGH also won the EPSA State Amateur and Open Cups and were in the middle of a grueling late spring competing in two regional cup competitions.
“It was an honor to play,” Bob said. “We knew we’d perform well.”
Bob, an Archbishop Wood grad, had been a three-time Soccer 7 All-Star at La Salle where he played for his dad, Bill Sr., who coached the program from 1969 to 1975 and again from 1977 to 1986. “Back then, there wasn’t much soccer on TV, so it wasn’t like we saw these guys all the time. There was a little, wow, there’s Caligiuri running an overlap, the guy who scored ‘The Shot Heard Round The World.’“
During the warm-up when Meola and David Vanole played catch from sideline to sideline, he realized the game would be unlike any other he’d played before. The U.S. were less than two weeks away from finalizing their roster and about to begin a series of warm-up games that included Malta in Piscataway, Poland in Hershey, and Ajax in Washington, D.C. Peter Vermes, the local star from Delran, N.J., and the only U.S. player in a top European league at the time was concluding his club season in Holland with Vollendam. John Harkes also did not play. But the U.S. ran out eight of the eleven who started against Czechoslovakia, including Ramos, Meola, Caligiuiri, Murray, Desmond Armstrong, and captain Mike Windischmann.
UGH had always been a club with a strong tradition of great players since its founding as Banater Maennerchor in 1910 after the German ethnic region in Hungary. Jack Dunn played for the U.S in the 1952 Olympics, Arthur Jethon the 1963 Pan-Am Games, Werner Fricker the 1964 Olympics, and Otto Brand the 1967 Pan-Am Games. Fricker captained the 1965 team that defeated St. Ambrose of St. Louis 6-0 to win the club’s first National Amateur Cup, which sparked a period of success. In 1971, UGH lost the National Amateur Cup final 6-5 in overtime against the Chicago Kickers. The 1977 team lost in both the National Amateur and Open Cup finals. The ’77 team included two of Walt Bahr’s sons, Chris a Penn State All-American who played for the Philadelphia Atoms and won two Super Bowls as a kicker, and Casey, an All-American at Navy who played in the 1972 Olympics.
By the mid 1980s, UGH had been caught in a transitional period with an aging core and youth beginning college careers. When the U.S. Soccer Federation elected Werner Fricker as President in 1984, he made his top priority strengthening the national team. But he realized he needed to model the same approach with his own club, so he and his son, Werner Jr., brought Bill Wilkinson Sr. back in 1987 to revamp the men’s program. UGH restored the clubhouse field, adding lights, and updated the locker rooms to create a more professional environment. And Wilkinson knew his former La Salle players would establish a new core capable of competing in the immediate future.
“We had about thirty to forty guys at every practice,” Bill Wilkinson Jr. said. Bill Jr. also played for his dad at La Salle and at UGH and joined the staff in 1987. “And it was competitive. If you missed training or didn’t perform well, you didn’t play.” UGH trained outside throughout the winter, sometimes on the club’s shoveled parking lot. In ’90 when they began their cup runs in March, they’d already been outside training for six weeks. “The culture was built to do these things,” Bill Jr. said.
Despite an intense spring of training and competition, UGH still found themselves on their heels against the U.S. “We survived the first twenty minutes,” Bob said. “Chris Henderson hit the crossbar twice and Jeff Zimmerman made a couple of big saves. It could have been 4-0.” During the second twenty minutes, the game came to UGH, and they were able to advance the ball up the field and gain possession.
“Desmond Armstrong was so good,” Bill Jr. said. “We couldn’t get by him. But he stayed home and didn’t attack much, so we were able to hold the ball in front of him.” As UGH became more involved in the game, frustration mounted on the other side. “Jim McCourt and Mike Connors had big speed. They couldn’t run by us, especially Henderson. We were fit.”
Several entanglements involving Tab Ramos escalated the game beyond a friendly. “Tab always played on the edge, at a high intensity,” Bob said. “It’s why he was so good.” Late in the first half, Ramos mixed it up with Pat O’Donnell on the ground and when tempers lingered, Ramos elbowed him in the back of the head. When Jim Boyer contacted Meola while challenging for a ball in the box, Meola shoved Boyle, which started a mini scuffle.
Play in the second half went back and forth, growing chippier as the score remained tied. Bob caught Ramos from behind on one challenge. “The crowd started yelling at me,” he said, surprised by the home response. “It would have been a card today. You got away with that stuff back then.”
John Doyle raced over and yelled, “What are you doing?” Don’t you know we have to go to Italy?”
Though the U.S. had their sights on Florence, UGH had a regional game in Massachusetts that weekend then a game against Malta. Soon after, Bob went in for a challenge with Doyle, who came in hard with two feet and showed no signs of backing down. “I couldn’t bail,” Bob said, taking the brunt of the challenge.
Afterwards, he yelled back at Doyle, “What are you doing? Don’t you know we have to go to Boston?”
After Wynalda’s goal, UGH tried to press forward for an equalizer but chased the ball for the final ten minutes.
“The game meant an enormous amount to my father,” Bill Jr. said. Bill Sr. played on the 1965 UGH team after an All-American career at Drexel and years in the military with the Armed Forces team. Bill Sr. was the last player to be released from the Olympic Team ahead of the 1952 Olympics won by Hungary.
“He was actually in Helsinki when he was cut,” Bill Jr. said. “So it was a big deal for him to play for the U.S.”
Bill Sr. also played for Vereinigung Erzgebirge and the Uhrick Truckers, a semi-pro team in the regionalized American Soccer League where he played alongside Walt Bahr, Alex Ely, and Dick Packer.
Steve Friend was one of the La Salle players who followed the Wilkinsons to UGH. Friend and Bob played center back together for five years leading up to the 1990 game against the U.S. “We had a great partnership,” Bob said. Friend, a six-foot-four-inch defender from Cardinal Dougherty, had the assignment of covering Murray, the All-American from Clemson who became the first U.S. player to record a goal and an assist in a single World Cup. “Steve had a great game,” Bob said. “Shut Murray down.”
Friend remembers the pageantry of the game. “I wasn’t enamored though,” he said. “I was focused on my job. I was the type of player who said, ‘tell me the guy, and I’ll figure it out.’”
Wynalda’s goal came from a rare moment when Murray found space chasing a through-ball down the left edge of the penalty area. The ball caught up in the grass, so Murray had to stop and pull it back, and that’s when he found Wynalda streaking for the penalty spot.
A Soccer 7 All-Star and All-MAAC selection in his final years at La Salle, Friend called Bill Sr. one of the most influential men in his life. “When Mr. Wilkinson knew he was close to retiring, he left our senior year, his son’s senior year, because he wanted Pat Farrell to have a veteran group in his first season, which I thought was selfless.”
Friend’s La Salle journey was unexpected. He was also considering West Point and Drexel, but during his senior year, Bill Sr. came to a CD game with some of his La Salle seniors to scout his teammate and wanted Friend after watching him play. Friend played baseball his senior year and was still undecided, but Bill Sr. kept tabs on him. “He used to call me up and say, ‘Hey, I saw you had a double.’ ” Friend accepted his offer from a pay phone inside the ACME where he was working as a part-time bagger, but Bill Sr. told him to go home and talk to his parents first. So Friend went back and finished his shift.
“He always spoke to you in a great way, made you feel special. It didn’t matter if you were the first guy or the twenty-second, you felt like you were important.” Friend said Bob Wilkinson demonstrated many of his dad’s qualities while captain of the UGH squad. “He was a builder-upper, a positive guy, a quiet leader, but every once in a while he’d lose it.”
Friendship and devotion brought Steve Friend to UGH. “It was a great time of my life.” He played one more season after the U.S. game then left to start a family and focus on his career, but he and the Bob are still close friends.
UGH didn’t only attract players from the Catholic League and Soccer 7. Their reputation reached into New Jersey and beyond. Neil Smart played semi-pro in Northwest England before he came to America permanently in 1987 to start a soccer coaching business. His wife’s parents lived around the corner from UGH, so Neil showed up one Tuesday night and asked if he could train. UGH signed Neil to the reserves, but after a week they moved him up to the majors. Bob Wilkinson came back to watch one of Neil’s first few games and was enamored when Neil grabbed the ball to take a penalty over of the veteran players.
“Where I came from, I always took the penalties,” Neil said with a laugh.
Within a year, some of the senior players moved on, more of the La Salle guys arrived, and Neil settled into the United League. “FC Bayern was a massive rivalry. It got rough out there. I rather enjoyed it.”
Neil solidified the UGH midfield and emerged as one of the vocal leaders of the team, pushing, challenging others to maintain a high level at training and during games. “I didn’t have enough time to be nervous,” he said of the lead-up to the U.S. game. “My initial thought was let’s not give up an early goal. But I thought we held up quite well and gave a good account.”
Neil matched up against Brian Bliss, an All-American at Southern Connecticut State where he played with UGH’s Jim McCourt. “He was Man of the Match in my opinion.” Neil said of Bliss. “The guy was everywhere. He was clever, quick-thinking. He would get the ball from the back and start play. I don’t think I could get it off him.”
Neil’s second-half foul on Ramos added to the competitive tone before the U.S. goal. “It wasn’t a bad challenge, but it was late. I was nervous he was badly hurt. He was rolling on the floor and Meola and Murray grabbed me. Luckily big Steve stepped in.”
Neil played for UGH until the early days of the Philadelphia Freedom then played with Montco Azzuri where he captained the side to a number of state titles well into his thirties. He is currently a Director of Coaching at Warrington Soccer Club but remembers his time at UGH as an important period in his early American life. “They built something pretty good. We had great camaraderie off the field. UGH helped my transition, made it easier.”
Neil brought John Reynard, a fellow Englishman whose hobby was creating programs for each of their games like they do England. John designed the program for the U.S. game, a treasured souvenir for the dozens of kids who rushed the field after the game and swarmed players for autographs.
Thirty years later, the program is a cherished keepsake of a game that only exists in the memories of those who played or were there.