NOT SO VERY long ago, American soccer players sat the bench in the North American Soccer League with rigid regularity because of discrimination.
But beginning tomorrow, because of a lack of it, there will be only a handful of Americans trying out for the Major Soccer League select team that will face the U.S. National Team in two challenge matches.
Initially, this was supposed to be an all-American event, with young MSL Americans showing the U.S. Soccer Federation what it missed by not considering them for the World Cup team that competed in Italy last summer.
But, strange as it may seem, the MSL team the U.S. Nationals will face in Kansas City and St. Louis, Sept. 28 and 30, respectively, will have only seven Americans -- maybe less -- on its final 16-man roster.
The irony is this:
Discrimination used to be a natural thing in soccer in the United States. European coaches coached what professional leagues there were here, and they all had their token bench-dwelling American.
In putting together this team, the MSL argued over whether this select team would be an all-American team, an all-star team or a team made up of players who could become Americans.
Yesterday, when MSL commissioner Earl Foreman was asked why there were so few Americans on this team, he said:
"It's an MSL team and I can't distinguish within my league between Americans and green card holders," said Foreman. "I can't discriminate."
And so to avoid discrimination, the Americans are again in the minority on a team that represents a game created in the United States for Americans.
Currently, 18 players are expected in St. Louis tomorrow to begi training for the team that will suit up 16 for the two games. Defender Bruce Savage, who modeled the Blast's new blue-and-gray uniforms yesterday, is one of them.
"I thought the purpose was to see our MSL Americans play against the National Team," said Savage, who will turn 30 this December. "I guess the MSL just decided it wanted to field a stronger team."
The strangest irony of all is that having seven Americans on th team is viewed, by some, as a major achievement in American soccer.
Besides Savage, the American Seven include Dale Ervine (Wichita), George Fernandez (San Diego), Chico Borja (Wichita), Rick Davis (Tacoma), Daryl Doran (St. Louis) and Zoltan Toth (San Diego). Davis has since dropped out, due to commitments outside soccer, and American Ted Eck (Kansas City) has been added.
"I can remember in 1976, when I played in the North American Soccer League on something called Team America," said Kansas City coach Dave Clements, who headed the player selection committee. "It was tough then just getting one American to make the squad and when they did, they seldom played.
"Having seven Americans on an all-star squad of 18, based solely on merit, is quite an achievement," said Clements.
Considering the situation 14 years ago and the one today, Clements is probably right. Still, it seems as if American soccer players are making as much progress as a Go-Kart in the Indy 500.
Yesterday, U.S. National team player Steve Trittschuh, a defender playing for Sporta Prague, became the first American ever to play in the European Cup. His team lost 2-0 to Spartak Moscow.
National team coach Bob Gansler, who initially thought he would get a chance to look at many of the young American players in the MSL, will instead get a chance to look at his own young players who will be filling in for seven first-team players, who have signed in Europe and represent the most Americans ever to sign with foreign clubs.
"The MSL has decided to put together a league all-star team and that means we should have two very attractive games for the fans," said Gansler. "My team needs as much strong competition as it can get."
Meanwhile, the MSL stars also want to show they can play the outdoor game as well as anyone.
"This game could lead to a lot of things," said Newman. "It could become an annual event. It could set the stage for an MSL all-star tour outdoors in Europe. Certainly, it opens the door to being part of an outdoor league in this country."
U.S. Soccer Federation spokesman John Polis said USSF president Alan Rothenberg has put together a broad-based committee to begin structuring the professional outdoor league this country has to have in place by 1992 to meet the FIFA requirements for hosting the 1994 World Cup.
"The committee has been formed," agreed Gansler. "I don't know who is on it. But it's purpose will be look into what is required to establish the outdoor league. It requires a lot of prudent planning, because we can't afford another failure."
Which even the least discriminating observer would agree.