Concentrate!” shouts Bob Gansler. “Bust out! Keep it working! Go! That’s it! Yes!” The ball whizzes past the outstretched arms of goalie Tony Meola, just under the bar, and thumps into the net. “Okay, gentlemen, take a break,” orders the head coach of the young U.S. World Cup soccer team. It’s afternoon practice in Princeton, N.J., and the normally reserved Gansler, 48, is beaming. “We’re getting there,” he says. “If we can just keep the momentum going—keep our confidence and consistency—maybe we’ll surprise all those people who thought we were a joke, that we’d never make it to the big time.”
Gansler’s eager, college-trained players have surprised a lot of people already. No American soccer team has made it to the World Cup finals in the past 40 years, and the 1950 team was the only one from the U.S. ever to qualify. Yet Gansler’s upstarts narrowly booted their way through last year’s qualifying rounds to become one of 24 teams, out of 113 worldwide, to reach the main event, starting in Italy this Friday, June 8. The road ahead is daunting, since next Sunday Gansler’s team—one of the youngest in the entire competition—plays Czechoslovakia in Florence, then a tournament favorite, Italy (June 14 in Rome), and Austria (June 19 in Florence). After each of the 24 qualifiers plays three first-round matches, 16 will move on to the second round, followed by an eight-team quarterfinal, a four-team semifinal and a July 8 final match in Rome. Right now most soccer experts rate the Americans’ chances in the World Cup as roughly equal to those of a college all-star basketball team knocking off the NBA champs. The betting is they will lose in Round One, and some European observers think they may not even score a single goal.
Sometimes testy with the press, the intense coach is inevitably on the spot. Gansler has been criticized for everything from picking inexperienced players to scheduling easy warm-up games with European club teams and World Cup non-qualifiers such as Malta, Finland, Iceland and Bermuda. He dismisses the critics as “Monday-morning media quarterbacks” who don’t understand his game plan. “They say we’ve had a soft schedule, that as underdogs we’re in over our heads, that we’re too young and inexperienced,” Gansler says. “Maybe some of that is true, but we’re not a novelty act. We got this far, and we’re for real. It’s just taken us time to finally come together and start to play our best.”
Still, doubters outnumber believers. Paul Gardner, columnist for Soccer America magazine and one of Gansler’s chief critics, thinks the 22-man U.S. squad isn’t “match fit” to play top teams with pros as their stars. “They’re a defensive team,” Gardner maintains. “Not aggressive enough. Too much structure, too cautious. Just like the coach, they don’t take risks. He’s also never had pro athletes under him. It’s all been on the youth and college level, so I question whether the World Cup is the place to try him out.” Werner Fricker, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, springs to Gansler’s defense. “He’s a talented coach with a mission, and the team’s on track, more aggressive with every game,” Fricker says. “I wouldn’t count them out yet.”
Since the U.S. last played in the World Cup, American soccer has grown more robust. Although the pro game has never really blossomed in this country, local youth leagues are booming. Most of this year’s players are native-born Americans who learned the game as kids or in college, under coaches like Gansler.
Born into a farming family in the heavily German town of Mucsi in Hungary, Gansler moved to West Germany when he was 5, then at 11 emigrated with his parents to Milwaukee. “I got hooked on soccer in Germany, but I perfected my game here,” he says. “I tried baseball—centerfield—but it didn’t make sense. The first fly ball hit to me I let bounce on the ground. I treated it like a soccer ball.”
Gansler played soccer for German clubs in Milwaukee, then coached at Marquette University as a graduate student (he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history). He also met his wife, Nancy, a French teacher, now a Milwaukee homemaker and mother to their four sons, Robert, 20, Michael, 18, Peter, 15, and Danny, 12. Gansler captained the U.S. Olympic soccer teams of 1964 and 1968 and in 1968 played defender with the Chicago Mustangs of the now-defunct North American Soccer League. He was also a player-coach for five of his 14 years with the Milwaukee Bavarians, a club team, coached the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for another five, and last year took the U.S. under-20 team to the final four of the World Youth Championship.
After coaching his current team to a four-win, one-loss, one-tie record in the last six exhibition matches in the U.S., Gansler pronounces himself satisfied. “We’re peaking at the right time,” he says. “Right now we’re humming, playing with our heart and head. Forget the critics, forget miracles. This team is ready.”