BRIAN SCIARETTA - Tuesday, November 3, 2009
The late 1980's were a transformative time for USA soccer. While the NASL had begun the sharp decline that would eventually result in its collapse, a new generation of talented young American players began to emerge.
It was this group of players that would start what is now the modern era of American soccer and at the core of this group of players was Bruce Murray, a young forward of Scottish ancestry from Germantown, Maryland.
While soccer in the late 1970s and early 1980s was not as widely played then as it is now, Murray fondly recalls developing in Maryland, which was a hotbed for the sport even at that time.
"The quality back then was great. Maryland had the greatest players," Murray told Yanks Abroad of his youth development. "The East Coast thing was happening back then. There were great players that really understood the game. It was good times for sure."
It was also there in Maryland where Murray became greatly influenced by John Kerr, Sr., the former Canadian international, NASL veteran, and father of former USA international John Kerr, Jr.
Kerr Sr. was the coach of Montgomery United, a youth team in Maryland that would win two Under-16 national championships during Murray's time there. Under Kerr, Murray would come into his own as a player.
"I really learned the game when John Kerr Sr. was my coach," Murray said of his mentor. "He had that environment where you'd really want to go out and play."
"Then he would invite in all these former pros to play with us. That's where you learn the game, in the pickup stuff and knockabout games. He encouraged that. He was serious but casual. It was a wonderful experience. He's a great coach and a wonderful mentor. I've always tried to pattern myself after John."
Murray would then go on to play at Clemson University where he would achieve remarkable success. He would lead the Tigers to two national championships while being named an All-American and winning the Hermann Trophy his senior year as the best NCAA soccer player in the country.
"I learned the game more my sophomore and junior year. By my senior year I really understood the game again," Murray recalled. "I got a new role as a target man and we won another national championship."
It was also during his time at Clemson where he would earn his first cap. Despite being only 18 years old in 1985, he was called up to start for the USA against England at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The Americans would lose 5-0 that day to a very talented English team, but Murray remembers it being a positive experience.
"It was a little intimidating. That was a great England team," Murray described. "The young guys played well, I had a couple of shots on goal. I had breakfast with the great Glen Hoddle the day after and he told me I was a dynamite footballer. That was a nice thing to hear."
Despite the folding of the NASL, soccer was on the ascendancy in the United States and Murray realized this. It wasn't long after that friendly loss to England that two important events would transpire. The first was the USA being named the winning bid to host the 1994 World Cup. The second was the start of the 1990 World Cup qualifying campaign.
"The critical piece was getting to the 1990 World Cup. Caligiuri's goal was critical," Murray stressed. "The reason is that we had to get to Italy to see what was out there. We had to at least compete. We had to get to Italy to understand how to play 1994 because we were the host country."
"What an embarrassment [it would have been] if we took a team and it was the first time in the World Cup since 1950. We would have gotten killed."
Having shocked the soccer world by qualifying for its first World Cup in 40 years, the USA faced a daunting task being drawn into a group with Czechoslovakia, Austria, and the hosts, Italy.
"We had to at least compete. The first game we didn't compete, but in the next two we really did, especially the Italy game. We could have tied it in the end which would have been a real feel-good story."
In the game against Austria, the USA would lose 2-1 but Murray would join Paul Caligiuri as the only Americans to score in the 1990 World Cup finals.
After the World Cup, Murray would enter into a contract with the USSF, and his full-time career was now with the USA national team where he would continue to play well.
Things changed in 1993 when he transferred out of the USA and signed a contract with English club Millwall. There he would play for manager Mick McCarthy, the current manager of the Premier League's Wolverhampton.
"I had a couple of big injuries, concussion-wise, my first year with Millwall. But I scored three goals in my first eight games out," Murray said of the beginning of his European experience. "McCarthy was just a brilliant manager. I learned a little bit more about the game when I was over there in terms of how to make runs and finishing."
As a striker Murray was particularly fond of how the English would emphasize finishing.
"The one thing I loved about playing in England is that the finishing in training and before practice was just so rudimentary. It's just lay it and hit it. It's all about doing it right and repeating it over and over."
Also at this time, the USA began to build for the 1994 World Cup where expectations would be much higher than in 1990 since the USA would be playing as hosts. Murray would take part in the team's run up for the tournament, but because of injuries and a defensive mindset by coach Bora Milutinovic, Murray would be left off the final roster very late in the cycle.
"It was painful. I still felt like I had something to offer as a striker, especially in 1994 with Bora," Murray recalls. "I played with him all the way up to the World Cup. Then he made the decision to bring more defenders. I vehemently disagreed with it. I think when you're at that level you've got to load your bench with some guys that can score goals."
Following the 1994 World Cup it was an exciting time for soccer in the United States. For the first time there was genuine public excitement over the national team and plans were underway for the start of a new domestic league in the United States. Unlike the defunct NASL, this league was going to focus on the development of the American player.
Murray would take part in the initial combines for the fledgling MLS, but injuries were still taking their toll. He was offered a contract, but he would never see the field in the new league. Shortly thereafter, Murray would be forced to retire.
"For MLS, I went to the combine. I just came off knee surgery and I couldn't run. I had a nice contract from Sunil Gulati but it wasn't happening."
Now a youth coach, Murray is still involved with the game, and he actively follows US Soccer and American players across the globe. He is also not shy in comparing players of his generation against the current group young players.
"There are a lot of good and upcoming players, but I don't know if the work-rate is there because you get things early now," Murray opined. "So you get a contract at a younger age. It's a lot of money for a guy who hasn't done anything yet."
"Money has changed the game. Players have to go back to the work ethic, and I'm not sure it's there at this point. It's not a bad thing. It is what it is."
"I learned a lot from the NASL guys," Murray said when making a contrast to his youth experience. "There was a lot more professionalism, in my opinion, in the generation previous to my generation than in the generation we see today."
One of the bigger problems Murray has with the current system is the criterion that many youth coaches use to evaluate players. The former Nat' also feels that another weakness with modern player development in the USA has been the lack of developing skilled defenders.
"Skill has gone down. Athleticism and fitness has trumped skill. It's a problem. The game isn't as good because of that."
"It starts in the back," Murray insists. "We have to develop backs. We have to go and get young center-forwards and wingers that know how to play the game and get them to the back of the field. It's as simple as that."
Despite some of the problems, Murray does see plenty of room for optimism for Americans next year at the World Cup.
"The World Cup team, they can win it. They can win the World Cup. If they funnel everything into the middle and hit them on the break then defend well, they can do it. Brazil can't even get through a packed back four that is all tied-in."
"Then you have speed on the wings and you have some guys up front that can run. It's not about being great; it's about game-planning. If Bob Bradley gets it right and game plans, he can do it. I think Bob is a great coach."
Another thing that Murray admires about the current USA team is the variety of different goal scoring options they have. It's a significant factor that gives the USA a unique advantage over most opponents.
"The USA now has players that can score from all over the field. When you look at their lineup you have Donovan, Dempsey, Altidore, Feilhaber and Onyewu if he gets in the box on headers. Anyone can score from anywhere. We've got eight or nine guys that can score. Other countries don't have that."
Looking back on his career, Murray is very content on where the game has taken him. He finished his international career with a terrific strike ratio of 21 goals in 86 caps. His legacy is firmly set as being a critical part of a generation on which the modern American game was established.
"I've been blessed. I've always been paid well. I've got a good life with great kids and a great family. The game has been good to me."