SLIPPING FROM OUR GRASP
PREVIEWS
RECAPS
EXTRA TIME
CHAD WINGER - Wednesday, March 2, 2005
When one looks over the history of the USMNT, men like John Boulos, Joe Gaetjens, Roy Wegerle and Thomas Dooley are now, and forever will be, remembered among those who have helped shape the game in the United States and bring our national side into one of the top 15 teams on the globe.

Though not born on our shores, these men put on the shirt of the USA with pride, representing our nation - native-born Americans, immigrants and naturalized citizens alike. Like our country itself, our national team has always been a melting pot.

More recently, players like Earnie Stewart, David Regis, Carlos Llamosa and Pablo Mastroeni have been major contributors, and this theme is unlikely to change any time soon. With youngsters like French-born Quentin Westberg, Ghana-born Robbie Russell, and of course, Freddy Adu waiting in the wings, the USMNT will continue this tradition.

As the US soccer profile has improved internationally, our players have been joining the top leagues all across Europe and South America at a dizzying pace. Though the degrees of success have varied - we have arrived.

And we aren't going away anytime in the near future.

Recently though, there has been a twist in the story.

In the case of some American players, their play has been so stellar that they have caught the eye of the very nations in which they hold secondary residence or citizenship, while in the case of others, countries have merely inquired about the possibility.

One example, New Jersey born and raised Giuseppe Rossi of Manchester United, has already suited up for the Italian U-17 and U-19 teams, and has made remarks in the press - remarks that many American soccer enthusiasts have taken offensively - that his desire is to continue that path and don the jersey for Gli Azzurri in a future World Cup.

Another is Pat Noonan of New England, who last year was the target of inquiries from officials from Ireland. Though they eventually learned that his closest connection to the island country was that of a great-great-grandparent, the interest was still there.

But what happens, when one of our boys slips through the cracks despite having desire to play for the U.S. of A.?

Peter Philipakos, who until last year had spent his entire life in New York before signing with AEK Athens of Greece, is one such player.

Now of perennial Champions League participant Olympiakos, Philipakos finds himself the center of a media frenzy after finally cracking the starting lineup for O Thrylos and impressing mightily.

In his league debut this past weekend, the Glen Cove native put on a clinic of passing from his right midfield spot, drawing rave reviews for his lightning-quick daring runs and dribbling skills.

The day after, no less than five Athens newspapers splashed Philipakos' photograph on the front page in response to what is now being referred to in Greece as "The Pass" - a reference to his mind-boggling over-the-head juggled volley assist.

"Thrylos Finds Its New Stelio" (a reference to ex-Olympiakos legend Stelios Giannakopoulos) screamed the headline of Protathlitis, while another proclaimed "A Star Made in USA" - in English, no less.

But it's not as if it should come as much surprise to anyone.

Philipakos was an excellent youth player in New York, a teammate of his best friend and recent Columbus Crew draftee Knox Cameron. He went on to star at St. John's University, before leading unheralded American University to the NCAA tournament.

Despite the excellent youth and amateur pedigree, Philipakos, who is younger than both Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, has been ignored by the USSF at all levels, while several of his teammates - including Cameron - have represented the United States.

"It is an absolute dream of mine to play for the USA," Philipakos told me in an August interview. "No, I don't expect Bruce to call me in for a World Cup Qualifier or something right now, but never, not once, have I heard from someone over there."

"Not a 'Hey, we know you're over there, we'll be watching you' or a 'If you start playing well, we might give you some looks'. Nothing at all. It's like I don't even exist."

"If Greece called me up, that would be an interesting situation, for sure. I had never thought about it before, but this summer when they won Euro 2004, the country just exploded."

"I would love to be a part of something like that, but honestly I don't have any idea what I would do at all. I could play for either country, but if the US doesn't show any interest, what am I supposed to do?"

Of course, this conversation was nearly seven months ago, before the player had won the starting job coming into the season and was slated to slot into the first eleven for their Champions League showdown with Deportivo La Coruņa, which unfortunately was scuppered by an injury - and resulting surgery - just days before the match.

I may be alone in my sentiment, but I find it somewhat appalling, that players like Philipakos and Watford's Jay DeMerit, somehow go unnoticed by the US soccer institution, yet find themselves playing at the highest level.

Certainly, I'm not suggesting that Arena and his staff, who have done an incredible job since taking over following the debacle in France, need to throw all and any players into the pool simply because they have a contract in Europe.

That would be ludicrous.

However, what would be the damage in merely letting all these players, who have more than one option internationally, know that they are somewhere on the radar?

Arena, to his credit, has been excellent in unearthing many hidden talents or resurrecting the careers of players who most would never consider international material. Kerry Zavagnin was a surprising selection early last year, and proved many doubters wrong with strong play over the past twelve months.

The bold move of calling A-Leaguer Clyde Simms to camp was another example.

Yet, there does need to be some sense of urgency in particular cases. If not, we may find that by the time we get around to acknowledging players like a Philipakos, it will be too late.

In the wake of the uproar of Philipakos' debut and the resulting media crush in Greece, which, among other things, included suggestions for an immediate call up to the European Champions upcoming camp ahead of their own World Cup Qualifier against minnows Georgia, I decided to see what the reaction from the Hellenic Football Federation was.

The answers that I received were surprising, and for me, being an American, somewhat disheartening.

Through broken English and being transferred from one official to another, not only is Philipakos squarely in their sights, one official who wished to remain anonymous said, "[Greece head coach Otto] Rehhagel will be in attendance at the next few [Olympiakos] games to have a better look at him and other players."

"We are very interested in him."

In the next two weeks, if all goes according to plans, Philipakos will feature in league matches against hated rivals PAOK and AEK Athens, as well as two games in the high profile UEFA Cup matchup with English side Newcastle United.

No matter what he has or has not accomplished up until this point, these four matches will certainly give at least some indication of the player's ability, not only to Rehhagel and his Euro 2004 kings, but to the American soccer fan, who understandably may look towards him as little more than a curiosity.

Will the USSF and Arena be watching?

The USMNT has used numerous combinations on the right side of the midfield over the past year and half, Frankie Hejduk, Steve Ralston and Chris Klein among them, none of whom have made much of an impression.

While Claudio Reyna, Donovan and the naturally left-sided Beasley have also seen time on the right, I know that I am not alone in saying that I could go the rest of my USMNT life without seeing another Hejduk "cross" end up somewhere near a hot dog vendor or another lost possession due to lack of speed.

But that's not really the point.

I'm not saying that Philipakos is the answer to what very well may be my own imagined problem, rather, I believe, that we should never leave any avenue untravelled.

If we allow our players, no matter where they came from or how they got there, to remain in the dark about their international future - or even potential international future, in cases like Philipakos, there will be other nations who will be ready to pounce.

In the irony of ironies, one could potentially see a born and raised American suiting up as the enemy in the World Cup, something that in the international soccer circles would have been laughable up until the recent years.

Ultimately, a player like the aforementioned Rossi can do whatever they choose in regards to their international career, after all, freedom of choice has always been one of the cornerstones of which America was built.

However, the decision for others can surely be made to sway our way much easier with a minimum of expense.

And in the case of Peter Philipakos, all it might take is a simple phone call.
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The next test for the Dooley-led revitalization of the Philippine national team kicks off soon.
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