CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Monday, June 25, 2012
He grew up in America's first great soccer hotbed, qualified for the 1980 Olympics as a player, played in the heyday of the NASL, and was the voice of four World Cups for American fans.
Ty Keough grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, which was one of the first soccer towns in the United States. He had the good fortune of having the legendary Harry Keough as his father, which combined with the St. Louis soccer world, helped to cultivate Keough into a unique individual in the American soccer world.
"Other than having a very accomplished player as a dad, the environment here in St Louis is rather unique. Much of St. Louis' population arrived in the early 1900s and a lot of them were Irish, Italians and Germans. Many of them were Catholics, so most of the Catholic schools didn't have a lot of money for football helmets or gymnasiums so all the kids played soccer in the fall and winter and basically played baseball in the spring and summer."
Being in this environment, surrounded by immigrants from soccer-loving nations meant that there were many players, which in turn meant there were numerous teams and games throughout the year. Keough feels that this is one of the aspects about living in St. Louis that set the area apart from others in the country.
"I think it's somewhat unique in the United States that you had a large pool of young people playing a lot of soccer at least six months of the year. Even up in New England there were some soccer hotbeds, [but] it was more of a three month seasonal sport for soccer, so we had that advantage."
"I can remember in my formative years, I went to 60 or 70 competitive matches per year. That gave us a huge edge I think over American soccer players, young soccer players for the rest of the year."
In addition to playing so many games a year with the various teams that he played on season-to-season, Keough also had an advantage that not many other Americans had up to that point, or even beyond that point. His mother, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, opened the door for Keough to travel on vacation to Mexico in the summer. Once there, he had the opportunity to play in Chivas Guadalajara's fabled youth academy.
"We would go to Guadalajara every other summer for an extended period, you know, three, four, five weeks. I would get to see professional soccer, which really wasn't available to any significant degree in the United States, it wasn't really on television. I got to see a lot of games, I would train two or three times a week for the time I was in Guadalajara, with the academy team. I was 12... 13... 14 years old it was just something fun to do."
Not just fun, however. It perhaps served as a stepping stone to bigger things, giving him a look at the kind of soccer that he would need to strive for to achieve success as an adult.
"It gave me a glimpse of the technical aspect of training that I think were more advanced in Mexico at that time, for sure. Just getting wrapped up in a culture where soccer meant a lot more in total than it did here in the US. When you go to Mexico, that's the sport - it doesn't have to compete with football, basketball, baseball and so forth."
As a testament to his unique development as a player through his teens, Keough was a hot commodity when he reached the point of going to college, with offers coming from several powerful programs around the country. It was an easy decision to stay home though, not just because his father coached the St. Louis University team, but once again because of the environment that St. Louis offered as a soccer city.
"I had the opportunity to go just about anywhere I wanted to on a soccer scholarship, I chose St. Louis - not only because my dad was coaching the St. Louis University team and they had the tremendous pedigree of having won 10 NCAA championships - but I thought it through very hard because there were some other opportunities. But the fact is, I decided that if I wanted to play professionally or if I wanted to be a part of the Olympic or national team, I needed to play in a city where there was year-round soccer."
"So when the NCAA season was over here in St. Louis, we had a league, it was amateur or semi-pro, whatever you want to call it, but it was filled with ex-professionals, ex-Olympic team players, ex-national team players, top college players and so forth. In terms of player development and being a part of that Olympic team, St. Louis was the place to be."
One of Keough's lifelong dreams was to represent the United States in the Olympics, same as his father did when he captained the team in the 1952 and '56 Olympics. Eager to follow in his father's footsteps, it seemed as though it was a certainty as the US beat Costa Rica to qualify for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Politics, however, would end the dream as President Jimmy Carter boycotted the Moscow games in response to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.
"It was surreal. We had beaten Costa Rica in their national stadium in front of about 60,000 people to put ourselves through. I had dreamt of it my entire life since my father had been the captain of the '52 and '56 US Olympic soccer teams. I was already in my second season in the NASL with the San Diego Sockers, and it would have meant leaving my team in the NASL for an extended period."
"I guess it could have jeopardized my starting position with the San Diego team, but yeah, it was obviously a dream, a hope that was dashed by things totally outside of our control. Frustrating, some bitterness involved. No one argued that the plight of the Afghan people was horrible in terms of what the Soviets had done, marching in there with their tanks and so forth. I didn't see what impact personally the US not going to the Moscow Olympics was really going to have in that regard."
After the letdown of the U-23 team failing to qualify for the London Olympics this summer, Keough believes that it was a combination of a failing MLS system and young stars being coddled through their youth development, taking away responsibility and the mental fortitude that it takes to succeed in difficult situations.
"Here's what I suspect. Obviously I'm not close enough to it to really know, but a couple of issues - one, in Major League Soccer, I think it's becoming a problem similar to what happened back in the NASL years, not enough young US players on their own MLS teams are in a position of leadership in the team or are considered to be pivotal players on their team, players that have to take charge when the chips are down."
"Too many foreign players, I think, in MLS are taking on those roles, and when younger American players are put in that role like in an Olympic qualifier, they're not quite prepared for it- these guys had been somewhat coddled coming up through the youth system and so forth. When it comes down to situations, again when the chips are down, and you've got to scratch and claw a little bit, or someone has to step up - it seems like those elements were missing."
Being a standout American player, finding success on the collegiate, professional and eventually international stage, Keough could have taken his talents abroad, especially after participating in a youth in Scotland at the age of 16. Playing among and against teams from Europe allowed him to test his mettle, and realize that he had what it takes to make a career of his passion. However, he found that the best place to do was at home, rather than overseas.
"People have asked me, 'Why didn't you go play in Mexico or try to play in Europe?' We were pretty fortunate; two things happened when I was coming out of college. One, the NASL was kind of in its heyday, with Pele, Beckenbuaer, Cruff, George Best, Carlos Alberto. I got to play against all those guys, so there was a decent level of competition and a great experience here in the NASL. The other thing that happened was that the indoor league started and paid more money than the NASL for several years there."
"Many of us were able to play MISL, the indoor league in the winters, and NASL in the summer, and probably were making as much or more money playing in the US than we could have if we went overseas. European leagues really weren't paying big money back then, except for a goal scorer or something like that. I can't speculate, I think I might have been good enough to make a couple of overseas teams but there was no reason to. There was good opportunity here to play with the big names in the NASL and pick up extra money in the winters in the indoor leagues."
As we move into the midst of World Cup Qualifiers for Brazil, Keough believes that the United States can and should qualify, but points to the U-23 team's failure to qualify out of an easy group for the Olympics as an example of what can go wrong. Nevertheless, he is optimistic about the team's future.
"Well, it's never easy. Playing qualifiers on the road with so much at stake, it takes a certain sort of preparation, a special sort of mentality to be able to go in - obviously you take pride in your jersey, that you're playing for your country and be able to put side all the distractions of everything going on, say with your club team, or with your agent, or with your sponsorships or so forth - it's more a mentality, your ability to focus, and that's Klinsmann's job, to get his players all on the same page. The US should qualify, but there's never any guarantees, like the Olympic Team a few months ago."
To finish things off, Keough noted the evolution of not just the US National Team over the years, but soccer in general.
"I have attended in person seven World Cups. If you watch the development of the sport in general - I was fortunate enough in 1970 as a 13-year old to attend in person each of Brazil's six games with that legendary team, and that was more a collection, a beautiful collection of artists."
"The game has become more mechanized, more collective, more consistent - you don't see quite as many players able to exhibit that kind of artistry. So with the US team, as the sport has developed as the US has reached a higher level, [they are] able to compete worldwide."