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Thirty years may seem like a long time to some, but in terms of building a national soccer program and developing a successful sporting culture, a mere generation ago, it’s not a long time.
Three decades ago, the United States Men’s Soccer National Team and the U.S. Soccer Federation were operating with very limited resources and almost zero credibility on the international landscape of the world’s most popular sport.
Things began to change, but it would take time, persistence and some very dedicated, brilliant soccer minds to help build things up, piece-by-piece.
Pittsburgh soccer coaching icon John Kowalski was one of those architects of the U.S. Men’s National soccer program, who helped turn American soccer from being an afterthought on the world stage, to become a respectable and competitive soccer nation.
Those primative years though, provided some significant obstacles for U.S. Soccer and many individuals including Kowalski, who were tasked with elevating the quality of play and status of the National men’s teams.
Case in point, after a trip to Brazil, when he was managing the U.S. National Futsal Men’s team, Kowalski explained how lean things really were.
“At that time, we had one set of uniforms. We went to away game in Brazil. Two players traded jerseys, and I came back and the Federation gave me a lot of stink that I had no control over the players,” Kowalski said.
“And the next team that needs to go, which was a women’s team, we were exchanging one set of uniforms for the men, the women, the youth. Players were getting paid five, ten dollars per diem. As coaches we were getting paid $110 per day that we were working.”
At that time, Kowalski also became the head coach of a new men’s college soccer program at Robert Morris University in the late 1980s, after his experience of being the head man for the Pittsburgh Spirit during the indoor club’s heyday in the early-to-mid 1980s.
By taking on whatever roles within the United States Soccer Federation that needed his services, Kowalski jumped in to help provide coaching leadership just as the sport was going to start its climb toward unprecedented growth in this country. Carrying a pedigree of success in coaching the indoor game after an impressive run with the Spirit, U.S. Soccer tabbed Kowalski’s leadership of U.S. National futsal teams in 1989 and 1992.
His accomplishments at FIFA’s first ever Futsal World Championships remain unmatched, as they would be the highest of any U.S. Men’s National teams have ever finished in a FIFA competition.
In 1989, Kowalski took the shoe-string budgeted U.S. team to the FIFA Five-a-Side event in the Netherlands, utilizing a mix of young, up-and-coming U.S. players along with a handful of veterans.
Three years later, Kowalski led the USA to its highest-ever FIFA finish, a second place in the 1992 world championships, losing 4-1 to Brazil in the final.
After two top-three finishes in back-to-back indoor world championships, Kowalski was named an international FIFA futsal instructor, part of a select group of coaches at the time who were regarded as the highest-level coaches of the indoor game.
Kowalski’s 1989 team was the first-ever U.S. team to win a FIFA medal. And the 1992 team, which competed in Hong Kong, is the only U.S. Men’s team ever to compete in the final game of a world championship event.
He is also the only U.S. coach to lead U.S. teams to CONCACAF championships in both indoor (1996) and outdoor soccer, assisting U.S. National Team Coach Bora Milutinovic when the USA won the 1991 Gold Cup.
“It was very special to be a part of that first Gold Cup winning team, and to be an assistant with Bora,” Kowalski said. “Especially because that was the first one.”
Prior to Milutinovic taking over as head coach, Kowalski was the interim coach of the USMNT in 1990-91, leading the USA to victories over Olimpia of Paraguay (1990 champions of South America and world club champions), Canada and a draw with Mexico.
Kowalski went 1-1-0 as an interim head coach for the USMNT in 1991.
He was also at the helm for another ‘unofficial’ match on November 16, 1988, but one with a lot of headliners from the opposition when the USMNT took on Mexican club Guadalajala, better known as ‘Chivas’ in a friendly in Santa Ana, CA, in 1988.
Former Upper St. Clair and University of Tampa standout, Peter Smith became only the second player from Pittsburgh to represent the USMNT in the last 50 years, when appearing for the final 10 minutes of that match.
The other player from the Pittsburgh area who broke on to the USMNT, around the same time, was former Mt. Lebanon, Pitt and Pittsburgh Spirit standout, John O’Hara.
“Many of those Chivas players were on Mexico’s 1986 World Cup team,” Smith recalled.
“And many of the guys on our team, were key players on the 1990 World Cup team: Tab Harksey, (Mike) Windicschmann, Eric Eichmann, Paul Krumpe. John was right in the middle of it.” ”
In 1993-94, Kowalski was head coach of the U.S. U-20 MNT, which included many players who would later star for the USA or go into the professional game, including Clint Mathis, John O’Brien and Jovan Kirovski as well as Chris Klein and Jay Heaps.
Fast forward to the present, and Kowalski, who was honored with the Walt Chyzowych Lifetime Achievement Award at the United Soccer Coaches Convention in 2018, who also coached in the MLS (Tampa Bay Mutiny in the late 1990s) and USL/A-League, as the first Riverhounds’ coach, finally stepped down from a 45-year career in the soccer coaching ranks when he left Robert Morris women’s program follwing the 2019 season.
Kowalski is optimistic about the U.S. Men’s National Soccer team despite some of the hiccups of the late 2010s and with having a young team at the World Cup in Qatar.
“We’re making tremendous progress in soccer despite what some people may not give a lot of credit,” Kowalski explained. “The growth is tremendous. To take a look at where the Federation was, where the Federation is, how many millions of additional kids and people are playing and it’s really in the mainstream now.”
While Kowalski was a trailblazer coaching in a different era, he has a great appreciation for the U.S. Soccer Federation’s immense growth
“Now, uniforms are no problem and coaches and players are getting livable salaries — and in some cases into millions of dollars,” Kowalski said.
“It’s nice to know I have had a hand in the building stages, and changes that took place from the 1970s, 80s and 90s, were incredible. The facilities, the soccer fields, thousands more kids are playing, more referees, it’s on television — it’s become a mainstream sport. And we still have ways to go.”
SOUNDING OFF ON SOCCER WITH JOHN KOWALSKI & PETER SMITH, PLUS BONUS INTERVIEW: ENGLISH PERSPECTIVE WITH JAMES MEARA
For more with John Kowalski and Peter Smith, be sure to listen to this special edition of the Sounding Off on Soccer podcast as they talk in detail about their USMNT experiences in the 1980s and 1990s, plus they share their thoughts on the upcoming USA-England match coming up on Friday. In addition, John Krysinsky catches up with Riverhounds Academy East Director and former English professional player, James Meara, who provides his thoughts and the ‘English’ perspective heading into Friday’s big World Cup match.