Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Harry Keough (1927-2012)

Ridge Mahoney of Soccer America writes of the legacy of US soccer pioneer Harry Keough, who passed away yesterday.

The first time I talked with Harry Keough about the 1950 World Cup defeat of England, three and a half decades had passed, yet the details still swirled in his mind. Sights and sounds and smells of the stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil; the numbing boredom of a long boat trip from New York to Brazil that took the team to the competition; the joking rivalry between the St. Louis and East Coast players; and, of that game itself, a humble pride in accomplishing what he'd believed as a player and preached as a coach: "You always have to believe you have a chance to win, because you do."

I had called Harry in advance of a USA-England friendly to be played June 16, 1985, at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the fourth meeting between the countries since the 1-0 defeat inflicted by a Joe Gaetjens goal, some robust defending, and a goal-line clearance. After continuing his playing career with semi-pro teams into the late 1950s, he’d coached 15 seasons and won five NCAA Division I titles at St. Louis University before leaving the college game in 1982.

In three post-World Cup meetings England had thumped the USA 6-3, 8-1, and 10-0. “None of those scores would have surprised anybody when we played them,” laughed Keough when reminded of the results posted in 1953, 1959, and 1964, the first of which he’d played in. “I hope we can do better this time.”

The USA couldn’t: England romped, 5-0, in a match remembered mostly for Gary Lineker, who would become his country’s all-time leading scorer with 48, netting twice. The state of the game in the U.S. was grim; 17 days earlier, on May 31, I had watched the USA lose a World Cup qualifier to Costa Rica, 1-0, to fall out of contention for the 1986 tournament and extend a run of exclusion that dated back to the days of Keough and Gaetjens and Walter Bahr and Frank Borghi, men who had stunned the world while their own nation failed to take note.

Months before had come confirmation the NASL had folded. Instead, the Major Indoor Soccer League, a mutation of crashing bodies and wild scoring, was nearing the peak of its popularity. It seemed sadly fitting to talk with Harry and Bahr and Borghi of an amazing triumph that their head coach, Scotsman Bill Jeffrey, proclaimed would rocket the sport to prominence in the United States but instead nudged only a tiny ripple that quickly dissipated.

It would be corny, and false, to say talking with Harry had renewed my faith in the game as dark clouds descended. But Harry’s spirit, forged by decades playing and coaching and working and raising three children, captivated and inspired you. In our occasional meetings and conversations over the years – at U.S. Soccer events, the NSCAA Convention, at the Soccer Hall of Fame – he always had a good story or a treasured memory or absurd anecdote to share.

The Brazilian soccer federation brought Keough and Bahr and former England international Wilf Mannion back to Belo Horizonte in 1987 to commemorate the match, but it took a little bit longer for the USA itself to catch up.

When World Cup qualification was attained, for the 1990 tournament, Keough and his former teammates bounced back into the spotlight. They basked in the glow during the lead-up to World Cup USA 1994, of course, and once again in 1996 upon release of a book, “The Game of Their Lives,” that detailed their exploits in Brazil. A film version, released in 2005, thrust them into yet another very public forum. He got the celebrity treatment again in 2010, when a USA-England World Cup match brought the game back again 60 years later.

Yet Keough loved to remind interviewers he had to take time off from his mail route to play for the USA, and got back on the job the same day he returned to St. Louis from Brazil. One of the players, Ben McLaughlin, couldn’t get time off to play in the World Cup. One was a meat packer, another drove a hearse. They came back not to acclaim and riches, but to their families and responsibilities.

More than anything, they knew that one game didn’t define them as players, nor as men. He much rather talk about his kids, one of which, Ty, played pro soccer and for the USA. Harry always spoke of his teammates, and had to be prodded to mention anything of himself, though Bahr insisted just about any time a dribbler or cross came into Keough’s vicinity, Harry would win the battle.

Early Tuesday morning Harry lost the battle that eventually claims all of us. We’ll all press on, as Harry would insist.

Harry was a true American soccer legend, and was someone who I was able to meet through his work as a member of the 'red aprons' - the icons who built the foundation of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA). He will surely be missed.

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