Alan Mayer is a retired American goalkeeper and is currently the goalkeeper coach at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He recently was kind enough to walk me through his unpredictable career, which took even him for surprise. Over the twenty-six years of being a professional, he received six caps for the US and was named the 1978 NASL Player of the Year. He played with a blue-collar mentality and wasn’t afraid to jump at any opportunity placed in front of him. The interview went for some time so scan through the questions and read what you wish. The questions vary from just about everything you could cover in someone’s playing career. With a matter-of-fact speech, Alan outlined the differences between the 1970s and current US National Team, discussed the non-existent concussion-awareness, and told of unbelievable feuds with the Mexican National Team. Alan has a story unlike any other soccer player.
How did you end in soccer?
I grew up in Long Island, NY and my number one sport was basketball. I played basketball in the winter months. Tennis was my number two sport and I played that in the spring. I needed something to do in the fall and I thought, “Well you know what better way to get in shape for basketball than to put on blue shorts and run around like crazy? I’ll get in great shape and it’ll help my basketball game.”
So how did you make that transition from field player to goalkeeper?
In one of our big games our goalkeeper let in five goals against Kings Park (New York). A few of them he maybe should have had. On the bus ride home, the coach came up to me and said “Alan, would you have any interest in playing goalkeeper?” I had no interest before that but I said, “Whatever you want me to do I will.” Next day in practice I went out there and people started kicking balls at me and I thought “Well you know this is kind of fun.” It just progressed from that. I started playing. Around sophomore or junior year I just really liked it a lot. Had [the previous goalkeeper] not had a bad game I might not have been playing goalkeeper.
Did you have any goalkeeping training in high school?
None. It was all strictly done on see-the-ball-and-go-get-it. At that time there was no such thing as a goalkeeper coaches. I didn’t have any coaching, really, until I got into the professionals. I wasn’t sure about technique or form or anything like that. I’d like to say I had great training at the beginning of my career but I didn’t because I had to learn most of it on my own.
How did you go from playing two to three years with no goalkeeper training at all to playing at James Madison where you started all four years?
I went down to James Madison for a few reasons. I wanted to get away from home a little bit. It’s a six-hour drive so that’s perfect. If I wanted to get back home I could but no one was going to pop in on you. I wanted to stay on the east coast and wanted to go south a little bit for some warmer weather than New York. [JMU] was an absolutely beautiful campus. I really, really liked it a lot and they offered an opportunity to play soccer and tennis there.
I’ve tried to notice parallels between goalkeeping and in other sports. So for example, in baseball the shortstop has a lot of similar mechanics to a goalkeeper. Did you experience an overlap between your sports?
Here’s the deal. I think there’s a huge, huge crossover between a basketball player and goalkeeper. In both the sports, you’re dealing with the ball all the time. The eye-hand coordination is there. That’s number one. Number two, going up for a rebound is the same as going up for a high ball. You’re in a crowd, you go up there and you try to catch it at the highest point. Another one, you need a quick first step in both sports. As a goalkeeper you need that first step to go for the ball; in basketball you need a quick start-and-stop when you’re trying to take someone one-on-one or defend someone. Another thing was it sharpened me up mentally for goalkeeping. Also the body of the basketball player is very similar to the body of a goalkeeper. They’re tall, fairly lean and mean in a way. There is a big time correlation between basketball and goalkeeping.
Was playing basketball an option at JMU?
It wasn’t on the table at the beginning because I didn’t think I could play all three sports time-wise. [Basketball and soccer] overlap a little bit and I wouldn’t have any time to do anything else. They had an intramural program that I played in with my buddies. We had a decent team. One time, the varsity basketball scrimmaged our intramural team get their players some extra games and new faces. The coaches at the time were Lou Campanelli, who later was a coach at University Cal, and Mike Fratello, who is a basketball analyst now. At one point in the game, the forward went up for a rebound and brought it down. Instead of leaving the ball higher in the air he brought it down so other people could get it so I stole it from him. Coach stopped the practice and I thought he was going to yell at me for fouling him. He said, “Alan, if you want to play basketball here and you want a scholarship you come in on Monday morning and I’ll give it to you!”
When did you realize you wanted to play professional soccer?
It started when I was younger, when I was five or six. I always said to myself “I’d love to be a professional athlete.” Getting paid to play something was very intriguing. And I didn’t care what sport it was. Whether it was football, basketball, soccer, bowling… it could be anything. When I went to college, it never… I cannot remember one time thinking “This could lead me into professional soccer.” Soccer at the time wasn’t that big. My college coach took me to see a game and that was the first professional game I had seen. I didn’t know anything about the game. I didn’t know any players. At that time, someone said, “The best player in the world is Pelé.” And I’m like, “Who the hell is he?” I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t know anyone in the national scene. I didn’t even know you could make a living playing soccer. I didn’t know that was a career option. The first thought I had of playing was two days before the 1974 draft. I get a call from Baltimore saying, “Would you be interested in playing with Baltimore before they draft you?” And that was it. I never thought about it until a week before the draft.
How did the Baltimore Comets find you?
My coach said they saw one match in the first round of the NCAA [tournament] and we played against Maryland.** Maryland was a pretty good team and we basically really had no right to be on that same field. But we did well and we beat them 1-0. We got a fluke goal and our defense played pretty well that day. [Someone from] Baltimore saw that game and they liked the way I played and [Baltimore coach] Doug Millward decided to pick me up. It worked out perfectly because they had a goalkeeper there named Lincoln Phillips and he was an outstanding goalkeeper. They knew they had a year, maybe two years left in him. So they could pick me and bring me along versus pick me and have to play [me] right away. If I had to play right away, they might have gone a different avenue. So I was able to go in without any sense of pressure of playing because I knew he was the starter and I was the backup. We both had our positions. He actually took me under his wing and helped me out in any humanly way possible. I wasn’t a threat to him and we got along very, very well. A lot of times when players’ careers are at an end, they turn around and try to help out the younger guys with the team and that’s what he did with me.
** Author’s Note: JMU played Maryland in a play-in game before the 1973 NCAA tournament, the equivalent of the newly added four teams to bump March Madness to sixty-eight teams.
From 1974-1978, your team relocated three times: Baltimore to San Diego to Las Vegas then back to San Diego. What was it like playing for a team without the stability of knowing they’ll be there next year?
To be honest with you, I didn’t know. I had no idea about playing and staying in a city. I just took it one year at a time. I can remember thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great to play this year and get one paycheck and then getting an offer to come back and play a second year?” I was just very fortunate that things worked out the first year so I could come back a second year. And then after that, a third year! And then after that I was feeling pretty comfortable in the league and confident in playing. The fact that we moved so much, I wouldn’t change that at all. It was a wonderful experience. Now my wife may say something different. For her, she wanted to be more stable and know what the hell is going on but she was a big trooper and wherever I went she came with me. For me, at the time I thought, “I don’t care where I play. I just wanted to play.”
You had a little stint overseas in England. How did that come about?
It was probably the best deal that happened to me in my career. There was an Englishman named Peter Silvester in my first year with the Comets. He was the league MVP in 1974. A very good player. Our club was based on an English coach so we had five or six Englishmen come over the first year, Peter being one of them. Peter’s father was the chairman of his club in England, Southend United, and the loan agreement was that he’d spend some time in Baltimore for six weeks or so. They put him in with me. At the end of the year, he was league MVP and top scorer, and he was going back to his team for the 74-75 season. He told his team about a young American goalkeeper and they told him “Okay bring him on over.”
So I went over there and stayed with the chairman at his house because his son stayed with me. I stayed there for three and half months after our season was over. It was the very first time I got goalkeeper training. In America, we practiced on college or high school fields that were rock hard. If you hit the ground you’d get a head pointer. Over there, because the ground is so soft, you could train and work hard for almost unlimited amount of time. I would train two-three times a day with top-notch competition. I was able to play in nine reserve games, we won six and tied three, and I even scored a goal from the goalkeeper position. I was well received from the staff and people there because they respected my ability to play and my hard-working attitude. They ended up trying to buy me from my Baltimore contract. Baltimore said “No, definitely no. We’re keeping him.” They had rules over there at the time that you had to be living there for two years before you could play. You had to be a national team player if you were foreign to get a work permit. It was great going over there and getting training and great competition. Here, I would get ten crosses a day but over there I got maybe five, six hundred of them a day because that was the English-style of play at the time. When I came back, I instantly became the starting goalkeeper for Baltimore the second year and went on to be on the NASL team for three straight years and it was because of my experience in England. And that was before the Kasey Kellers and Howards went over there to play.
By 1977 you collected a total of six caps for the USMNT by age 25. Did you have any aspirations or hopes of playing for the US team for future World Cup cycles?
None. No long terms at all because at that particular time you have to remember it was my fifth year of [professional] soccer. I didn’t know anything about international soccer. I didn’t even know what it meant to be on the national team. I never knew the ramifications it had. I never knew people aspired to get on it. I just wasn’t educated enough in my sport to know the importance of being on the team. So I had no thoughts past the next game. I had no thoughts of “Oh maybe we’ll be good enough to play in the ’82 World Cup.” This isn’t a real good thing to say but I guess I didn’t realize in the importance of what it really means to be on the National Team. And the only way I got that feeling was when I was picked to go, all my teammates, which were basically all from different countries, alluded to how much of an honor that it is. So if it weren’t for them telling me about it I wouldn’t have thought it was a big deal.
Alan Mayer with the 1976 USMNT
What happened after 1977 with you and the US team?
When my team moved from San Diego to Las Vegas [in 1977], I was out playing for the national team for six weeks. It was when we first got married in those six weeks my wife had to move us from San Diego to Las Vegas on her own. I left the country living in San Diego and I came back to the country in Las Vegas. So the very next time I was called up to the national team again, for a game down in Haiti, it was only a week after returning from the first tour. I said, “I can’t make it.” I really didn’t get the importance of the national team at that time. I mean, I realize it now that when the national team calls it’s probably a pretty good idea to go there.
It’s not like I said “I don’t want to play for you anymore.” It was just for that one tour. When they said I was going away again, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be two days or two weeks. [My wife and I] had some things we had to get done here, family stuff, and I could not leave at that particular time. When I look back on it, they might have liked the fact that someone says, “I can’t go on this tour.” That may or may not have hurt the chances for my future. If you had told me ten days ago maybe I could have made plans but I couldn’t go then.
Officially, I played six games but I played eighteen games in total. I can remember playing against the University of San Francisco and teams like that in exhibitions. And that was mainly with two tours of duty. One was a longer tour and then the other was a week or ten day tour. Other times, we had a game in San Francisco against China on Saturday. I’d fly in on Friday, play the game, then fly back out on Sunday. But I didn’t go on anymore tours [after 1977].
For US fans, there is the highlight of beating England in 1950 and then making the World Cup in 1990 with a very large question mark in those forty years. What was the current culture like inside the US soccer program during the 1970s?
Everybody was professional. After every game you wanted to play the best you can and win the game. We were outmanned on most occasions. Could we really compete with the Brazils, Italys, and Argentinas of the world at that time? No, we couldn’t. We just didn’t have the manpower to do it. Nowadays, America can compete with anybody. We had a “walk before you can run” mentality and growing pains of getting it all started in a professional matter. At the time I played, there still weren’t a whole lot of Americans playing every day. We had the NASL, but the rules of league were that you had to play two North Americans on the field. So when you’re thinking about a pool for the national team, you’re just not going to have the number of players you can select from because you basically only have two Americans per team that were playing professional soccer for each team. We had a pool, maybe, out of all of the United States, anywhere from 25-100 candidates where now we have 25-100 candidates for one position. It’s really becoming a professional atmosphere at the club levels and that helps out drastically for the national team. Here at Kansas City, you can get players like Matt Besler and Graham Zusi that you can select for your team. The caliber of players now is way higher. And that’s no disrespect for the players of my time because they were very good players but they just weren’t playing 24/7 like nowadays.
What was the US-Mexico rivalry like at that time? Were they viewed in the Brazil, Argentina, Italy category?
Oh, no, at that time, yes! Mexico was really powerful team. It’s kind of cool that times of changed and we can compete against them now. We’ve gone from possibly getting any points from them to being a 50-50 competition to now we would be favored when we play them. I can remember in Puebla for a World Cup Qualifier. It was Canada, Mexico, and us. And the way things worked out that Mexico had a bad result against to Canada so Mexico had to tie us or beat us to go [to the next round]. We went down there and they fed us. The next day half the team had major problems with their stomachs and was sick as a dog. Our captain at the time, Al Trost, had to be taken out of the game because of stomach cramps. They gave us some really bad food. Before the game, it was an hour bus ride and it took us three hours to get to the place. The bus driver just intentionally drove us all over the place. So we arrived twenty minutes before kick off. We run into the training room, put our gear on and went out to play. When we came in at halftime, our place had been looted. Wallets, watches, money… We lost all the things we had there. You can imagine our mental capacity of arriving there just before game time, you feel like crap, running out there, and you find out you’ve just been robbed. It was an away team experience.
You talked about your relationship with Lincoln Phillips at Baltimore. What was your relationship like with Arnie Mausser in the US squad? Was it more competitive?
It was a very, very good relationship. It was different because we were both competing for the same job. When Arnie and I were playing for the national team, it was almost a game-by-game. He played in more games, and more important games I played in, but there were always more opportunities [later] for me to play. But he and I got along very well. There was no animosity between us, which I think was kind of unusual because that wasn’t the case on other teams I’ve been on. For some reason with the national team, it wasn’t like your club team. It wasn’t your paycheck and livelihood; it was more like “it’s us against he world”. You’re playing for the US. You’re not playing for a particular team and yourself. [Arnie] was a quite guy and a very good goalkeeper so I respected him tremendously. We roomed together on the road. I can’t say enough good things about him. It was a good working relationship.
Were there any perks for playing for the US, outside of getting on the field? Did you get paid for playing?
It was very low budget, which was another big difference from then to now. We did get paid for games that we played in. We stayed at pretty decent hotels and they fed us but there was no… for example, if you wanted to change jersey you better be careful about it because you had maybe one or two jerseys. They didn’t have your name on it. Some of the players weren’t playing [for the US] because they were making more money with their clubs. I remember one time, [the players] wanted to increase our pay by some ridiculous amount, something like from $300 to $400 a game, and the federation said they couldn’t do it. And we almost went on strike but we finally said we’d play. It was a situation that you were playing because you love the game. It wasn’t for the compensation of it.
Moving forward, in 1978 you’re named NASL Player of the Year. Did you feel like you were having a year that warranted that award?
I don’t know if I even… you know what? I’m sure of it. I didn’t even know it was an award. They had the North American Player of the Year Award where you win a car and I didn’t even know it was out there. It wasn’t something I strived for. The only goals I remember making for myself were getting through the next game. I never said, “I wanted to get ten shutouts a year.” I just wanted to do the best I can. The goalkeeper is really at the mercy of a lot of things. The fans, the calls… You can play a good game but let in one and you lose 1-0. I thought, “Alan, just go out there do the best you can. If you go out there and do the best you can and get a shut out, great. If you go out there and do the best you can and let in five, so be it. As long as you can live with yourself knowing you did your best.” I was very realistic with myself. I was a harsh critique. I always strived on more what I did wrong than what I did well, and that kept me motivated to keep going and going.
What kind of car was it?
An AMC spirit.
And how’d you find out?
I found out about it in San Jose. (The Earthquakes at the time were fairly popular and they were thinkers outside the box, they took their soccer seriously.) I was invited to go to a sports shop when someone told me they liked they way I played and wanted to make a jersey for me. So we designed the jersey, a guy named Johnny Moore, and he came up to me and said “Congratulations!”
I said, “What for?”
He said, “you were just named North American soccer player of the year.”
I said, “Oh thanks a lot” and it went in one ear and out the other because I never knew there was an award. I thought he was joking about it. A few days later, “Oh that’s what he’s talking about!” I got a call from a magazine, American Soccer Magazine, and they said “When can we get together? We’d like to give you a car, blah blah blah.”
Around that same time you started wearing your padded helmet. Why did you start wearing it?
It happened in ’77 when I was playing for the Las Vegas. We were playing Connecticut and they had a big English striker. There was a through ball, a 50-50 ball. It was a damp day. I came flying out and he comes flying in and he goes in with his cleats first and up. It catches the top of my head and opens it up. There were four stud marks in my head. Blood was everywhere. I had to be rushed to the hospital and they were operating on me. I think it took like 70 stitches to close the gash on my head. I remember laying down and looking up at the ceiling and thinking, “How can I protect this from happening again? Maybe I should be wearing a helmet.” When I get back to the club team, I went out with the team doctor and in a sport store we saw this rubber helmet basically up in the rafters and asked “What is that up there?” They went up, got it down, it was just a foam rubber helmet. Up until that time, I had probably eleven to twelve concussions and getting my head opened up was the last straw. I had to either protect myself or give it up. I did want to communicate with people once my career was over with. I wanted to have conversations with them and I didn’t want to be slurring my words. So I wore it all during my final outdoor career and indoor career, some national team games. I caught a lot of ribbing about it from opposing players and even teammates. It was either that or change my style of play, which was based on quickness and aggression, and I couldn’t change my way. After I started wearing it I had one minor concussion and that was it. I’m not going to say it saved my life but it very well could have. And now one of the best goalkeepers in the world is wearing it, Petr Čech.
Right and he still wears his. So basically you inspired him to wear that.
Yeah that’s right. *laughs* He called me up and asked if he could borrow my helmet. I said, “Sure. I hope you have a good career.”
What kind of concussion awareness was there in the 1970s?
It was non-existent! When I say none, I mean none. At that particular time it was a sign of weakness. It was “Oh you don’t want to play so you’re saying you’re upset.” I can remember playing up in Portland. I got an elbowed in the head in the last fifteen minutes of the game. I can remember looking down the field and I saw our eighteen yard box straight up in the air. I could see the players playing straight up in the air. There wasn’t a level playing field. I could see the players coming down at me. I stayed in the game and they took me to the hospital afterword but it’s nothing like it is now.
In 1979 you started playing indoor and then made a complete shift to indoor in 1981. Was that because you noticed the decline of the NASL?
The NASL was huge. They were playing in front of 78,000 people in New York. 50-something in Tampa and 45-50 in Minnesota. Sold out places in Vancouver and Seattle. San Jose, while they only sat 12 or 14 [thousand], they were always packed. The NASL was going to take over the world. Then the MISL was making inroads in the early 80s and the NASL was going down a bit. I said to myself, “[Indoor] is a pretty interesting game for the American player and the fans. They want to see goals, they want to see shots, sensible contact, skill…” they really look a liking to it. Several players at the time, like [New York Cosmos goalkeeper] Shep Messing, he jumped from outdoor to indoor. Some other players and myself started playing it and really liked it. It was a lot of fun as a goalkeeper to play indoor, although it took a wear and tear on you physically. In the beginning, you could play both and get compensated for both. Then indoor took over so you didn’t need to play outdoor financially if you didn’t want to. It was bigger and better and it worked out great. Over time outdoor went kaput, and so did indoor eventually, but about 4-6 years there it was really hopping.
Can I ask you about the salary you were making at the time?
Sure you can! I’ll put everything into perspective here. In 1974, I was a first round pick. A “bonus baby”, basically. My contract was $300/month and $50 for every game I played in for that season. In a four and half month season, you’d make $1500-1800. When I was in Las Vegas, I was making $15,000 a year and that was high for a normal player. I put a clause in my contract, because the team had moved so many times, that if the team moves again I would become a free agent. So when they moved to San Diego [I became a free agent] and the Cosmos came in and offered me $75,000. San Diego heard about it and they offered me $100,000 in 1978. This was a time when everyone else was making $12,000-15,000 a year. In indoor, after becoming the NASL Player of the Year, I went to be a player-coach in Las Vegas and they offered me $2.3 million over seven years. I had a percentage ownership in the club. It turned out we were only there for a year so we didn’t make it to the seventh year because they went bankrupt.
What eventually pushed you into retirement?
It was very simple. The last year I played, the MISL was starting to go down a little bit. The novelty of the game was going down. We were going from sold out crowds of 16,000 to 12,000 to 10,000. Players were taking mandatory pay cuts from the league so it could survive. My time at Kansas City had come up and if I wanted to play I had to go to other cities in America for a reduced amount of money that I was making. I thought, I had to leave Kansas City, which my family and I really liked and the reduced money and getting older… Also I had always been a very intense player and I really, really loved the game and I started not to. After playing so many games, I thought it may be time to move on to other things. Although I didn’t know what other things were and I didn’t know what I was going to do. So I tried a few different things my last year of playing, real estate and mortgage loans. I just thought it might be a good time to start in the real world with a combination of a lot of different things.
Last question, as a player who has played professionally, what do you bring to the table as a goalkeeper coach?
The biggest thing that I’ve found is personal experience. There’s nothing like that. When I talk to my goalkeepers I can actually talk their language. You have to earn someone’s respect before they will listen to you. You have to have credibility and respect that you played their game and played at their level. Growing up, some things go in one ear and out the other, but if they respect you they’ll listen to you. And at least it stays in there a little bit. They may not like what you say but at least it’ll stay in their head and they’ll think, “Well maybe he’s right.”
We have one player on our team who is a Brazilian who’s probably the best player on our team. They look up to you because you have the word “Coach” next to your name but when I brought in a picture of me two Brazilians, Pelé and Carlos Alberto, and he about flipped! That’s what you can bring to the table. Instant respect. So I’ll tell him jokingly, “I spoke to Pelé the other day and he says to wish you luck!” And they take he takes it to heart. We have fun with it and now he’s playing wonderful. And he knows I didn’t speak to him but it’s a way of opening up a channel of communication with people because you’ve been there and done it. When I coach the Comets, who just retired my jersey and it’s up in the rafters, and tell them to do something they understand that’s what you have to do to get your jersey up in the arena. You can’t just show up. You have to be taped and ready to at 9 o clock, not just show up at 9 o clock. So when we start working, we can start our hour instead of jacking around for fifteen minutes. Does that make sense?
Yeah it does. As a player, you pick up really quickly on if someone knows what they’re talking about or not. If someone tells you something you might thing, “Well who’s this guy? He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” And just dismiss it.
Let me ask you a question. How long does that take you to find out that it’s a guy who knows what he’s talking about?
Uhh… Not long. Not very long.
Yeah about that long. You could figure it out in a day at the longest.
The conversation, which lasted about an hour and forty minutes, came to a close and I thanked him for his time.
Some more resources on Alan:
– this article that revisited James Madison’s program in the 70s
– the biography of Alan Mayer from his induction into James Madison’s Hall of Fame, 1988
– NASL Jersey’s player page on Mayer (where most of these pictures came from)
– Baltimore Comets’ coach page