Eusebio and Wolfgang Suhnholz during the Toronto Metros-Croatia’s champagne celebration after winning Soccer Bowl ’76. (Photo courtesy of the 1970s Soccer USA Facebook page)
By Michael Lewis
After polishing off the Cosmos in the quarterfinals of the 1976 North American Soccer League playoffs, the defending champion Tampa Bay Rowdies were starting to count some proverbial chickens before they hatched prior to meeting the Toronto Metros-Croatia in the semifinals.
“We were basically told to be ready to leave home the next morning at 6:30 in case we won — and expected — so we can go onto to Seattle to the Soccer Bowl,” former Rowdies executive Francisco Marcos recalled Saturday.
But sometimes the best laid plans and hopes of mice and soccer teams can often go awry.
“Well, the result was Tampa Bay zero and Toronto Metros-Croatia three,” he said. “Basically, two guys ran riot against us — Eusebio and Wolfgang Suhnholz.
“We were favored to win and go to Soccer Bowl. And of course, they would run riot again against Minnesota with Wolfgang being named MVP. Wolfgang was a crawfish in my throat from day one back in August in ’76,” Marcos added with a chuckle.
After getting to know the man known as Wolfie to many friends and associates, Marcos has many more pleasant memories of Suhnholz, who passed away on Friday. Suhnholz was 73.
“What struck me then what a great guy he was, a great human being,” Marcos said.
Suhnholz was a good friend with former Portuguese international Tony Simoes, a former standout in the NASL, American Soccer League and Major Indoor Soccer League with whom he played and coached.
“I know how sad, how deeply hurt Tony is right now,” Marcos said. “The first and the last thing he said to Tony [Friday] was ‘I guess I won’t come to visit you in Portugal in anymore, Tony.’ Tony did his best to offer words of encouragement.
“We knew he was not well, but we did not know the extent of not well was.”
After the 1976 playoffs, it would be about a decade before the lives of Marcos and Suhnholz crossed again. Marcos had founded the Southwest Indoor Soccer League, which morphed into what is known today as the United Soccer League (USL).
The Austin Sockadillos, who were founded by Marcos, were coached by Simoes and his assistant, Suhnholz. Both were teammates on the Boston Minutemen before that NASL club dealt both stars away due to severe financial problems in 1976.
Suhnholz eventually became head coach of the team from 1989-91 and then took over the Austin Lone Stars, another SISL team before becoming owner of the Austin Capitals. Among the players he coached in Austin was Ben Crawley, who went on to star at the University of Virginia (three NCAA Division I titles) and played for D.C. United in Major League Soccer.
“In Austin he really solidified himself as a coach,” said Marcos, who remembered playing in an indoor league with Suhnholz and Simoes.
“They literally became like brothers. We would play the midnight shift, so to speak of the Over-30 league. It was open soccer. They were both over 50 or at least pretty close to that.”
Up the coaching ladder Suhnholz went, before he was the assistant coach on the U.S. men’s Under-20 national team in 1999 and the head man on the 2001 side.
The latter squad, which reached the Round of 16 in the U-20 World Cup in Nigeria, produced 10 professional players — Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu, Bobby Convey, Conor Casey, Brad Davis, Edson Buddle, Brian Carroll, Kyle Martino and Alecko Eskandarian.
“That was a great team,” said Marcos, who was head of delegation of the U.S. squad for both tournaments.
As good as a player he was, Suhnholz’s greatest legacy most likely will lie in his coaching.
Suhnholz was the assistant to head coach Sigi Schmid on that 1999 squad.
“As the assistant, Wolfgang was the go-to guy,” Marcos said. “Any problems Sigi felt he had handling players Wolfie would handle it. So, the human factor was crucial. That’s how he got the most out of these players. I don’t know if he was a tactical genius because he was such a good technical player. Sometimes technical players are not tactical geniuses, they see things other players don’t see.
“The way he handled players, the way he treated them, as adults, none of this my way or the highway. That’s not how he operated. Players liked him; players respected him. They respected him because he was so good as a person. Sometimes players can advantage of good people — of ‘good human being’ coaches. He’s not going to harm me because he’s a softie. Well, not a softie because you had the German steeliness in him to some extent. There was enough of the other side. … That made him very, very human. You can probably say he treated players like kid brothers. I think players respected him for that and there they did not cross the line. at least not in a significant way to endanger the cause of the team. That’s the Wolfgang I remember most vividly as a soccer guy, as a coach.”
As an NASL player, he could be a dominant force on the field. Suhnholz played for six teams over a six-year span, including Vancouver Whitecaps, Las Vegas Quicksilvers, Los Angeles Aztecs and California Surf — before retiring in 1980. He also was listed on the New York Arrows roster for the 1979-80 MISL season.
“He was a great player, a skillful player, an all-around midfielder,” Marcos said. “He could play anywhere in the midfield.”
In 1977, this writer put together a mid-season NASL all-star team. On a team that included Giorgio Chinaglia and George Best, the Las Vegas Quicksilver was one of three midfielders on my squad. “Suhnholz is the playmaker of the surprising Quicksilvers [9-5],” I wrote in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “He’s a steady one, who rarely makes a mistake.”
Suhnholz always did things his own way.
When he roamed the fields, he had had more of a lope — a bowlegged one at that — that became more apparent as a game waned on.
While playing for Bayern Munich along with the great Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Mueller in 1973, Suhnholz suffered a compound leg fracture that kept him from participating in the 1974 World Cup.
There might have been a good reason for the injury. Suhnholz did not use shin guards and allowed his socks to fall down to his ankles (he wouldn’t get away with the latter today).
“I remembered when I played well with Munich,” he was quoted by The Los Angeles Times in 1979. “I didn’t wear shin guards and let my socks fall down. I must be myself. I feel comfortable this way. So, that’s the way I dress for a game.”
As it turned out, the leg did not heal correctly and Suhnholz used acupuncture treatments to return to action.
Back in the day, part of the culture back then was to go out after games and drink with your teammates. Some players smoked regularly when they played in the seventies. Both vices caught up to Suhnholz, according to Marcos.
“It was one of those night-time things,” he said. “It was the old English-German syndrome. After the game, drink until you can’t go home. The next morning, whenever you get up, you don’t have to coach or train until afternoon or evening. You recover. Unfortunately, this was the case with many a player.
“That doesn’t take away what kind of person that he was, generous to a fault. He had no problem picking up the tab.”
Or giving back to the game.