When it comes to American soccer players heading overseas, it's safe to say that Eastern European countries aren't usually on the list of preferred destinations. Yet 20 years ago, a few brave souls from the United States packed their bags, darted through some holes in the decaying Iron Curtain, and began a soccer education -- one that took place both on and off the field -- that is still paying dividends today.
The late 1980s and early '90s marked a dark period in American soccer. The NASL was dead. The advent of MLS was still some years away, and the flickering flame of outdoor soccer was being kept alive by leagues like the American Professional Soccer League. It meant if players wanted to advance their game, heading to Europe -- anywhere in Europe -- was a must. That included countries just emerging from under the yoke of the Soviet Union.
One of the first take the plunge was current Kansas City Wizards head coach Peter Vermes, who latched on with Hungarian side Raba ETO. In 1988, Vermes was playing for the U.S. Olympic team at a tournament in France when he was spotted by a Hungarian agent, who arranged a training stint. Vermes didn't know it was actually a trial, and his future hinged in part on a practice game set up between the first team and the reserves. It didn't start off well.
"I was taking away someone's livelihood if they signed me, so no one would pass me the ball," said Vermes, a forward. "I had to go bump a guy on my team off the ball and steal it from him. Then I went on a dribbling spree and took a shot. After that, they started passing it to me."
Vermes showed enough to be offered a contract, and his first European adventure began. The American had an advantage in that he was familiar with the language and the culture. His father, Michael, had played in Hungary for Honved, only to flee the country in the wake of the 1956 revolution.
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But there were still culture shocks for Vermes. Like the time he was driving home late from a team dinner and took a turn only to have his path impeded by a Russian tank.
"I was like 'What the heck?'" Vermes said. "It was hard for me to prepare for that one."
And while the liberalization of countries that for years had been under Soviet control had commenced, that influence was still pervasive beyond the ubiquitous military presence.
"Just watching the news on TV, it was so slanted [toward the government]," Vermes said. "They controlled everything. It was really eye-opening."
Yet Vermes' soccer education proceeded apace. The club gave him one of seven apartments that were located inside the team's stadium, allowing him to immerse himself in the sport on what was for him an unprecedented level. He was especially blown away by the amount of tactical preparation that went into each week's match. There were other, more subtle benefits as well.
"There weren't a lot of mentors in American soccer back then," Vermes said. "I actually became good friends with a guy on the team who was 34 years old, and I was only 22. He was great because I got a chance to learn a lot, whether he talked to me about it or I viewed it and observed it. I learned a lot about being a pro there."
Vermes played a solitary season with Raba ETO before moving on to Dutch club Volendam, but other players soon ventured behind the now-tattered Iron Curtain. Among them was U.S. international defender Steve Trittschuh, who in 1990 latched on with Sparta Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia.
How Trittschuh, now 44, ended up in Prague seems beyond counterintuitive. He had suited up in the Americans' forgettable 5-1 loss to the Czechs in the previous summer's World Cup. But he still made an impression on Czechoslovakian assistant Vaclav Jezek, the head coach of Sparta, who caused something of a sensation when he opted to sign the American.
So when did Trittschuh have his own "I'm not in Kansas anymore" moment?
"When I got off the plane," he said with a chuckle. "It was strange, because I think I was the first foreigner there in like 40 or 50 years, so they made a big deal out of it."
As it turned out, simply living from day to day turned out to be an even bigger deal for Trittschuh. Prague may be one of Europe's most beautiful cities, but in the wake of the country's Velvet Revolution it, along with the rest of the country, was taking its first steps toward deciphering the words "market economy."
"It was just the simple things," Trittschuh said. "Sometimes you'd go to the store and there wouldn't be any milk. And in the winter it got worse. When we first got there, you could go downtown to the open-air markets and get fresh fruits and vegetables, but in the winter it got cold, so they stopped doing it."
Another complication was the nature of Trittschuh's contract, which called for part of his compensation to be paid in U.S. dollars and another portion to be paid in Czechoslovakian korunas. The catch was that the only way to convert korunas into dollars back then was on the black market, which didn't exactly favor the customer. The end result was that what was paid in Czechoslovakia, stayed in Czechoslovakia.
"I bought a lot of crystal," Trittschuh said. "I had to spend the money."
Given that various products were "dirt cheap," this didn't have too adverse an effect on Trittschuh's finances, but the local populace soon caught on to the concept of capitalism. Trittschuh went home for 2½ weeks over the Christmas holiday only to find upon on his return that prices had doubled.
"Then they were opening up a little bit more, tourists were coming in," Trittschuh said. "There were lines outside the crystal shops, people just trying to buy this stuff."
Of course, Trittschuh had to make adjustments on the field as well. The training proved to be the most physically demanding of his career. Convincing some skeptical teammates that he belonged was another challenge. But Trittschuh won over his doubters, especially when he scored on a thumping volley in a match against city rivals Slavia, a game made even more memorable by the sight of the police using water cannons as a means of crowd control.
"That [goal] helped me get into the team a little bit more," Trittschuh said. "They accepted me a lot more after that. That helped out a whole lot.
"At the beginning, there was a little bit [of resentment]. But I got into the team and contributed to it. Certain guys in training, they would go into you a little bit harder, but for the most part I was part of the team. I would go out with the guys after games, and after training, so they accepted me pretty well."
Trittschuh later went on to be the answer to a trivia question, becoming the first American to play in the European Cup, the forerunner of today's UEFA Champions League. And while the siren call of the U.S. residency program -- then being started by U.S. head coach Bora Milutinovic -- led him away from Eastern Europe, he still values his time in Prague.
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"There the game was a lot faster, and you have to think a lot quicker," Trittschuh said. "That was the main thing that I had to change. But the Czech league at the time, it wasn't that bad because there were a lot of guys from that Czech national team from when we played them in '90 that were part of that team, so I learned a lot from those guys."
Both Trittschuh and Vermes went on to have long careers, ones that included stints with other European clubs as well as in MLS. They also entered the coaching ranks: Vermes in his aforementioned role with the Wizards, while Trittschuh served as an assistant with the Colorado Rapids before taking on a technical director role with a Denver-based youth club, the Colorado Storm.
The ability to pass on those experiences is something that continues to this day.
"We were able to be those mentors to a lot of young players that were coming through," Vermes said. "And it broke the seal of American players playing in Europe."
It also proved that some of the most important lessons can come from the unlikeliest of places.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at email@example.com.