Net Loss

After 13 years of survival and success, Dallas Sidekicks coach Gordon Jago leaves behind the team he kept alive

If Jago's name meant little to those in Dallas, it carried prestige among those who knew soccer. Jago--who, as a young boy during World War II, had grown up watching as London crumbled beneath Germany's bombs--began playing professionally in 1950 with First Division Charlton of the English Federation, which is the equivalent of the National Football League. He was a defensive player known for his finesse game, a scrawny and tall young man whose job it was to keep the ball away from his team's goal.

He began coaching in 1956, while still a player; he received the honor of managing England's under-19 squad, a distinction bestowed upon few men his age. In his mid-20s, he was the youngest coach in the English league, and he would remain so for several years. A kick to his left eye would force him to retire from playing at 28, but by 1960, he was on the coaching staff of the British Olympic team.

He would coach the English all-star teams during the off-season, taking them overseas for exhibition games. In 1968 and '69, he signed on as a member of the coaching staffs of the U.S. World Cup teams. During the early 1970s, he became a head coach in the First Division, leading such franchises as the Queens Park Rangers and Eastbourne United. In England, Jago was the equivalent of a Tom Landry or a Mike Ditka, a player-turned-coach who was revered in his homeland.

"The greatest time in my life had to be in the First Division of the English league," Jago says, smiling even now as he remembers the rush. "It had to be by virtue of that standard. It's like, say, when you take a young coach in the NFL and take him into Texas Stadium for the very first time to play the Cowboys. It's a marvelous feeling. And I had that, and for me to go to the greatest clubs in England as the head coach, well, I've never had an ego problem, because I had a good upbringing, but you've got that pride deep down."

In the late 1970s, Jago left England to take a job coaching the NASL's Baltimore Bays and then the Tampa Bay Rowdies. His peers in England thought he'd gone mad, but at the time, the move made a certain amount of sense. After all, the NASL, which formed in 1967 from the leftovers of two other failed U.S. soccer leagues (the National Professional Soccer League and the United Soccer Association), once had a bright enough future. In 1973, a crowd of almost 19,000 turned out at Fair Park to witness the Tornado lose the title game to the Philadelphia Atoms, and Kyle Rote Jr. and the Atoms' Bob Rigby were, briefly, sports-page superstars. Four years later, Pele led the New York Cosmos to the NASL title in the Soccer Bowl, and record crowds began showing up--some measuring almost 75,000, even for the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

Yet in the early '80s, with Pele and Rote long gone from the sport and owners strapped for cash after overspending on aging players, the NASL fell into trouble. The league had expanded to 24 teams, and it couldn't support them all. Then the newly formed Major Indoor Soccer League, which took the sport inside, began cutting into the shrinking NASL crowds. American fans raised on football and basketball found indoor soccer far more exciting than the outdoor game.

On a 200-foot-long field, one far smaller than the outdoor playing field, the ball never stopped moving; it careened off the walls, off players, at blurring speeds. The players never stood still as they battled for position on the smaller surface; it was like hockey without the pads or helmets to obscure players' faces. You could see the sweat and blood; you could feel every grunt. To indoor-soccer fans, the low-scoring outdoor game was like watching a game of Tic-Tac-Toe. The NASL finally died in 1984, and no one noticed.

Not that the MISL offered any great hope: It was always a shaky prospect since its formation in 1977. Teams, which once included the New York Express and the San Diego Sockers, were always in danger of folding--and with them, the league itself. When the 1987-'88 season began featuring every single team that ended the previous season, it marked a first in the MISL's paltry history.

Yet Jago still came to Dallas instead of returning to England. He loved the States and was swayed by the promise of defining a new franchise, of creating a team in his own image. Don Carter promised Jago, who originally signed a two-year deal, that he could take all the time he needed to turn the Sidekicks into a winner, and Jago was thrilled at the prospect of coaching a young team from beyond the spotlight's reach. He had seen too many of his friends in England burn out early, forced from the game in their mid-50s because of stress-related illnesses. Jago would have no urgency to win here--not in a town where high school football receives more media attention than professional soccer.

"We were 0-10 before we won one game," Jago recalls of the first season. "But it was incredible, because I never felt any pressure." Such, perhaps, were the rewards of being a hobby instead of a serious pursuit. Don Carter had his Mavericks to worry about. They were his pros, his millionaires, his status symbol. Carter could afford to let the Sidekicks stumble for a while--Jago estimates Carter lost $5.2 million during the team's first two years--and he let them do just that. Had he not, Jago says, he probably would have left at the end of his two-year deal.

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