Monday, July 12, 2010

Catching Up With Perry Van Der Beck, Part II

Perry Van Der Beck made history with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 1978 as the first high school soccer player ever drafted by a North American Soccer League team. The talented midfielder stood out as an amateur by winning two high school state championships and representing the United States in international competition at almost every level, including the Olympic team. Van Der Beck enjoyed a 19-year playing career, nine of which came as a member of the Rowdies. Today, Van Der Beck serves as the Technical Directory and Director of Player Development for the recently revived Rowdies in the USSF Division 2 soccer league. Van Der Beck recently took time out to chat about everything and anything related to his life’s passion: soccer. The following is the conclusion of a two-part interview with Van Der Beck.

Q. Were you familiar with the Rowdies when you were drafted by the team in 1978?

A. First and foremost, I'm not just saying this because I'm here, but I remember sitting down with a professional player from the St. Louis Stars -- who was one of their international players – and he asked me if I had the option, what team would I play for? I said the Tampa Bay Rowdies. He says, “You’ve got to be kidding me. You could play for Manchester United and you're saying Rowdies?” The very next year, I'm drafted by the Rowdies. That was in January 1978, but I couldn't sign until my high school class graduated. Then I turned 18 and was able to play, but I really didn't know what was going to happen. The St. Louis Stars had the second pick in the draft. They were the hometown team. I met with the manager and he said, "We're going to draft you." So, I'm thinking it's going to be the Stars. Well, my dad calls St. Thomas Aquinas High School and they call me to the office to tell me that I've been drafted by the Tampa Bay Rowdies. We did a whole press conference and then they flew me down here. The Rowdies were averaging 28-30,000 fans a game. Averaging! You had around 50,000 for July 4th.

It was an unbelievable atmosphere walking onto the field. My first time getting into a game was as a substitute in Tulsa. We were up 3-0, and they brought Rodney Marsh off and put me on. As Rodney was coming off the field, he gave me a little high-five and said, "Good luck son." That was my first taste of pro soccer. That first year I only got in two or three games, but I was traveling a lot with the Olympic team. And you know what? I wasn't ready for the first team. You just have to work your way into it. A lot of young players want to play right away, but trust me it takes a lot to work up to it.

Q. You must have learned so much watching the veterans on the team though.

A. That's what I tell players. We're visual. Even as a coach. You're sitting on the bench, you're watching the guys, the communication -- you're hearing that -- the way they tackle, the way they position themselves. Johnny Gorman, Mike Connell, Wes McLeod, all very influential in my career. Coming in as a young player out of high school, these were the senior professionals.

It wasn't easy. Think back to when I was playing. The rule was you had to play two North Americans on the field. Now, MLS only allows three international players at a time. They flipped it. So again, you know what, I was kind of the odd man out. You had to play two, and guess what, they only played two, either at midfield or at the back. The rest of the guys were all international players.

Q. Did you have as a mentor as you were starting out?

A. Very much so. Player wise, let's start with a guy named Bobby O' Leary. He played for the St. Louis Stars, later the California Surf. He was a big mentor for me through my high school years and club soccer until I came down to Tampa.

Players on the Rowdies? Johnny Gorman, Mike Connell, Jan Van Der Veen, Winston DuBose, Rodney Marsh. Those are the players that stuck out in my mind as guys who were looking after me. They were true professionals, good teammates, and Mike Connell was a very good captain. He was a good player, but I'll tell you what, he was boisterous and looked after the team. The same with Johnny Gorman. When he became the assistant coach of the England national team in the 1998 World Cup, you knew he deserved that. So those were my mentors, besides my coaches growing up. My coaches were very good to me, and I fed off them.

Q. You talked before about the attendance and support for the Rowdies. Can you talk about what it was like to enjoy that kind of support?

A. The support that this community gave the Tampa Bay Rowdies is something I'll never forget and I don't know if there'll ever be anything to compare it to again. You looked forward to doing an appearance. Fans were going to be there and they were always cheerful and inspiring. Players were out in the community and they really embraced us, and we embraced them back. That was the marriage that thrived for so long.

What happened to the Rowdies? It wasn't so much the Rowdies as the actual league itself. When I joined the league in 1978, I think there were 24 teams. In 1984, there were only nine, with Tampa being one of them. It just wasn't feasible for the owners to fly their teams all over the place. It needed to be more regional, but that wasn't happening, so they just called it quits there.

People tried to compare it with MLS with the Mutiny. There is no comparison. 70,000 at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands. Ft. Lauderdale, sold out. 18,000 standing room only. ABC, Sunday afternoon "Wide World of Sports." Those are the kinds of things I remember that you just don't forget.

Mike Connell was interviewed -- and I don't want to steal his thunder -- but he said it was like Woodstock. It was the timing. People try to emulate it. We've got a great bunch of kids here -- not kids, players -- tied in with some older, experienced players and we've been successful. That's how the Rowdies were, successful from the beginning. I think at one time when George Strawbridge owned the team the record was 121-38. They won five division championships. We always won, especially at home.

Q. How does it feel not just to have soccer back in Tampa Bay, but with the Rowdies brand as well?

A. We're off to a good start. The fact that we've got the Rowdies name not only brings credibility to the team here in Tampa, but also there's a history with the Rowdies. Not just nationally, but back in the United Kingdom. When MLS started, Cornelia Corbett wanted to get involved, but the way the league was set up she had no interest. My understanding is the league didn't want to be painted in the same brush as the NASL because there was some failure there. But, there were some very successful teams like the Vancouver Whitecaps, Portland Timbers, and of course, the Tampa Bay Rowdies. They're all coming back now because people remember that, they grew up with it.

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