A Review of Shep Messing's The Education of an American Soccer Player
By James Tyler
When you think back to the halcyon days of the NASL and all the stars that it brought into the zeitgeist, it's easy to confess that the entire era passed you by in a glorious, star-soaked blur. We only recall the bits glamorized in Once in a Lifetime, where Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia shimmy and cavort their way through Studio 54, shirt collars popped with the glow of Chivas Regal and mischief in their eyes. Mercifully for us, a wisecracking, take-no-crap shotstopper from the Bronx was there to watch the renaissance of The New York Cosmos, and didn't hesitate to dump it out on paper like a fumbled high ball. Shep Messing, Cosmos Goalkeeper for three different stints over an 11-year span, isn't just getting his own education on the rough-and-tumble, unrefined glory of American soccer; he's putting one out there for us.
To say we could use Messing's lesson plans is an understatement. While YouTube dials up meager offerings of grainy tapes and incomplete histories, The Education of an American Soccer Player gives the real dissertation of what American soccer meant in the 1970s: the occasional girl, the dissatisfying paycheck, the crushing sensation of being bounced around a league due to tricky, dispiriting personal politics... and Pelé. The great Pelé bookends Shep's journey through season after season of injuries and hope, sparring and getting drunk with teammates, and finding no quarter with the button-down coaches that tried to bring some shape to the league.
It's engaging, and presented with far less varnish than today's bland autobiographies that chart mild successes, tepid emotion, and contrived drama excised of all feeling by over-eager legal teams and PR lackies. You'd never get this kind of honesty from Frank Lampard or Wayne Rooney, and we're better off for it. For Messing, the reward of having survived his gauntlet through the NASL is the freedom to chart it all out, and he omits nothing. The story is of desolate trips to away games with barely a fan in the seats to unscrupulous team owners cutting costs and forcing personnel changes on middlemen managers resonate with the reader just as much as every stirring crowd scene at the Meadowlands in which the Cosmos are lauded as deliriously as the Beatles were at Shea Stadium.
In this sense, Messing's story encapsulates much of the present-day MLS journeyman, working hard to put down roots amid a crowded field of classy imported players, brand name DPs, and gritty, silver-spoon college grads on the fast track to league success. Weeknights in Columbus or New England are offset by Thierry Henry encounters or pre-game handshakes with David Beckham. It's all part of the education: players as disposable, interchangeable resources, buzzing around the league just as Messing did from New York to Boston to New York to Oakland in four wild seasons that showed the full gamut of the NASL. In the present day, we know MLS has a great deal of homegrown quality amid its ranks, but the need for marketable icons and names that put people in the seats means that plenty of the same subjugation still exists. Messing skates through the turbulence with determination, spirit, and fun.
For much of the first half of the book, Shep struggles to assert himself in New York despite garnering some acclaim at the 1972 Munich Olympics for smothering over 60 shots in a game against the rampant Germans. Finding that American players were very much second-class in their own domestic league, it doesn't take him long to indulge in the beer, the late-night poker, and to express the fierce anti-establishment attitude that made him so wild and superb between the posts. The problem was only exacerbated when Pelé joined the Cosmos and Warner Communications augmented their powerful squad. Playing Las Vegas to open what would be their championship season, Messing runs into former Boston Minutemen teammate Eusebio and when the Portuguese star goes down injured, all that he can ask Shep while being stretchered off is where the pair will gamble later that night.
From there, the high-octane Disney feel-good kicks in as the Cosmos' flirtation with a difficult road record gives rise to a superb playoff run and victory for the superhuman Brazilian on the eve of his retirement.
Of course, Messing's epilogue brings him firmly back down to earth as he looks for work and accepts his fate with grace—replaced by someone more expensive and brand-friendly—not that such struggles stop him from being his outspoken, idiosyncratic self. Just check the photos shot for the black-and-white insert: candid locker room poses; action shots with teammates Chinaglia and the short-fuse sensation, Bobby Smith; celebratory Championship Cup holding... and the chimp.
Ultimately, the beauty of the book lies in Messing's self-deprecating style. Never afraid to mock or laugh, his honesty makes for a stirring journey. Starting out as a big-mouth high school wrestler before discovering soccer and the glorious insanity of goalkeeping, Messing's tour of duty is astonishing. College days tending net for Harvard (and briefly at NYU) segway into representing the US at the Maccabiah Games and at the 1972 Munich Olympics, where he struggled to handle the loss of a friend in the terrorist assault.
Those early pro soccer days, rich with hard work and even harder partying, set the stage for a colorful, uncensored career. Vicious Olympic qualification games in Central America and Colombia, in which the team are protected by armed guards and greeted by a dead body outside their hotel on the morning of a game against Cuba. Scrapping with anti-Semites in the German-American League on Long Island while part of Blue Star, the all-Jewish team. Fighting with one coach after another about late-night partying, gambling, and beers before game time. Whereas today's soccer stars might regard every inhalation, empty beer or popped pill as something to be monitored with the meticulousness of a scientist, to the NASL's legions, they were a rite of passage.
Messing's experiences weaving through the unglamorous lower tiers juxtapose nicely against the comfort of the Cosmos; the description of Giorgio Chinaglia and his locker ("looks as though it's cared for by a valet... George is the only guy in the league who can get away with padding around the shower in goddamn slippers") amplifies the gulf between the NASL's superstar imports and those Americans crazy enough—and in some cases lucky enough—to hang on for the ride. In another scene, Chinaglia rallies the Cosmos' American contingent for a night out in Tampa, because "he needed a bar, a jukebox and a pool table, in no particular order." When Shep reminds Chinaglia that they can't afford the $250 fine for skipping team curfew and heading out, the striker pulls out the cash. "We get caught, I pay for us all." It's not quite the David Beckham/LA Galaxy/lamb pizza incident as detailed in Grant Wahl's book The Beckham Experiment, but it's mighty close.
Messing's time with Pelé also put fresh perspective on the Brazilian's iconic career. Despite his health and stamina beginning to fail at age 35, Pelé never quit or hinted weakness even though he was targeted by every thug in the league. Shep puts it best: "If I was Pelé, I'd either be in a wheelchair or behind bars right now." Yet the legend never let the discord or difficulty dampen his spirit, especially knowing the importance of his soccer-in-the-USA mission. Where Shep would rage to the press in a pique, Pelé simply dreamt of fishing back in Brazil or singing "some crazy carnival song" about "a big fish and a bright, happy beach."
For all its flaws, the NASL's influence on the culture was undeniable, and Messing's tale yields the full, unadulterated story. It'd make for good movie viewing, too—just don't ask Shep to cast anyone but himself to play the starring role.