I’ve known Portland Timbers Director of Soccer Development and Assistant Coach Amos Magee for 15 years. He played for me both with the A-League Minnesota Thunder and several times as a call up with the Chicago Fire. Amos was one of the most tenacious and savvy players I’ve ever known. His playing and coaching experiences in USL, MLS and indoor soccer over the last two decades give him a unique perspective on all levels of soccer in the United States.
Working alongside Timbers General Manager and Head Coach Gavin Wilkinson, Magee has seen the Timbers put together a USL first division record 24 game undefeated streak that has Portland atop the USL1 standings with three games, all at home, remaining in the regular season. The Timbers will join Major League Soccer as an expansion team in 2011.
peter wilt: You had several runs in MLS as well as a long career in what is now USL1. What adjustments are needed by a player when going from USL1 to MLS? What are the main differences between the Leagues?
Amos Magee: I think both leagues have improved a lot since I retired (in 2003). The USL 1st Division has made great strides with established players joining from all over the world. This year in Portland, we have added Johan Claesson, a 28 year old midfielder who has played over 25 games a year in the Swedish Premier League for the last 4-5 years. When we won the A-League Championship in Minnesota in 1999, one of our key players was Morgan Zeba, a Swedish midfielder who was developed at Malmo FC but never played 1st team games. While Morgan was a very good player, he did not arrive with the same experience and resume as Johan. A player with Johan’s resume is no longer the exception to the rule in the USL 1st Division. However, the top end of MLS rosters tend to be a lot better than USL1 rosters. Beyond these 7 or 8 players it is close. On any given day a USL-1 can compete with the best in MLS, but overall, MLS is the better league with better players. The adjustment for me was going from the top end of the Thunder roster to a squad player in MLS even though I was in my prime as a player. I was mature enough to deal with this readjustment but it was difficult. My training habits improved. My knowledge of the game improved, but I was never able to get consistent minutes in MLS.
pjw: You’ve played and coached with some very well respected coaches. What have you taken from the likes of Buzz Lagos, Bob Bradley, Dave Sarachan and Gavin Wilkinson?
AM: All of these coaches are very different and have very different strengths. From Buzz I learned a great deal about treating people with respect and maintain patience. The patience to deal with adversity and the patience to deal with personalities. I also learned that you need to be yourself and to surround yourself with people that believe in you. Our core in Minnesota, that was so successful for so many years, all believed in Buzz and believed in his manner of doing things. That didn’t mean that we always agreed with him, but it meant that we respected him enough to try it his way first. And more often than not it was successful. I spent far less time with Bob and Dave. However I was struck by Bob’s preparation and honesty. I always knew where I stood with him. And I always felt I went on to the field with a very good idea of what I needed to do to be successful. My relationship with Dave was much more personal and I felt that he gave me invaluable advice as I transitioned from playing to coaching. Gavin has been fantastic to work with. He is very detail oriented. He has an amazing capacity to look at minute details while still not losing track of the big picture. Our strengths and weaknesses tend to complement each other very well and it has been a great working relationship this season.
pjw: How do Portland’s supporters compare to other home supporters you’ve played or coached for.
AM: I have a ton of love and respect for the Thunder supporters. The Dark Clouds have been great for Minnesota and have been very supportive of me in my career as a player and a coach. I will always feel that way about all of the Minnesota Thunder fans. That said, I am in awe of what the Timbers Army and the Portland soccer fans are up to out here. It is unlike anything in our league and to be honest, I have not felt this atmosphere in other MLS stadiums. The Fire fans in Section 8 are incredible and the DC United fans are intimidating as they bounce and shake the stands at RFK, but the Timbers Army will set the bar in MLS as they have done here in USL-1. The numbers, volume, creativity and interest is amazing. I can’t wait for the rest of the country to see the Timbers Army in 2011
AM: The US Open Cup 3rdRound game vs. Seattle sold out in less than two weeks… what more can you say? It has some nastiness that straddles the line of being an intense rivalry and going overboard, but for sheer enthusiasm and intensity, it makes the old MN-Milwaukee rivalry seem like an afterschool special. These games in 2011 and beyond will make the Brimstone/SuperClasico/Tor-Columbus look tame. I think Portland and the Timbers Army fancy themselves as the alternative to the successful and carefully managed Sounders marketing explosion. I think Portland soccer fans feel that the Timbers’ support is more organic and homegrown than Seattle and that because of this support, the sentiment and emotion run much deeper. However, organic or not, we will be very happy to average 28,000 people in 2011. Throw Vancouver into the mix and you will have a new dynamic that MLS just hasn’t yet seen. Everyone in MLS and US Soccer should be salivating at the thought of these games and what they will bring to the soccer landscape in N. America.
pjw: You starred at Wesleyan, a small Division-3 school in Connecticut. What were the advantages and challenges of playing at a small school off the radar of the major US soccer observers?
AM: As a player that developed and matured much later than most, going to a D-3 school fit me perfectly. I started and played every game over my four-year career and was asked to carry a major load as a freshman and beyond. This responsibility and attention, coupled with a supporting role during the summers with the Minnesota Thunder (which was an amateur team at this point) really helped me develop. I was fortunate that I was involved with the Thunder while at Wesleyan so I wasn’t completely off the radar and had a well positioned road to further development during and after my four years at Wesleyan. The sheer joy of playing college soccer at Wesleyan and in the NESCAC was unmatched.
pjw: You’ve played in at least four classic games involving USL teams in your career. Please tell us your memories of each:
August 15, 1994 The USISL Championship game. Greensboro scored first, but the Minnesota Thunder got the equalizer at 45:31 when Gerard Lagos scored from 12 yards off a pass from you. Playing in front of a record UNC Greensboro Stadium crowd of 5,159, the teams battled to a 1-1 standstill through regulation, two overtimes and a five rounds of shootout attempts. Then the Dynamo’s Brian Japp squibbed the ball through John Swallen’s legs to send the crowd into a frenzy.
AM: I’ve always prided myself on playing well in big games. This was the Thunder’s first championship game and we were undefeated over the course of the season. Greensboro was the defending champion and had a packed house. One of my lasting memories, unfortunately, was that I scored the go-ahead goal in the 2nd half but the center referee called it back for offside that was not flagged by the assistant referee. The video also later proved that it wasn’t offside and so, 15 years later, I’m still bitter.
September 4, 1995 The USISL Championship game. You scored the Minnesota Thunder’s lone goal in the game, but Long Island Roughriders forward Giovanni Savarese scored on a Chris Armas feed with only six seconds left to give the Rough Riders a 2-1 victory in the USISL championship game. In addition to you, Armas and Savarese, Tony Meola, Manny Lagos and Tony Sanneh played in that game and all went on to MLS.
AM: Still bitter about this one as well. Losing on a goal with six seconds left (that year the USISL experimented with a clock that counts down so I know that there was exactly six seconds left when Armas scored) is pretty hard to take. It was made a little bit easier when I played with Kevin Anderson in Minnesota and Chris Armas in Chicago and learned that they are both outstanding guys. I have to imagine that the final was one of the higher quality games played in the US pre-MLS. I still think we were the better team, but I would guess that Chris and Kevin might disagree.
October 16, 1999 You assisted on both goals as the Minnesota Thunder earned the A-League Championship by edging the Rochester Rhinos 2-1. Minnesota’s goals were three minutes apart spanning intermission to defeat the defending champs in front of 9,987 fans at the National Sports Center in Blaine, MN.
AM: Much less bitter about this game, surprisingly. Our rivalry with the Rhinos in the late 90’s was epic. Both teams were very good and played attractive soccer. After losing in three finals and one semi-final, the immediate feeling was more a sense of relief than excitement although that soon followed. Winning our first and only championship in front of our home Minnesota crowd was the cherry on top. I felt that I played particularly well that day. In all facets of the game it was one of my better ones. Come to think about it, everyone on the Thunder played well that night and considering Rochester had knocked off four MLS teams on their way to the US Open Cup championship, it’s easy to say that we beat one of the best teams in the US in 1999.
July 24, 2001. The Chicago Fire defeated the Pittsburgh Riverhounds of the A-League 3-2 in the quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. A standing room only crowd of 2,500 fans at Wheaton College witnessed your golden goal game-winner in the 111th minute off your chest. The goal made you a bit of a folk hero to long time Fire fans and earned you the nickname “Chesty” Magee.
AM: This was one of my favorite moments of my career. Mostly because I have the video and featured prominently on this video is Hristo Stoitchkov celebrating my game-winning goal like it was the 1994 World Cup. Even though he never knew my name and only called me “#5”, that doesn’t really matter. I had been called up by the Fire earlier in the competition and when the game wore on and stayed tied I really figured I had no chance of playing. When Bob Bradley called me over and started giving me instructions, I think I might even have thought, “Are you sure?” But once I got on the field the adrenaline and excitement took over. The in-swinging ball played across the box by Sergi Daniv was perfect and I just concentrated on making solid contact with it. It happened to be with my chest and the contact was solid enough to slip past a goalkeeper playing out of his mind. The crowd at Wheaton was among the best and loudest I’ve played in front of. I still get people coming up to me and telling me that they were at that game. It’s amazing that it is remembered so fondly by people other than me.
pjw: Do any other games you played or coached in stick out as clearly as these four?
AM: After laboring on the bench for a year-and-a-half in Tampa with the Mutiny, the lifeline Bob Bradley gave my MLS career was much appreciated. In 2002 he called me up for several games and I scored two goals against Columbus at North Central College. The Fire won 5-4 and I was a finalist as the MLS Player of the week as an A-League call up. There was a Cinderella feel to my brief Chicago Fire career and for that reason I really love the club and its fans. The strong relationship between the Fire and Timbers fans only make it sweeter.
pjw: In December 2007, you coached the US Maccabi squad to the gold medal of the 2007 Pan American Maccabiah in Buenos Aires. How did you get this opportunity and what’s your favorite memory of the games?
AM: The Pan-Am Maccabi games and the World Maccabiah are incredible tournaments. I have as many amazing memories and friendships from these tournaments as I do from my professional career. I played for the US team and coach Seth Roland in 1993, winning a bronze medal; coached with Survivor winner Ethan Zohn in Chile in 2003; assisted (SDSU Men’s Coach) Lev Kirshner in the 2005 Maccabiah Games where we won a silver (with US National Team members, Benny Feilhaber and Johnny Bornstein); and coached the US Team in the 2007 Pan American Maccabi games in Argentina with US Maccabi legend Kevin Friedland serving as captain. It has been a very successful relationship with US Sports for Israel and I am as proud of my relationship and success with the US Maccabi teams as I am of anything I accomplished in my career.
pjw: In what ways could MLS and USL1 better work together to each other’s mutual benefit?
AM: We have worked quite well with Real Salt Lake agreeing upon a yearlong loan deal for Alex Nimo. Our working relationship with Adrian and Chris at Seattle is outstanding as well. Our relationships with other MLS teams and staffs are also thriving based on common goals and long-standing relationships. However, I think that under the current set up of leagues (which on the USL end seems to be under more uncertainty than usual), relegation and promotion will never happen. Still, competitions like the US Open Cup and CONCACAF champion’s league will help grow the rivalry between leagues and increase the level of American soccer.
pjw: What do those in the Portland camp (players, coaches and staff) think about the impending elevation to MLS — how have they taken it? Excitement mixed with uncertainty?
AM: It’s been an interesting time in Portland this year. I think the Timbers/ PGE Park staff has done a very good job of balancing the 2009 season and the impending move to MLS. They have not dropped the ball on game day operations or ticket/sponsorship sales and the behind the scenes work necessary get our organization ready for MLS continues to move forward. Furthermore, the players and coaching staff have been very focused on the here and now. There are no guarantees for any of us and so we concentrate on what we have some control over which are our performances this season. We all know that the better we perform, the higher the likelihood that we’ll be considered for 2011 and beyond. I think all of us feel that there will be plenty of time to worry about the future, but that our opportunity to do something amazing here in Portland is in the present. There is a single-mindedness to Gavin’s and my approach and it has been something of a relief to be honest. Worrying about 2009 is job enough. I think that 2010 will be a difficult year. After talking to people in Seattle, I know that the USL Sounders had a difficult time staying focused on their final season in 2008 with so much going on. However, I have a lot of confidence in the core group of players we have in place and their ability to stay engaged and focused. I think when you play in front of 12,000 screaming fans, you can’t help but compete in the present. But first things first, and that is clinching the league regular season title and winning the USL-1 championship.
pjw: The early Thunder teams throughout the 1990s were uniquely local and successful. What were the keys to their success and can it be replicated in other states…including Minnesota?
AM: It is always tough to talk about a model working from one generation to another. The success that Ajax had in the early 70s is no longer possible due to the changing demographics of professional soccer. In Minnesota in the early 90s we had an experienced core of players and a very talented young core led by Tony Sanneh and Manny Lagos. The evolution of our young core mirrored the evolution of the USL and we grew into being a very competitive team in a competitive league. I think the USL 1st and 2nd Division has gotten too good for a young core that all grew up together to move into that professional environment together right after college, but the PDL should be able to help a strong nucleus grow into talented professionals.
pjw: You played professionally indoors with the Milwaukee Wave, the oldest professional soccer franchise in the United States. What were the challenges and benefits of playing year round indoor/outdoor soccer?
AM: I loved my year with the Milwaukee Wave. It is a very different game and the learning curve can be pretty steep. I signed my first professional contract in Milwaukee and I learned a lot about becoming a professional soccer player there. I became a stronger player and spent a lot more time in the weight room trying to add something, anything, to my 5’7 135lb frame. I played off and on that season and experienced the normal roller coaster of a rookie athlete. However, there were good veterans on the team and Keith Tozer was a lot of fun to play for. As much as I enjoyed the indoor game and my time in Milwaukee, it takes its toll on your body. Bouncing back and forth between the leagues is very difficult. I played two years of indoor soccer and that was enough for me.
pjw: Thank you very much Amos for taking the time to answer these questions and all the best throughout the rest of the 2009 USL1 campaign.
I hope to do a Q&A once a month with someone from the U.S. soccer landscape who may fly under the radar of the mainstream soccer world, but has a unique perspective on the state of the sport. If you have suggestions, please leave them in the comment section below or email them to me at email@example.com. Have a great week!
Editor’s Note: Chicago Red Stars President and CEO Peter Wilt writes weekly for Pitch Invasion.