The great revival of football – or soccer – in the United States began with their hosting of the World Cup in 1994, won by Brazil, and remembered by two missed penalties: one from Diana Ross, and one from Roberto Baggio whose fluffed lines handed Brazil their first win since 1970.
Since then and the launch of Major League Soccer – which replaced the North American Soccer League as North America’s main football competition – the game in the States has grown greatly in popularity and has gone from strength to strength.
Although the game has developed greatly, most of the United States’ top players have left for foreign shores, with many coming to the British Isles. Over the past three decades we’ve see the likes of Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel, Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Brian McBride and Claudio Reyna make a great impact with a host of clubs over here, while today, Christian Pulisic was a big-money signing for Chelsea from Borussia Dortmund, and DeAndre Yedlin is a regular for Newcastle United.
The first great American player emerged pre-1994 World Cup and Major League Soccer, and he too spent the majority of his senior career in England.
Roy Wegerle was born in Pretoria, South Africa on 19th March 1964, and he began to play football while a schoolboy, eventually joining his local club Arcadia Shepherds where his older brothers had played.
On turning sixteen, he came to England where he had an ultimately unsuccessful trial with Manchester United, but this set him up to build a career away from the country of his birth, and he headed to the United States where he was to join his older brother Steve, who was a popular player with Tampa Bay Rowdies. Roy initially played college soccer, before he joined his brother at the Rowdies in 1984 for the final North American Soccer League season, where he was coached by Rodney Marsh, who became an important figure in his career. Roy was to finish the campaign as joint top-scorer with 9 goals in 21 appearances.
At the end of the 1984 season, Wegerle was named Rookie of the Year, but the demise of the North American Soccer League left him considering his options. He initially played indoor soccer with Tacoma Stars, but his former Tampa Bay Rowdies coach Marsh was a big fan. Marsh has described him as “the most skilful USA soccer player ever” – and exploited his contacts back in England, securing Wegerle a trial with Chelsea. Marsh had alerted his former club Queens Park Rangers to Wegerle, but they turned him down. However, Chelsea were suitably impressed and offered him a deal.
Despite impressing in flashes, Wegerle could never tie down a regular place at Stamford Bridge, and he made just 15 appearances in two seasons, scoring three times. He ended his time at Chelsea on loan at Second Division Swindon Town, and in the summer of 1988, he was sold to Luton Town for a miserly £75,000 as Chelsea dropped into the Second Division.
And it was at Kenilworth Road where Wegerle began to make a name for himself. Luton never lost when he scored, and he was the Hatters’ top scorer during the 1988/89 season, and the following December, Queens Park Rangers signed him for £1million, just over three years after they passed up the chance to sign him.
Wegerle made a great impact at Loftus Road, particularly during the 1990/91 season when he finished as the First Division’s third top scorer.
While at Chelsea, a fanzine editor wrote, “one day, Roy Wegerle will score the greatest goal you’ve ever seen”, and during the 1990/91 season, his prediction came true when Wegerle scored the Goal of the Season in an away game at Leeds United.
Leeds had been promoted the previous season and were developing into title challengers, and they went into the early season game expecting to win. They quickly established a 2-0 lead, but Ray Wilkins pulled a goal back just before half-time to get Rangers back into the game. Early in the second half, Wegerle came to life. Picking the ball up on the right-hand touchline, he weaved his way past four players – including David Batty and Gary McAllister – before lashing home a powerful drive from just outside the Leeds box. Elland Road was stunned, and Wegerle was afforded huge applause from both the travelling Hoops and the home fans, something that’s not a regular occurrence. He then went on to score a late winner as Rangers took the points.
Wegerle continued his imperious form into the 1991/92 season, and also became embroiled in a battle between four nations for his services on the international stage. In 1991, he became eligible for British citizenship, and both Graham Taylor and Andy Roxburgh were keen to see him in the England or Scotland squads respectively (he’d been living in England for five years, and his mother’s roots made him eligible for Scotland), while he held a German passport through his father’s ancestry, and he was eligible for US citizenship as his wife was American. And he was of course eligible to play for the country of his birth South Africa though they were banned from international competition by FIFA.
US soccer officials had worked hard to try and make Wegerle eligible for the previous year’s World Cup in Italy, even appealing to Congress, but failed. But Wegerle applied for his Green Card in 1991, and pledged that he would make himself available for selection by the USA if it was approved. And it was, making him a shoo-in for their 1994 World Cup squad.
Wegerle’s club career took an unexpected turn when Gerry Francis was named the new Queens Park Rangers manager. Despite Wegerle’s form and his obvious world-class talent, Francis sold him to then Second Division Blackburn Rovers for £1.1 million – a then record transfer fee for a Second Division club – in March 1992, as Rovers were making a serious pitch for promotion to the top-flight in time for the creation of the Premier League.
Wegerle helped Blackburn to promotion via the play-offs, but then immediately found himself out-of-favour as Kenny Dalglish splashed Jack Walker’s cash to bring in Alan Shearer and Mike Newell. He left Ewood Park for Coventry City having scored 4 goals in 22 appearances in East Lancashire. Wegerle went on to claim that he had “too much flair” for Dalglish’s liking.
His time at Highfield Road was marred by injuries, but he was very popular with the supporters, and scored 9 times in 53 games.
It was during his time with Coventry City that he represented the USA in the 1994 World Cup, and did so admirably, helping the hosts out of the group stages and into the first knock-out round where they lost to eventual winners Brazil in Stanford on Independence Day.
Wegerle left Highfield Road – and England – at the end of his contract in 1995, and signed with Major League Soccer in time for its first season in 1996, joining Colorado Rapids. Wegerle became one of just two players to appear in both the North American Soccer League and Major League Soccer, the other being Mexican genius Hugo Sanchez. By then, he was beginning to struggle with persistent injuries, and his time in Colorado wasn’t overly successful. However, the following year he joined D.C. United where his form improved greatly, and he helped his side to win the championship title.
The USA had qualified for the 1998 World Cup in France, and Wegerle was once again selected. But prior to the tournament, he was involved in an alleged controversy that led to the USA’s captain, former Sheffield Wednesday and Derby County midfielder John Harkes, being dropped from the squad. Former national team manager Steve Sampson claimed that Wegerle informed him and his assistant Clive Charles that he had knowledge of an affair involving Harkes and the wife of striker Eric Wynalda, which resulted in Harkes’ axing.
Wegerle failed to shine in France, but he wasn’t alone. The US crashed out of the tournament at the group stage, losing all three of their games. He retired from the national team having won 41 caps, scoring 7 times. He left D.C. United later in 1998 for Tampa Bay Mutiny, where he made 12 appearances and scored a solitary goal before retiring altogether. After calling time on his soccer career, Wegerle spent time trying his hand at another sport, attempting to become a professional golfer.
Roy Wegerle is a player who is only remembered by those of a certain age. He was at his peak during the early Premier League/Sky TV days, and at a time when the English top flight was still very ‘British’ and foreign players were still seen as ‘fancy dan’ or a little bit of a luxury.
On his day he was sensational; witness his barnstorming performance at Elland Road in October 1990 when he scored one of the best goals that I’ve ever seen. Look it up on YouTube, you won’t be disappointed. Wegerle was cut from the same cloth as the likes of Tony Currie, Alan Hudson, and Frank Worthington; he was a maverick. Perhaps that’s why his mentor Rodney Marsh – who described him as a superstar – rated him so highly. Perhaps Marsh saw a little bit of himself in Roy Wegerle.
Though he enjoyed a decent career, I’ve always had that nagging doubt that he could’ve achieved more given his genuine world-class talent. But then he didn’t have much luck along the way. His first club in England was Chelsea who were in a bit of a state when he arrived there, and he was sold as they were relegated to the Second Division. Luton Town signed him, where he began to develop as a player, and just as he seemed to be settled, the club sold him to Queens Park Rangers to raise funds. It was at Loftus Road where he became one of the First Division’s better players, and yet he was incredibly sold when Gerry Francis took the reins. His move to Blackburn Rovers looked a good one at face value, a club on the up and backed by big money; yet that money brought in players like Alan Shearer, leaving him surplus to requirements and a move to Coventry City, where he was plagued with injuries.
There was always the feeling that Wegerle was ahead of his time in some respects. The English game in the late 80s and early 90s was still blood and thunder at times, and players like Roy Wegerle were often overlooked in favour of those that fit a certain system and put in a shift. Many managers preferred cogs rather than free spirits. Wegerle himself certainly felt that way. In a 2010 interview with the Lancashire Telegraph, he said that his spell in England probably came a decade too soon, and that if he’d been playing Premier League football then, he’d have been a superstar. And I wouldn’t disagree.
Roy Wegerle came to prominence before the World Cup-led revival of the game in the States, and at a time when it was at its weakest. He came to England to build a career, and in some respects, he was a pioneer. There have been great American players since, but Roy Wegerle was the first.
While football was eventually restarted after the first wave of the pandemic, sadly it remains a hollow viewing experience...