German Fußballers Who Dared to Cross the Big Pond – Part 1

It was recently announced that former Hamburg SV goalkeeper Frank Rost has signed with the New York Red Bulls of MLS.  This news comes hard on the heels of FC Toronto’s signing of Werder Bremen and German national team midfielder Torsten Frings . They are the first high-profile German players to come to play in North America since Lothar Matthaus’ ill-fated year with the MetroStars in 2000.  But over 40 years ago, German players  paved the way for the two new immigrants by daring to cross the pond and signing on with the fledgling NASL.  In doing so, they helped create the foundation for the growth of the beautiful game here.

New Jersey – Where My Love For the Game Began    

In July 1974, my family had just moved from Northwest Ohio in the Midwest to New Jersey in the East, and the German National Team, Die Mannschaft, had just been crowned “Weltmeisters!”   I was only 10 years old at the time, and had no idea what soccer, let alone the World Cup, was.  Like most midwestern kids, baseball was my game.  I was a Detroit Tigers fan inside and out.  That was all about to change one cold,  blustery Saturday morning in February, 1975 when my neighbor and best friend, whose family just immigrated from Germany, knocked on our front door and asked me if I wanted to ride our bikes to the local junior high school field and play some soccer.

Soccer Made in Germany

And that, my friends, is where it all started for me – running, passing,  shooting, heading a ball, tackling; non-stop action except for that short break at the half – a kid’s dream.  My Dad always says that soccer is where I finally learned how to “use my head.”  The next morning, I went over to his my new friend’s house.  He tuned his television in to PBS and “Soccer Made in Germany.”  The game featured FC Bayern Munich and Hamburg SV.  Bayern Munich had this player who was so calm, cool and collected on the ball; controlled the flow of the entire game, and even scored a goal with the outside of his boot.  Amazing!  His name was Franz Beckenbauer.  They had another player who had legs like tree trunks and a cannon for a shot.  His name was Gerd Muller.  The announcers kept calling them “Der Kaiser,” and “Der Bomber” respectively.  Bayern’s goalkeeper, a guy by the name of Sepp Maier, darted between the posts and snatched balls like he had glue on his gloves.

Two days — that was all I needed to fall in love with this beautiful game most of us call soccer on this side of the Big Pond.  (I’m not one of them -it’s football-a ball meant to be kicked with the feet the entire game).   It was that summer, 1975, when the NY Cosmos of the old North American Soccer League (NASL) brought in this player named Pele from Brazil.  I thought that was cool because I heard my teammates say that Pele was the best in the world.  But the player I really wanted to see play for the Cosmos was this guy the Germans and the rest of the world called “Der Kaiser.”

Der Kaiser Leads the German Invasion

At the age of 13,  I began delivering the Newark Star-Ledger in 1977 to earn some cash.  I typically woke up at 5:00 a.m. to receive my newspapers, and my morning ritual started off by reading the sports section.  One morning, to my surprise, the headline read something along the lines of, “Cosmos sign Der Kaiser.”  My heart jumped, and I think I woke up the entire neighborhood in the process.  The joy it brought me was overwhelming, and I knew that something special was taking place in the U.S. — the rise of soccer.  That summer the Cosmos moved from Yankee Stadium to the newly built Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, no more than 20-30 minutes from our house.  Another German, GK Hubert Birkenmeier, of Tennis Borussia Berlin and Freiburger FC, also signed on with the Cosmos.  My dad took me to some games, and my dream came true.  I saw Der Kaiser play the beautiful game, and beautiful it was.   The following summer I attended the Cosmos soccer camp, and had the distinct honor of meeting Der Kaiser himself, another dream fulfilled  —soccer tips from one of the world’s best players ever – how to pass and shoot using the outside of the boot, a Kaiser trademark.  During his time with the Cosmos, Beckenbauer not only tallied 21 goals in 125 appearances, he captained the club to three NASL “Soccer Bowl” (don’t ask – it’s an American thing) titles.

Surely, Der Kaiser would be a model for other Germans to follow here in the U.S.   The impact he had on U.S. soccer is UNSURPASSED to this day.  Yes, David Beckham, you read it here first  in “The Bundesliga Fanatic.”  Beckenbauer and the players of that graced the NASL during that era (Pele, Carlos Alberto, Bogicevic, Gordon Banks, and Johan Cruyff among others), laid the foundation for us Yanks who held soccer high above all other Yank sports.  My generation currently produces the bulk of coaches who teach the game, as well as the kids who grace American pitches today.  Vielen dank fur Alles, Der Kaiser!  Beckenbauer: PASS; Birkenmeier: PASS

The Best of the Rest

As for other Germans plying their trade in the old NASL, the list is actually quite long after some research.  The same cannot be said for Major League Soccer (MLS).  That list, as far as I can tell, includes only one German, Lothar Matthaus, who Dared cross the Big Pond.  Let’s start with Matthaus because he is the most recent famed German to sign with the MLS back in 2000 with the then NY Metro Stars until three weeks ago when Torsten Frings signed with Toronto FC.  This will be short.  Matthaus, as we all know, is widely regarded in Germany and Bayern as one of the best box to box midfielders, and later sweepers in the game.  He led Germany to the Weltmeister in 1990 and Bayern to four Deutschermeisters (Bundesliga Champions) and DFB Pokal (German Cups).  Did I mention he was the World Player of the Year in 1990 as well?   Let there be no doubt that he was a great player.  Okay, now my love and passion for Bayern Munich aside, Matthaus, who was 38 years old when he joined the Metro Stars, was a huge disappointment here in the USA.  The level of competition back in 2000 when the MLS was more or less in its infancy (since 1996), regardless of age, was not the strongest, and he should have done better regardless of his age.  Aside from producing revenue from posters, and maybe some Metro Stars trikots, Matthaus contributed nothing to the Metro Stars during his one year vacation in NYC.   Matthaus; Note 6, or Matthaus: FAIL

Now, we turn back to the old NASL.  Gerd Muller, “Der Bomber,” joined the Fort Lauderdale Strikers from Bayern Munich in 1979 when he was 34 years old.  Like Matthaus, Muller was a superstar in Germany and internationally, a prolific, hard-nosed sturmer (striker) for Bayern, Die Mannschaft.  Muller scored 68 goals in just 62 appearances for Die Mannschaft – quite an accomplishment.  Unlike Matthaus, Der Bomber made an immediate impact in the NASL scoring 40 goals in 80 appearances over a three-year period.  50% average isn’t shabby.  Too bad he left after 3 years.  Muller: PASS

Karl-Heinz Granitza netted 75 goals in 125 appearances for SV Röchling Völklingen in Saarbrücken, Saarland, Germany and Hertha BSC in Berlin.  Impressive stats, ya think?  That’s what the Chicago Sting, also known as Der Sting, thought.  Chicago has a large German population; therefore Der Sting were a magnet for German players testing the waters across the Big Pond.  Der Sting signed Granitza from Hertha BSC in 1978.  Granitza, like Beckenbauer and Muller, was a force to be reckoned with in the NASL.  He tallied 130 goals over a seven year period are stats the resulted in Granitza being the second leading scorer in the NASL history.   Der Sting won one Soccer Bowl with granitza leading the charge.  Other notable Germans who played for Der Sting include: Arno Steffenhagen (Hamburger SV, St. Pauli), Horst Blankenburg (TSV 1860 Munich, Ajax, Hamburger SV) and Ingo Peter (Dortmund), and Lothar Skala (Eintracht Frankfurt).    Karl-Heinz Granitza: PASS

The St. Louis Stars were among the original NASL clubs in 1968 after playing a year in the NPSL, and like Chicago, German roots run strong in St. Louis.   The Stars were headed by none other than Bob Hermann, a pioneer executive in American soccer whose name graces the annual award for U.S. college soccer’s best player.  The Stars were coached by Rudi Gutendorf of Koblenz, who also managed  VfB Stuttgart and Schalke 04.  Willy Roy is probably the most notable German born player to play in St. Louis, and led the Stars in goals, but Roy was a Yank.  Rudi Kolbl (VfB Stuttgart) scored 19 goals in 37 appearances for the Stars. Wilhelm Wrenger (1. FC Koln, 1.  FC Kaiserslautern) played for a year with the Stars and scored 4 goals in 20 matches, and Joe Fuhrmann (1.FC Koln) was a solid defender who played two seasons.  Rudi Kolbl: PASS

Wolfgang “Joe” Rausch and Klaus  Toppmöller are the two most notable Germans to play for the Dallas Tornado.  Rausch, a defender, played for Kickers Offenbach and later Bayern Munich, scoring 25 goals in 125 matches.  Rausch left Bayern for Dallas in 1979, playing three seasons and tallied 17 goals in 82 matches.  Toppmuller, a sturmer, is a 1. FC Kaiserslautern legend, scoring 108 goals in 204 matches from 1972-1980 before making the move across the Big Pond.   He also made 3 appearances with Die Mannschaft (1976-1979), scoring 1 goal.  Afterwards,  Toppmöller coached Eintracht Frankfurt, VfL Bochum (EUFA Cup Viertfinale) and Bayer 04 Leverkusen (Champions League finale); was named “coach of the year, and later coached Hamburger SV.  Gert Trinklein, a defender, signed with the Tornado in 1979 after 10 years with Eintracht Frankfurt and two DFB Pokal titles.   Another German defender, Peter Gruber, played four seasons with Bundesliga 1979 Meisters, Bayern Munich, before daring to cross the Big Pond and join Dallas in 1980.  Rausch: PASS;  Toppmöller: PASS Trinklein: PASS; Gruber: PASS

Aside from Hubert Birkenmeier, the only other goalkeeper, I can think of from Germany is Jurgen Stars.  Stars played for the Tampa Bay Rowdies from 1982-1983, and man do I remember those Cosmos-Rowdies match-ups because they were typically the two strongest clubs in the old NASL.  Peter Nogly spent eleven seasons with Hamburger SV; winning the Cup Winners Cup, the DFB Pokal and Deutschermeister before making his move across the Big Pond to Edmonton followed by Tampa Bay, scoring 25 goals in 100 matches over a four-year period.  Jurgen Stars: PASS; Peter Nogly: PASS

The list goes on and on, trust me,  but we’ve highlighted the majority of the prominent Germans who dared cross the Big Pond and ply their fußball skills in the U.S.A.  The next chapter of Germans Who Dare [To Cross the Pond] begins right here in Kansas City when Toronto FC and newly signed defensive midfielder Torsten Frings (known as Herr Handspielen to us Yanks for his famous hand ball in the Korea 2002 that kept the U.S. Men’s team from advancing to the semifinals) come to town on Saturday, July 23rd, to take on Sporting Club KC.  When it’s all said and done, will Frings and Rost score a PASSING grade like most of those Germans who dared to journey to the New World 30-40 years ago?   The answer is a hopeful yes that will draw more Germans to play in North America while more Americans ply their trade in the Bundesliga.

For those interested in obtaining dvds of vintage and recent NASL, World Cup, Bundesliga and many other leagues’ matches, check out the site of Friend of the Fanatic http://www.davebrett.com/.  For a very recent interview with Dave, see Real Futbol, a new blog from another Friend of the Fanatic,  Jobst Elster in Atlanta, GA. 

6 Comments

  1. Yes, and that is why Bayern and 1.FCK typically play a friendly match every winter – to help Lautern bring in a littel extra cash. It was sad to see Lautern get relegated, especially during a time of financial crisis for them back in 2006-7, but I’m happy they managed to climb back up, and that I witnessed the climb back to the BL. They played well last season. Really enjoyed your article – Cheers! Tim

  2. Tim,
    I think I like you despite your Bayern ties 🙂 Put it this way, the only Bayern team FCK fans sort of like is 1860 (we have an official fan alliance). My childhood buddy in Speyer has a 3 yr old and his first ‘song’ was “Zieh den Bayern die Lederhosen aus, Lederhosen aus …” Regardless, cool Bayern Betze story (I forgot Donovan spent a few months in Munich) and here’s the link to the Bratwurst article http://wp.me/p1DsOn-58. Looking fwd to any comments you may have. BTW, I mentioned this article and your Bayern passion. Cheers, Jobst

  3. Thanks Eric. It was fun to write the article. I will never forget Toppmuller coming to New Jersey to play the Cosmos, and seeing that fro and stache he sported – was one ferocious looking dude.

  4. Hallo Jobst, Vielen Dank für Ihre freundlichen Worte! I thoroughly enjoyed writing this article-from the heart-and hopefully my passion for German football was reflected. Speyer – a beautiful town and one of my favorites in all of Deutschland! I miss the Domhof bier. I also have a third generation cousin and a few friends who live their. We recently moved to the states from Heidelberg last summer. While their, I attended several matches at “The Betz” because some of my teammates, like you, were Roten Tuefel fans. One of those games was a fruendschaft spiele between 1.FCK and Bayern. Landon Donovan, who was on loan to Bayern at the time, scored a fanastic goal that night. As one of the U.S.A’s longest running Bayern fans, dressed in my Bayern trikot, schal and Rekordmeister cap, I jumped out of my seat behind the 1.FCK bench, cheering in elation. Bad decision – got some pretty harsh looks from the Lautern fans.

    The Frings and Rost transfers, I hope, will result in more Germans to follow. I believe these guys could seize a business opportunity here and form camps, better yet clubs, here in the states much like the club German system. Given our poor showing at the WM-U17 in Mexico, we could use the blood transfusion from top, down, inside and out.

    I’ll be looking forward to reading your “Bratwurst Exports” article. Again, thanks for the kind words. Auf gehts Bayern!

  5. Great read, thanks! Toppmoeller has my eternal admiration and respect for that glorious run (that ended in disappointment, of course) with Bayer in 2002. Sigh…

  6. Tim,
    Dein Artikel ist spitze! Thanks for sharing your link to Fussball and how the love affair began. What’s crazy is that when I started reading your post it sounded a lot like my upbringing. I also moved to Jersey as a kid, at 8 not 10, from Germany, not Ohio, and also followed the Cosmos (although in 80-82′ when much of the magic was gone) and admired (an aging) Kaiser. And, ‘Soccer Made in Germany’ was our TV as well. I later moved back home to the Speyer/Rheinland-Pfalz area where I fell in love with 1.FCK and all things Fritz Walter.
    I also appreciate the ‘Germans in the states’ history lesson, def. learned a bit while trying to forget Lothar’s sorry attempt at playing while stateside. I had to smile when I heard about the Rost transfer because I am currently working on a ‘Bratwurst Export’ post for TheRealFutbol about ‘seasoned’ Germans that could/should get their working visas and play in the MSL. Frank is/was one of my candidates. Anyway, good post and keep it coming. Bis Bald
    Jobst, TheRealFutboler

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