Times Staff Writer

Sunday, July 29, 1984. An astonishing crowd of 78,265--the largest ever to attend a soccer game in the United States--sees the U.S. Olympic team defeat Costa Rica, 3-0, at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto.

"It's a great day for the United States," exclaims Coach Alkis Panagoulias. "I think this is the beginning of a new era."

An era remarkable for its brevity.

Sunday, May 31, 1985. A less-than-sellout crowd of 11,800 at El Camino College Stadium in Torrance sees Costa Rica defeat the U.S. national team, 1-0, ending the Americans' hopes of participating in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

"This is one of the most frustrating days in my life," Panagoulias says. "It could have been the turning point of the game in this country. I'm very frustrated. I'm very disappointed."

Three weeks later, Panagoulias is fired by the United States Soccer Federation, even though the USSF earlier had offered him a new contract extending through the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.

Although the only explanation offered by the USSF is that it is "not in a position" to renew Panagoulias' contract, a widespread belief is that the Greek-born coach is being made the scapegoat for the near-total collapse of professional soccer in the United States since the end of the Los Angeles Games.

The dates tell the story:

Aug. 11, 1984--France defeats Brazil to win the gold medal before a Rose Bowl crowd of 101,799. Soccer is the top-drawing sport in the Olympic Games, with total attendance surpassing 1.4 million.

March 13, 1985--The North American Soccer League expels the Cosmos for failure to post $150,000 letter of credit. The Cosmos, American soccer's flagship team, had averaged 47,856 fans per game in 1978.

March 28, 1985--The NASL announces it is suspending operations after 17 years. At its peak, it consisted of 24 teams; at the end, just 2.

April 23, 1985--The Cosmos, who provided the largest portion of the U.S. Olympic team, announce an 11-game schedule of international matches at Giants Stadium.

June 21, 1985--The Cosmos suspend operations, canceling their remaining eight international games.

June 25, 1985--The United Soccer League suspends operations in midseason. The four-team USL was made up of the remnants of the American Soccer League, which folded the year before.

June 26, 1985--The USSF fires Panagoulias.

"The whole future of outdoor soccer in America rests with our World Cup team," Panagoulias had said before the loss to Costa Rica. "If we fail, I feel outdoor soccer is doomed."

An overly pessimistic view? Not necessarily. The collapse of the professional game, combined with continuing efforts by the NCAA and state high school associations to limit soccer's growth on those levels (none too successfully: 544 colleges field soccer teams, 505 field football teams), means that soccer is under siege on all fronts.

All the same, surveys have shown that there are as many as 9 million soccer players in the United States, including 6.5 million children. It is these youngsters that the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), world soccer's ruling body, hopes eventually will revive the game in this country.

There is talk that the success of the Olympic soccer tournament may prompt FIFA to stage a Youth World Cup here, or perhaps the first Indoor World Cup in 1987.

The latter idea disturbs soccer purists who see the indoor game's growing popularity as the prime cause of the outdoor game's downfall and the U.S. team's failure in both the Olympic Games and World Cup.

Panagoulias says, "In the future, I think we are going to see fewer and fewer indoor players representing their country. Indoor is an entirely different game. It's not the game. It's like trying to make a soccer player out of a swimmer."

Ricky Davis, the Olympic and national team captain, says, "I don't know where we go from here. This was our best chance to make it to the World Cup. We won't have another chance until 1990. Who knows where soccer in America will be by then? I do know this: unless we develop a professional league for outdoors, we won't go anyplace. We can't do it with indoor players."

Davis and the rest of the players from the 1984 team will be ineligible for the Seoul Games, even if the United States is able to qualify. FIFA has imposed an age limit of 23 for the soccer tournament.

A more likely source for the players is the U.S. team that left July 22 for Peking. The United States qualified for the first Kodak Cup Under-16 World Youth Tournament Wednesday through Aug. 11 in China. The U.S. team is grouped with China, Bolivia and Guinea in the first round of the 16-team tournament and meets Guinea at Peking Wednesday night.

The team was selected by Angus McAlpine, U.S. national youth coach and a possible successor to Panagoulias as national coach, after he had run 53 of the nation's top under-16 players through tryouts at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs over the Memorial Day weekend.

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