Monday, July 3, 2017
Roy Willner appeared in 69 matches for the Diplomats. Only Gary Darrell played more seasons in a Dips uniform. From a fan's standpoint, it would be easy to think of Willner in a unidimensional way. Yet soccer is but one facet in which he has excelled. Inventor, successful businessman and youth mentor are all terms that could be applicable throughout his life.
Willner grew up in a melting pot neighborhood in East Baltimore, Maryland. “Italians, Pols, Greeks on every street,” he fondly recalls. Like any neighborhood, the kids would gather together and play any chance they could, and their game of choice was soccer.
“I was fortunate. I was introduced to soccer at a very early age. We played it all the time. We played box soccer, with 6 on a side, on the outdoor basketball courts in a foot of snow. In the summer, we’d play regular soccer on the big fields.”
|Roy as a member of the Bays.|
Thanks to the early introduction to the game, and vast experience with snoccer (snow soccer), Willner was an All-Baltimore Metro Scholastic selection in high school and a two time All-American at Catonsville Junior College (where he is a member of the school's athletic hall of fame). After his sophomore year, Willner turned pro, signing with the Baltimore Bays of the American Soccer League (ASL) in 1972.
"When I was playing for the Bays, I met Dennis Viollet, who was a player and coach (the Bays ceased operations after the 1973 season). When the NASL started a team in Washington in 1974, Viollet became the coach and asked me to come over and play for him."
So, Willner moved the 38 miles down I-95. He had an old friend in the suburbs, Sister Virginia Marie, who had been one of his elementary school teachers at Our Lady of Fatima in Baltimore. She was now the principal at St. Elizabeth's School in Rockville, Maryland.
"They were having problems at St. Elizabeth's with the gentleman who was in charge of maintenance and was also the bus driver. He had developed a habit of drinking the parish's sacramental wine, even if he had to drive the bus. So, she asked me if I would come to the school and help her out. I was a custodian there, a bus driver, the soccer coach and helped teach gym."
At St. Elizabeth's, Willner met two people who would have an immense impact on his life. The first was his future wife, Kathy. The second was parishioner Jack McShea. McShea's children attended the parish school and he took note of Willner's enthusiasm.
"He saw me working there and doing all these things and he asked me to work for him at Atlantic Telephone, which was a business he owned. Well, I didn't know anything about telecommunications and I didn't really feel that comfortable with it. About six months later he asked me again and this time I gave it a shot." Willner impressed his new boss.
After about six months of doing installation work, McShea wanted Willner to try his hand at sales, but he was hesitant to make the transition. "Back then," his wife, Kathy, recalls, "Roy was not so outgoing, though he was always friendly and talkative."
Willner accepted the challenge. "The first-year quota they gave me was $100,000 to sell in phone equipment (equal to a little over $400,000 in 2016). I was the only player who would go to practice, we would practice at RFK Stadium every day from 10 - 12, and then pursue a second career. After practice, I would shower and call on clients. All the other guys were swimming, playing golf, that kind of thing. I was single and I had two incomes, which was really nice."
How did he do his first year is sales? "I hit my quota the last day of the year and won a trip to Bermuda. I worked for Jack the next 22 years and then I went to Intertel Technologies as their sales manager."
|Violett and Willner during a 1974 match.|
The Diplomats (they would not go by "Dips" until 1977), made their debut on May 4, 1974, at RFK Stadium, against the defending NASL champion Philadelphia Atoms. Despite losing the match 5-1, a respectable crowd of 10,145 showed up to see the new franchise. At the end of the season, their record stood at 7-12-1. Team management estimated a minimum of 12,000 spectators per game would be needed just to break even. Home attendance only averaged 4,975 per match, while the league wide-average was 7,770.
|Devotion beats spelling!|
"The field was terrible. However, it was interesting. The crowds weren't incredibly big, but they were closer. If you had 8,000 people at RFK, it still seemed cavernous. When we played at Woodson, I had my own little cheering section. They made banners with my name on them. I met all the people and got to talk to them. They were great."
Willner fondly remembers the team's early years. "Dennis Viollet was the head coach, and he was still famous from his playing days in England. But Alan Spavin was really the hands-on guy. Alan ran the practices. Dennis was more of a general manager, and he also had a lot of speaking engagements trying to create a fan base. During that time, practices were fun."
|Don't bother looking for Roy Willner or Art Welch|
in the 1977 team photo.
Next Time: Part 2 of Catching Up With Roy Willner: A new coach and a career threatening injury, more Dips memories, An Entrepreneur & Inventor, life today.
Sunday, June 11, 2017
Words are like spouses, choose them carefully- a maxim Gordon Bradley should have kept in mind in the early months of 1980.
Madison Square Garden Corporation (MSG), the Diplomats owner, had wedged a crow bar in its wallet and signed a trio of midfielders that any club in the world would envy. First, on February 20, the team reported it had signed Juan Lozano (http://washingtondiplomats.blogspot.com/2014/01/). One hundred and twenty hours later, the team made the bombshell announcement it had acquired Johan Cruyff. Then, on March 6, just as delirious Dips fans were finally coming off the euphoria of Cruyff's addition, MSG called one more press conference. The purpose? To declare the final piece of the franchise's new triumvirate, Wim Jansen, had come to terms.
"Horvath," Coach Gordon Bradley bluntly and callously stated, "now becomes expendable. He will probably be playing somewhere in the NASL, but not here."
One can only imagine the incredulity with which Horvath received this news. Just one year previous, he had set a franchise record for assists in a single season with 18, and was the team's econd leading scorer. Now, he was being cast off like Steve Bannon at a party hosted by Jared Kushner.
Bradley's words would haunt him far sooner than he expected. The Dips suffered three major injuries during the preseason. These injuries affected defenders who had all started at some point in 1979. First, Jim Steele was recovering from a serious knee injury, incurred while playing indoor soccer for the Pittsburgh Spirit of the MISL, that required surgery.
Don Droege broke a bone in his foot during early training drills in February and was not expected to be game ready until May. Mike Dillon broke his ankle ten minutes into an exhibition game against the Memphis Rogues on March 12 and was lost for the season.
The defense was so depleted that Bradley was forced to start two midfielders, Gary Darrell and Carmine Marcantonio, to replace Droege and Dillon when the team began the 1980 campaign in Tampa on March 30. If the injury bug had seemed bothersome before the season opener, it would now turn exasperating.
Wim Jansen pulled a groin muscle early in the second half against the Rowdies and was replaced. Without him, "the midfield play sagged considerably," reported the Post's John Feinstein. The Dips allowed a goal in the final 150 seconds of the game and ended up losing, 3-2, via a shootout.
The goal that tied the match seemed to materialize when a communication breakdown occurred between Dips goalkeeper Bill Irwin and midfielder turned defender Gary Darrell. It was clear that Washington needed to obtain at least one more natural defender, if not two.
On March 27, The Washington Post reported Bradley had been trying to trade Horvath "for a defender ever since Dillon was hurt," but had been unable to swing a deal to his liking. Making the situation more difficult was the fact that Horvath had refused to report to training camp in Jacksonville, Florida, after he was declared "expendable" by Bradley.
The clubs second game of the season was one week after the loss in Tampa, a bruising 2-1 setback in Tulsa to the Roughnecks, in which Cruyff had to be pulled because of a foot injury. This was hardly the start MSG expected after investing $4 million (an astronomical sum in 1980) in the past two months. Adding insult to injury, Bradley placed the blame on midfield play.
"We're not creating the scoring opportunities we should," he told the Washington Star. "Therefore, we're not capitalizing. Our ball out of the midfield is not coming fast enough. By the time it is coming, the forwards are getting closed down."
On Monday, April 7, the Diplomats began preparing for their 1980 home debut against the Philadelphia Fury, and now it was Lozano who was injured. The 24-year-old had been hampered by an injury to his left instep since training camp, but it had become a serious impediment recently.
For Horvath, Jupiter had now aligned with Mars. Bradley phoned the man he termed "expendable" less than a month before and asked him to join the team. Horvath agreed. "The reason I told him I wanted to make a trade," Bradley explained, "was because Cruyff, Jansen and Lozano are all play makers like he is. Horvath will give us added depth, something we need in view of the injuries. If the doctor says Lozano can't play, I won't hesitate to start Joe."
|Joe Horvath in action in the Dips 1980 home opener.|
Horvath's 180 degree swing on the Diplomats 1980 depth chart was nothing less than astonishing. His photo and profile were not included, nor was he listed on the official roster, in the team media guide. Now, he would be the starting left midfielder in their home opener.
A clue to how much of a surprise Horvath's presence on the pitch could be seen in the jersey he was issued. The Adidas logo on the 1980 Diplomat jerseys was placed on the right side of the upper chest. Horvath's jersey, which must have been prepared between April 10 and the 13th, employed the outdated look of the Adidas logo dotting the "I" in Dips (see right).
Horvath showed Gordon Bradley, and 24,000 spectators, how much the Dips needed him, scoring the game clinching goal and assisting on another in the Dips 3-1 victory. The Hungarian "was all over the field, stealing passes, short circuiting Fury offensive surges before they got started and dealing off soft passes to teammates," according to the Post.
After the match, Horvath stated he had never lost faith in his ability to contribute, no matter who he had to compete against for playing time. "It is great playing with Cruyff, but I can play, too. I think I blend in well."
When asked how his playing time might be affected when Lozano did return, Horvath acknowledged it was ultimately Bradley's decision, simply stating, "He's (Bradley) the coach."
A group of avid fans was not interested in waiting for Lozano's return to resolve the matter, however. In a petition dated just one day after the victory over Philadelphia, they implored Dips management not only to keep Horvath on the roster, but to ensure that he was "part of the Diplomat starting team."
This group clearly understood Joe Horvath's worth to the Diplomats, and knew his play against the Fury was no one game fluke. At the end of June, he was the team's third leading scorer with five goals and five assists (15 points).
Unfortunately, his 1980 season would come to an abrupt end against the Timbers in Portland on July 2. Fifteen minutes into the second half, Horvath went down with a knee injury that Dr. MacCartee later pronounced to be a tear in the anterior cruciate of his left knee.
Horvath did not seem particularly upset as he sat on the trainer's table after the match. When asked if he understood the severity of the injury, Cruyff said, "Oh, he understands. Joe doesn't say much, but he understands."
It was a disheartening end for a true fan favorite in Washington.
|Horvath receives congratulations from Alan Green, Sonny Askew & Wim Jansen after scoring against the Fury.|