Left photo courtesy of Jimmy McAlister. Right photo by Ty Swenson
Jimmy McAlister (left) carries the ball away from one of the all-time soccer greats, Pele, during the NASL Soccer Bowl in 1977. McAlister played for the Seattle Sounders and Pele for the New York Cosmos. Right, McAlister today in his Seattle United coaching director role.
Seattle soccer legend Jimmy McAlister comes full circle
For kids (and many parents) playing and following soccer these days, the name Jimmy McAlister may not ring a bell. Mention Hope Solo, Clint Dempsey or Fredy Montero – today’s modern stars - and the ears perk up in response to what have become household names.
But if you go back decades, to the 1960’s, one of Seattle’s soccer greats was being first introduced to the game by recently emigrated Irish priests teaching at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic School right here in West Seattle.
From there he would rise through the ranks of prep stardom at JFK in Burien and sign with the original Seattle Sounders (of the now defunct North American Soccer League) right out of high school to be named rookie of the year in 1977. He was called up for several appearances with the U.S. National Team, and became one of the most solid defenders in our nation’s football history. In the 1980s, the latter parts of his playing career, Jimmy played for the Tacoma Stars of the Major Indoor Soccer League and eventually became their coach during the 1988 season.
His rightful place in American soccer lore is evidenced by a photo of McAlister carrying the ball out of the Sounders backfield with Pele, arguably the greatest to ever play the game, defending against him in the 1977 NASL championship. Ron Johnson, coach of Chief Sealth’s varsity soccer team, played with McAlister growing up on the peninsula and remembers the story well: At the end of that game, he said, Pele gave McAlister his New York Cosmos jersey and said, “You are the best American defender I’ve ever played against.”
His accolades are many, but rather than dwelling on past personal accomplishments, McAlister is far more focused on creating new milestones for the kids he brings the great game to today, right back where he started in Seattle.
McAlister is coaching director for Seattle United as of a few years back, in charge of around 100 coaches and their curriculum (along with technical director Jason Ferrell) for the youth soccer club program in Seattle and Shoreline (as an aside, West Seattle kids generally play in the Highline Soccer Association). He is moving to West Seattle with his wife in April, settling back in his hometown to be closer to family and the landmarks forever seared into his memory (Husky Deli came up more than once).
“When I got the opportunity to come to Seattle United it was an opportunity to come back to mainstream Seattle and be involved with Seattle kids,” he said from his Seattle United office in Green Lake. “I feel I owe the area because the Sounders and everything gave me a lot. It’s great to come full circle and get back into the game full time that made my living for so many years.”
McAlister is also excited to be moving back to West Seattle just as he hits his 55th birthday.
“I have a real good feel for West Seattle,” he said. “I like to go to Huskies for ice cream … Jack Menashe Jewelers, I remember the Junction, some of my favorite restaurants like Lee’s Asian. I just like it there, I like the atmosphere there. I’m very, very comfortable there and I’d like to give back to that community.”
And how about West Seattle soccer these days?
"West Seattle has done a great job at developing fields,” he said. “They have world class facilities in West Seattle and that is great for the kids that grow up there. With Delridge, with Hiawatha, with Sealth, West Seattle has a bunch of kids playing the game and some very, very good players are coming out of West Seattle.”
A unique perspective on how the game has changed
Having played the game when soccer first really came into the national sports consciousness during the 1970s, McAlister has a unique perspective on how it has changed over time, both at the youth and professional level. While the game has a long way to go in terms of marketing draw and national ratings compared to American football, baseball and basketball, in certain markets, like Seattle, the game is thriving (just watch the crowd at any Sounders game today for proof).
The Sounders, yesterday and today
“I think the difference between the Sounders today and the Sounders then is the business model,” McAlister said. The NASL Sounders were owned by the Nordstrom’s family, who he has great respect for and remembers as great owners and community advocates. The problem, he said, was the large variation in franchise quality.
“The MLS (Major League Soccer) is single entity, it has a communal conscience with a salary cap, it has fixed costs,” he said. “You were lucky in the NASL if you went to a club with a good owner …. The MLS business plan, for a fledgling league, has the ability to sustain itself.”
So how about those rabid Sounders crowds? Seemingly timeless.
“The crowds are electric at the stadium now,” he said. “When we were in big time soccer in ’77 playing L.A. in the semifinals of the Soccer Bowl, we put 60,000 in the Kingdome … and the crowd was electric then. You could feel your jersey shake when you went out on the field.”
When McAlister played for the Sounders he brought in $800 a month. Compare that to elite MLS player salaries of today, such as Fredy Montero’s $650,000 a year in 2011, and it is apparent the viability of soccer as a good-paying career is becoming a reality.
The National Team, then and now
After the 1977 Soccer Bowl against the New York Cosmos, McAlister was called up to the U.S. National Team and had the opportunity to travel Europe, South and Central America representing his nation.
“Back then the U.S. National Team only got together every three or four years, they didn’t play all the games like they play now,” he said. “We weren’t anywhere near as organized as they are now. They didn’t have the money put towards it; they didn’t have the youth academy building towards it. We didn’t have team masseuses, we didn’t have team cooks … we ate whatever we could find when we were there. It wasn’t like it is today.”
He remembers pregame snacks against the likes of El Salvador, Honduras and the Soviet Union were usually candy bars pulled out of a suitcase.
Regardless, those six games representing his nation were powerful mementos.
“It’s always good when you wear your country’s jersey, there is no question … putting on the United States jersey was a huge honor.”
Youth soccer and the opportunities of today
When McAlister was a kid, the only opportunity to see professional soccer was on a PBS show called “Soccer Made in Germany,” an hour-long program of highlights from West Germany’s professional league. There was no ESPN to broadcast the occasional MLS match, and by no means a Fox Soccer Channel – dedicated to the game entirely. His sports role models were more often Sonics basketball players.
“Huge difference,” McAlister said. “The biggest thing is the kids emulate the pros and the pros need to know that they have a responsibility because the kids are watching them. On the field, they are going to emulate their star players, whether it’s a step over or an (Osvaldo) Alonso slide tackle. They buy the jersey, they put their name on their back, they emulate it and that is a good thing. It gives our kids something to watch on a regular basis.”
And with strong youth programs like Seattle United and the Highline Soccer Association acting as talent pools for MLS and college scouts, the kids today have a far greater chance of being recognized and possibly taking their game to the next level.
But McAlister remains grounded in his role as coaching director at United.
“That is obviously not my goal to make the next Lionel Messi (an Argentinean, arguably today’s best player worldwide) out of Seattle United,” he said. “That would be nice, but the goal is to touch as many kids as possible in terms of life lessons, in the whole scope of things. How many kids you make a positive influence on is the key. Have fun with it: it’s fun, it’s a game.”
All the same, he is still cheering for a worldwide phenom to come out the Puget Sound.
“I really, really can’t see why we can’t have a superstar over there (in Europe, on the big stage of professional soccer),” McAlister said. “There are some players that have done very well over there, but I’m talking about America creating a superstar. He might be in Seattle; he might be eating ice cream at Husky’s Delicatessen, who knows?”