by Jason Davis

Viewed strictly on its merits as a work of fiction, Michael Maddox's novel The Ten Shirt: How The United States National Soccer Team (Might Have) Won The 1982 World Cup leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps as a function of driving towards its predetermined climax within its 319 pages, too many characters are introduced only to be thinly drawn and too many story lines are left unexplored.  The story moves rapidly, but without much real depth, as Maddox chooses to only briefly rest in each moment before rushing us down the road that leads to US National Team World Cup glory in his re-imagined American soccer history.  Luckily for Maddox, American soccer fans who have certainly dreamed a version of his story and are the natural audience for his book will find more than enough to keep them entertained.

The Ten Shirt takes place in an America that embraced the game in the 1950's and built a true soccer culture over the course of several decades.  Following the USA's shocking win over mighty England at the 1950 World Cup, Americans took to the game in large numbers; by the time Maddox drops us into the late 1970's, there are professional leagues, boys playing on farms and in city streets across the country, and a nation in love with the game of soccer.  The history of sports in the United States is irrevocably different, and the United States National Team is the obvious beneficiary.

The culmination of The Ten Shirt is revealed before the reader cracks the cover.  We know that the United States wins the World Cup in an alternate 1982; Maddox's mission isn't to surprise us with the US World Cup victory that comes in the final pages, but to lay out how it might have happened had America became a soccer nation in the middle of the 20th century.

The most engaging portions of The Ten Shirt come in its opening half via the background stories of several young boys destined to become American soccer heroes.  Maddox incorporates all of the usual "what ifs" of American soccer culture, the questions asked by modern day dreamers when bemoaning what soccer in the United States could or should be.  From how the game is learned to the "best athletes" problem to the failure to develop young players during the NASL's heyday, The Ten Shirt hits them all. 

There's "Pooky" Bauer, the two-sport star who must choose between a professional contract to play soccer and a full scholarship with the storied University of Kansas basketball team.  There's the speedy Billy Ford, son of track star parents who grows up playing in a neighborhood lot in Philadelphia and enters the academy program of his local club as soon as his mother allows it.  There's Jimmy Maxwell, the eponymous "ten shirt" of the story, a farm boy from Missouri deemed too small by the St. Louis club for whom he tries out despite his obvious creative gifts.  With skills honed by playing against older brothers and on bumpy ground flanking his town's soccer fields, Maxwell is destined to make his mark on the world stage when an astute St. Louis assistant hooks him up with a famous European club.

There are details throughout The Ten Shirt in which American soccer geeks will revel.  Howard Cosell and Don Meredith are not the broadcast team for Monday Night Football as in this reality, but Monday Night Soccer.  Meredith is not an ex-Cowboys quarterback, but a retired Texan midfielder.  The Cosmos are there, as are the Aztecs, the Tornadoes, and imaginary teams in Brooklyn, Detroit, St. Louis, and Virginia Beach.  Maddox injects a bit of commentary on the promotion/relegation debate as well by giving his imagined league structure a plan to incorporate the concept.  In Maddox's novel, Americans naturally embrace it.  TV injects money into the burgeoning "Texaco Premier League", and American clubs become big spenders.  Imagine the United States in the early 80's with a stable soccer league possessing resources beyond, or equal to, any of its foreign contemporaries.  It's an American soccer booster's wet dream.

But re-imagined club soccer in the United States is ultimately window dressing for a tale of the United States' run to the 1982 World Cup title.  The games, beginning with a CONCACAF qualifying tournament in Honduras' and ending with the cup final in Madrid, are vividly described.  Maddox evokes tactics, provides marvelous detail of crucial moments, and paints an uplifting picture of an American team bonded by their common goal.  They're underdogs (of course), but they have serious talent and a penchant for attractive play.  Maddox's 1982 USMNT has everything the current real-life version possesses plus the type of world class talent a rich soccer culture would provide. 

Leading the book's team of destiny is Willy Schneider, an oddball coach who eschews convention.  Schneider might be the novel's fullest character, and Maddox goes to great pains to draw his US head coach as a man of unique approach and progressive ideas.  Schneider doesn't just choose the best players at each position for this World Cup team, he chooses well-rounded players who fit his philosophy.  He uses psychology as a tool for evaluation and determines something particularly interesting in regards to player experience and the will to attack.  It's not difficult to imagine Maddox is expressing his own ideas through the character of Schneider, or that Schneider himself is a stand-in for the author.

For American soccer fans, The Ten Shirt is a fun trip through a wished-for past.  It has its flaws, and certainly leaves the reader with a sense of disappointment; not because it doesn't reach its stated goal in an enjoyable fashion, but because several of the story's protagonists beg for better treatment.  Though Jimmy Maxwell tantalizes with his remarkable natural talent and becomes a crucial part of the American team (the book's "Roy Hobbs" if you will), his story is too quickly moved from point "A" to point "D".  The title deceives in that way, because though the fate of the "ten shirt" (both the physical jersey and the nominative role) is central to the plot, there are too many extraneous elements for the men who possess it to stand out.

Maddox worked backwards from a premise (something he notes in the afterword), and the story itself suffers slightly for it; the team and its multitude of parts becomes the main character by necessity while the game capsules dominate the second half of the book.  Taken just as an entertaining tale of American soccer history in an alternate universe, The Ten Shirt is a worthwhile read; if expectations are metered, this "what if" story with a final chapter every American soccer fan has dreamed about is supremely enjoyable.

The Ten Shirt will no doubt appeal to keen observers of American soccer, the historically-minded who constantly wonder what might have been, and everyone who wishes the United States National Team would wear red.  For all of them, it's a justifiable purchase and an entertaining bit of soccer-focused fantasy.


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