Pan-Am surprise

American successes in international soccer have been few and far between, and were even fewer 50 years ago, so the United States team's bronze-medal performance at the 1959 Pan-American Games in Chicago stands out as an unexpected one. Nevertheless, it has been long forgotten by most people. It was not really as good as it looks on paper. For example, the Brazil that the United States beat was a national amateur team, not the great team of Pele, Garrincha, etc., that had won the World Cup the year before. Still, in comparison to the rest of what American soccer was achieving internationally in those days, it wasn't bad (in the three previous Olympic Games, the United States had been eliminated in its first game each time).

The soccer competition of the 1959 Pan-Am Games was held at a small stadium called Hanson Park on the northwest side of Chicago. Seven teams entered the competition, which was played as a round-robin, with each team playing six games.

This was an amateur competition, and officially, this was not the United States' full national team, although it was almost indistinguishable from the full team. And three of the United States' opponents, Haiti, Cuba and Costa Rica, were able to field their full national teams, because soccer was still completely amateur in those countries in 1959.

The American roster included six future Hall of Famers, Ed Murphy from Slovak of Chicago, Bill Looby from Kutis of St. Louis, Al Zerhusen from Kickers of Los Angeles, George Brown from the U.S. Army, Willy Schaller from Blau-Weiss Gotschee of New York and Alex Ely from Ukrainian Nationals of Philadelphia. The American attack revolved around Murphy, Looby and Zerhusen, who scored 24 of the United States' 25 goals in six games.

The United States started on a low note, a 4-1 loss to Argentina. The second game was only a day later, however, this being a tournament that was completed in less than two weeks, and the picture improved markedly. Zerhusen scored two goals in each half as the Americans swept to a 7-2 victory over Haiti that got them back into the medal chase.

On Aug. 31, two days after the win over Haiti, came the game that made the biggest difference for the Americans. Murphy scored three goals and Zerhusen had two as the United States upset Brazil, 5-3. All three of Murphy's goals came on headers, two from corner kicks and the third from a long pass by Jacob Ruscheinski.

That victory put the Americans on a high, although Argentina was still undefeated and en route to the gold medal. The United States followed the upset over Brazil with a 5-0 rout of Cuba, the first of three consecutive games in which Looby, Murphy and Zerhusen each scored goals. Then came a serious setback. The United States could have clinched the bronze medal by beating Costa Rica on Sept. 3, but the Ticos scored in the 10th minute, were up by 4-0 at halftime, and held on for a 4-3 victory.

The bronze medal only had to wait two days, however. The Americans wrapped it up with a 4-2 win over Mexico on Sept. 5. Murphy had two of the American goals in that game, and Zerhusen and Looby each had one.