February 2, 2010
By Charles Cuttone
STILL IN THE GAME
Ex USNT ‘keeper Duback missed pro chance
Back in 1984, Jeff Duback had every reason to be looking forward to a career in professional soccer. One of the nation’s best young goalkeepers, he returned from the youth World Cup and, along with Paul Caligiuri, Tab Ramos and Jeff Hooker, received an almost immediate call-up to the senior National Team for Pan-Am Games qualifying. But the Yale graduate’s professional aspirations were dealt a blow when the North American Soccer League folded. By the time MLS started up in 1996, Duback had embarked on a promising corporate career, and could not take advantage of the new opportunity.
|Jeff Duback was caught between the demise of the North American Soccer League and the start of Major League Soccer.
U.S. Soccer publicity photo
Even without a league to play in, Duback managed to make a career in the game he loved, by helping refine and improve the equipment available to soccer players. After working for a time with Umbro, he helped develop new products such as OSI Fiberglass shin guards. He now is the general manager of Delaware-based PrimoSport, which makes goalkeeping gloves, soccer balls and other equipment, and whose endorsers include Chicago Fire netminder Jon Busch.
Still, you can’t help but wonder what might have been had Duback’s playing career come along a few years earlier or later.
Although he is credited with only four official international appearances, Duback was a regular in goal for the United States through much of the 1980s, when most of the competition was against club teams in exhibitions and tournaments.
Duback got his first call on July 6, 1984, for a game against Canada, a Pan Am Games qualifier.
“I’d just finished playing the youth World Cup in 1983, that was played in Mexico,” said Duback. “I figured as a young guy just coming off the youth team, I was there for training, and had no anticipation of playing.”
After finding out 45 minutes before the match that he was getting not only his first full cap, but a start as well, Duback played all 90 minutes in the 1-1 draw. (Editor’s note: because of changes in what constitutes a full international, Pan Am Games matches no longer count as full internationals. They did in 1983.)
“It was pretty nerve wracking. It was an interesting way to start my career with the full national team.”
At the time, the main starters in goal for the U.S. were David Brcic, Winston DuBose and Arnie Mausser, all NASL veterans.
Duback finally broke into the pool of regulars and got full international starts against South Korea (6-16-87), Ecuador (6-12-88), Poland (7-13-88) and Costa Rica (4-16-89), alternating goalkeeping duties with David Vanole before both were eventually replaced by Tony Meola and Kasey Keller.
“Back then we played most of our games against clubs. We played in tournaments around the world, but it wasn’t necessarily against other national teams. Primarily I think because we were getting beat too often,” Duback said.
While still at Yale, Duback travelled with the national team to China and Malaysia, and says his best game was against Ghana in a driving rainstorm.
After that game, Duback commented to a reporter that his dream was to be in the Bundesliga. Even in that pre-internet age, the story blew up beyond just a throwaway comment.
Duback’s national team career came to a close in the lead up to the 1990 World Cup, ironically the first one in 40 years the team was to qualify for.
“I was starting against Benfica at Giants Stadium,” Duback remembered. “A huge attacking player came in for a cross ball, I was late coming out and he clobbered me, broke two of my ribs and the young Tony Meola stepped in, and that was my last game for the national team.”
Duback went out in the 54th minute of that game, making way for Meola. The U.S. defeated Benfica 2-1, then went on to stun Peru 3-0 two days later.
Duback was unfortunate in that he played his career in the gap between the North American Soccer League and Major League Soccer.
“I was technically still young enough to play in Major League Soccer, but for financial reasons, I could not make that step,” he said.
“The bigger disappointment was the folding of the NASL in 1984, because I had already made it to the national team and was by far one of the top one or two goalkeepers coming up in the U.S. and had no reason to think I wasn’t going to be joining an NASL team.”
Duback, who grew up in San Diego, went to Sockers games, and scrimmaged against the team when he was playing club soccer.
“That was very disappointing when the league folded. I just figured, well you’ll play somewhere else, but there was nowhere else to play.”
Duback played in the Western Soccer League, the American Professional Soccer League and the USISL, but didn’t make the leap to MLS because it would have meant taking a cut in pay from his corporate job.