WARSAW – Peruse some of the rosters from the old North American Soccer League -- and its forebears -- and more than a few successful top level managers jump out. There’s World Cup-winning head coach Cesar Luis Menotti and even current Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp. Then, there is current Poland head coach Franciszek Smuda.
Smuda first landed in the U.S. with lower-league side Vistula Garfield in 1971 but then moved up to the NASL, spending the 1975 season with the Hartford Bicentennials. After a two-season stint in his native country with Legia Warsaw, Smuda later made a bizarre tour of California by playing for the Oakland Stompers, Los Angeles Aztecs and the San Jose Earthquakes -- representing all of them during the 1978 campaign.
When asked during Monday’s press conference ahead of Poland’s match against Russia, Smuda declined to elaborate on his playing past, calling it “pure history," but no matter: Some of his former teammates were more than happy to fill in the blanks about the defender.
“[Smuda] was the one guy I counted,” recalled current New York Red Bulls television analyst Shep Messing, who played goalkeeper alongside the Poland manager when the two were in Oakland. “He was tough and hard, and I thought he was brilliant. He was a very smart guy. It didn’t surprise me when I heard a couple of years ago that he was managing Poland.”
But what stuck in Messing’s memory most of all was a marketing campaign the Stompers embarked on called “Shep and His Shepherds” that featured the goalkeeper and his four defenders, including Smuda.
“We had to pose for a picture like the defenders were sheep,” Messing recalled. “I had a [crook] and the sheep were all around me. Franz was horrified. He was a leader, and I was getting paid a lot of money so I didn’t want to complain. He went into the owner’s office and said, ‘We can’t have this. We want to be tough defensively, but we don’t want anybody to know about it.’”
Smuda soon made his way to Los Angeles, where his steady play was a welcome addition for a team on which defending was usually an afterthought. His understated demeanor made an impression in L.A. as well. “He was really kind of a reserved guy, and we were a traveling Grateful Dead team,” recalled Bob Rigby, a goalkeeper on that Aztecs side. “He was probably normal, but the rest of us, what a cast of characters.”
Smuda returned to Europe after that season, heading to what was then-West Germany with SpVgg Greuther Fürth and soon embarking on his career in management. On Tuesday, Smuda will match with wits with another NASL alumnus, Russia manager Dick Advocaat. And Smuda will be hoping to shepherd his team to a vital victory -- minus the crook.