On the eve of the 1994 FIFA World Cup™, the ambitious host Americans were in need of professionalism, defensive steel and a hidden gem holding a US passport. They got all that, and more, in Thomas Dooley.
Though he had never met him, Dooley's father was a US military man who was once stationed in Germany. "I had hardly any connections to the USA, I didn't know my father, I was raised as a German, I spoke no English, but the country gave me a chance to fulfil a dream I had in my heart, to play in the World Cup," Dooley told FIFA.com.
The cultured defender led the upstart hosts to the Round of 16, their best finish since 1930. Dooley went on to be capped 81 times for the US, captaining the side at France 1998 before finishing his career in the nascent MLS. "It was almost as if the US discovered football in 1994, and I can't tell you how proud I am to have been a part of that and what came after," says Dooley, who now makes his home in Southern California.
Dooley, born in 1961 in Bechhofen, started off far from the glitz of the Bundesliga and the glamour of the FIFA World Cup, in the 11th tier of organised football in Germany. "I realised I didn't want to spend my life working in a machine shop," Dooley admitted. "So I began to focus on football in my late teen years. I began to set goals for myself and visualise ways to reach them.
"I cut out booze and cigarettes and began to train more, and more seriously," he continued. By 1986, at age 25, Dooley had led unfashionable FC Homburg to the Bundesliga, made a move to established top flight side Kaiserslautern and was pushing hard for a call-up to the German national team.
The call never came. "I was gutted," Dooley remembers. "Three times I was on the verge of being called in, but each time I suffered serious injuries and the chance went begging. I despaired that I would never play international football, but my wife assured me, ‘there must be a reason for it.' "
In the meantime, Dooley solidified his position at the heart of the Kaiserslautern defence, winning the German Cup in 1990 and a famous Bundesliga title in 1991. "We weren't the best team in the Germany, individually, but we were hungry and we did great things."
A year before the finals in 1994, US Soccer contacted Dooley after, quite by chance, his American roots were discovered. "They saw that Dooley was not a German name and they came to ask more questions and eventually I was invited to join the US team.
"I had to run around like a mad man and get my passport in order and learn some basic English." Dooley laughed. "It was a great time and so much fun. We were together for a year, and it was amazing," Dooley said, recalling the spirit of a team containing such US stars as Tab Ramos, John Harkes, Claudio Reyna, Alexi Lalas and Cobi Jones. "We brought the game of soccer into the public consciousness in America."
Dooley went on to captain the US at France 1998, win a UEFA Cup with Schalke 04 in 1997 and had a stint with Leverkusen. He finished his career in New York after three seasons with the Columbus Crew.
Dooley is considered one of the best players in the history of the US national team, and his focus is still squarely on growing football in his adoptive homeland. After a brief coaching stint back in Germany with Saarbrucken, he lives in sunny Southern California where he runs a soccer school (Orange County Kings) which he hopes will "train young players like they do in Europe and prepare them for careers in the big leagues of the world."
He also has a hand in a company developing match analysis software and spends time promoting and organising soccer-tennis.
Facts and figures
Clubs (player): FC Homburg (1983-1988), FC Kaiserslautern (1988-1993), Bayer Leverkusen (1994-1995), Schalke 04 (1995-1997), Columbus Crew (1997-2000), MetroStars (2001)
Clubs (coach): Saarbrucken (2002-2003)
National Team: 81 caps (7 goals)
Honours (team): German Cup 1990 (Kaiserslautern), Bundesliga title 1991 (Kaiserslautern), UEFA Cup 1997 (Schalke 04)
Honours (individual): 1993 US Soccer Athlete of the Year