The soccer community in America is loaded with snobs, coaches and experts who tell youngsters raised on slam-dunks and home runs that they have to play the world's most popular and conservative game the way the technically precise Germans or the artful Brazilians do. To the snobs, there is nothing wrong with a game of endless passing that ends 0-0.
And then along comes a player like Dante Washington of Columbia, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound block of granite with the speed of a sprinter and the power and fearlessness of a defensive back. His style is neither pretty nor elegant. Just American. It can be summed up by the derisive phrase of kick and run. So, of course, the snobs turn up their noses. They pick apart his technical skills. Weak left foot. Dribbling needs work. They even leave him off All-America college teams after he twice led the nation in scoring.
But the snobs miss the point.
Washington may be the born-in-the-U.S.A. goal-scorer the sport has been waiting for, someone who could strap soccer on his shoulders and soar. In three qualifying matches for the 1992 Summer Olympics, Washington has scored five goals, the soccer equivalent of hitting homers in three straight at-bats.
Washington also crashed through a racial barrier, becoming the first native-born black American to score a goal for the U.S. national team.
"People say I'm just big and fast and I have no touch and no skill," he said. "I just play. I don't care if I do it pretty or do it ugly."
He is scoring goals in clumps, sprinting by bewildered defenders and beating goalkeepers from Haiti and Panama with frightening shots. At 20, he may be on the verge of international stardom, and yet he remains remarkably unaffected, flabbergasted to find his picture in a recent edition of Soccer America.
"People who I don't know say they know me," he said.
Three days after scoring two goals to lead the United States to a 7-1 victory over Panama, Washington was in Elkton yesterday lecturing at a high school soccer camp. When a stranger wandered onto the field, goalkeeper Joe Herman said, "You must be looking for Jose Canseco."
"Dante scores goals like Canseco hits home runs," Herman said.
End of explanation.
In his 15 years playing soccer, Washington has been a goal scorer, whether dominating pickup games on neighborhood streets or excelling in the tightly structured atmosphere of Columbia recreational league games. He spent his freshman year at Hammond and then transferred to Oakland Mills for his final three years, playing in the shadow of flamboyant striker Junior Armstrong.
"Even when he was 7 years old, coaches would push him out bTC there and have him lead the team," said Washington's mother, Yolanda Robinson. "I'm probably more critical of Dante than anyone. I'll watch and tell him he should play harder, hustle more."
Few college coaches detected Washington's talent. But after one half of one game, Don Staley of Radford University was convinced that Washington was a star in the making.
"I knew I had to have him," Staley said. "Here was a player who could throw the ball in, 40, 45 yards. He was just explosive."
In 1988, Washington became Radford's first full-scholarship player. As a freshman, he led the nation in scoring with 27 goals and 22 assists. Two games into his sophomore season, he was sidelined with a broken left ankle. But in 1990, Washington returned and once again led the nation with 23 goals and 18 assists. He was snubbed in balloting for the All-America team and the Big South Conference Player of the Year.
"Dante is not a purist," Staley said. "But he has this determination, and he is trying to refine his game. But really, how can a young man win a scoring title and not be an All-America or the conference player of the year?"
Despite the lack of honors, Washington was getting noticed. In March, he was selected for three national team matches and scored twice. He then earned a place in the starting lineup of the under-23 age-group team, the unit that is plodding through the Olympic qualifying rounds and preparing to appear next month at the Pan American Games in Cuba.
Despite being on a tear through the next-to-last round of the CONCACAF region qualifying for the 1992 Barcelona Games, Washington's style is continually being picked apart by U.S. Olympic coach Lothar Osiander.
"Physically, Dante is a monster," Osiander said. "But he needs help with his left foot and his finishing. I hope we get him to improve his technical level. Overall, though, I wouldn't give him away."
The fact is that for all his bluster, Osiander is giving Washington a historic opportunity. In the past decade, black players rarely started as strikers on the U.S. national team. The experience of Darryl Gee and Desmond Armstrong, two offensive stars from Columbia, is instructive. Strikers for their entire careers, they were placed in the back with the U.S. national team.
"It just seems unusual that the African American players have been moved somewhere else," Armstrong said. "Dante is really the first African American player who has performed as a striker in high school, in college and at the national level."
Washington said he would like to help the sport take root in urban areas. He said his experience is instructive. He moved with his family from the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore to Columbia when he was 14 months old, and he grew up playing soccer year-round.
"If I had stayed in Baltimore, I wouldn't be where I am," he said. "I'd be playing basketball or football, trying to live up to the same dreams of the inner city kids, trying to be a Michael Jordan or a Rocket Ismail."
Washington, a player who grew up without any soccer idols, said he doesn't want to be a symbol. He doesn't even want to be labeled The Great American Player.
"I just go out and do the best I can, whether I am black, white, green or purple," he said. "I don't feel the pressure. I just want to score."