When Desmond Armstrong broke onto the scene with the United States Men’s National Team in 1987, he was one of two African-Americans on the team. He didn’t have a conventional career path, but his willingness to take risks with his career and succeed was a big part of why he is immortalized in the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Recently, Desmond Armstrong spoke with Stars and Stripes FC on his unconventional career track, his time with the USMNT during the 1988 Olympics and the 1990 World Cup, playing in Brazil, and his thoughts on the Brasileiro as a league American players should consider during their playing careers.
A D.C. native, Armstrong was spotted playing basketball by a local soccer coach in his neighborhood (his family was the first black family to move into the all-white neighborhood) when he was 11, and the coach asked him to play soccer. He eventually continued playing through high school, then headed to College Park to play for the Maryland Terrapins, earning All ACC honors as a midfielder and forward in 1984 and 1985. After winning the National Amateur Cup in 1986 with the Fairfax Spartans, Armstrong then moved to the Cleveland Force of the Major Indoor Soccer League. There, he moved to fullback, where he played well enough to be named a MISL All Star. He eventually was called up to the USMNT, making his first appearance in 1987.
When asked about the environment he faced as one of the lone black players on the national team, Armstrong noted, “There were two of us. My roommate Jimmy Banks, he and I we met when we were 15 with the National Sports Festival. We became fast friends because we were the only two black guys out there playing for our respective teams. From that, we continued every year to try to make it to the national team, and in 1987, we both made it.”
“I was received by how I played,” Armstrong continued. “But, in 1988 I made the Olympic Team and he didn’t. On the field, everything was cool. It’s a level playing field, because it was about how you played. Off the field, I was received fairly well, it’s just I didn’t have a lot of guys to hang out with. I was close with Jimmy Banks and he wasn’t there in 1988.”
Armstrong then recalled that after 1988, U.S. Soccer, for the first time, offered contracts to their top players. As one of the top 5 players on the team at the time, Armstrong was offered a contract by U.S. Soccer, but he decided instead to play with the Baltimore Blast of the MISL. It was there that he broke his leg in January 1989. He rehabbed to try and work his way back to full strength (“It took a lot of painkillers,” he chuckled), but he was well enough to make the World Cup team in 1990 as a defender, with Jimmy Banks also making the team. “I was fortunate enough to start all 3 games [in the World Cup], and that helped prepare me for my club career.”
After the World Cup, Armstrong recalled that he had to rely on his personal contacts to get opportunities to play professionally. “[U.S. Soccer] were promoting their guys - John Harkes, Tab Ramos, Tony Meola - and helping those guys get opportunities outside the country. I had to rely on my own personal relationships.” In February 1991, while seeking trials in England, he received a call that would allow him to chart his own path. He was asked if he wanted to play for Santos in the Brasileiro. His answer: “Yeah, no question. Sign me up.” Upon signing that contract, Desmond Armstrong became the first American player to ever sign a contract to play in Brazil.
Armstrong traveled down to Brazil to join the team and mentioned the mob of reporters at the airport. Pelé’s son, Edinho, greeted him at the airport to try and translate for him:
“[Edinho] asked me if I knew Portuguese, and my answer was, ‘No.’ He then asked me if I knew Spanish, and again I said, ‘No.’ And he goes, ‘How do you expect to communicate with your teammates?’ I went, ‘I guess I’ll just have to smile a lot.’ I left the airport and went straight to the training grounds at Santos and when I walked into the locker room, everyone was just sitting there smiling at me. So, it was a great, warm welcome, a great experience.”
He then explained why he was the subject of every news outlet in Brazil: because he was an American, and an African-American at that, the first from this country to come to Brazil and play. “The thought was, ‘has Brazilian soccer become so bad that they had to import an American?’” But, he recalled that he had seen Pelé play when he was in the old NASL with the New York Cosmos, and it was the only place he had played outside Santos. So, for an African-American to be able to break through and play at Santos he valued as a “wonderful experience.”
The discussion then shifted to whether the Brasileiro is a league that more American players should consider as an option. Armstrong compared futebol in Brazil to blacktop basketball here in the United States:
“There’s a parallel between blacktop basketball here and futebol in Brazil. The black player in an urban player here will gravitate towards basketball, in Brazil a lot of black players are very skilled in soccer and come from impoverished areas and soccer is their way out. That’s the type of player that is celebrated. Football in Brazil is part show—in basketball, if you do a move on someone and break their ankles, the crowd goes crazy, they celebrate that. The same holds true in Brazil. Entertainment is a part of the game.”
Armstrong also noted that Brazilians love athletic players, particularly those that possess superior technical ability. For Americans to make it in the Brasileiro, they need to be incredible athletes with a little bit of panache.
Desmond Armstrong returned to the United States after the 1991 Campeonato Paulista was finished, completing his career in America. Still, other than the Olympics, he considers his favorite moment on the field when he was selected to compete in the UNICEF World All Star Game. “I’m there with George Weah, who’s now president of Liberia, and George and I forged a nice relationship there, the Ruud Gullits, Ricardo, [Carlos} Valderrama, and we played against [Jurgen] Klinsmann and the then-world champion Germany team. It was great to be on the field with the top players from their respective countries.”
In 2012, Armstrong was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Regarding that day as one of his favorite moments of his career, Armstrong said:
“I didn’t think I’d ever get into the Hall of Fame. My name was up there and I felt as tho my career had taken me to a very high level. But, the best part was my entire family was there and I was able to share with them my career for the first time. My kids didn’t really know the extent of where I played, so they were able to share my career and realize that it’s a part of our family’s legacy and they were a part of something their father did.”
Desmond Armstrong had a wonderful career that blazed new paths for American soccer players. And he did it while standing as one of the only black people on the field. His stellar play defined his career, but his ability to work hard and take chances without the help of a familiar face is why Desmond Armstrong’s legacy will live on in U.S. Soccer history.
Check out Desmond Armstrong’s thoughts on youth development and how the consumer-driven model needs to be re-worked to emphasize player development: