Miro Rys: US football’s first teenage star was killed before his prime
During a locker room celebration after a World Cup qualifying win over Canada on 20 October 1976, Miro Rys could not have been more elated. The 19-year-old striker not only scored the opener of the US’s 2-0 triumph but also his first international goal.
“I’ve got the ball right here,” Rys proudly told reporters. “I’m going to take it home and hang it on the wall. I predicted before the game I would score, but when I scored, I felt incredible.”
Rys never had an opportunity to score his second international goal. He was dead less than a year later. Last month marked the 44th anniversary of Rys’ passing.
We’ll never know what Rys could have accomplished for club (Chicago Sting and Los Angeles Aztecs) and country. He was the first American teenager to score goals in the North American Soccer League.
“He was a special talent,” his USMNT teammate, defender Jim Pollihan said. “He would have been one of the top American players, probably the top American player in a year or two, had he not passed. Coming out of high school and going right to the pros is obviously a huge step. But to do that and get on the field and score goals, the US at that time didn’t have a whole lot of players that had the ability to score. That was a concern when we were playing qualifying games.”
Though Rys played only three matches for the US, the team’s manager, Walt Chyzowych, gave the budding star a special tribute, dedicating his 1982 book, The World Cup, to a “young player of brilliance cut down tragically in his prime”.
“It was absolutely sad,” said Willy Roy, who was the Sting assistant manager at the time. “Everybody was looking for a kid that that’s going to make it. He was not ready to play on the first team.
“We’re not talking about Pele. He was a good kid, lovable kid under the wrong circumstances. We have to look at things, same as [Christian] Pulisic. All the pressure, all the money, all the stuff that’s going around. They’re very good players in the right situation, but they’re not superstars.”
Others felt otherwise.
“He was just so athletically talented,” former Sting general manager Jim Walker said. “Had a really good shot. He was left-footed, and he was fast. He was very quick and very aggressive and played a little headier than you would have expected a teenager to do.”
Sting manager Bill Foulkes, a survivor of Manchester United’s 1958 plane crash, told me in May 1976 that he expected Rys to be a regular by the end of the season.
“I can’t see how he can fail as a star,” Foulkes said. “There aren’t many things wrong about him. He has a cannon-like shot and a tremendous desire. He’s very quick and mature for his age.”
Rys’ father, Miroslav, butted heads with Foulkes. “Foulkes was kind of a hard-minded guy and Miro’s father was very strong minded,” Walker said. “They knocked heads a little bit on what Miro’s future should be. We had Miro go to Manchester United and work. Miro’s father wasn’t happy with that.”
Born in Czechoslovakia on 18 July 1957, Rys grew up in Kladno, a city of 60,000 about 20 miles outside of Prague. Miroslvav, starred for the Kladno football and ice hockey teams.
Wanting a better life following the 1968 Soviet invasion, the Rys family emigrated to the USA, settling in Cicero, Illinois. Miroslav played for Sparta of the Chicago National Soccer League. Father and son eventually played together on amateur teams.
Rys led Morton East High School to three league titles and runner-up in the Illinois state championship. In one season he scored 27 goals, finishing his career with 58 while earning All-America honors. He skipped college in favor of a professional career, though the Sting tried to convince him otherwise.
“We told him, ‘We’re still going to be here after you get out,’ but he wanted to play,” Walker said. “I told his father, “Here’s what you’re doing. Your son won’t be able to play in college in the later years or for the Olympic team.’ They understood.”
Rys, then 18, had much on his plate. He attended school before training with the Sting later in the day. He earned $170 a week in 1976 (the equivalent of around $820 today). It was perfect timing because his father was laid off as a mechanic by Western Electric several weeks prior.
“I’m not in it for the money,” Rys said. “I still play soccer for pleasure. Since the time I started kicking when I first walked, I always wanted to be a soccer star.”
Rys realized he had responsibilities.
“Right now, I’m supporting my family a little bit,” he said. “I’m not a big spender, so most of my money goes to the family. We’re getting unemployment compensation, but that’s not enough. My parents don’t mind me supporting them. They’ve been supporting me for 18 years and now I guess it’s my turn.”
He hardly lacked in self-confidence. “I’m an all-around player,” Rys said. “I can do everything well. I don’t have any glaring weaknesses. I think I can score because when I get in front of the net, I don’t miss.”
Against the New York Cosmos, Rys covered Pele on a corner kick. “Things were running through my head,” he said. “I felt kind of funny standing next to him. I didn’t freeze. My pride is there. I didn’t want him to score on me. He didn’t.”
In the season opener against defending champion Tampa Bay Rowdies, Rys turned heads when he scored as a substitute for Chicago in a 2-1 loss. He finished the season with four goals and two assists in 17 matches.
With the USMNT desperately needing a true goalscorer to help end a World Cup drought dating back to 1950, Rys was called up.
He scored in two unofficial friendlies – in a 2-2 draw against a local professional all-star team in Peru and in a 2-0 victory over the Central California League all-stars in Sacramento.
Chyzowych started the teenager in the qualifier and got immediate results. Fifty-four minutes into his debut, Rys scored before 17,675 at the Kingdome. Rys played two more games with the USMNT in scoreless draws against Haiti.
When he didn’t get enough playing time with Chicago in 1977, Rys asked to be traded. He got his wish, in an unusual three-way trade that spanned two leagues. The Los Angeles Skyhawks of the American Soccer League dealt center-back Steve Ralbovsky to Chicago, which sent Rys to the Aztecs. The Aztecs dispatched defender Miguel Lopez to the Skyhawks.
On a team that boasted George Best and Trinidad & Tobago international Steven David, Rys didn’t see much action until the latter was injured. He scored twice in four regular-season appearances, once in the playoffs.
Wanting greater challenges, Rys declined an invitation to play with the US on a Central American tour and ventured to West Germany.
Rys was sent a stand-by ticket by a club, but the flight was full. Rys was told to return to O’Hare Airport the next day. On the drive home, Miroslav told his son, according to the Chicago Sun-Times: “I don’t like it. They send you a cheap ticket, a cheap flight. They’re not going to make everything good for you. Don’t go to Germany. Stay here. In December, you’ll be a free agent.”
Rys left the next day and eventually tried out with Hertha Berlin.
On 12 September 1977, Rys was a passenger in a car that was involved in a two-vehicle accident outside Dortmund. Both drivers and Miro were killed. Rys was buried with a soccer ball and shoes. “I’ll give that to him, the two things he loved,” his father told the Chicago Sun-Times.
It was not known whether it was the same ball Rys scored with against Canada. It would have been quite fitting for US football’s first teen star.