He will forever be known as the first Native Son to make it big in professional soccer. Jimmy McAlister won a starting job at left back on the Sounders’ Soccer Bowl side of 1977 and was named NASL Rookie of the Year. Following the championship game, retiring legend Pelé gave him his Cosmos jersey. Since then, McAlister not only paved the way for other local youth as a player, but he’s helping more and more reach their goals as coach of both a U-15 and academy teams for Washington Premier Soccer Club.
How has Seattle soccer landscape changed since you arrived in 1980?
Of the last 20 years, I’ve seen youth soccer go through its most dynamic changes just in the last two years, with the academies sprouting up and more regionalized play. When I was a kid, you used to ride your bike to local practice, and you’d have like 10 games a year. There was no such thing as a club; you played for your association. You would have a dad who would read a book about soccer, or if you had a foreign coach you were lucky because they’d seen a real game. Now, with organizations like Washington Premier, Crossfire, Northwest Nationals and with academies coming into effect, kids are traveling all over.
As a teenager, you had the Sounders. How did that affect your choices?
It made a huge difference to me. The Sounders came in ‘74 and I was a junior in (Kennedy) high school. Dave Gillett was my favorite player. I was at the first Sounder game in Memorial Stadium, when Pepe Fernandez broke his leg. I’ve always looked up to Pepe, to Dave and Mike England, and Jimmy Gabriel was like a mentor to me. They really helped me get to a higher level.
For the players today, what will be the effect of having a local MLS team?
A lot of becoming better is watching the big boys do it. There’s only so much coaching you can do, but to watch top-flight soccer allows kids to emulate them. The kids who are really going to reap the benefits of this new MLS club are the 14 and 15-year-olds, When the MLS rolls into town, they’ll emulate what the professionals do. By getting involved in the youth game, that will only help the game in the Seattle area. We need that, because some of the old Sounders, like me, are starting to get old (laughs).
Since you were the first local player, you didn’t have a road map. Who brought you along and how?
When I was little, I used to go watch Seattle University and University of Washington games. I played for Mike Ryan in the men’s league at 15, and he was also the UW coach. There were not as many youth teams and the quality wasn’t so good, so better, younger players like myself would go play in the men’s league. That’s how we learned how to play. It was fortunate that the Sounders came along and a local scout for them, Jimmy Johnston, mentioned something about me to Jimmy Gabriel. I got offered $400-500 per month. I would’ve paid them, but fortunately I got paid and train everyday with the guys. And I wouldn’t do anything differently.
Once you were NASL Rookie of the Year, did you become the role model for other local players?
I feel I was a pioneer, in that I was the first guy from Seattle to play at the NASL level. One of my best friends in the world is Jeff Stock, and here’s kind of a funny story about Jeff. His dad, Wes Stock, was the pitching coach for the Oakland A’s, and Jeff was a wonderful baseball player. But he got to watching me play and figured that’s what he wanted to do. For his bankbook, he probably would’ve done better in Major League Baseball. But the game caught him and guys like Mark Peterson, Bernie James, Brian Schmetzer and Eddie Krueger. A lot of people helped me out, and I’ve always felt it’s my job to help as many kids as I can. Locally, it’s been trying to get them into colleges. Now with MLS coming in, that gives the kids something to strive for again locally.
What circumstances led to you breaking through and earning a place in the lineup?
No. 1, any time a young kid comes in, there’s got to be some luck involved. I came to the Sounders with about 4-5 other guys, and I was probably the fifth or sixth pick to go in. I feel very fortunate to play and coach at a high level with some average attributes. I was quick and good in the air for my size, but with some the kids today, I don’t know how I would’ve fared. It just so happened that in my position there was a guy, a left back from Scotland named John McLaughlin, and he ripped his groin. They put me out there in 1977 and fortunately I had a couple good games and I stuck. Anytime in a pro sports environment, unless you are a Pelé or George Best or a can’t-miss player, you have to have some fortune.
You went on to have quite a career, but what were your highlights?
Being in Soccer Bowl ‘77 was big for me. Even though I would go on and play several more years, it was the furthest I ever got in the game. Obviously, getting the (Pelé ) shirt was a great honor. I still think we should have won that game. We were the better team. I know the other guys think the same thing. We get older but it’s in the back of your mind always. I was honored to play for a guy like Jimmy Gabriel, who I think the world of. The bonds you have with players are the highlight of my career. They’ll be my teammates forever. Playing around them, I was real fortunate. Any pro athlete is fortunate, and I think they need to look at it that way, and then give back to the community
And just where is Pelé’s jersey?
That’s a funny deal. First I’ll tell you that I went out one day, and my son Bobby, who was 8 or 9 at the time, was scrimmaging in the backyard with a buddy. That came to a quick end; I didn’t want him out there in the mud in the Pelé jersey. Later on, when I found out what Pelé’s last Brazil national team jersey went for at auction, I put mine in a safety deposit box downtown [Editor’s Note: In March of 2002, the jersey Pelé wore in the 1970 World Cup final sold at auction for $220,850.]. I haven’t seen it in probably 7-8 years. I’ve got a real emotional attachment to it. And as you get older, you wonder what you are going to do with it.
How do you see Seattle MLS impacting the community?
This MLS team is such a huge opportunity, and you can already see by the response that there’s a lot of pent up excitement. Nowadays I coach two teams and my U15 team draws players from a radius of roughly 150-200 miles. If these kids are willing to drive from as far away as Silverdale, Battle Ground and Portland twice a week to be in Puyallup for training, they’re capable and willing to drive to Qwest Field to see games. When I played for the Sounders, it was more of a localized entity. In the MLS, the game has a regional pull.
As local players, you and others such as Stock and Peterson also made an impact on the Sounders.
Could that be the case with the MLS team?
Right now, looking at this state, there are some great players from this area. Look at Ciaran O’Brien and Ely Allen (both among the top 21 picks in the SuperDraft). We’re producing players as good as anywhere in the country. Obviously Southern California, in terms of sheer numbers, can produce more, but there are some very, very good players in this market. And this MLS team will reap the benefit of all these top-class players being produced. Adrian (Hanuaer)’s a smart man, and he’s knows it’s easier to produce your own. They will create their own academy. Now that the kids can go down and watch those players, emulate them, take in some training sessions and see how they do it, I think that’s the missing ingredient to really set off this market again in terms of producing MLS players.