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Charles Was a Class Act

The former coach of U.S. national soccer teams is remembered during a memorial service for enriching the lives of many.

September 09, 2003|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

The tears danced on the surface of Tiffeny Milbrett's eyes, but true to the spirit of the man who had shaped her life, she kept going, kept trying to explain just what it was that Clive Charles had meant to her.

And if her sentences sometimes spoke of him in the present tense, and sometimes in the past, it was only natural.

The loss of someone that influential is difficult enough to deal with without worrying about grammar.

"Everybody knew how close Clive was to me and what he meant to me," she said. "We just shared something special. I think we were just two people who really love the game of soccer. We both came out of nothing and made a life because of soccer.

"I've watched him since I was 7 or 8 years old. I watched him play for the Timbers. He's always been in my life, ever since I was little."

Milbrett, a world champion and Olympic gold medalist on the United States national team, is 30 now and about to play in her third Women's World Cup. In Athens next year, she probably will play in her third Olympics.

Charles died of cancer two weeks ago at 51 and was remembered Monday during a memorial service in his adopted hometown of Portland, Ore. He had inspired Milbrett to achieve such goals.

Charles was an extraordinary figure in American soccer, a former professional player in England whose effect on the game in this country -- among men and women -- was phenomenal.

Not just a husband and father to his own family, he was as much a mentor as a coach to every player who came under his care, at the University of Portland and with the U.S. national teams.

He was a coach who gave three-time World Cup goalkeeper Kasey Keller the confidence to shut out Brazil.

He was a coach who gave Milbrett the composure to score the gold-medal-winning goal at the Atlanta Olympics.

He was a coach who gave world champion Shannon MacMillan the courage to undergo reconstructive surgery on her knee in May and, in less than four months, regain her place on the U.S. team for this month's Women's World Cup.

With Clive Charles, it was always about giving, never about taking.

"That's the miracle of Clive, the miracle that he is as a human being," said Milbrett, who as a young girl had sat in the stands at Portland's Civic Stadium and watched Charles play for the Portland Timbers in the old North American Soccer League. Later, she attended his soccer camps. Later still, she played for him at Portland and with the under-19 women's national team.

"He just had just the right balance between so many qualities," she said. "Not only was he a coach, he was a teacher, and he was a friend you could count on, you could trust. Just the way he was, he instantly made you feel comfortable."

Galaxy and former UCLA midfielders Pete Vagenas and Sasha Victorine were starters on the U.S. men's team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the team that Charles coached into the semifinals without revealing that he had been told just before the Games that he had prostate cancer.

"He was a coach who appealed not only to your ability as a player but also to your heart," Victorine said. "He gave you the confidence to go out there and play. He believed in every player that he picked.

"I think everybody came away from that experience at the Olympics with Clive feeling like they were a better player and feeling like they had learned a lot, but not only that, they had a warm feeling for everybody on the team."

Vagenas had encountered Charles a few years earlier.

"I was sitting at a dinner before the [NCAA] final four in '97," he said. "They were doing some kind of video presentation and Clive comes on the screen and he starts talking to all the kids, and his final message back then was that we take life for granted, especially as athletes. As soccer players, he said, we have the greatest job in the world.

"He said, 'You players forget about winning the national championship. I know that's what you're there for. But when you go out on the field, right before the kickoff, take a second, smell the grass, look around, see the fans, look at your teammates, and forget about the game for a while and just thank God that you're on the field able to do this.'

"That was before I'd even met the man, and it stuck with me. And I thought to myself, 'That's just a quality individual.'

"He was truly what you would call a players' coach. He made coming to practice the most incredible thing. He's the only coach I've ever met that every player, whether they played every minute or never played a minute, never had anything bad to say about the man.

"He was able to balance a team. Whether you were playing or not, you loved Clive. Whatever he said, you listened. He was one of the few individuals who could be your best friend and be a [demanding] coach at the same time. The switch was like that, and it was amazing and I've never seen anyone else do it. He commanded a team like a dictator, but at the same time, when it was over, he'd joke with you like your best friend."

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