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World Class
He's the world's most successful indoor soccer coach and winner of four league championships. So why is he so unknown in his hometown?
 
photo by Adam Ryan Morris
This story appears in the January 2011 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

by Doug Russell, photo by Adam Ryan Morris

It was a sneaky move by Atlanta Attack coach Keith Tozer. He’d been thrown out of the soccer game for angrily arguing a referee’s call in a road game against the Milwaukee Wave. But after heading to the exit, Tozer snuck up to the Bradley Center’s press box.

“That was before the days of cell phones,” Tozer recalls. “So I took a walkie-talkie up to the press box and radioed instructions down to my trainer on the bench.”

As it turned out, Wave co-owner Ron Creten was sitting right in front of Tozer. “He went yelling and screaming to the referees ‘Walkie-talkie! Walkie-talkie!’ ” Tozer recalls. But there was actually no rule against this, so Tozer merrily went on with his walkie-talkie routine.

After the game, the Wave leader approached Tozer. Creten had calmed down by then, and he offered Tozer a sort of grudging salute. “He said that someday I would coach for him,” Tozer recalls.

Two years later, Creten’s prediction came true. Tozer was hired to coach the Milwaukee Wave in 1992 and has held the job ever since, winning four indoor soccer league championships. His success here has been the crowning achievement for a man whose career has personified the sport: He was the first indoor soccer player ever drafted, starred in the first pro indoor game ever played, and has been a player, player/coach and coach for teams across the country. No one in the world has spent more time with the sport than the 53-year-old Tozer.

Former Wave President and CEO Peter Wilt says that without Tozer, the Wave would be out of business. “They would have closed shop more than a decade ago without ever having won a championship in Milwaukee.

“He is much more than a coach,” Wilt adds. “He is the face of the team, its leading cheerleader, top revenue-generator, main media relations contact and tremendously generous to Wisconsin’s nonprofit community. I’ve never worked with a coach that does as much. Keith combines encyclopedic knowledge of indoor soccer with great understanding of people management, the energy of a dozen men, and a rare talent to communicate effectively individually and to a group.”

Tozer wasn’t always such a great people manager. The once-volatile coach was known for throwing chairs and a tough style that didn’t always wear well. But the one-time vagabond learned a little something from every team and credits some players for teaching him to be a better coach.

 

*****

Keith Tozer’s nomadic life began in childhood. He was born April 4, 1957, in Grosse Point, Mich., the youngest of four sons raised by Leonard and Dorothy Tozer. Leonard was vice president of Fruehauf Trailers, which required frequent moving. By age 13, Keith had already lived in Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and New York. It was in the upstate New York town of Clifton Park that he saw his first soccer ball, introduced to him by his brother Tom.

Keith’s first high school coach was just learning the game. “He actually sat us down and opened a book called ‘The Art of Dribbling,’ ” Tozer recalls. “He was the tennis coach, so he knew nothing about soccer.” Nor did his players. “But I could run, I had a little mean streak and I was competitive. Next thing I knew, I led my team in scoring.”

In fact, the 16-year-old became so good so quickly that he drew the attention of Francisco Marcos, a former star soccer player at Hartwick College in Oneonta, another small town in upstate New York. Marcos, who would later go on to found the United Soccer Leagues, was then working as a tournament recruiter. He had heard about Tozer and invited him to play for a United States soccer team in an international tournament at Hartwick.

“I didn’t know anything about this guy or the tournament, but when I got there, it was a beautiful place, and there were women everywhere,” Tozer says. “I had girls, I had soccer, and I fell in love with the place.”

Yet if he loved the atmosphere in Oneonta, he decided not to attend Hartwick, but its much larger, cross-city rival, Oneonta State (now known as SUNY-Oneonta), where Tozer enrolled in 1975.

Tozer was talented, but unworldly. “My first two weeks there, I didn’t talk to a lot of people,” Tozer says today. “My [soccer team] captain, Ronan Downs, who is from Dublin, came up to me and said, ‘I haven’t seen you anywhere. You don’t drink beer, you don’t sing songs.’ ”

Downs, who now owns two New York City restaurants, took Tozer under his wing. Gradually, Tozer learned the nuances of soccer, but also the culture of the game. “I was really fortunate,” he says of the mentoring he received from Downs, which even included a little singing and beer drinking.

Tozer had quite a college career. He led Oneonta State in scoring in each of his four years there, yet also managed to play a year, quite unexpectedly, in a pro league.

Tozer had figured he was a lock for the North American Soccer League’s player draft. At the time, the NASL, an outdoor league, was the most successful attempt to bring pro soccer to America. The New York Cosmos, led by aging international superstar Pelé, were regularly drawing crowds in excess of 40,000, and the 1978 NASL Championship Game drew a sellout crowd of more than 73,000 fans.

Indoor soccer, meanwhile, was little more than an experiment. The Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) had just been formed and was set to begin play in the 1978-79 season. In November 1978, Tozer was surprised by a phone call from a friend of his, former Hartwick College goalkeeper Keith Van Eron, “telling me that I had been the number one pick in the MISL draft. I thought he had been drinking. I never heard of this league.”

Two weeks later, having finished his fourth college soccer season, Tozer was in Cincinnati as the first indoor soccer player ever drafted. The MISL had franchises in six cities: Cincinnati, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Houston and Pittsburgh. What’s considered to be the first-ever indoor soccer game was held in Uniondale, N.Y., on Dec. 22, 1978: The New York Arrows beat the Cincinnati Kids, 7-2, with Tozer scoring one of the Cincinnati goals.

But after just one season, the Kids franchise folded. Tozer then played for his only professional outdoor team, the Pennsylvania Stoners of the venerable American Soccer League, in the summer of 1979. He then went back to Oneonta State to finish up his degree by December 1979.

At that point, the timing was better to play with the fledgling indoor league, and he won a contract with the Hartford Hellions. Tozer regrets never getting a chance to play with the NASL (“I never got a good opportunity”), but the indoor league offered him a guaranteed contract. After two seasons with Hartford, he next signed on with the Pittsburgh Spirit.

He had just completed his third season there when he got a call from the fledgling Louisville Thunder: They wanted to hire him as a coach.

 

Tozer was only 27, at the peak of his soccer-playing ability, but he’d begun to think about the next step even before the call from Louisville. “I saw a lot of my teammates get done with playing and they were driving a truck. I didn’t want to do that.”

But he still wanted to play and asked the Louisville leaders, “Can I be player-coach?” They said yes.

It was a new franchise in a newly formed league, the American Indoor Soccer Association. The opportunity seemed too good to be true. Tozer was in charge of his own team, could start himself every game, could pick and choose his teammates.

But as soon as he arrived in Louisville, the team’s general manager informed him that Louisville’s ownership group had pulled out at the last minute. Tozer spent his first weeks on the job recruiting a new set of owners and ultimately succeeded. It was a learning experience, and so was his early attempt at coaching.

“God I was bad,” Tozer confesses. “It was my way or no way. I think I transferred some tendencies I had from other coaches that were tough on me. I really didn’t know how to communicate with guys about other things in life.”

Still, his Louisville team played in the league championship both years he was there, which led to another opportunity.

On Jan. 26, 1987, Los Angeles Lazers owner Jerry Buss fired coach Peter Wall in the middle of their season. Tozer, still just 29, was by far the least-experienced of a group of candidates Buss brought in for interviews, including Dave Clements, John Kowalski and Don Popovic.

Buss, also owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, was open to fresh ideas and unconventional thinking. Tozer offered some of that while attending the 1987 MISL All Star Game at the Los Angeles Forum, sitting between Buss and his son Jimmy Buss, who was Lazers president.

After one play, Tozer recalls, he offered some criticism. “They both asked me what I would’ve done.” Tozer diagrammed a play for the situation. “Then something else happened and I showed them a corner kick play that I designed from watching [college coach] Denny Crum’s basketball inbounds plays in Louisville.”

By the time he returned to Louisville, Tozer had received a message from Jerry Buss’ secretary offering him the job. Once again, he and his wife of three years would have to move, along with their infant son.

“I had just checked into the L.A. hotel by the airport when I called my assistant coach,” Tozer says. It was about noon. “I told him to get all of the players together for a meeting at 2 o’clock. He said they’d just finished practice and the players lived all over the place.” Tozer responded with a brash command: “Tell them if they aren’t at the meeting by 2:05, they’re off the team.”

Every Lazers player made it on time. Tozer promised to not make any personnel changes for one month. A strong finish to the season under his hard-nosed approach earned Tozer a contract extension as well as carte blanche to remake the roster. By the end of his first full season in L.A., not one player remained from the squad he inherited from Wall.

But once again, financial concerns arose, prompting Jerry Buss to fold the team in 1989, but not before he and Tozer had formed a bond. “We would fly all over watching the Lakers play,” Tozer recalls. “He had me in a headlock celebrating their back-to-back [NBA championships]. That was a fun time.”

Tozer also benefited from watching Lakers coach Pat Riley. “Pat was so prepared, so organized for every single practice,” Tozer recalls. “I said to myself, ‘If I was ever going to be good at coaching, preparation would be the key.’ ”

Interestingly, Tozer and Riley never became friends. “I was intimidated. Scared. He was impeccably dressed. Slick. He was the hottest thing in Los Angeles and I’m just in awe. I just didn’t have it yet within me to sit down with Pat and pick his brain.”

After the Lazers folded, Jerry Buss made Tozer assistant marketing director for Forum Boxing. But Tozer, while grateful for the job, hated it and resigned to pursue another coaching opportunity. A short time later, he became the coach of the Atlanta Attack, a new team that was joining the American Indoor Soccer Association.

Being in Atlanta had its perks. Tozer took a job with Atlanta-based Turner Network Television during its coverage of the 1990 World Cup. He was a technical adviser, feeding information on the players and analysis on the games to the actual broadcasters. He enjoyed the gig.

Meanwhile, he faced a familiar problem, coaching another team with financial problems. After the 90-91 season, money issues forced the Attack to move to Kansas City.

By then, Tozer and his wife were expecting a second child. “I didn’t want to take the family to Kansas City,” he says. “I went to Kansas City by myself for a year. The day we lost in the playoffs, I packed my bags and I was gone, retired.” He toyed with the idea of further exploring TV work in Atlanta.

And then the call came from Milwaukee. Wave owners Jim Peters and Ron Creten, who remembered Tozer vividly from the walkie-talkie incident, offered Tozer the chance to coach their team.

After stops in Cincinnati, Allentown, Hartford, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Kansas City, Tozer and his exhausted family badly wanted to put down some roots. Tozer told Creten and Peters he needed at least a three-year contract. At the time, this was unheard of in the soccer world. Eighteen years later, it seems illogical to have offered anything less.

 

*****

The new Milwaukee coach arrived with a reputation. “I remember when he was coaching the Los Angeles Lazers at the Forum,” former Wave star Michael King recalls. “You could hear how animated he was. If a cooler or a chair happened to get in the way, they might just get knocked across the locker room.”

But the chair-kicker was about to broaden his style. And the key to that change – and the success Tozer would achieve in Milwaukee – can be summed up in one word. “Victor,” says Tozer.

Victor Nogueira had already played 13 years of professional soccer when the original MISL folded after the 1991-92 season. Tozer, in short, arrived in Milwaukee just after more upheaval in the soccer world. The MISL would be replaced by the National Professional Soccer League (which itself had changed its name in 1990 from the old American Indoor Soccer Association). The players from the MISL would be parceled out to the NPSL through a disbursement draft in 1992, and Tozer chose Nogueira. It seemed like a reach, because Nogueira was then playing goalkeeper in an international competition – for the United States futsal team in Hong Kong.

Futsal is the international version of indoor soccer, with a few key differences: It’s played on a hard surface rather than artificial turf, uses a smaller ball, and it doesn’t have dasher boards around the field. But once Nogueira’s commitment to the U.S. futsal team had ended that year, he joined the Wave.

The soft-spoken goalkeeper taught Tozer lessons about humanity, the coach says. “I never thought of players as anything but the way I was treated. You’ve got a job, you’ve got to work hard, and you’ve got to perform. Victor opened my eyes to the fact that different players come from different backgrounds and respond to different motivations. He changed me as a man and as a coach.”

A calmer, more introspective Tozer began to emerge. “He has mellowed over the years since we began together,” says Wave athletic trainer Larry Sayles, who has worked for the team since its inception.

Or as King puts it, “How many times can you see a cooler fly across the locker room? It doesn’t have quite the same impact as time goes on.”

Nogueira’s star power also helped Tozer recruit players. “Victor was the guy that helped me bring Michael King,” Tozer says. “He gave us the ability to win games when we didn’t have the budget to get a better team around him. He was charismatic; he was the best goalkeeper. He was the guy that passed the torch to other guys that made us successful.”

Nogueira and King already had formed a tight bond, having played together in Cleveland. In Milwaukee, they became one of the most effective duos in the game, with Nogueira anchoring the defense and King running the offense.

“There was the understanding that Victor was in charge of the back,” King says, while his job was to score. “We just did our job, and Keith got the supporting players to buy into what we were doing. He let us play.”

Success did not come overnight. The Wave failed to qualify for the playoffs in Tozer's first season and were eliminated in the first round in each of the next three years. “We were beginning to get a reputation as a team that couldn't get it done in the playoffs,” Tozer recalls. He and his players were getting tired of hearing that.

During their memorable 1997-98 season, they posted a league-best 28-12 record (including a 19-1 mark at the Bradley Center), and steamrolled through Harrisburg and Philadelphia en route to the finals against the St. Louis Ambush. The Wave dominated St. Louis in the best-of-seven series, winning 4 games to 1. Milwaukee finally had a championship.

“That was unbelievable,” Tozer recalls. “That was like your first child being born. The other three championships were great, but I will always remember that first title.” The Wave went on to win league titles in 2000, 2001 and 2005. (The first three were in the National Professional Soccer League; the fourth was in the reborn Major Indoor Soccer League, which replaced the NPSL after the 2000-01 season.) Ever the perfectionist, Tozer admits the Wave’s four championship-round losses bother him more than championship wins comfort him. “I’ll always blame myself for the losses,” he says. “What could I have done differently, what tactics could I have changed? That will always stay with me.”

As his star continued to rise, Tozer added the task of coaching the United States national futsal team, which he’s done since 1996. This helped make him an international celebrity in the soccer world, even if few Americans know the sport exists.

But at home, he eventually faced yet another case of a franchise in financial peril. The crisis came in 2009. Wave owner Charles Krause, citing what he said were years of financial losses, threatened to fold the franchise if he could not sell it.

Once again, Tozer went shopping for new owners, making his pitch through all the media outlets. Listening to a radio interview with Tozer was 50-year-old Jim Lindenberg, who had sold his wire and cable company the year before and was looking for a new venture.

The Wave office had officially closed in July when the phone rang. “Coach was still there, finishing up his camps,” Lindenberg says. “Up until that point, I didn’t know an awful lot about the Milwaukee Wave. But I knew about coach. For me, it was a highlight to be able to talk to him on the phone and be associated with him.”

Insiders say Krause sold the team for little or nothing, perhaps with a clause stating that he’d receive something if the team made a profit. Apparently that hasn’t happened. Lindenberg says he lost $1.4 million last year, and hopes to cut that in half this year.

“If Coach Tozer was not there,” he says flatly, “I wouldn’t have bought the team.”

Tozer, in turn, has every intention of being there for Lindenberg. “I love coaching,” he says. “I have so much more to learn. And I want to see Jim win a championship.”

 

*****

It was during his years in Louisville that Tozer met Ranee Travis, who became his first wife. The couple had their share of tragedy. Shortly after their second son, Graham, was born, he developed hydrocephalus, a condition that causes abnormal fluid to accumulate in the ventricles of the brain. Graham Tozer only lived for six weeks before succumbing to the disease.

Tozer’s all-consuming passion for soccer had its impact, often requiring a delicate juggling act to balance the demands of family and career. “He would be gone a lot,” recalls his son Alex, now 19. “When he did come back home, he would drop everything to be with us.”

Alex and his brother Ian, now 24, would accompany their dad on some of the team’s trips by bus. “We got to go to St. Louis and Chicago,” Alex recalls. Ian remembers “sleeping in the luggage racks” of buses as they churned from city to city. He says these are some of his fondest childhood memories.

In 2005, Tozer and Ranee separated. At the time, Alex was 14 and Ian was 19.

“It definitely hurt a bit,” Ian says. “It wasn’t the greatest situation at the time. I’m the oldest, so I saw it coming. I understood.”

Tozer soon had a new woman in his life, someone he met during his routine workout at the Elite fitness club in Glendale. “I was training for a triathlon and saw him at the gym, and we were just friends,” Kelli Verbeke says. “Over time, our relationship changed from being just friends to being something more.”

Six months after meeting, the two struck up a romance. Though Tozer was 16 years Verbeke’s senior, “It never really was an issue,” she says. “It seemed to be more of an issue for everyone around us. I don’t look at him as someone older.”

By the time they’d met, the Wave had won four championships and Tozer had an international following as the U.S. squad’s gold medal-winning futsal coach. But Verbeke knew nothing about this. “To me, he was just a guy I met at the gym,” she says.

In December 2009, Kelli dropped a bombshell on Tozer. “He took me out to dinner with his son Alex,” Kelli recalls. “Keith bought us both a beer. He started drinking his, but I wouldn’t touch mine. Keith asked me why and all I would say is I couldn’t. I had to say it a third time before he actually understood what I meant!”

Kelli was pregnant. At an age when most men are expecting to become grandfathers, Tozer was about to become a father for the fourth time. Grace Isabella Tozer was born July 4, 2010. Keith and Kelli were married on Aug. 28. “At my age, my looks, my intelligence, I got lucky,” Keith kids.

*****

If Kelli was unaware of her gym partner’s standing in the world of soccer, she was not alone. Few Milwaukeeans know of his impact. Even Tozer’s sons grew up with little awareness.

It was just this past August that Alex came to a new understanding of his father. Alex had accompanied his dad to New Jersey for a soccer symposium. It was held in conjunction with an exhibition match between the U.S. and Brazilian national outdoor teams in front of 77,000-plus fans at New Meadowlands Stadium.

Tozer was speaking at the symposium at the invitation of the U.S. Soccer Federation and was on the field with his son prior to the match. “We’re down on the field, sitting right by the players doing their warmups. Alexi Lalas was broadcasting from the field. It was surreal,” Alex recounts. “All of a sudden, these coaches started coming up to my dad, one after another. The recognition he got as a national coach was out of this world. At that point, I looked at my father as more than just my dad. He became my role model.”





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