One game. One goal.
After finishing fourth in July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, that’s where the U.S. MNT finds itself heading into October’s CONCACAF Cup clash with Mexico at The Rose Bowl. The one-off qualifier for the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup isn’t the norm in international soccer – qualifying for the World Cup or a regional championship can take two or even three years.
October’s CONCACAF Cup is a single-game playoff between the region’s last two Gold Cup champions, with the winner advancing to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup. While the match against Mexico isn’t commonplace, it’s also not the first time the U.S. MNT has found itself in a one-game playoff. It’s just the first time it’s happened in nearly 39 years.
The previous occurance came on December 22, 1976, when the MNT fell 3-0 to Canada in a one-match playoff to determine who would join Mexico as North American Zone representatives to the following year’s CONCACAF Championship, equivalent to today’s final round of World Cup qualifying, affectionately known as “The Hex.”
Al Trost [right] enjoyed a long career with the USA, featuring in 14 matches from 1971-78.
The playoff came about as a result of all three North American Zone teams finishing level on points and goal differential in the qualifying round that took place in September and October of 1976.
Playing under the guidance of coach Walt Chyzowych, U.S. midfielder Al Trost recalled the team’s preparation for the qualifying tournament was better than he’d experienced ahead of previous National Team camps.
“Walt did a great job of preparing us for these games,” Trost remembered. “Before this tournament, I don’t think the Federation really put the money or effort in to set a stage for American players to be challenged and develop for international soccer. In the past, we got together 24 hours before a game and that was it. Walt did a good job of convincing the Federation into getting us into Denver, training at high altitude ahead of games and I thought he prepared us well.”
The early results followed suit with the preparation. In the opening match against Canada in Vancouver, Boris Bandov scored in the eighth minute and the U.S. held on for a 1-1 draw, having played a man down following Steve Pecher’s sending off in the 72nd. Ten days later, the MNT played tight at the back and held on for a 0-0 draw against Mexico in front of a partisan crowd of 31,171 at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“For us, I thought we were playing really well at the time,” Trost continued. “There were points where we could have won both games and [goalkeeper] Arnie Mausser played incredibly.”
With two points from their first two matches, the U.S. didn’t have much thought about winning the return leg in Puebla two weeks later. After surrendering two first half goals, the U.S. held the score steady at 2-0 before a controversial 84th minute penalty awarded to Mexico midfielder Hugo Davila would go a long way towards sending the team to the December playoff with Canada.
“Steve Pecher put his foot on the ball in the box and the player hit the ball against his foot, fell over and they called a penalty,” Mausser remembered. “You’re looking around asking, ‘How? Why?’ It wasn’t at all reckless, but he called it. We were already losing 2-0 – the penalty wouldn’t have affected the result of the game – where it did have an effect was on goal difference.” Despite the defeat, the team rebounded well in their final qualifying match, using second half goals from Miro Rys and Julie Vee to earn a 2-0 win against Canada at The Kingdome in Seattle, Washington. The win left the MNT with four points from four matches (two points were awarded for a win back then), while Mexico and Canada were on three points each ahead of the final group game.
Though Canada had upset Mexico 1-0 during their home leg in Vancouver three weeks prior, Mausser said they felt confident that Mexico would have no problem winning at home. Instead, Canada earned a 0-0 draw in Toluca – their first ever result on Mexican soil.
“The best teams in the world go down to Mexico and lose, so when we saw they tied Canada, we couldn’t believe it at the time,” said Mausser.
Although all three teams had the exact same point total, Mexico’s +2 goal differential set them apart from the other two, while the MNT’s -1 differential, brought in part by the controversial penalty conceded to El Tri weeks earlier, left them equal with Canada and doomed the team to the one-game playoff.
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While the North American Zone qualifying tournament would finish at the end of October, the playoff between the U.S. and Canada wouldn’t be held until two months later – Dec. 22, 1976. The neutral site chosen by CONCACAF was Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
“I have no idea why they chose Haiti as a neutral site,” said Trost. “The field wasn’t great, but that’s where we ended up.”
With two months to prepare for the playoff match, the Federation took the U.S. team to Port-au-Prince to play a three-game friendly series with the Haiti national team, who were also preparing for a similar Caribbean playoff with Cuba the following month.
The sides played three games over six days that November, which all ended as 0-0 draws. The results were just a sign of the times for a still developing U.S. team.
“That was us at the time,” Trost said. “The training we went through with Walt was a lot of man-on-man stuff. We were disciplined enough in defending, but to try and make the transition, that’s what made it difficult in creating scoring opportunities. We had some very strong, gifted players, but we had issues making the transition from defense to offense. Sometimes it would work, sometimes it didn’t. That was the decision that was made – Walt wanted to stay in games as best we could defensively and see what we could get out matches.”
The U.S. returned to Haiti for the playoff a month later, but days before the game Trost looked in doubt to take part in the game.
“I had Montezuma’s revenge a couple days before,” he recalled. “I was sicker than a dog, throwing up for a couple days while we were down there. I just remember I was zapped. It took everything out of me.”
While he wasn’t 100 percent, Trost admitted how badly he wanted to play and started to come out of his illness the day before the game.
Things didn’t go the MNT’s way however, as Vancouver Whitecaps striker Brian Budd put Canada up 1-0 in the 21st minute. The early marker didn’t bode well considering the U.S. team’s defensive playing style. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that Trost, one of the team’s veterans, was severely fatigued as he recovered from his illness.
“In the end, playing might have been a mistake,” he said. “I’m an end-to-end guy and I just felt zapped. I was so tired at halftime that I had to tell Walt I had to come out of the game. I don’t like to do that, but I felt like I wasn’t helping the team.”
Playing in front of 32,869 at the Estadio Sylvio Cator, the U.S. team pushed forward looking for the equalizer after halftime, but couldn’t create a concrete chance to equalize. Committing more numbers forward, Canada caught the MNT out again in the when defender Bob Lenarduzzi unleashed a long-distance rocket that beat Mausser in the 80th minute.
“It was a save I’d usually have no trouble making,” Mausser remembered. “I went down for it on my side and it just went under me.”
Former U.S. international goalkeeper Arnold "Arnie" Mausser in his first stint with the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers from 1979-80.
“At that point I think we put our heads down, because we didn’t score two goals in a game very often back then,” added Trost.
Down 2-0, the MNT had little hope of coming back before Canada’s Robert Bolitho added a third goal in the 87th minute.
“Nothing clicked for us that day,” Mausser said. “We went into that game confident, but whatever happened, nothing went right for us. Balls banging off of people, falling just right for Canada – it was a nightmare – from my aspect I didn’t have a good game. I’d been playing well the whole series, but that game I just had a nightmare and that didn’t help things.”
For Mausser, the match was far from his end with the National Team. The one-time Chelsea FC target would go backstop the MNT during the next two World Cup qualifying runs, coming close to helping the side to the 1986 FIFA World Cup.
However, the match was the last competitive game Trost would play for the MNT. He appeared in four more friendlies before calling a day on his international career in 1978.
“I saw a lot of good younger players coming up and I knew for me to stay with it, at my age, I wasn’t going to do it,” Trost said. “In my heart I wanted to stay and be a part of something I saw coming around, and maybe I should have, but at the time I knew my prime was over. I was going to watch these young kids come in and do the job.”
Both players admit the National Team program has grown leaps and bounds since that day in 1976 and as they look to the MNT’s match against Mexico on Oct. 10, they feel encouraged by the team’s prospects to go to the Confederations Cup.
“The attacking players are there now,” said Trost. “We see this team beat Mexico all the time in qualifying. This is just another big game that they have to win. They’ve shown they’re capable, they just have to put it together on the day.”
“I have to say, I’m a bit envious of the players today,” Mausser added. “There’s so much more interest, and with that a lot more goes into the games. I think they’re capable of doing it against Mexico. I would tell them to play confidently and remember who they’re representing. Any team that does that is going to be successful.”