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Peter Vermes

Gold Cup in History: The U.S. Shocks the Soccer World, 1991

Inaugurated in 1991, the newly minted CONCACAF Gold Cup provided members a competition to determine the champion of North America, Central America and the Caribbean, and for the United States, a chance to demonstrate that playing in the 1990 FIFA World Cup was only the beginning of the re-birth of this soccer nation.  By tournament’s end, they had delivered that message loud and clear.

This year’s games mark the 20th anniversary of the 1991 tournament, and while soccer in the U.S. has grown exponentially, the team continues to pursue the same goal: winning the Gold Cup.

Dates: June 28-July 7, 1991
Locations: Los Angeles and Pasadena, California

In 1991, the U.S. Men’s National Team was in a transitional phase, yet showed signs of a bright future. They had played in the 1990 World Cup for the first time in 40 years and were honored with hosting the 1994 games. Just three months before the Gold Cup began, Bora Milutinovic took over as head coach and entered the tournament with a 1-1-3 record with his team. 

“There was change in a lot of different ways, with the new players, and the Gold Cup was something that was new to us as players as well,” remembers former captain Peter Vermes. “It was an interesting and welcome opportunity to play international soccer, and I think all of the guys were extremely excited about the competition. We didn’t know too much about what to expect other than the fact it was going to be in L.A. and we knew that we were going to feel like the away team in most of our games because there was more fan support at that time for the international teams.”

Only eight teams participated in the first Gold Cup, with two groups of four battling for a spot in the semifinals. The U.S. was in Group B with Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala.

Team  Pts  Pld  W  D  L  GF  GA  GD 
United States  +5 
Costa Rica 
Trinidad and Tobago   -1 
Guatemala  -4 

This game was the first time the U.S. team returned to the Rose Bowl since the 1984 Olympics and was the first full international soccer match there since France defeated Brazil in the Olympic final.  The U.S. was eager to beat Trinidad and Tobago, sporting a 9-0-2 all-time record against the Soca Warriors.

Date: June 29, 1991
Location: Rose Bowl, Pasadena
Attendance: 18,435

Result: The U.S. found themselves down 1-0 with five minutes left in regulation play. In the 85th minute, Bruce Murray scored the equalizing goal. Two minutes later, Marcelo Balboa scored his second international goal and the game winner with a stunning bicycle kick to give the U.S. the 2-1 victory.

“I think that [win] seemed to give us momentum for the whole tournament,” said Brian Quinn.

“This tournament is important for us, to prove we are a bona fide team in this region,” reiterated Desmond Armstrong. “Our goal now is to get to the final and win it, and let me emphasize, win it.”

Date: July 1, 1991
Location: Rose Bowl, Pasadena
Attendance: 6,344
Result: W 3-0

Date: July 3, 1991
Location: Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles
Attendance: 36, 703
Result: W 3-2

The U.S. finished first in their group to the amazement of the other teams and qualifying  for the semifinals. Mexico finished second in Group A after losing to Honduras on goal differential. 

In their previous match-up that year, the U.S. and Mexico tied 2-2 in the North American Nations Cup four months prior. However, Mexico boasted a commanding 23-2-4 all-time record against the U.S. and had only one loss in the Coliseum in the past five years.

Date: July 5, 1991
Location: Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles
Attendance: 41,103 – Fifth largest non-Olympic crowd to watch the U.S. play within the United States

Result: The United States shut out Mexico 2-0.

Honduras beat Costa Rica 2-0 to join the U.S. in the Gold Cup final game. The USA was playing for the regional title, $100,000 and a chance to make a mark on the soccer map.

Coming into this game, the United States had scored at least twice in four straight games, the first time achieving this since 1930.

Date: July 7, 1991
Location: Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles
Attendance: 39,873

Result: After a grueling 120 minutes of play, the game was scoreless. The U.S. downed Honduras 4-3 in penalty kicks, after Fernando Clavijo, the eighth player to shoot, scored the go-ahead penalty and Honduras failed to reciprocate.

“Everyone was extremely confident about who we were, how we got there and what we could accomplish,” remembers Vermes. “The interesting thing is the team took on a life of its own as we played through the tournament and you could feel it after our first game and you could feel it in the final game. The guys just had this idea that the times of old where were just playing to not get embarrassed or to walk away with a tie were over. We wanted to prove that we could be a winner.”

“Going into this tournament, we weren’t the top favorites,” said Paul Caliguiri. “But our will and our desire carried us through, and we deserved the victory. Right now we have bragging rights for the next two years in our region of the world.”

“We’re champions of CONCACAF now,” Hugo Perez said. “Everybody’s not going to come and beat America now. With this win, everybody’s got to start thinking, ‘Hey, let’s watch for America.’ I think that’s good for us, it’s good for America and it’s good for soccer.”

“It’s a really good feeling,” Balboa said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a little respect and I think today we earned a little respect.”

With the 1991 Gold Cup championship title, the United States entered a new era of soccer. They could no longer be seen as one of the weaker teams in the world, but would continue to compete aggressively to win big at the international level. Since these inaugural games, the U.S. has been Gold Cup champions three more times. While the U.S. will battle for their fifth title in this year’s games, the memory of their first win still lingers.