Tuesday’s World Cup Qualifying clash between the United States and Trinidad & Tobago comes nearly 26 years to the day of one the most famous matches in U.S. Soccer history.
On November 19, 1989, the small island nation, populated by just 1.2 million people, was the favorite against the United States (population 246 million) in a decisive World Cup Qualifying match in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
The Soca Warriors, or “Strike Squad” as they were known back then, needed only a draw against a largely inexperienced American side that two weeks prior had made the match tougher on themselves with a scoreless home draw against El Salvador in St. Louis.
As a result of that listless performance, the U.S. would have to go into hostile territory and win a Qualifying match – a tall task, considering the MNT had only done it twice previously, with the last coming in a 1-0 win at Honduras 24 years prior.
Then there was the supreme confidence of the Trinidadian side. The upstart soccer nation had gone 3-0-2 in home qualifying matches during the 1990 World Cup Qualifying cycle, making the team’s self-assurance pour over to the entire nation.
"Never before,” said Trinidadian daily ‘The Guardian’, “has there been such an overwhelming, uninhibited display of patriotism and national pride as for our beloved Strike Squad, the sons of the soil who are set to add a new aspect to our claim to fame: 'Home of the steel band, calypso, limbo and the 1990 World Cup football finalists.”
Of course, the outcome of that match is well-documented in U.S. Soccer history.
In the 30th minute, current MNT assistant coach Tab Ramos found Brian Bliss with a throw-in on the left. Bliss played the ball back to Ramos who found Paul Caligiuri in space. Caligiuri took the ball on the bounce with his right and swiftly beat one Trinidadian defender. As the ball skipped off the surface again, Caliguri hit a hopeful left-footed volley which looped in the air before it dropped just over the goal line and inside the right post.
As Graham L. Jones wrote back in 1989, Caligiuri’s strike “is likely to have even more lasting impact than Joe Gaetjens' game-winner against England at Belo Horizonte, Brazil in 1950, the last year that the U.S. appeared in the World Cup.”
Much has been written about Caligiuri’s goal and U.S. Soccer’s rise since then; but, what about Michael Maurice, the Trinidadian goalkeeper who saw the shot squeeze between his diving save attempt and the post?
“Even now, people still ask me how that goal got scored,” Maurice, the current Soca Warriors goalkeeping coach told ussoccer.com during a recent training session in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. “The reason is because at that time, I didn’t see it. My view was obstructed at the time he hit the ball.”
ESPN commentators J.P. Dellacamera and Seamus Malin hypothesized that Maurice’s vision was obstructed by the sun, but he balks a bit at that notion.
“When Paul Caligiuri struck the ball, my view was obstructed by my player,” Maurice continued.
Even though the sun had a part to play on the way, had I seen when the ball was struck I would have known to move a little bit left or a little bit right.”
“When I saw the ball, it was close to the goal and it was too late.”
The game wasn’t over. In fact, an hour still remained and Trinidad & Tobago only needed a goal, but they were going up against a U.S. side that had only conceded four goals in nine previous qualifiers.
There were nervy moments where the home side had their chances, but in the end, the U.S. stood tall, qualifying for its first World Cup in 40 years. The players and team staff, along with a small contingent of American fans celebrated among 30,000 disappointed Trinidadians at Queens Park Oval, as an entire nation was left heartbroken.
“There are a lot of sad memories,” Maurice recalled. “We had a very good team that was together for a year or so. We were well-knitted, we understood each other, the people knew all the players, and we were pretty confident that we had what it takes to qualify for the World Cup.”
“Looking back at it, for a small nation not having the experience qualifying for a World Cup before, when that presented itself upon you, there were a lot of factors that you see know what you would have done differently.”
Though a devastating blow, Trinidad & Tobago would get redemption 16 years later as they navigated through CONCACAF Qualifying and a two-game playoff with Bahrain to earn the nation’s first berth at the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. With the accomplishment, Trinidad & Tobago became the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup.
“Qualifying in 2006 put this to rest. The 2006 team erased the feeling from that loss way back in 1989,” said Hutson Charles, a current T&T National Team assistant, who had scored in T&T’s 1-1 Qualifying draw with the U.S. six months prior in Torrance, California.
While both assistants call the day one of the darkest in the nation’s soccer history, Charles said it won’t be used for motivation for the current group of players.
“As they say, it’s a different era,” he said. “These guys have their own pace to set. We don’t really talk about that game. We just look forward to having a good game against the USA and getting a positive result.”