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.”
Touching tributes poured in on social media from all corners of the soccer community as news spread that Hall of Fame coach Sigi Schmid had passed away on Christmas Day 2018. And amid the sadness shared by so many who knew him, the messages also provided the rest of us a glimpse into the kind of man that Sigi was, and reminded everyone of the influence Sigi had on the American soccer landscape.
For newer fans of the game, Sigi will be remembered as one of the greatest of MLS coaches, leading the Columbus Crew, Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy to multiple trophies each. Older fans may recall the soccer factory he created while coaching UCLA to numerous NCAA Championships in the 1980 and ‘90s, churning out future U.S. Soccer legends like Cobi Jones, Brad Friedel, Paul Caligiuri, Joe Max-Moore, Frankie Hejduk, Eddie Lewis and Chris Henderson, among others.
It’s also important to highlight the impact he had with two teams he coached for shorter time frames: the U.S. U-20 MNTs that participated in the 1999 and 2005 FIFA U-20 World Youth Championships, each time advancing to the knockout stage while facing the likes of Argentina, England, Germany, Spain and Italy.
Seven players from those U-20 teams would go on to represent the MNT at senior FIFA World Cups, while many others also had solid pro careers. And if not for Schmid, we may never have known some of those players. We caught up with a few from each team:
1999 FIFA U-20 World Cup Championship:
While at UCLA, Sigi also assisted the MNT at 1994 FIFA World Cup and coached the following year’s Pan-American Games. In 1997, he was also coaching the U-18 MNT when he went to scout a player who had just played in the U-17 FIFA World Youth Championship and was playing for his high school in Southern California. However, as Carlos Bocanegra tells it, there was a mistake on the published schedule and the team that Sigi went to see was not playing. Sigi stuck around anyway, and watched the promising football wide receiver, Bocanegra, play soccer for his Alta Loma High School.
“I think about that all the time,” the two-time World Cup veteran Bocanegra told ussoccer.com this week. “That was my break. That was my chance. He gave me the opportunity and I was able to take that opportunity. That’s how I was able to kick-start my soccer career – pure coincidence that he was watching my game that got mixed up and he saw me play.”
Schmid invited Bocanegra, a junior at the time, to a U-18 camp. The next year he continued his pursuit of the talented defender and recruited Bocanegra to join him at UCLA. Their bond strengthened when Schmid took over the U-20 MNT and made Bocanegra a key member of the USA’s 1999 FIFA World Youth Championship side in Nigeria.
That team also included fellow future senior World Cup players Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Nick Rimando and Chris Albright, as well as long-time pros Danny Califf, Nick Garcia, Cory Gibbs, John Thorrington and Taylor Twellman, who became one of the most prolific American goalscorers in the pro ranks.
“That World Cup, playing with Sigi, had a massive impact on me and ultimately convinced me that I needed to go pro,” said Twellman, who at the time was also contemplating if his future would be in baseball, where he also excelled.
At the tournament, the USA defeated an England side that featured Ashley Cole and Peter Crouch, fell to Shinji Ono’s Japan, and defeated Cameroon in group play before falling by a score of 3-2 in the Round of 16 to eventual champions Spain that included Iker Casillas and Xavi.
In the lead up to that tournament, Sigi broke from the past and brought the team overseas for training, including to Morocco for two games and on a two-week fitness camp in Germany, where the team stayed at a bed-and-breakfast.
Bocanegra in action vs. Argentina in 2003, a few short years after graduating from Schmid's tutelage.
“He really tried to give us good experiences that he thought would help us later in our career,” said Bocanegra. “He always tried to set trips up around where we could watch games at a higher level and get experiences to challenge ourselves in different ways than was maybe common practice. He always wanted the best for the group and to give us the best experiences to try to better ourselves, not only on the field but in life and to become well-rounded in the game.”
As a reward for the hard work in Germany, Sigi brought the U20s to France to attend the 1998 World Cup match between the USA and Germany.
“Sigi had such a feel for the game of soccer, domestically and globally,” said Chris Albright. “He always communicated that we were putting on our nations colors and flag, representing the country. He drilled that in us that this was not to take it for granted, that it was not to be taken lightly.”
Like Bocanegra, Sigi introduced Albright to the National Team scene. Later he helped pick him up when things were not going well at D.C., trading for him in LA. At the suggestion of then MNT coach Bruce Arena, Sigi helped convert Albright from a forward into a defender, a move that later landed Chris on the 2006 World Cup team.
“He had an excellent ability to teach multiple positions; he could make me a better forward, wide midfielder, defender,” Albright said. “He could teach principles of different positions to help each player grow, and that teaching element in developing us at that time was unique.”
Twellman scored four goals in the tournament, good for third overall, thus becoming the first American to capture a scoring award (Bronze Boot) in a FIFA World Youth Championship.
Twellman accepts the Bronze Boot alongside then U.S. Soccer president Dr. Robert S. Contiguglia.
“When people talk about Sigi, they talk about his love of the game,” Twellman said, who a few months later would leave Maryland to sign with 1860 Munich in Germany. “But he was also a gentleman and was kind off the field. Every single one of us on that team, if we saw Sigi 3-4-5-10 years down the road…he always watched our games, even when he was not our coach. He was always willing to talk to us, showed interested in us, asked us about our lives.”
Now the Technical Director of MLS Cup champion Atlanta United, Bocanegra draws from those early experiences under Schmid.
“Even though we were young, he really tried to instill the professionalism in us,” Bocanegra said. “The detail, structure, organization – challenging us. He always made time to make people feel important. He never stopped, through college, through pros, was always available. He was pretty special.”
2005 Under-20 World Youth Championship
A week after that 1999 U-20 tournament came to an end for the USA, Sigi also began his pro career, taking the helm of his hometown LA Galaxy for the next five seasons.
He returned to coach the U-20 MNT in October 2014, having only a couple months to scout and prep players for January’s U-20 Concacaf Championship.
Two years earlier, Schmid’s Galaxy had eliminated Kansas City and veteran National Team player Peter Vermes from the MLS Cup Playoffs. After the game, Vermes recalled this week, Schmid approached him and told him he’d like to have him on his staff one day.
Fast-forward to fall 2014, a since-retired Vermes called Sigi and reminded him of that conversation. Schmid held true and invited Vermes to a three-week U-20 camp. After a week of evaluating, Schmid told Vermes he had earned one of the assistant coach positions.
“It was a great opportunity for me just to be around somebody like him with as much knowledge and experience that he had,” Vermes said, who enters the 2019 season as the longest tenured MLS coach, having taken the reigns of Sporting KC in 2009. “I already knew I wanted to coach for a long time, but what those experiences give you is like anything – when you first want to do something, you’re excited, you’re ambitious, you’re motivated, you’re all those things. But sometimes you lack the confidence. For me, Sigi gave me a direction that I felt comfortable with because I had gotten a chance to see a lot of different things that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t get that chance to be with him and spend all that time, and the preparation, and everything. It was a great experience.”
Schmid’s first friendly was in November in Ft. Lauderdale. Due to College Cup, some would-be regulars were not available, so Schmid called in four new players, including UCLA speedster Marvell Wynne, who had never been called to any YNT camp before.
“I think I should have been more in the moment with everything that happened,” Wynne admits. “When I got called in I remember thinking ‘these guys are way better than me.’ But Sigi kept calling me back. When he said I made the team, I was definitely shocked.”
For a mid-December camp Schmid called in 30 players, including UCLA walk-on midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who also had never been on any Youth National Team. Like Wynne, Feilhaber also made a formidable impression.
Wynne and Feilhaber were instrumental in helping the USA qualify for the
2005 FIFA U-20 World Youth Championship three weeks later.
Let’s back up for a second. Sigi’s sons also played college soccer in the LA area around that era. And, family man that he was, he would always attend their games, first Kurt’s at UCLA, and later Kyle’s at UC-Irvine.
“It’s what jump-started my entire career,” said newly retired 12-year pro Brad Evans. “The only reason I made that U-20 team is because Kyle Schmid transferred to UC Irvine. Without Kyle transferring there was absolutely no reason for Sigi to come watch UCI play.”
Schmid had spotted Evans that fall at UCI, but it wasn’t until after the U-20s had qualified for the World Cup that he called in the versatile player to his first National Team camp at any level.
Vermes explained how Sigi gave the preliminary roster to rest of the coaching staff and told them that they could each make a case for one player to either be replaced or be added.
“A lot of guys in that position would never consult the rest of staff,” Vermes said. “I thought that showed a lot of security and confidence on his part, to know what his decisions were but also want to know what his staff’s decisions were, and ultimately to make the best decision. There’s no doubt that that has helped me, and I would say that a lot of the players that were identified are players that are still playing or who had great careers because they were identified correctly.”
Wynne, Feilhaber and Evans were on the final 21-player roster, along with Jonathan Spector, Sacha Kljestan, Lee Nguyen, Freddy Adu, Chad Barret and Eddie Gaven, among others who also had solid pro careers.
The team shocked the world in the tournament opener, defeating Argentina 1-0 thanks to a Barrett goal assisted by Wynne. It would be the only loss and shutout suffered by the South Americans, who won their next six matches en route the lifting the championship trophy with future international stars Sergio Aguero, Lucas Biglia, Pablo Zabaleta, Fernando Gago and Golden Ball and Golden Boot winner, Lionel Messi.
Chad Barrett, who would go on to play professionally under Schmid in MLS, scored the game-winner vs. Argentina at the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship.
The 20s then played Germany to a scoreless draw and defeated Egypt 1-0 before losing 3-1 to Italy in the Round of 16. The experience and exposure provided opportunities to a number of players.
Feilhaber would soon sign with Hamburg, and later would score one of the best goals of the USA’s rivalry against Mexico, helping the MNT win the 2007 Gold Cup. And despite interest from international clubs, Wynne and Evans returned to school. Wynne became the top pick in the next MLS SuperDraft and Evans was selected 15th overall the following year by Columbus’s new coach, Sigi Schmid.
“He means more than I can really describe,” Feilhaber said, who along with Spector also made the 2010 FIFA World Cup roster. “Getting that opportunity with the 20s led to everything else in my life. I have no idea if I would have become a pro. I know I would not have been as successful financially, [and] going to Europe that early helped me immensely as a player. I don’t know if I would have ever played on the National Team let alone in a World Cup. I’m really grateful for Sigi having that keen eye and for giving me that opportunity.”
Sigi not only gave Evans his international debut and professional debut but would also bring him to Seattle on their way to spending 10 pro seasons together.
“He was the pivot for me in my entire career,” Evans said. “You have youth coaches, parents, but if you want to talk about the person who I’m able to talk about 12 years later and say I played professionally because of them…yes, it comes from within, but you have to have someone who pushes you and really believed in you, and Sigi was the guy for me.”
Sigi’s memorial took place on Friday, Jan. 18 in Los Angeles.
In March 2017, after more than 300 MLS games and having also represented the USA in the 2008 Olympics and 2009 Confederations Cup, Wynne’s career came to an end after undergoing a heart procedure.
When he came to from the operation, one of the first voicemails he listened to was from Sigi Schmid.
“Sigi was the reason I became a pro,” Wynne said. “He got me on to the scene, kept me there, had confidence in me and he kept me going. In terms of coaching, it was more, ‘get the basics right and perfect them.’ He was the first one to hammer that home, and if you ever saw my career, it was basic.”
A reflective Wynne made a special trip to an LA Galaxy game last year to meet up with his former coach.
“We talked about my heart situation, and caught up about everything,” Wynne said. “And I told him, ‘you’re the reason I went pro.’ I was able to tell him face to face, but I hoped he knew.”
“Yea, the opportunity, experience and all those other things were great, but the best thing for me, to be honest, was that he and I became friends after that 2005 Youth Championship,” Vermes said. “We always, always talked and kept in touch and spent time with each other. We had a very good relationship.”
“I sense that he knew what he meant to me,” Feilhaber said. “The way that we spoke was not in a way that most coaches to ex-players do. We were friends - he understood how much of an influence he had on me. We had respect for each other, and I’m going to miss him a lot, but it’s so important to have these memories about him.”
“We talk about a coaching tree a lot, but Sigi’s got the player tree, the coaching tree, the soccer tree really,” Bocanegra said. “So many people spiraled off the opportunities he gave them. Through soccer he gave so many people their start. But the biggest part that everybody remembers is that he cared about each and every person. He wanted to get the best out of them, and did not give up. He would give second chances, third chances - if you were his guys, and you worked for him he was going to his damndest to get the best out of you and make you a better player or person in general.”
“When I think back on it, especially the last couple of weeks, we always talked about getting the ‘Sigi shirt-tug,’” Evans reminisced. “Once he got a hold of your shirt and put his arm around you, there was no getting away from it. But I remember him being very honest with me in everything. He never blew smoke up my tail or thought that I was better or worse than I was. He always believed in me. We really trusted each other when it came to soccer and had an unspoken relationship that just worked. It’s something that I’ll cherish and remember forever.”Read more