As the U.S. prepares to kickoff qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the team’s first hurdles in St. Louis against St. Vincent and the Grenadines and away to Trinidad and Tobago should conjure up some memories for Men’s National Team historians. The sites of the two matches mimic the final circuit of games the MNT played in qualifying for 1990 FIFA World Cup, though admittedly the stage is slightly different from 26 years ago.
On this day in 1989, in a match devoid of many scoring opportunities, the U.S. played to a 0-0 draw with El Salvador at St. Louis Soccer Park in Fenton, Missouri. The result was disappointing as the U.S. dropped an important point at home to an El Salvador side that had long since been eliminated from qualifying. They did so in a venue that had formerly been the closest thing to a true home field the MNT had enjoyed, with the team going a perfect 4-0-0 in previous qualifying matches.
“We thought the game in St. Louis was our opportunity,” said defender Brian Bliss, whose looping first half cross from the left was the team’s best chance. “We thought we win in St. Louis and come out needing just a draw in Trinidad. That was manageable.”
Instead, the draw meant the U.S. would have to go to Trinidad & Tobago and earn a win on the final day of qualifying. The challenge of winning on the road was one thing, but by the end of the match in St. Louis, the MNT had played 208 qualifying minutes without scoring a goal. Easy logic says that winning a game brings the need to score a goal, something an unnamed U.S. Soccer official at the time told the Chicago Tribune was “a frightening thought.”
“We knew we weren’t the greatest scoring team, but we had a good cohesive unit,” Bliss said. “When playing against our region, we felt pretty good defensively – it was definitely our strength. We weren’t a prolific scoring team, and as it was we were going through a rough patch up front at the time, so we knew going to Trinidad needing a goal was going to be problematic.”
Starting goalkeeper Tony Meola added at the time, “Our defense knows if the forwards get one goal against Trinidad, we`ll be in Italy.”
Two weeks later in Port of Spain, Meola proved to be right about the goal, but he was wrong about the goal scorer. Instead of a forward finding the back of the net, midfielder Paul Caligiuri sent a looping strike past Trinidad & Tobago ‘keeper Michael Maurice in the 30th minute. The long range effort held up, with Caligiuri’s goal being tagged “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” for its significance of qualifying the United States for its first World Cup since 1950.
According to Bliss, the roundabout way the MNT got through those final two qualification matches made for a much better story.
“If we had done things the easy way, it would have been anticlimactic,” he joked. “I don’t think that team would be remembered quite as well as we are if we’d just beaten El Salvador 1-0 at home and gone down and got a draw in Trinidad. It definitely wasn’t on purpose, but we did it in dramatic, Hollywood fashion and I think American soccer is probably better for it somehow.”