30 YEARS LATER: How the USMNT Qualified for the 1990 FIFA World Cup
Talk about staring into the abyss.
Only 40 days after the U.S. Soccer Federation was awarded the privilege to host the 1994 World Cup, the U.S. Men's National Team faced the possibility of being eliminated from contention to reach Italy for the 1990 FIFA World Cup.
After playing Jamaica to a scoreless road draw in Kingston on July 24, the Americans were confronted with a must-win match at the Louis Soccer Park in Fenton, Mo. on Aug. 13, 1988 or face the utter disappointment of not being able to qualify for the world's greatest sporting spectacle.
"We found ourselves at a make or break approach," defender Desmond Armstrong said. "We needed desperately to move forward. Everything, we were told, hinged on us not just for our own personal careers, but for the future of the game. It was imperative that we qualify. We felt the heat of having the weight of soccer's future on our shoulders in that particular game."
The USA also hadn't competed in a World Cup since 1950, when the USA shocked England – and the world -- with an historic 1-0 triumph in Brazil.
"Any game is a problem, but this for us is a must win and if you can't beat Jamaica you must pack it in," U.S. head coach Lothar Osiander said. "This is the lifeline for us."
Since 1950, the USA had failed to book a World Cup place nine different times, always struggling and usually unable to get past Mexico, who had become a giant nemesis. Even when El Trí hosted the World Cup in 1970, the Americans were eliminated in the semifinals by Haiti.
With Mexico receiving another automatic berth in 1986, that seemed to be the best time to break the skein. Needing but a draw or a win against Costa Rica in the final day of semifinal round qualifying, the USA dropped an excruciating 1-0 result to the Ticos before a pro-Costa Rican crowd at Murdock Stadium at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif. on May 31, 1985, exactly a year to the day ahead of the Mexico ‘86 kickoff.
"We were confident," said Mike Windischmann, then a 19-year-old defender. "We couldn't have played a better game except for not scoring. Basically, one mistake. The guys ... played the best that we could but we couldn't get that tying goal."
The Americans were devastated.
"Everybody in the locker room, guys like Ricky Davis and other guys, they were just sitting there with their hands in their face because they probably realized that was it for them. I was very disappointed, but after that I was hoping to keep with the national team for the next World Cup. ... We had a game against England pretty soon after that and a lot of these guys didn't want to play in that game anymore. They kind of knew their time was up. They were missing an opportunity."
An 18-year-old John Harkes (pictured above), who was entering the University of Virginia that fall, watched the game with his father via closed-circuit television at the Scots-American Club in Kearny, N.J.
"To just fall short like that, it was heart-wrenching," he said, “especially seeing the guys on the pitch representing us and how good they were, knowing that they were quality."
Harkes, who hailed from the same area as goalkeeper Tony Meola and midfielder Tab Ramos, was a ball boy at Cosmos games and idolized the likes of U.S. captain and Cosmos midfielder Ricky Davis. "I learned from those guys," he said. "The '85 [qualifying] was a disappointment. It pushed us on to qualify for '90 a little bit more."
A day before the USA was awarded the 1994 tournament on July 4, 1988, they received another gift from FIFA as Mexico was banned from international soccer -- including Italia '90 - for two years after using four overage players at the Concacaf Under-20 qualifying tournament for the FIFA world championship in April.
The top two teams in the region would qualify for Italia '90, and Mexico wouldn’t be there to stand in the way. Still, the USA had to navigate past Jamaica to earn its spot in the 1989 Concacaf Championship – a five-team precursor to today’s Final Round “Hexagonal”.
After the 0-0 draw in Kingston two weeks earlier, the USA rolled to a 5-1 victory over the Reggae Boyz before a capacity crowd of 6,100 at St. Louis Soccer Park. Brian Bliss tallied the USA's first qualifying goal in the 18th minute, but Jamaica’s Alton Sterling equalized in the 54th. Then came the play that broke open the match, when second-half substitute Hugo Perez was tripped by Dave Brooks - others claimed it was a dive - in the penalty area. He converted the ensuing penalty in the 68th minute before another substitute -- Bruce Murray -- set up goals by Frank Klopas and Paul Krumpe in the 76th minute and 78th minutes with Klopas adding a second five minutes from time.
WATCH: USA Defeats Jamaica 5-1 in World Cup Qualifying on Aug. 13, 1988
It was the highest goal total the USMNT achieved in one match since a 6-2 World Cup qualifying victory against Bermuda on Nov. 2, 1968 in Kansas City.
As it turned out, the USA might have wanted to save some of those goals for the final round.
Osiander was a part-time coach when he wasn't taking care of his day job as the maitre d' and before that, a waiter, at Graziano’s, a San Francisco restaurant. Several weeks later, he guided the squad at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. While the young U.S. squad failed to get out of its group, the experience helped start a unique team bond. Players such as goalkeeper David Vanole, defenders Mike Windischmann, John Doyle, Paul Caligiuri, Krumpe and Armstrong, midfielders Brian Bliss and John Stollmeyer, Ramos and Harkes, and forwards Bruce Murray, Vermes and Klopas helped form the nucleus of a team that would manage to survive a rollercoaster ride through Concacaf qualifying in 1989.
The team further bonded at the 5-A-Side FIFA World Championship (now the Futsal World Cup) in the Netherlands in January 1989, surprising Belgium in extra time in the third-place match on Jan. 15, as Vermes had a brace and team captain Windischmann one goal.
"The thing about that team in particular was that we didn't have a consistent league to play in," Ramos said. "So we tried to get as many games as possible where we could get them. It was really important for us to attend all the international competitions we could, regardless of what type of game it was and to come home and play as many games as possible."
Added Bliss: "For us, it was probably more important than any other country's national team because we didn't have a professional league to hone our skills. We relied on our spirit and camaraderie maybe more than we did our knowledge of tactics or maybe some on the ball qualities we probably didn't have.
"We had tons of time together. When you're cooped up in hotel/dorm rooms depending on where you were, the bonding was tremendous. That helped carry the day."
Only one day after the Five-A-Side final, U.S. Soccer announced Bob Gansler (pictured below) as new USMNT head coach. A U.S. Soccer Staff Coach since 1975, the 47-year-old Gansler was about to lead the U.S. U-20 squad at the FIFA U-20 World Championships in Saudi Arabia and was also the coach of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Because of the financial instability of coaching at the international level, Osiander wouldn’t quit his job as a maître de in San Francisco – he remained a USSF staff coach and wound up as the 1992 Olympic coach.
Costa Rica loomed in the first two final-round qualifiers. The Americans were hopeful of repeating their 1-0 win from 1985 but went down to defeat by the same score on April 16 on midfielder Gilberto Rhoden's 14th-minute goal before 26,271 at Estadio Nacional in San Jose. The defeat started a long line of frustrating results for the USA in and around the Costa Rican capital.
Exactly two weeks later, the Americans exacted their revenge in a 1-0 victory at the St. Louis Soccer Park in Fenton, Mo., but it was not without its drama. First, they waited until the 72nd minute to score -- Ramos fired a shot from just outside the top of the penalty area that glanced off a defender's foot and into the corner of the net.
Second, Costa Rica had two apparent goals, both shot by midfielder Hector Marchena, called back by Honduran referee Rodolfo Meija Martinez. In the eighth minute, Marchena's goal was called back for an offside call, and in the 77th, his diving header was disallowed because of a handball.
With time running out, Vanole raced off his line to meet a cross and then let the ball slip through his hands. Defender Steve Trittschuh, covering Vanole's back on the goal line, stopped the resulting chance with his hands and a penalty kick was whistled.
Benched against Costa Rica two weeks earlier in San Jose, Vanole did his best to disrupt the penalty-kick shooter, defender Mauricio Montero.
"I tried to psyche the guy, but he wouldn't look at me, and maybe his not looking meant I had him," Vanole said previously. "I felt I knew exactly what he'd do, and the ball came at me like a pumpkin. It was huge. [While] It was probably coming at me at a hundred miles an hour, it was in slow motion to me."
Montero's poor attempt was hit straight on, and Vanole literally saved it with his neck, sending the overflow crowd of 8,500 into a frenzy. The save preserved the 1-0 victory and earned the USA a huge two points in qualifying.
WATCH: Vanole Puts Neck on the Line to Preserve 1989 Win vs. Costa Rica
But the World Cup qualifying gods giveth and they taketh away, as two weeks later the USMNT squandered another home win by allowing Trinidad & Tobago to equalize in the waning minutes for a 1-1 draw in Torrance, Calif. The USA was clinging to a 1-0 lead behind Steve Trittschuh's goal with two minutes left. After Vermes cleared the ball into the Trinidad half, Brian Williams took control and knocked a long pass toward Hudson Charles, who ran into opened space, drawing defender Trittschuh with him. Two players raced for the ball -- Windischmann with an outstretched foot and Trinidad forward Marlon Morris, who got there first to gently head it to Charles and had only Vanole to beat.
The U.S. got an opportunity to redeem itself against Guatemala on June 17 in New Britain, Conn. -- a 2-1 victory behind goals from Eric Eichmann and Murray. Originally scheduled to play away at El Salvador on July 25, the game was postponed until Sept. 17, and would instead be played at a neutral site in Tegucigalpa, Honduras due to crowd unrest during El Salvador’s match with Costa Rica on June 25. That day, fans from the capacity crowd of 40,000 threw fruits, bottles and pennants onto the field to protest their team's poor performance in a 4-2 defeat to the Ticos.
Gansler had some three months to prepare for the next qualifier, and he decided to try something that was a bit unorthodox in U.S. Soccer, giving the nod in goal to 20-year-old Meola, who was about to enter his sophomore season at the University of Virginia.
Three of the Americans' final four matches were going to be played on the road in the Caribbean and Central America where the USMNT was going to be tested on and off the pitch. Gansler already had been through the perils of away qualifying as a player and assistant coach on the 1978 and 1982 qualifying teams.
"There were always elevators that would get stuck on game day," he said. "The menu had been indicated to them and somehow they never had the right food. The buses -- we knew where the stadium was, and we knew that we should have been going north, but we were going south as we were going to the game. We were on the first floor of the hotels when we asked not to be on the first floor. All night there would be pick-up trucks circling outside the hotel and I think their horns were stuck.
“This is part of it. You say that to other people, and they say, 'Well, that's an excuse.' Well, no it's a reason. Others will say no that didn't happen. That’s fine. You know that you have to deal with it. And if you make it about, 'Oh my God, what are we going to do?' No, you just deal with it. Ear plugs are allowed."
Gansler then laughed.
Only hours prior to the El Salvador game in neutral Tegucigalpa, it wasn't a laughing matter to Meola (pictured above) who returned from a team meeting in the hotel.
“We were going back up to our rooms to gather our stuff,” said Meola, who at age 20 was set to become the second youngest goalkeeper to appear for the USA in a World Cup qualifier. “We had maybe a half hour to get on the bus, and about 10 or 12 of us got stuck in the elevator. Of course, the first thought was they were doing this because Honduras is another Central American country in Concacaf. We had to climb through the shaft of the elevator up top. For someone who was a little bit claustrophobic this took forever. We were late getting to the stadium."
Due to several days of rain, the field was in horrendous shape. Yet the USA prevailed, 1-0, on the antithesis of a textbook goal by Hugo Perez in the 62nd minute. Harkes' 23-yard free kick was saved by keeper Carlos Rivera. The rebound came to Vermes, and his six-yard attempt bounced off Rivera. Perez, in the right place at the right time, headed the ball just inside the right post.
WATCH: Hugo Perez Scores Crucial Goal vs. El Salvador
Born in Morazán, El Salvador, Perez became the first USMNT player to score against the country of his birth. What’s more, his 78-year-old grandfather made a seven-hour drive from El Salvador to see his grandson play. "I've been looking for that goal for months," Perez said. "I wanted to play well [for my grandfather]."
A berth to Italia ’90 was in sight, but the USA picked the wrong time to enter a deep scoring slump, playing a pair of scoreless draws, at Guatemala (Oct. 8) and against El Salvador in Fenton, Mo. (Nov. 5). What made it more confounding was that both foes already had been eliminated and did not deploy full squads.
The defense had saved the USA, having conceded but three goals during the final round, including four consecutive shutouts, while managing only six in eight games.
"Had we given up a goal in any of those games, we don't go to the World Cup," Meola said.
"We just worked really hard," Ramos said. "That was the only thing that we knew for sure we could do. We didn't have any international experience. Most of us played in college. We knew that the college game was about working hard, outworking your opponent. We had that. We really fought for every ball from the first minute to the last minute, and that made it difficult on Central American teams. They weren't used to that."
The USA had only one match left in the 1989 Concacaf Championship – an away fixture at Trinidad & Tobago on Nov. 19.
Before flying to Port of Spain, the team had a training camp in Cocoa Beach, Fla., for about a week, playing another island team that had similar characteristics to Trinidad: Bermuda. The USA won, 2-1, as subs John Doyle and Eichmann scored.
Bliss remembered how the tension was building during camp.
"I remember multiple guys getting into fist fights at the training field over whatever tension, stuff you wouldn't think would lead to something," he said. "Just a regular charge along the sideline, the guy goes down. It's normal and all of a sudden it turned into a fist fight. I think the tension got to everybody."
Well before the USA got close to Hasely Crawford Stadium, the team had seen red - at the Port of Spain airport - as 20,000 citizens wearing the colors of the Soca Warriors greeted the team.
"Trinidad was something,” Murray remembered. “The pilot comes on before [we] land. 'Now, I don't know if you guys know this, but you've got 20,000 people here waiting for you.' We were like, Really? You can't make it up. People were five, 10-deep all the way to the hotel. They were a very jovial, festive crowd. That was one thing to take away. As intimidating as Trinidad was -- and it was the most intimidating atmosphere I've ever been involved in - the actual spirit of the people should be commended forever because that's what real fans should look like."
It wasn't going to be easy. The U.S. had not won a World Cup qualifier on the road -- not a neutral site -- in more than 21 years, when the Americans defeated Bermuda in Hamilton, 2-0, on Nov. 10, 1968, and Trinidad wasn't about to roll over and die.
In fact, the country of 1.2 million was soccer-mad for Italia '90, only needing a draw against the USA to punch their own World Cup ticket, and the government dedicated every day of the preceding week to its National Team. On Sunday, Nov. 12, exactly a week before the game, citizens were asked to wear red -- its national colors -- in a show of support for its soccer team. Another day was set aside for prayer for the team. The day after the game, Monday, Nov. 20, was declared a national holiday, an audacious move by the government for a team that had not yet qualified.
Calypso ballads also were composed, singing the praises of coach Everald Cummings (who once played for the New York Cosmos), of the team, and even of the 88th-minute goal that Trinidad scored to secure that 1-1 tie back on May 13 in the U.S. "When we get them in the stadium, we're going to beat them like bongos," said one of the catchy songs composed by a musician called Super Blue.
The U.S. stayed at the Hilton, situated on the top of a mountain, in which the first floor was on top and the 24th floor was at the bottom. Not surprisingly, the players' rooms were street level and the locals played music and made noise for a good portion of the night.
"I think we eventually got to sleep," Meola said. "I can't say we would have gotten a good night's sleep either way, given the fact we were getting ready to play this game and the atmosphere we walked into coming off that airplane and knowing what the job was. I'm not sure we would have slept all that well anyway. It was very strategic that the entire country knew what hotel we were staying in the night before the game. There was no doubt in my mind that that was advertised in some newspaper."
There was plenty of pressure on the Americans. “If we didn't qualify in ‘90, there would have been no soccer for a couple of years before 94,” Windischmann said. “It would have been a mess.
“You have to win. That's crazy that you've got to win, you can't tie. At the same time against Costa Rica, we had to tie and we couldn't lose. So, we felt very confident going into the Trinidad game.”
By 9:30 a.m. the stadium was a sea of red filled with an announced crowd of 35,000 supporters - 5,000 more than capacity for the 3:30 p.m. contest. About 130 fans representing the USA waved American flags. Popular calypso stars sang songs about the road to the World Cup two hours before the kickoff.
"As we were coming in it was hard for our bus to get into the gate and go down that little stretch they call the driveway because there were so many people there," Harkes said. "There were people climbing up on the outside of the stadium trying to get in over the walls. They probably didn't have a ticket."
When the U.S. team went out to inspect the field, Harkes and Murray said the crowd was intimidating. Ramos and Bliss said it was chaotic.
“We were like, 'Oh my God, this is like a Christians to the Lions type thing here. How are we going to survive? It was daunting," Bliss said.
Gansler made four changes from the El Salvador encounter. He replaced Jimmy Banks with John Doyle, Vermes for Eichmann and Krumpe, sidelined for eight months with a stress fracture in his right foot, for Desmond Armstrong, who had suffered an ankle injury after returning against El Salvador.
His most stunning move was penciling Paul Caligiuri (pictured above) as a surprise starter and defensive midfielder, someone who had not started an important international in more than a year -- or since the 1988 Olympics. Gansler decided to start Caligiuri instead of John Stollmeyer, a midfielder with strong ties to Trinidad -- his father was born there and his great uncles were world-class cricket players there -- who had not missed a minute in the seven previous qualifying matches.
"I felt Paul’s quickness was better suited for [Russell] Latapy and [Dwight] Yorke," Gansler said of the two dangerous Trinidad midfielders.
In the 29th minute, the USA played with possible disaster when center back John Doyle took down Philbert Jones in the box. No foul was called as the visitors dodged a bullet.
"I would say that by today's standards, that would have been a penalty," Murray said. "But back then he got away with it. John will tell you the same thing, but we survived it."
Two minutes later, Caligiuri would make Gansler look like a genius with a well-placed, 30-yard shot with his left foot.
The scoring sequence started innocent enough as Bliss threw in the ball to Ramos.
"Tab jokes about it: 'You threw it so poorly it was at my neck. I was able to control it, " Bliss said with a laugh. “It probably wasn't that high, but it probably bounced and went into him. He ended up turning and playing it into Paul, who took that 10- or 15-yard run with it and uncorked a lefty. I had my hand in it literally with that throw in that led to that goal."
Murray had a bird's eye view of the shot. "I turn and I hear two of their players say, [crap!]. They both knew what was happening. He just hit it on the upswing and then it drove straight. It had so much spin that it dove like a dead quail. It hit its apex. The goalie was toast. There was nothing he could have done about it."
100 MOMENTS: Paul Caligiui’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”
The ball dropped into the right corner over goalkeeper Michael Maurice.
"The way he dipped that ball was fantastic," Harkes said. "I don't know a lot of keepers who could get that. It was brilliant."
It wasn't an accidental shot. While growing up in Diamond Bar, Calif. Caligiuri practiced long-range shooting against his family's two-car garage door.
“I probably broke down the garage door taking shots,” he said. “As I got bigger and bigger, I got further and further back into the street and eventually on the other side of the street. It wasn’t always the case that it hit the garage door. It hit the stucco above it. I literally took the stucco out, dead smack in the middle of the goal, middle of the garage. They had to patch it up. It never looked like the same stucco. I went to increase my level of shooting from distance and worked really hard on developing my left foot where I felt comfortable. And it paid off.”
Indeed, it did.
Caligiuri's teammates swarmed, burying him under a pile of humanity.
And now the U.S. had to keep T&T off the board.
In the stands, the 130-person USA contingent went wild.
"When we scored, we were going crazy," said Armstrong, who was brought to T&T even though he had suffered an ankle injury. "Everybody else was in shock."
U.S. head of delegation Walter Bahr, who set up Joe Gaetjens' goal in the 1950 shocker, was on the sidelines when Caligiuri scored his goal. "Our goal was a well-kept secret," Bahr later said. "The World Cup has grown so much in stature since 1950 that this was big for U.S. Soccer. That goal will be heard around the world and in the States."
"It was incredible seeing that goal in there," said Windischmann, who cautioned that "here was still a lot of time left. So, now it's like more pressure on the team and defense. We cannot give up a goal. Those last 10 minutes of the game just went on forever and we're like, get this whistle blowing already. We just had to keep doing our job. We got the goal, don't give up a goal. If you give up a tying goal, then you've got to score a goal, which is even worse. Let's just play the game, let's not make any mistakes. There was a lot at stake. If you don't go to the World Cup, there's four years of misery."
Finally, referee Juan Carlos Loustau blew the final whistle. Bedlam on the field? Not exactly. For some players it was exhaustion and relief that they were going to soccer's promised land and would continue to have a living.
"I just kind of collapsed with joy and exhaustion," Murray said. "I can’t believe we did this. At that time, we didn't know what was going to happen. If we didn't win that game, there's no real contracts. The league, what were we going to be doing for a living? I just bought a house and I didn’t how I was going to pay for it. I was getting married. All these things were going on. If it didn't happen, I just don't know where my life would be right now.”
Ramos collapsed onto the field. "It was hard to take in such a big moment at the time," he said. "Okay, you've won the game and then you're think you're going to the World Cup. The next day when we wake up. Wow! This is crazy! We're actually going to the World Cup! To qualify for the World Cup after 40 years is beyond ... At that point, I don’t think there could have been a bigger moment in U.S. Soccer, men or women."
Bliss described his feeling as euphoric. "I still submit today, and maybe myself and 50 percent of the roster, still didn't really know what we had done," he said. "Maybe the long-term effect or the short-term effect it would have on U.S. Soccer, soccer in the U.S., in the federation. Some of us were, 'We won another game, we're going to the World Cup. ... I still think the majority of us didn't understand the magnitude of it. I know I didn't. “
Meola looked for Vanole, who had been relegated to a back-up role and had remained professional the entire time. "I leaned on David Vanole all the time for encouragement," Meola said. "The guy was the greatest teammate. He could have been a poor sport about that -- some punk had come in and had taken his job. He ended up being my teammate at the World Cup and was a dear friend of mine for years and years."
Vanole passed away at 43 on Jan. 15, 2007.
While most of the Trinidad supporters were classy, there were some frustrated ones. "Going into the locker room they [the Trinidad fans] were throwing beer on us," Windischmann said. "I had a beer thrown at my head. We just looked up and said, 'Yeah, we're going to the World Cup and you're not! So that was such an unbelievable feeling that you were going to something that hasn't happened in 40 years."
A student of the game and U.S. Soccer history, Windischmann understood what it meant. Years later, he met up with John (Clarkie) Souaa, a member of the 1950 World Cup team.
"When I was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame i mentioned everybody from 1950 and before because those were the guys who were there," he said. "You realize you need these guys and 40 years’ time you're not making the World Cup. So, when you don't make it its disappointment, especially in '85. I was lucky enough being young to have those experiences to try to qualify for 1990. It's crazy that it took 40 years from 1950 to 1990 for a U.S. team to finally qualify. The time frame is just unbelievable that it took so long."
For the first time perhaps ever, champagne bottles popped to celebrate the historic achievement in a U.S. national team locker room.
Before he opened the locker room to the media – this was before mixed zones – Gansler told his troops, “Now we’ve gotten where we want to go, now we can dream a little bit.”
The team returned home as heroes of American soccer, breaking four decades of missing out on the World Cup. While many players rested. Meola had two challenges, backstopping the Cavaliers to a share of the NCAA Division I crown with Santa Clara in a showdown between a pair of future USMNT coaches - Bruce Arena (Virginia) and Steve Sampson (Santa Clara). Meola also was hailed as men's college soccer's top player, earning the Hermann Trophy and the Missouri Athletic Club award.
In the months following, there were plenty of things to sort out.
Desmond Armstrong (pictured above) and Jimmy Banks, the only black players on the squad, had to make a difficult decision when team members were offered contracts. At first the players balked, but Armstrong and Banks, friends since they were 15, realized they had to sign.
Their agent, Alan Herman, stressed the point to them.
"He really had my well-being in mind," Armstrong said. "He called me: 'Look, I know the players are trying to hold out and all this. It's a noble cause. But you have just come back from a broken leg."
Banks was married and had children.
Armstrong said his teammates "were really mad at us. They felt we were traitors ... that we weren't down for the cause. It was a bit of a rift between us at that time, but there were truths that were spoken to me. I know what these guys are talking about, but I have to sign this. Everything smoothed itself out by the time we got to the World Cup. We were all a unit. We were all in the same boat."
The next challenge, the players' greatest in their career, was awaiting in Florence and Rome, Italy in June 1990.