Throwback Thursday: The US Qualifies For the 1990 World Cup In The Match That Changed Nothing

If you think the United States' 1-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago changed the course of American soccer history, think again.

Nov 17 2016, 3:01pm

Image via Youtube screengrab

Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.

On November 19, 1989, the United States qualified for the World Cup by beating Trinidad and Tobago in front of a sold-out crowd of 35,000 in Port of Spain. It was the first World Cup for which the U.S. national team actually earned qualification, having been invited in 1930 and 1950, the Americans' only two other appearances.

Plenty of articles have been written and videos made about the match itself and Paul Caligiuri's goal in the 31st minute —called the "shot heard round the world," Revolutionary War and baseball be damned—and there has been much debate about whether it was a spectacular strike or a fluke because the sun got in goalkeeper Michael Maurice's eyes. In either event, it has been anointed as one of the great moments in American soccer history, the dawn of a new era, a permanent answer to the ancient riddle, "If someone scores a goal for a country that doesn't care, does it really count?"

The answer, of course, is: yes. It counts. But only once the rest of the country starts liking the sport some two decades after the fact. Because rather than marking a turning point for American soccer, USA 1, Trinidad and Tobago 0 changed very little—in retrospect, qualifying for the Cup was arguably a historical accident, and less a great leap forward than an unexpected hop-skip during the country's slow, ongoing slog to soccer relevance.

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Let's go back in time. 1989 was a bad year during a bad decade for American soccer. After the NASL folded in 1984, interest in the sport was perhaps at an all-time low. Several leagues popped up to fill the void, such as the Major Indoor Soccer League, Western Soccer League, and American Soccer League, but they were perpetually financially strapped. Meanwhile, Major League Soccer was still some six years away.

As a result, the US team fielded in Port of Spain was mostly players struggling to find steady paying jobs. One of the only exceptions was Team USA's starting goalkeeper, Tony Meola, a junior at the University of Virginia.

This group of players probably would have had little hope of qualifying if not for Mexico's absence. For the second straight World Cup qualification, Mexico was a non-entity: the country hosted the 1986 tournament and therefore got an automatic spot, and was disqualified from the 1990 tournament due to fielding overage players during the 1988 Olympics.

That disqualification broke the field wide open. Fittingly enough, most contemporary accounts barely mentioned Mexico's absence as a significant factor in the USA's qualification, although most did take the time to explain helpful facts such as what the World Cup is, how the tournament works, and how often it is held.

1989 also was the last year CONCACAF qualifying was held under the banner of the CONCACAF Championship, a tournament stretching from March to November in which each team played home-and-home with the four other participants (that tournament became the USA-hosted Gold Cup, while World Cup qualifying became a whole new format; we can thank Chuck Blazer for that innovation).

The four US home games were played in high school-type stadiums: Saint Louis Soccer Park in Fenton, Missouri; Murdock Stadium at El Camino College in Torrance, CA; and Veterans Stadium in New Britain, CT, home of New Britain High School.

Despite the high stakes—winner went to the World Cup, and T&T would go if they tied—the game was not shown live in the U.S., instead broadcast on tape delay on cable. Europeans, though, did get to see the game as it happened, although why anyone in Europe would have watched is hard to figure.

Bob Ley introducing the highlights on 1989 SportsCenter. Photo via Youtube screengrab

In classic CONCACAF fashion, it didn't take the US Soccer Federation two decades to figure out how to profit off the win. More like two days. Richard Groff, a long time member of the Federation, told the New York Times that he estimated they would make $10 million in the next year because of the goal (he didn't break down any numbers). A marketing expert who worked with the Federation, Stephen J. Caspers, also told the Times it might make them "half a billion" in the long run, which is simultaneously an overestimate of the goal's impact and an underestimate of the financial power soccer would eventually have. He then said he "just might make a few calls to some multinationals when he got home."

American sportswriters didn't know quite what to make of the victory, either. All things considered, the match was well covered: the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and many other newspapers sent reporters to Port of Spain, and the Post's write-up by Steve Berkowitz was on par with anything you'd find about a modern U.S. Men's National Team match. On the other hand, journalist and sportscaster Bud Collins noted in the Independent, that "this result made the national impact of, say, Indonesians taking up ice hockey or Swiss competing in surfing." Collins' article also included such crack journalism as extensively quoting his "Uncle Studley."

Some writers, like the players and USSF officials, jumped the gun and claimed the game would usher in the golden age of American soccer. Others, like Collins, were dismissive. The most measured and prescient observation I found, though, was from Baltimore Sun columnist John Eisenberg, who pretty much hit the nail on the head, probably because he actually had a passing interest in the match:

"If there is any chance for soccer to become popular, it will come when the kids weaned on it grow up and have soccer-playing kids of their own, creating families where it is the No. 1 sport. By then, the 1994 Cup will have created more fans, and there should be enough competent American players to fill a credible league. It might work."

Although Eisenberg does go on to say "it probably won't, though," his timeline to soccer popularity was on point. The 1990 World Cup did little for US Soccer in the grand scheme of things. Hosting the 1994 tournament—which, again, had already been decided before Caligiuri's goal—had a far greater impact, and even that, I would argue, had a fairly negligible influence on Millennials, who are most responsible for the boom times American soccer is experiencing today.

Indeed, the fundamental factors that have helped soccer in the United States—the proliferation of the Internet, dozens of sports cable television channels, Hispanic immigration, the wild popularity of EA's FIFA video game, globalization writ large—were hard to see coming in 1990. On the list of contributing factors, Caligiuri's goal is far, far down. In an alternate world where the USA loses that game and never makes the 1990 World Cup, the American soccer landscape would almost certainly look exactly the same as it does today, minus one feel-good story.

The US went 0-3 in the 1990 World Cup by a combined score of 8-2.

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