The Dance of Ambition: USA at World Cup 1990

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The Trinidad and Tobago football team of the late 1980s, nicknamed the Strike Squad, was but a single point away from qualification to the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Needing only a draw and playing at home, Trinidad and Tobagolost1-0 to a Paul Caligiuri goal, allowing the US national team to qualify  for the first time in 36 years and giving a much needed boost to their football pedigree ahead of their hosting of the 1994 World Cup.

 The FIFA Fair Play award for 1989 would go to the spectators at the National Stadium in Port-of-Spain for their good behaviour despite the loss. The supporters were so unable to process the disappointment that they could not make a sound. This is the story as told by those who claimed to be at the stadium that day (and as the stadium was overcrowded, a great many people claim to have been there).The scoreboard operator even found time to flash the message “Congrats, USA. Do well in Italy.”

But if one of the many shots on goal had resulted in Trinidad scoring or if Caligiuri had pulled  his shot wide, Trinidad and Tobago would have established their record as the smallest country to qualify for a World Cup 16 years earlier than they eventually do in 2006. 

The Trinidadian supporters were confident. The government had awarded a public holiday days in advance of the match for the day after to celebrate. Local legend also narrates that the players were tired from pre-emptive celebrations. The team had left their training camp in the south of the country on a motorcade lasting several hours in the tropical heat, before getting to the capital in the north. 

There are a lot of what-ifs to consider, as there must be, when a game is decided by one goal. 

Philbert Jones, uncle of Kenywne Jones who would play against England in the 2006 World Cup, was tackled minutes before Caligiuri scores. Even viewed through grainy replays shot at bad angles, a penalty would not have been an extremely surprising outcome. But the referee took little time to make up his mind and didn’t give it. 

 It is the bounciness of the pitch that helps make the goal. Caliguiri’s looping shot would fall just outside the reach of goalkeeper Michael Maurice who appeared to dive late. Without this bounce, Caligiuri would be unable to fire a dipping shot. Without this dip, a save at a more comfortable height is the likely outcome, although the keeper’s insistence that the sun was in his eyes does not allow certitude. 

The Trinidadians had set up their training ground in Forest Reserve in muddy conditions and the national coach, Everald “Gally” Cummings has said that he would have preferred a wet field. However, the groundsmen at the national stadium had left the floodlights on all night and refused the request of the team manager to put on the sprinklers before the match. After a loss it is rarely seen as anything other than making excuses to blame the conditions and the Strike Squad did not lose because they were unable to play on a bouncy pitch. But a wet field would certainly have helped, if only by training ground familiarity, and a bit of manufactured advantageous home conditions might have had the team on a plane to Italy. 

For the USA, soccer had long been a marginal sport that remained outside of the collective popular imagination. In 1989, it was a sport found only in gym classes in suburban neighbourhoods or in neighbourhoods with a large immigrant presence. For the average American, soccer was likely seen as either foreign or feminine. But America would host the 1994 World Cup and the US Soccer Federation (USSF) felt the need to build their marketing on the men’s teams’ image. The CONCACAF championship, which preceded the Gold Cup and served as the World Cup qualifying campaign from 1973 to 1990, had only featured the USA once before. Their second appearance, which would result in their successful qualification for Italy in 1990, was so well timed it could have seemed like the storyline was written in Hollywood or Madison Avenue. Caliguri’s shot is quickly dubbed “The shot heard around the world” in the American media.

In 1989, there was no professional league in the USA. Their selection as the host of a World Cup was a contentious one, as countries where football was and remains the most popular sport, such as Morocco and Brazil had also bid. Soccer was an afterthought compared to the “Big Four” of American sports, and there was concern from more traditional football nations that the tournament would be more about showbiz than sport. There was also the concern that the US national team would have embarrassingly weak, a concern that would arise in 2010 for South Africa and again in the case of Qatar being selected as the 2022 hosts. In 1989, the US national team is under significant pressure to show they belong at a World Cup for a reason other than being the hosts.

Before this period of continuous World Cup presence, there was little security around American soccer. The players on the American national team had all played in college but at the time only Paul Caligiuri was a full time professional. The US national team players had been given a contract for the duration of the 1990 qualifying tournament to play for the national team. If the USA did not qualify, it was possible these players would use their college degrees and find jobs outside of the sport. If they had missed the opportunity to be seen on a larger stage in Italy, perhaps the result is the USSF makes no attempts to find opportunities abroad for their players, and football as a career doesn’t seem much of a possibility

After the 1990 World Cup several American players would go on to play in Europe, with Steve Trittschuh the best example of direct linkage to exposure. The assistant coach of the Czech Republic, impressed by Trittschuh’s performance against the Czechs, extended an invitation for him to play at Sparta Prague. Kasey Keller and John Harkes went on to play several years in England, with Keller the first of a regular presence of American goalkeepers in the Premier League. Eric Wynalda would play in the German Bundesliga, starting a trend for outfield American players in this league, with trailblazers like Steve Cherundolo and Claudio Reyna and continuing up to Christian Pusilic and Bobby Wood in more recent times.

The USMNT prior to 1989 had finished 6th in their only Gold Cup appearance in 1985. Before that they had either not entered or not qualified for the tournament. Of the 13 tournaments since the changing of the Gold Cup format in 1991 to its present form, they have won 6 titles and been to 10 finals in total. Having been invited to Copa America four times, they have twice finished fourth in 1995 and 2016, beating Argentina 3-0 and losing 1-0 to Brazil in the semi-final in the former tournament. 

The MLS is in its 25th year and football is the second most watched sport in the country by people born after the hosting of the World Cup in 1994. America is now a regional giant in the sport of football, having qualified for every tournament from 1990 until 2014. In 2018, they would miss out having lost, in a circular turn of fate, to Trinidad and Tobago in their final group game when they only needed a point to qualify

Since their 1990 qualification the USMNT has qualified for the knockout rounds in 1994, 2002, 2010 and 2014. It took Belgium and Ghana extra time in the round of 16 to dispatch the Americans at their last two appearances and in 2002 USA lost only1-0 to finalists Germany in the quarter finals. Landon Donovan would be named young player of the tournament.  By 2018, it is a surprise that the USA did not qualify for the World Cup. By this time, they are expected regulars at the final stages of the World Cup and considered potentially difficult opponents for all but the top tier of football nations. None of this happens without the win against Trinidad and Tobago and the resultant visibility of the 1990 World Cup team. 

Soccer in the USA has potential. Itis something that had been said often enough before the awarding of the hosting of the 1994 World Cup. But without a national team worthy of interest it is possible that the interest stoked in the 1994 World Cup does not result in anything tangible and becomes only a brief soccer-watching blip for the American public, further restricting the emergence of future players. Without the MLS and associated academies in the US Developmental Association, football probably does get to the point where Americans are scattered across major leagues in Europe. Without the possibility of regular appearances at the World Cup, it may have been the case that players with the possibility to play for another country, would have chosen not to play for the USA. Players who were born in and have trained in Germany are now a common feature in American squads but without a successful national team, perhaps the necessary funding that goes to scouting in order to find and invite these players would not arise. The vast resources and funding available to sport in America might also have never gone into developing the grassroots interest in the game into more tangible systems of development and professionalisation, at least for the men’s team.

The impact on Trinidadian football might have been marginal, as the Strike Squad were a team approaching their pinnacle. Of the Strike Squad, Russell Latapy and Dwight Yorke (who came off the bench against the Americans as Trinidad chased the game) would later be part of the World Cup squad in Germany in the twilight of their careers. The Trinidadian national team never again came close to qualification until a younger generation appeared. Several Trinidadian players went on to in Britain, especially in Scotland, and in Portugal, even without the visibility of a World Cup appearance during the 1990s and early 2000s. However, if the USA had not qualified for the World Cup, then perhaps they also would never set up a football structure including the MLS and USL. Without this, there is much less of a possibility for the future Trinidad and Tobago teams to produce strong performances.

Much of the team that qualified for the World Cup in 2006 had their first professional contracts in the USA. Record national goal scorer, Stern John, won the MLS Golden Boot in 1998 playing for Columbus Crew and the starting goalkeeper at the tournament in Germany, Shaka Hislop, was drafted from Howard University for the indoor soccer club Baltimore Blast.  During a pre-season tour of England with Baltimore, Hislop was signed by Reading and  had a ten yearcareer in the Premier League where he played for Newcastle, Portsmouth and West Ham.

 The current national team also populated by players playing in the USA, with 11 of the 23-man squad for the 2019 Gold Cup playing in the USL and MLS. The expansion of popularity in football in the USA has offered opportunities to Trinidadian players to turn professional once opportunities in the UK and Europe became less of a frequent occurrence. While 12 players of neighbouring Guyana’s 2019 Gold Cup squad were born in and played in England, Trinidad and Tobago has never regularly fielded teams who have been born or trained abroad. Without the possibility of scholarships from the American collegiate system and the ensuing access to the American professional leagues, it is certain that the quality and development of players would be negatively impacted, as the professional and administrative structure of local football in Trinidad and Tobago is not as developed as  in America. Local players can certainly carve out a career in local football but  the comparative level of play and training abroad, as well wages on offer, means that having local football as the only option would  reduce both the progress of players and also the available pool of players. The decision to turn professional is not straightforward when several teams in the Trinidad and Tobago Professional Football League have had issues with cash flow and some have also gone bankrupt and no longer exist. Only 7 players on the 2019 Gold Cup squad were home based.

The rise of the USA as a regional football power has proved to be a stumbling block for Trinidad and Tobago in their attempts to qualify for the World Cup. Yet, it could be speculated that if the Strike Squad and not the USMNT had qualified for the World Cup in 1990, the overall state of the game in both countries would be worse off. Perhaps both teams may not have had the opportunity to appear on the global stage of the World Cup in the 2000s. 

Of course, absolutely no Trini supporter would be able to accept the loss as better in the long run. Football runs on emotions and qualifying for a World Cup would surely have been more satisfying than any idea of developing teams who may perhaps qualify for future World Cups. But, if the professional leagues of MLS and USL in the United States continue to be a platform upon which the Trinidad and Tobago national team can build their player quality, then perhaps the loss was necessary.

Shastri Sookdeo

S.R. Sookdeo was born in Toronto and grew up in Trinidad and Tobago. He is often found discussing the impact of football on identity.