Peter Goldstein

Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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History starts tomorrow

    Just sitting here thinking about the USA's upcoming game in the World Cup quarterfinals, for goodness' sake, and wondering what fans in places like France, Argentina, and Portugal could possibly be thinking. (I know what they're thinking in Mexico; it's not printable.) Probably the last thing they're thinking about is the state of soccer in America, and how the USA, of all countries, is still playing while they're not.

    But it's an interesting story nonetheless, and not a long one at all. Henry Ford, the American inventor and industrialist, once said "History is bunk." Americans have little or no respect for the past; we believe we can reinvent ourselves whenever we choose. Anything before yesterday is ancient history. The USA won some famous World Cup victories in 1930 and 1950, and participated in 1934 as well. But only stat freaks and archivists like me have any real interest in the Mesozoic Era of American soccer.

    In fact, the modern age of American soccer began less than 13 years ago, on November 19, 1989, when the USA travelled to Port-of-Spain in Trinidad and Tobago in the final CONCACAF qualifier for Italia '90. The USA needed a win to qualify; the host team needed only a draw. It was an unlikely opportunity for both teams, available only because Mexico, the top team in the region, had been kicked out of the qualifiers for fielding overage players in a FIFA youth tournament. The punishment was widely believed to have been motivated by the opportunity to give the USA, which would host the 1994 cup, a chance to qualify for 1990. As a result of the ban, the USA was a genuine contender for the second of two CONCACAF spots. Costa Rica had grabbed the first already, and the game in Port-of-Spain would determine the second.

    The game was relatively lifeless for the first thirty minutes, punctuated only by the marvelous nonstop steel band music from the enthusiastic home fans. Then, in the 30th minute, midfielder Paul Caligiuri of the USA, finding himself about 30 yards from goal with nothing particular to do, lofted a high, looping, speculative shot. It rose up into the Caribbean sun, and the keeper, standing off his line, appeared to lose sight of it. When he finally realized the danger, he hurried back, back, back, but it was too late; the ball somehow dipped just under the bar and into the net, and the USA led 1-0. Sixty minutes later the Americans had qualified for their first World Cup in 40 years. Journalists here called Caligiuri's goal "the shot heard round the world."

    That's a pretty funny joke. Americans think that everyone in the world cares what happens to Americans, and so if the USA qualified for the World Cup, it must have left echoes in Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, not to mention Cameroon and the United Arab Emirates. The shot was undoubtedly heard in FIFA headquarters in Switzerland, where it probably sounded like the ching-ching of cash registers, but I can't believe it made much impact anywhere else. World Cup fanatics noted it and went on worrying about draws, sites, and statistics; the average fan probably didn't hear about it at all.

    But the USA sent a team to Italia '90 anyway. It was mainly a bunch of college kids, mostly without any professional experience, even at the low levels of professional soccer in America. They went out and played bravely, but were thrashed by Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Austria. Against the Czechs they seemed among other things not to know how to defend against a near-post corner kick, and went down 5-1. The record shows they lost to Italy only 1-0, but don't be fooled; the team put 11 men (maybe even 12) in their own half for the whole game, and the score was more the result of Italian ineptitude than American heroism. Against Austria they had the man advantage for the entire second half, and still lost 2-1.

    For the record, Paul Caligiuri and Bruce Murray got the USA's two goals. But the most talented player on the team was Tabare "Tab" Ramos, a midfielder with excellent ball skills and vision. He was born in Uruguay, and it was typical of the times that the best player on the team should come from somewhere else. Except in small pockets like St. Louis, Missouri, and Kearney, New Jersey, the USA had no real soccer culture. Any sort of brilliance in the sport had to come from a country with a far greater tradition.

    Nevertheless, there was a player on that team who would be emblematic of the future of American soccer. He was young Eric Wynalda, born and bred in the USA, a highly talented but temperamental striker who managed to get himself red-carded in the opener against Czechslovakia. He would be the first American player to make his mark in Europe, logging several productive seasons in Germany and letting the world know that Americans could actually produce quality players. He would be the main man up front for many years to come, and even now remains the USA's all-time national team goal scorer. In 1990, though, he was so raw that coach Bob Gansler played him at midfield, fearing he wouldn't be up to the pressure of starting at striker. Out of position, he contributed little.

    Four years later the squad was an intriguing mixed bag. It included some holdovers from 1990 (Caligiuri, Wynalda, Ramos, keeper Tony Meola, and midfielder John Harkes, who would play for Derby County in England) and a new generation of American players (defenders Marcello Balboa and Alexi Lalas, midfielder Cobi Jones). But it also included some non-American born players, people like Earnie Stewart from Holland, Thomas Dooley from Germany, Roy Wegerle from South Africa, players who played in Europe and were eligible either through marriage, ancestry, or nationalization. This was the quick and easy way to respectability, the obvious interim step until a deeper player pool could develop.

    Still, as coached by Bora Milutinovic, it was no more than a decent side. Even playing at home, the results were hardly outstanding. First came a 1-1 draw with Switzerland, earned on a Wynalda free kick. Then a huge upset over Colombia, on the notorious own goal by Andres Escobar and a nice combination goal where Ramos put through Stewart. The rest was anticlimax: a 1-0 loss to Romania, and a 1-0 loss to Brazil in which Bora put the team in the most defensive bunker imaginable. Even after Leonardo was sent off for elbowing Ramos, they stayed in their shell, and were duly punished by Bebeto seventeen minutes from time. But overall, there was progress: the team had qualified for the second round, and had shown it could stay on the field with better teams and not be embarrassed.

    Between 1994 and 1998 two things happened. First, in 1995, under new head coach Steve Sampson, the team went down to the Copa America in Uruguay, and finished a very surprising third. This included victories over Chile, Mexico, and, astonishingly, Argentina, and the team was only eliminated in the semifinals in a close 1-0 game with Brazil. It was roughly the same squad that had played at USA '94, with the important additions of Claudio Reyna, Kasey Keller, and Brad Friedel, and it was the first time the USA had shown itself able to play with good teams away from home.

    The second came in 1996: the establishment of Major League Soccer, the long-awaited first-division American league. This is not the place to debate the merits and defects of MLS (there are plenty of both); the key is to note that for the first time there was a league at home where talent could develop. Sure, it wasn't on the level of the European leagues, and the best players, people like Stewart, Dooley, Reyna, Keller, and Friedel, still went abroad. But now the young hot prospects, plus the middling players, had a place to play regularly.

    Expectation was high for 1998. For the first time, the team had qualified from a full-strength CONCACAF qualifying tournament, drawing twice with Mexico and splitting two games with Costa Rica. They were firmly established as regional powers, and it was time to show the world that they knew how to play. The team had its first good MLS players, Eddie Pope and Brian McBride, but it was mostly the same mix of the older generation and some new eligible-by-marriage types, such as David Regis. Unfortunately, Sampson had lost his touch by then. John Harkes, the captain, was thrown off the side for insubordination, and the coach changed tactics at the last minute, installing an unfamiliar 3-6-1 formation and starting several untried players. The team went down to three consecutive defeats, even losing to a clearly inferior Iran.

    In 1999 Bruce Arena took over. That was a milestone too: after Sampson's failure, the call went out for a foreign coach, but the USSF chose Arena, without any question the most successful coach in American domestic history. He had done the job at the University of Virginia and at DC United in MLS, and it was through him that American soccer would be most likely to come of age.

    The team started fast under Arena, earning a third place in the 1999 Confederations Cup, including a win over Germany. But the World Cup qualifiers were a near-disaster. Only a late win over Barbados got the USA to the Hexagonal, and after a brilliant start the team collapsed, backing in when Honduras unexpectedly lost at home to Trinidad and Tobago. If everyone expected a fine showing in 1998, no one was willing to predict it in 2002.

    But as the results of the last few weeks have shown, under Arena's guidance and the MLS influence, the team has finally reached respectability. A number of the European league stars (Reyna, Friedel, Stewart) are still in there pitching, and there are some new ones like John O'Brien of Ajax, but the most exciting players on the side are now home-grown. Clint Mathis, Josh Wolff, Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley have all developed under MLS. Donovan, Beasley, and Mathis will probably all play in Europe eventually, but it's clear now that the USA finally has begun to produce players who can start their careers here and have a hope of succeeding on the international level. Even a solid journeyman like Tony Sanneh has been an MLS success: when he started with DC United in 1996 he seemed a very ordinary player, but in a few years under Arena he developed sufficiently to play regularly in the Bundesliga. Nationalized citizens are rare now; Regis is on his last legs, and the only other non-native squad member is defender Carlos Llamosa, who has featured only once as a substitute. The USA is at last a full-fledged member of the football world.

    I don't want to overstate the case for American soccer. We are at best only equal to the second tier European and South American teams, and as you can tell from the game against Poland, we remain inconsistent at World Cup level. Reaching the quarterfinals is a tremendous achievement, but it's an overachievement at this point. The USA is probably at least a decade away from being a regular threat to get to the final eight.

    In fact, one of the main reasons we're in the quarterfinals is the luck of the draw. How fortunate to get Mexico, a team we play so often, beat half the time, and of whom we have no fear whatsoever. And what a rotten draw for Mexico, who after a heroic effort against Italy found that all it got them was yet another match against the Johnny-come-latelies from the north. Even Javier Aguirre, one of the great motivators, could do little with that one. The USA got a huge break when the referee missed John O'Brien's handball, but were definitely the better team on the day. Solid defense, disciplined midfield play, dangerous counterattacks, good finishing. As one who has supported Mexico throughout this tournament, I felt bad for them; it was absolutely the worst possible way to go out.

    But for the USA, it's on to Germany, and the incredible possibility of the semifinals. Germany is stronger, faster, tougher, more experienced, in a word, better. We're not in their league, and I'd be lying if I said I expected the USA to win. 3-0 to Germany sounds about right. And yet the USA has definite strengths. Brad Friedel is an excellent keeper, and the team can score goals. They've scored six so far (not counting the own goal against Portugal), and five have been outstanding: Beckhamesque crosses from Sanneh and Lewis met by perfect headers from McBride and Donovan; lovely three-player combinations from Jones-Mathis-Donovan versus Poland and Reyna-Wolff-McBride versus Mexico, and that lovely two-touch trap and finish from Clint Mathis against South Korea. The USA will sit back, hoping to get effective midfield possession to launch counterattacks. John O'Brien, who has had an excellent tournament, and Claudio Reyna, who moved his game up a notch against Mexico, are the men to watch there. If they can get possession, there's the firepower to pull an upset.

    On the other hand, there's history. Germany is one of the greatest of football nations, and no World Cup fan needs to be told what they've accomplished. But I'll list it anyway: 3 championships, 6 appearances in the Final, 9 in the semifinals, 13 in the quarterfinals. The USA has only that distant semifinal appearance in 1930, when only 13 teams showed up and Germany didn't even compete. Want more? There's the group stage game from France '98, where Germany scored early and eased past the USA 2-0. And back in March of this year the team played Germany in Rostock and got manhandled 4-2. So history's verdict is clear. But if you ask Arena, the team, and their fans about the past, they'll merely shrug their shoulders. For better or worse, these are Americans, for whom history always starts tomorrow.



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