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
Read earlier columns
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
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
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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