The grant program of 1988-94

dooley After the United States won the right to host the 1994 World Cup, the U.S. Soccer Federation had to face the difficulties of fielding a respectable United States team in that World Cup, difficulties resulting particularly from the folding of the North American Soccer League in 1985 and financial troubles in the Major Indoor Soccer League in 1988.

Only a few Americans were playing in Europe in the late 1980s, and the problems in U.S. leagues had severely cut back the opportunities for American players to be able to make a living in the game. The USSF's response to the problem was to conduct a national-team-in-training program that, if not unique in soccer annals, was at least very unusual.

The program was announced in October 1988, three months after the United States was awarded the 1994 World Cup. Under it, leading American players not under contract to professional clubs were able to sign contracts with the federation that paid them a living wage, although one far below that made by first-division players in Europe. The players either trained full-time with the national team or were loaned by the federation to pro clubs.

Some of those players eventually were sold to the clubs they had been loaned to. The most prominent of those was John Harkes, who was loaned to Sheffield Wednesday in England for the 1990-91 season, and then transferred to Sheffield Wednesday in 1991.

The program originally involved 14 players, who were not necessarily the United States' 14 best players. For example, Paul Caligiuri was not among the original 14 because he was playing for SV Meppen of the West German second division during the 1988-89 season. Caligiuri later did join the program, from March 1990 to October 1994, although he was loaned to German clubs during the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons.

There were several players, particularly in the latter stages of the program, who were offered contracts by the USSF but declined them. They hoped that they would be in a position to sign with European clubs after the 1994 World Cup, and wanted to be free agents when that day arrived.

The program did produce one international transfer controversy, after the federation signed Thomas Dooley (above) in the summer of 1993, despite the fact that he was still under contract to Kaiserslautern in Germany. The federation's main reason for signing Dooley seems to have been that it wanted to protect him from injury in the weekly grind of the Bundesliga during the year before the World Cup. Kaiserslautern protested to FIFA, but FIFA chose to look the other way.

Eventually, more than 30 players participated in the program during its six years of existence. The program ended in October 1994, when the last of the contracts that had been in effect during the 1994 World Cup expired. By that time, soccer offered far more employment opportunities to American players than it had in 1988.

The United States produced a decent performance in the 1994 World Cup. To at least some degree, the grant program of the previous six years was what enabled it to do so.