Before the turning point
Posted on October 1, 2012 12:13 am
What did the U.S. men’s national team do in 1989? That’s an easy one. It’s well known what Paul Caligiuri and his teammates accomplished in Trinidad on Nov. 19, 1989. So what else did the U.S. men’s national team do in 1989? Not as easy.
One reason why the events of Nov. 19 were so stunning was that the United States had been performing unsteadily that year, particularly in a 0-0 home tie with El Salvador two weeks before. The year had started out brightly, with talk that the United States was a good bet to qualify for the World Cup under its new coach, Bob Gansler, who had just led the United States to its best-ever finish in the Under-20 World Cup. Another thing that helped was that Mexico had been removed as an obstacle, disqualified by FIFA for using overage players in an age-group tournament. However, the removal of Mexico meant the addition to the final qualifying series of Costa Rica, which had been paired with Mexico in a first-round series and thus advanced to that five-team final series by forfeit.
The United States’ two games against Costa Rica were its first two in the pentagonal, and the Americans escaped with a 1-0 loss on the road and a 1-0 victory at home. They nearly had to settle for a tie in the home game in Fenton, Mo., on April 30. A Costa Rican shot in the 88th minute was kept out of the net only by an intentional handball, and David Vanole saved the resulting penalty.
Two weeks later, facing Trinidad in Torrance, Calif., the Americans weren’t as fortunate. Again they led by 1-0 into the 88th minute, but this time a startling goal by Hutson Charles tied the final score. Marlon Morris dove at a through ball from midfield by Brian Williams and headed it onto the feet of Charles in front of the U.S. goal. The Americans left the field with their qualifying prospects looking far less shiny than they had just a few minutes earlier.
A 2-1 win over Guatemala in New Britain, Conn., in mid-June helped to revive the American hopes a bit, and they also had been helped by the results of a tournament in New Jersey a few weeks before that. In the final, the United States beat Peru, 3-0, gaining only its third victory ever over a South American nation. In addition to that boost to their confidence, they also found an excellent new goalkeeper at that tournament, Tony Meola.
The United States began the second half of the pentagonal with a 1-0 win over El Salvador on a neutral field in Honduras on Sept. 17. Adding to the celebration was the fact that the American goal was scored by Hugo Perez, who had been born in El Salvador. A month later, the Americans got a 0-0 tie with Guatemala on a muddy quagmire of a field in Guatemala City, a disappointing result. They had been hoping for more, since Guatemala had been mathematically eliminated and was fielding a diluted team. That result enabled Costa Rica to clinch one of the two CONCACAF World Cup berths, and left the United States and Trinidad to battle for the other one.
The United States’ last qualifier before the trip to Trinidad, against El Salvador in Fenton, Mo., on Nov. 5, was a huge letdown. El Salvador was another country that had been mathematically eliminated. It fielded a club team, Luis Angel Firpo, instead of its real national team, and didn’t arrive at its hotel until late the night before the game, after a 15-hour trip. Everything seemed ripe for a United States victory that would leave it needing only a tie in Trinidad on Nov. 19 to qualify. Instead, after the lifeless 0-0 tie with El Salvador, the United States went to Trinidad having to win there (which, of course, it did).
The Americans played another game en route to Trinidad that may have helped. On Nov. 14, Gansler’s team met Bermuda in a closed-door friendly in Cocoa Beach, Fla. It won, 2-1, with John Doyle and Eric Eichmann scoring the goals. The starting lineup included nine of the 11 who started against Trinidad five days later.