Sports Illustrated had a fluffy feature online this week about the great turning points in sports history. One estimated the stats that Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio would have had, were it not for Hitler and such. Turns out they’d have had really, really good stats.
ANYWAY, they got Grant Wahl to answer a couple of alternative counterfactuals.
One was whether the US would have won the World Cup by now if our “best athletes” chose association football instead of various other pastimes. Wahl said “Dream on,” and he’s almost certainly correct. Holland didn’t win a World Cup with literal Johan Cruyff.
The other question he received was, what if Torsten Frings had been penalized and red-carded in 2002? It’s far from certain, even with a man up, that we dispatch Germany, but Wahl quoted Bruce Arena as saying had the calls gone the correct way, the US’ chances were “better than 50-50.” Slightly similar optimism gets us past the co-hosts in the semifinal – had we not drawn 1-1 with South Korea earlier? Was South Korea not equally at home in that game?
And after that? Unless we’re talking about Ronaldo II: The Re-Poisoning, Brazil murders us in the final. Wahl, Arena and Landon Donovan don’t come right and say so, but come on.
Anyway, I’m certainly not going to turn down a fruit basket from the Muse of Easy Thinkpieces. There were a couple of other Great Turning Points in US soccer history that come to mind.
For example, WHAT IF THE UNITED STATES HAD LOST THE 1994 WORLD CUP?
(LOST IT, AS IN, DIDN’T HOST IT. OBVIOUSLY THE US DIDN’T WIN THE TOURNAMENT.)
About fifteen years ago Paul Caligiuri told me that, had the United States failed to qualify for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the 1994 World Cup would have been moved to Germany. “I didn’t know that,” I said weakly. “Nobody does,” Paul responded. (I suppose I could dig the old Emerald City Gazette that the original story appeared in, but you’d merely be taking my word for it in 2002 instead of 2017. The Guardian asked Caligiuri about it a couple of years ago, and he alluded to the potential, not the certainty, that the tournament would have been moved.
I believed the premise then, and believe it now. The tournament had been awarded to the United States fifteen months earlier, in July 1988. Even in this reality, FIFA engineered USSF President Werner Fricker’s replacement with Alan Rothenberg the summer following the Trinidad game. Fricker’s USSF had bungled the television broadcasting rights, for example. What was then still West Germany was politely reminding anyone who would listen that they could certainly shoulder the burden, if necessary. And, after all, the 1986 tournament had been moved from Colombia to Mexico.
In fact, the what if scenario here might not be Caligiuri’s goal, but Rothenberg’s election. Had Fricker held out against FIFA, it’s very easy to imagine the tournament being taken away from him.
If Paul had shanked his shot for a throw-in, what would have been different? The immediate casualty would have been the cultural force we know/love/tolerate/despise as Major League Soccer. The APSL would have continued to be the de facto top league in America. Looking back, there were wonderful teams and players in the APSL – but it also struggled against indoor leagues, lack of facilities, and constant financial constraints. Neither Fricker nor Rothenberg seriously considered the APSL as a candidate for Division 1 status. After MLS was established, the APSL ended up merging with the USISL, which would mutate further into today’s USL. The way forward for those leagues in the absence of the World Cup and MLS is unknowable, but certainly would have been wildly unstable. The most likely outcome of losing the 1994 World Cup would have been the status quo of the 1980’s continuing deep into the 1990’s.
There would have been signs of hope, however. The women’s team had won the first Women’s World Cup (although it wasn’t called that yet), and would probably have still captured the nation’s attention in the 1996 Olympics. The USSF, even without the 1994 windfall, could have managed hosting the 1999 World Cup.
And all those kids that started playing during the NASL era and after would not have all disappeared. Maybe people like Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride and Landon Donovan would have succeeded in the late 90’s or early 2000’s, and managed to qualify for the World Cup – aided perhaps by the field expanding to 32 teams. With the women making the game more popular in America, increased talent making the men’s team somewhat respectable, and without Germany screwing up World Cup bids in the first decade of the 2000’s, the USSF would have been in a much better position than 1990. They could easily have tried again for the World Cup. One assumes they would have called it Project 2010.
But Caligiuri connected, Rothenberg was elected, and the US hosted. WHAT IF TAB RAMOS AND JOHN HARKES WERE ABLE TO PLAY THE ENTIRE SECOND ROUND GAME AGAINST BRAZIL? WHAT IF LEONARDO’S ELBOW HAD MISSED?
Harkes, genius that he was, talked himself into a yellow card against Romania and a great seat for the Brazil game. But in 1994, he was at the peak of a career that made him a quality player in what people were still getting used to calling the Premier League. His presence would have made the game much less of a jog for Brazil. Without Harkes, Brazil only had to worry about one player – Tab Ramos. We don’t have to speculate how he would have done against Brazil, he was one of the best players on the field. Then Leonardo broke his head open. The US was never going to win that particular game – Romario and company were toying with us. But Ramos was sidelined for six months, and to a lot of observers (including me), was not the same player afterwards. Tab Ramos could have been a fixture in La Liga even more than Reyna and Cherundolo were in the Bundesliga – which could only have helped in 1998 and 2002. Ramos’ head injury was the worst injury in US soccer history, and we’ll never really know how far it set us back.
But again, it wouldn’t have mattered in 1994, because Brazil was a hell of a lot better than we were.
Want to go down a dark road for a second? WHAT IF OSAMA BIN LADEN HAD MURDERED THE 1998 WORLD CUP TEAM?
The plot involved terrorists infiltrating the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille as stadium crew, in order to attack English players and spectators during the England-Tunisia match on 15 June. Terrorists had reportedly planned to blow up the England substitute bench (targeting youngsters David Beckham and Michael Owen), shoot English players and throw grenades into the stands. Other terrorists were then to storm the United States national team's hotel in Paris and attack American players watching the game there. The attacks would be followed by another group of terrorists who would hijack an aircraft and crash it into the Civaux Nuclear Power Plant near Poitiers, causing a nuclear meltdown.
We’ve mentioned this potential tragedy before. The plot was detailed in a 2002 book by Adam Robinson, and substantiated publicly by England FA personnel in 2009. The effects of such an attack are completely unknowable. The convoluted plan mentioned above was a complete failure, but Bin Laden would succeed later against American embassies.
Those attacks did not receive the publicity that World Cup attacks would have, though, and public outrage in England and the US might have spurred war against the Taliban in 1998. Whether that war would have succeeded, and whether that war would have prevented the attacks in September 2001, is impossible to guess. The effect of such an attack on the English psyche is easy to imagine, but tough to comprehend – it would have been the most jarring psychological shock in the UK since the Blitz. The US national team returned home from the 1998 World Cup to a small chorus of jeers and nationwide indifference – but at least they returned.
WHAT IF JOHN O’BRIEN HAD BEEN CALLED FOR THE HANDBALL IN JEONJU?
Nothing. We’ve talked about this. Friedel would have saved the penalty.
FINE, WHAT IF JI-SUNG PARK HADN’T BAILED US OUT AGAINST PORTUGAL?
It’s never been proven that Luis Figo even made the observation that a draw between Portugal and South Korea in the final group game would have sent both teams through, let alone suggested the teams arrive at such a result. But the fact remains that Ji-Sung Park is no less an American soccer hero than Paul Caligiuri. The talismanic performances against Mexico and Germany would never have happened – instead, the United States would have gone three and out yet again, despite having been in control of its destiny. Remember how badly US Soccer needed the 2002 success – the previous winter, MLS had folded two of its teams, and most of the league was owned by three men. Any kind of optimism was a godsend in those bleak times, and the 2002 World Cup ended up being one of the high points in the federation’s history. Would Don Garber have bothered suggested Soccer United Marketing, if there wasn’t much of anything to market? The league was even closer to doom than we perhaps realized at the time. Ji-Sung Park should at least have a plaque in Frisco.
WHAT IF CHRIS WONDOLOWSKI HAD SCORED AGAINST BELGIUM?
The goal would have been called back for offside.
WAS WONDOLOWSKI OFFSIDE?
Nope! It would have been the worst call in US soccer history, even worse than when Maurice Edu was denied immortality in 2010. But Wondolowski missing didn’t actually change anything.
OKAY, WHAT IF WONDO HAD SCORED AND IT COUNTED?
Look, pal, haven’t you heard of the butterfly effect? You want Wondo to score, you want it to count – the fabric of space-time is not your teddy bear.
All right, all right. Well, Tim Howard, whom we’ve mentioned in passing this week, would have gone from mere record-setter to full-on World Cup immortal. We would have lots of discussion about whether it was the greatest upset in World Cup history, or merely the biggest since 1950.
It’s easy to simply assume that four days later we would have lost to Argentina, but…let’s assume Tim Howard was still taking the super-soldier serum. Messi didn’t score against Belgium, maybe Tim could have kept Higuain off the scoresheet too…maybe we sneak through by penalties…?
After that was Holland, though, and then after that (we’ve got the monkey’s paw, might as well keep pulling the fingers) Germany in the final. Any one of those would have been bigger upsets than 1950.
Assuming Klinsmann doesn’t give the same speech about how scared and hesitant his team was against Argentina, Holland, and/or Germany, Juergen and the US team come home heroes. Klinsmann’s dismissal of Landon Donovan would have been spectacularly vindicated to all except a few ignorant bloggers (I would have been very tedious about it, I promise you).
Then we have to decide whether the US team falls off the rails in 2015 and 2016, and whether the glorious 2014 performance would have been enough to save Klinsmann. Yes, I’m going to go there – had Wondolowski scored, we might have made the quarterfinals at the expense of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
Which, you know, Putin propaganda fest. No skin off my nose if we miss it.
WHAT IF I WASN’T SO SEXIST, AND INCLUDED A WOMEN’S SOCCER COUNTERFACTUAL?
You think Hope Solo would have beaten Brazil in 2007? Because the rest of the team –
NO, BIGGER. WHAT IF KRISTINE LILLY HADN’T CLEARED THE LINE IN 1999?
Oh. Sun Wen and China get their World Cup win, and the Girls of Summer get filed in somewhere between Gallant Losers and Choking Lizards. Would the loss have tarnished the US reputation? It’s possible, but we forget just how loved and admired Mia Hamm was in particular. Events have proven over the years that the US women’s bandwagon is fairly loyal and reliable. Olympic wins would have salved extra time defeat in Pasadena.
How would it have affected WUSA? It might not have been launched at all, throwing a hammer into the careers of, among many others, Abby Wambach. It might have been launched with tempered expectations. The NWSL has survived, after all. Then again, the USL’s W-League predated the WUSA, and didn’t die until 2015.
The rosiest scenario by far would have been vindication in the 2003 World Cup, which would have inspired the WUSA to keep going. Assuming you subscribe to the theory that the US loss prevented the WUSA from soldiering on. The 90’s team was on its way to becoming what it would become in 2007, and both Germany and Sweden were at their very, very best. But that same team won Olympic gold in Athens in 2004, so a home World Cup win wouldn’t have been unreasonable. And maybe an extended WUSA expands the player pool enough for the 2007 disaster to be avoided completely.
WHAT IF THE CHICAGO FIRE HAD BEEN CALLED THE CHICAGO RHYTHM?
MLS shuts down in 1999, soccer is banned in America, and Cuauhtemoc Blanco never plays anywhere with a history of mob violence.