A shot heard around the world: The story of USA qualifying for Italia ’90

Paul Caligiuri shot heard around the world USA Italia 90

This is the story of a historic moment in US football (soccer) history. It references the goal which meant they had qualified for their first World Cup after 36 years of failed attempts.

It changed the course and fortunes for the sport in the US and laid the foundation for the game it is today.

It came in November 1989 with the team under huge pressure to qualify for Italia ’90.

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Search for ‘Shot heard around the world’ and you will find references to 1775 and the opening shot of the battles of Lexington and Concord which sparked the American Revolutionary War. Or you’ll see 1914 in reference to the gunshot from Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo when he assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand. An incident which set a chain of events leading to the First World War.

Football has often, rather crassly, used war references to illustrate how big moments or important players are to be considered. America is certainly not averse to a touch of hyperbole itself.

In addition to this, there’s the story of USA player Joe Gaetjens’ goal which beat the mighty England in 1950. A book of the same name was written about it.

Go back to 1989 and soccer was still a minor sport in the States.

On 4 July 1988, one of the most significant moments for soccer in the USA occurred when the FIFA Executive Committee chose them as hosts of the 1994 World Cup. They had hoped to be the replacement in 1986 after Colombia pulled out, but that went to Mexico.

One condition FIFA imposed was for the country to have its own professional league. Ever since the North American Soccer League (NASL) fizzled out in the early 80s the sport had struggled to hold the public’s attention, eventually going indoors with the creation of the Indoor Soccer League.

But it was still very much a minor, almost niche, sport. The award of hosting the biggest football tournament on the planet was a huge boost for US soccer officials. Yet it would be a huge embarrassment if their own team was only good enough to qualify on account of it being in their back garden and with their ball.

Awarding the World Cup to the USA was full of controversy. Not quite for the same reasons as Russia and Qatar more recently, but the argument of ‘how can you give a World Cup to a country that doesn’t even play the game?’ was a justifiable viewpoint. But FIFA was keen to tap into the substantial financial potential the States offered.

Qualification for Italia ’90 now became imperative

Their last qualification match was beautifully poised. They were up against Trinidad, who were unbeaten at home in qualification and only needed a draw to go through to what would’ve been their first-ever World Cup appearance. The USA had to win.

19 November 1989 and the venue was the National Stadium in Port of Spain. Now known as the Hasely Crawford Stadium, named after the sprinter who was the first Trinidadian to win an Olympic Gold when he won 100m in Montreal 1976.

Cricket had always been the premier sport on the island. Now football wanted its share of the limelight. The ground was painted red to appear even more intimidating to the visitors.

35,000 packed into the ground to see the ‘Strike Squad’, as they were known in those days, pull off a famous result and qualify for their first World Cup. A national holiday had been declared for the next day, to ensure the ground was full. When the US team arrived they thought they’d go under the radar by landing around midnight, but there were around 10,000 ‘fans’ to greet them. Banging pots and pans in a hostile welcome.

“The entire country was wearing red. They painted the cars red, they painted the houses red, everyone was in red”, one of the USA players recalled.

Trinidad were yet to lose a home game during qualifying and the USA had only won one away match.

In the home team that day was 18-year-old Dwight Yorke. A few months before he’d impressed Graham Taylor in a friendly against Aston Villa, and Taylor soon signed him. He was four months away from his debut for Villa on the road to a stellar career. Also in the team was 22-year-old Russell Latapy. He too was soon to move abroad when he went to Portugal and then Scotland in another successful professional career.

The man given the job of marking Latapy that day was Paul Caligiuri. After leaving San Diego, he was plying his trade in West Germany’s lower leagues. Despite making his debut back in 1984, he’d only made a substitute appearance in qualifying. This was his first start.

John Harkes, a few months before his move to Sheffield Wednesday, went close early on for the visitors, then the home side’s Elliot Allen had a couple of attempts on goal.

Half an hour into the game Murray passed to Caligiuri in midfield. The hard pitch made the ball bounce and so he had to control it on his stomach before looking up to see what was on. As he was closed down his instinct clicked in. He clipped the ball with his right, past the defender onto his left.

The ball was still bouncing giving him a great shot on goal. He would later say it was a move he practiced nearly every day as a kid. From about 35 yards out he hit it on the volley towards the keeper’s left-hand post.

It flew in.

Trinidad keeper, Michael Maurice was well-positioned on the goal line. It was not as if he’d come off his line making the option for Caligiuri easier. But he just couldn’t get across to the shot. He would later claim the sun blinded him.

In the second half the home side put the US under real pressure. Goalkeeper, Tony Meola pulled off a string of important saves.

Eventually, the USA saw the game out to pull off a famous win. Caligiuri said when he got back into the changing room at half-time and looked around at his teammates, he knew they’d win.

The USA last competed at a World Cup Finals back in 1950. Of course, this was famous for their 1-0 win over an England team containing such luminaries as Billy Wright, Stan Mortensen, Alf Ramsey, Tom Finney et al.

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The country competed in the first two tournaments, receiving an invitation to the inaugural event. During the rise in popularity of the NASL in the 70’s it was hoped this would lead to greater success for the national team. The league was inhabited by players from overseas, or perhaps I should say inhibited. To such an extent only one or two home-grown players received any notoriety. Few Americans were ever signed by clubs from abroad, further denying them the chance to improve the talent within the squad.

The US team’s record in international football during the ’70s was nine wins and 31 losses from 49 matches. In the ’80s there was an improvement, 19 wins, and 19 losses from 55 matches, but not really enough to suggest they were among the 24 best sides in the world.

Their form just before the decision on 1994 was of particular concern. Just two wins and six defeats in 10 matches during 1988. At least one of those victories came in the last match before the vote, when they beat Costa Rica, 1-0. A team they would meet during qualification for 1990.

CONCACAF World Cup 1990 qualifying

15 nations entered qualifying with five being knocked out in the first round. The remaining ten competed in a knock-out format over two legs. In the First Round USA were paired with Jamaica. They lined up in Kingston just 20 days after hearing this would be their last qualification campaign for at least eight years. A goalless draw in Kingston allowed them to finish the job in the home leg at Fenton. They won 5-1. Four players scored the goals with only one of them making the squad for Italy a year later.

Brian Bliss opened the scoring in the first half. Alton Sterling equalised nine minutes into the second half. But when Hugo Perez put the home side back in front after 68 minutes, it was the beginning of four goals in 17 minutes. 5-1 was the first time they’d scored more than four goals in nearly five years, and the most they’d scored in an international since they beat Bermuda, 6-2 in November 1968. They’d only ever hit four goals or more once since then.

A huge fillip to the mood around World Cup participation which was already beginning to be ramped up.

The Final Round of qualifying was a league format between five teams. Mexico were disqualified during this stage after fielding over-aged players during the 1988 CONCACAF U20 tournament. Their opponents in the Second Round, Costa Rica, went through without having to kick a ball.

This now presented the USA with a major opportunity. Mexico had only missed two of the previous 10 finals.

Along with Costa Rica, the USA would have to take on Trinidad, Guatemala and El Salvador.

The opening game provided a huge shock when Guatemala beat Costa Rica, 1-0. They almost pulled off another shock in the return fixture before an Evaristo Coronado goal 12 minutes from time won it for the Costa Ricans.

Midway through April 1989 was USA’s turn. They travelled to San José to take on Costa Rica. This was a crunch meeting. In May 1985 Coronado scored the goal which knocked the USA out of qualification for the 1986 Finals. The USA’s only ever win over them had come in June ’88 just before ‘the vote’.

Gilberto Rhoden scored for the home team early on and that proved to be the only goal of the game. A disastrous start for the Americans.

A fortnight later the two teams met again at Saint Louis Soccer Park in Fenton. Tab Ramos had made his international debut in January 1988. He chose this match as the ideal time to score his first-ever goal for his country. He would later go onto have a successful career in Spain and Mexico.

His goal came with just 18 minutes to go and was enough to give the USA the win.

Any feelings of positivity over the win were soon dampened two weeks later when Trinidad arrived at the Murdock Stadium in Torrance, California. Where George Best and Johan Cruyff had once graced the turf in Los Angeles Aztecs colours back in the 70s, Steve Trittschuh put them ahead early in the second half. With two minutes to go Hutson Charles ruined the party with a dramatic equaliser.

One win, one draw and a defeat was hardly making any headlines. But Costa Rica were also held by Trinidad before beating them, 1-0.

At this stage with two teams going to the finals, Costa Rica were pretty much there. Although El Salvador had yet to play a match and given they’d been one of the Confederation’s qualifiers in ’82, they weren’t to be underestimated.

Before undertaking their next qualifier, USA produced one of the best results of their history at Giants Stadium. Over 33,000 watched them beat Peru, 3-0. Ramos was again on target either side of goals from Bliss and Bruce Murray.

Next up was an important qualifier against Guatemala at Veterans Stadium, New Britain, Connecticut. In front of a capacity crowd of 10,000 Murray was on target in the first five minutes. Rául Chacón brought the sides level by the break, but this time the home side weren’t going to be denied and Eric Eichmann’s goal on 67 minutes won it for them.

This took USA to within two points of Costa Rica with two games in hand. El Salvador were about to open their account and would be the States’ next opponents. But not before they’d played four games themselves.

Any concerns the USA might’ve had over El Salvador’s capabilities were put to bed when Costa Rica beat them in both matches.

Costa Rica had now finished their campaign and had to sit back and see if anyone would catch them. Mathematically any of them could, but could two teams get ahead of them?

Trinidad and El Salvador played their two meetings with El Salvador still unable to find a win. This now put Trinidad and USA level on points, goal difference and goals scored. But crucially the USA had a game in hand.

Trinidad then won their two meetings with Guatemala to up the pressure. They’d never been to a World Cup and the excitement in Port of Spain was rising. Four points better off than the USA but with only one game to go – against the USA.

The USA’s four games to negotiate

Before their next qualifier, they arranged a couple of friendlies against Colombia and South Korea. They lost both. But at least the home fans got to see players of the likes of Carlos Valderrama, René Higuita, Wilson Pérez and Andres Escobar. Valderrama scored the only goal of the game in Miami and then Harkes scored his first goal for the team in the defeat to South Korea.

Then the trip to meet El Salvador. The game was played in neutral Honduras and was settled on the hour by a goal from Hugo Pérez. Pérez was a product of the indoor league in San Diego. Born in San Salvador he made his debut for the USA back in 1984. Now he’d helped his chosen nation beat the country of his birth.

Before they were to meet Trinidad they had a trip to Guatemala and a home game against El Salvador. Win both and the game in Port of Spain would be almost immaterial, as they could lose it and still go through.

You might think a trip to Guatemala would be an easy win for the States. But factor in when the USA beat them four months earlier it was their first-ever win over them in four attempts. Nerves could also be a consideration.

In a tense game, try as they might the USA just couldn’t find the net and the game ended goalless. They would have to do it at home.

An agonising gap of a month before they were back in Fenton to take on El Salvador. The Central Americans had never beaten their hosts and were yet to register a win in qualifying. The USA were at full strength. The signs were good.

Remember me mentioning nerves? Well, they were well and truly in evidence in another frustrating game for the home fans. Another goalless draw and now the pressure was at fever pitch.

Coach Bob Gansler brought the squad together for a friendly against Bermuda just five days before the crucial trip to Trinidad. Hungarian-born Gansler had taken charge of the national side in January 1989 having been in charge of the U20 side.

Just three defeats in 11 matches was a pretty decent record, compared with his predecessors. John Doyle and Eichmann scored in a 2-1 win over Bermuda in Cocoa Beach. Good preparation for the trip to Port of Spain.

It was during this period the team learned of the pressure on them to qualify. There were suggestions the World Cup was going to be taken from them on account of not having a professional league and also hinged on them qualifying for 1990. There was a growing feeling they didn’t deserve it.

Under this pressure and a hugely partisan crowd in Trinidad, they did it.

Caligiuri also spoke of how he and his teammates knew their careers were on a precipice. Their contracts were up a month later. Had they lost to Trinidad it was likely several of them may never play for the national side again. Yet they were then able to dream of a trip to Italy.

Talking to fifa.com, Meola confirmed this;

“It wasn’t like it is today. We had no pro league and no money and very little organisation. Looking back it’s amazing that we achieved what we did. We had guys playing in semi-pro leagues and Sunday leagues just trying to keep fit, and in the end we did it. Everything the US has achieved since then is based on that win.”

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Unfortunately, they didn’t do themselves justice in Italy losing their opening game 1-5 to Czechoslovakia, with Caligiuri again scoring. But their next game against the hosts was far better and they were narrowly beaten by a solitary goal.

Things were now in motion. That performance against Italy boosted interest back home. The Trinidad match wasn’t even broadcast on any of the networks so wasn’t seen live in the States. But a few years later Major League Soccer was launched and the national team qualified regularly for World Cups.

“It wasn’t like it is today. We had no pro league and no money and very little organisation. Looking back it’s amazing that we achieved what we did. We had guys playing in semi-pro leagues and Sunday leagues just trying to keep fit, and in the end we did it. Everything the US has achieved since then is based on that win.”

Slowly but surely soccer became more than just a niche sport in the USA. MLS is growing stronger each year and attracting some top names. But in contrast to NASL, there is a very strong local contingent which does much to help the national side.

The final word should go to Caligiuri. In 2014 he told Scott French of mlssoccer.com;

“It’s a goal I’m grateful and honoured to have that moment and share it with my teammates, and for all the past and future soccer players for this country. But I also think we share it on a global level. That victory not only changed the course of US soccer forever, but it brought the largest sports market into the FIFA family forever, and that has a huge impact for global soccer.”