PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad - Paul Caligiuri saw the sliver of daylight after 31 minutes and knew it would vanish in a heartbeat. A beaten defender, a bouncing ball, an open upper far corner and a goalkeeper who wasn't looking for a shot from 25 yards out. Not from a defensive midfielder. "I saw I had space," Caligiuri shrugged. "So I decided to take it."
And with one swing of his left foot propelled the United States soccer team to a startling 1-0 victory over Trinidad-Tobago here yesterday and into next summer's World Cup final, thus achieving a 40-year American fantasy.
"The dreaming is over," announced 20-year-old goalie Tony Meola, who posted his fourth consecutive shutout. "We're in the World Cup."
Not since 1950 have the Americans qualified for what has now grown to a 24-nation field. To make it, they needed to win inside steamy, rocking National Stadium, filled to the brim with 30,000 chanting fans garbed in scarlet.
"One game for all the marbles in the jackpot," said captain Mike Windischmann. "And we did it."
They did it by ending a 239-minute scoring drought and then shutting down one of the hemisphere's quickest and most exuberant sides, which only needed a tie to qualify for the Cup for the first time ever.
"We knew it was the kind of game where one mistake would give them the game, the qualification and everything else," said midfielder Tab Ramos.
The Yanks had already been through that nightmare, conceding Trinidad a goal and a 1-1 tie on a defensive breakdown two minutes from the end of their first match in May. They were not about to let it happen twice.
With Meola, the precocious Virginia sophomore, roaming the goal mouth and Windischmann anchoring a sturdy and stingy back line, there seemed little doubt that the Americans, who'd allowed only three goals in seven qualifying matches, could produce a shutout if they had to. The question was whether they could score themselves.
After the US struggled through a pair of desultory 0-0 matches with Guatemala and El Salvador, its chances of getting a goal here seemed slim. Trinidad needed only play to a scoreless draw to go to Italy. But US coach Bob Gansler guessed T&T wouldn't do that -- it simply wasn't in its carefree nature.
"I felt they wouldn't sit on the ball," said Gansler. "And when I saw attacking midfielder Dwight Yorke on the field, I thought, 'They're going to come.' "
With calypso bands and chanting countrymen urging them forward and calling for goals ("We go hun-gry"), Trinidad went on the attack from the start. "Fifteen minutes in they were using three forwards," realized midfielder Brian Bliss. "I didn't expect it." Nor did T&T expect the unfamiliar faces Gansler threw at them. Only five of the Americans who started against them in May came out for the kickoff yesterday. Four of the US starters -- Caligiuri, forward Peter Vermes and defenders John Doyle and Paul Krumpe -- hadn't even been in the lineup against El Salvador two weeks ago.
Caligiuri, who hadn't scored a goal in a US jersey in four years, had only played 45 minutes in the previous seven matches. His West German club (second-division Meppen) wouldn't release him for the first three and a stress fracture in his left foot had kept him out of the others.
But now Caligiuri was fit and Gansler used him instead of John Stollmeyer, knowing that Caligiuri had a tad more quickness and a knack for long (and leftfooted) shots.
The one that beat veteran T&T keeper Michael Maurice came out of nowhere. Caligiuri had gotten the ball from Ramos well outside of the area and popped it past a defender. Then he noticed Maurice standing a couple of yards off his line, peering into the late afternoon sun. "I didn't think he was expecting a shot," Caligiuri said.
So he let one fly off the newly-healed foot, heavy with topspin and aimed at the far corner. The ball hooked, dipped and beat Maurice cleanly. And 30,000 people sat in shock.
The Trinidad players, immortalized here as the "Strike Squad," came quickly to earth. "They looked a little scared when they came out for the second half," said Windischmann. "You could see it in their eyes."
The Yanks, who now saw Italy within their grasp, were energized. As the minutes ticked away and T&T grew ever more desperate, the American defenders marked their men closely, won everything in the air, let Windischmann "drop back and clean up all the garbage" and relied on Meola to stand tall.
He made one lovely dive to thwart a cross from Leonson Lewis that might have been trouble 18 minutes from time. Then Meola stared down every missed shot, pointing his finger at the ball as it skidded past.
When referee Juan Loustau of Argentina finally looked at his watch and blew his whistle, the Yanks alternately collapsed in relief on the pitch or ran amuck like windup toys. At the other end, Maurice lay on his back in grief, cradling his head. Life cannot promise him another chance.
But the Yanks, most of whom are under 23, are just beginning. None of them were born when their predecessors qualified for the 1950 Cup in Brazil. The new era of American soccer begins with them.