Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago -- Finally, the long wait has ended.
Some 40 years of World Cup frustration and soccer futility were put to rest Sunday as the United States reached international soccer's promised land -- the World Cup.
The man of the hour, or in this case, 90 minutes, was a defensive midfielder named Paul Caligiuri, who etched his name into U.S. soccer history along side those of Joe Gaetjens, Harry Keough and Walter Bahr with the lone goal of the game to life the U.S. to a 1-0 victory over Trinidad & Tobago.
So, the United States, the first team to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, receiving an automatic bid as hosts, became the last and 24th finalist for Italia '90. Some critics claimed the U.S. was not ready to host what is considered to be the world's greatest sporting spectacle because it had not qualified on its own since 1950.
But this time the U.S. (4-1-3, 11 points) did it the hard way. The Americans earned it, qualifying as the second-place team in CONCACAF behind Costa Rica (5-2-1, 11) and ahead of Trinidad (3-2-3, 9).
The U.S. had to overcome a pesky Trinidad team that needed only a tie to advance to Italy (coach Everald "Gally" Cummings claimed the U.S. was not going to win) and an enthusiastic, overflow crowd of more than 30,000 that wore red -- the national colors -- at National Stadium.
"This game will have a tremendous impact on the sport in the United States," Caligiuri said in a locker room that was part New Year's Eve and part Mardi Gras. "It was the single most important game we ever won.
"It proves to the rest of the world we can play and we can qualify. We all knew what was on the line for the future of soccer in the United States."
He received little argument from his comrades.
Before he opened the locker room door to the media, U.S. coach Bob Gansler told his troops: "Now we've gotten where we want to go, now we can dream a little bit."
While they were not drinking or spilling champagne over each other and chanting, "USA, USA," or "Italia '90," Caligiuri's teammates and U.S. soccer officials talked about the victory's significance.
"I'm especially pleased that the team went out there and did the job," U.S. Soccer Federation Werner Fricker said. "We needed it very badly. It was most important. Had the U.S. not won today, some of the players would have not gotten another chance."
Some of the players put it more succinctly.
"It's the greatest feeling in the world," U.S. captain and sweeper Mike Windischmann said. "It's just an awesome feeling."
Added forward Bruce Murray: "I'm sky-high right now. It's been a long, hard grind."
No one realized that more than Caligiuri, a surprise starter who hadn't began an important international match in more than a year -- or since the Seoul Olympics.
He made the most of his opportunity in the 31st minute, beating goalkeeper Michael Maurice with a 30-yard shot slightly to the left that was taken against the wind. The ball sailed over the Trinidad defense and hooked into the right side to break the U.S. goal-scoring drought at 239 minutes, slightly more than two and a half games. It also was only Caligiuri's second goal in 24 international matches.
"I saw I had space ahead of me," Caligiuri said. "But then two defenders converged on me. I faked with my right foot and kicked it with my left foot over his head to the far post.
"Maybe it caught the goalkeeper by surprise. Maybe it was luck."
No one was complaining. That included Murray, who admitted he expected Caligiuri to pass.
"I thought Cal was going to slip it to me or Tab (Ramos, the U.S. midfielder)," he said. "When he kicked it, two guys on Trinidad were standing nearby and said, 'Oh God, mon.' They knew it was in. I was so happy."
It was up to the U.S. defense to make the goal stand up. In their first encounter with Trinidad, a 1-1 tie in Torrance, Calif. on May 13, the Americans lost a 1-0 lead with two minutes left.
While Trinidad did not place a dangerous shot on goal -- the hosts outshot the U.S., 6-4 -- it did have a number of close calls in the penalty area. For example, goalkeeper Tony Meola beat Leonson Lewis to a ball by a fraction of a second. Meola wore a white baseball cap in the second half to keep out the sun. he survived to record his fourth shutout in as many matches.
"It's might have looked easy, but it was a difficult game for us," Meola said.
Added Murray: They had their opportunities, but Tony stopped them all. He's a world-class goalkeeper. I'm not going to swell his head because he has no ego. He's amazing, an amazing goalkeeper."
For Trinidad, it was a disappointing end to some high expectations. Immediately after the game, Trinidad players, wives and girlfriends cried openly on the sidelines.
The entire stadium was a sea of red as popular calypso stars sang songs about the World Cup two hours before the kickoff. Fans arrived six hours before kickoff to make sure they got a seat.
U.S. 1, Trinidad 0
United States -- Meola, Doyle, Trittschuh, Windischmann, Krumpe (Stollmeyer, 62nd); Harkes, Ramos, Caligiuri, Bliss; Vermes, Murray.
Trinidad & Tobago -- Maurice, Faustin, Francis, Williams, Morris, Latapy, Jamerson, Allen (Alibery, 76th), Lewis, Jones, Yorke (Charles, 60th).
Goal: United States -- Caligiuri (31st).
Referee -- Lostau (Argentina).
Att. -- 35,000 (estimated)