US Was Playing For High Stakes

John Powers
Date Published: 
Boston Globe

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad - Nobody had to tell them what the stakes were. "I wouldn't insult their intelligence," coach Bob Gansler said.

Every one of Uncle Sam's soccer-playing sons could tell you what would have happened had they not beaten Trinidad-Tobago here Sunday afternoon.

They would have failed to qualify -- yet again -- for the quadrennial World Cup, the planet's most important sporting event. They would have cost the US soccer federation $10 million in lost income. They would have squandered a chance at priceless international exposure. They would have justified critics who said that America was a soccer backwater that didn't deserve to host the 1994 Cup. They would have lost their $25,000 jobs on the national team and forfeited their $10,000 qualifying bonus.

"And," said midfielder Brian Bliss, "we would have let the American people down."

But once Paul Caligiuri's long breaking ball of a goal beat Trinidad keeper Michael Maurice, the Yanks could celebrate not only what they had avoided, but what they had achieved.

By squelching T&T, 1-0, before 30,000 scarlet-hued, calypso-mad fans inside National Stadium, the US qualified for next summer's 24-team final round in Italy for the first time since 1950. After watching the last nine Cups on television, the Americans now get to suit up with the Argentines, the Italians, the Brazilians, the West Germans, the Dutch, the English and the rest of the global varsities.

"It will give us the experience in the ultimate arena of the game, playing against the heavyweights," says Gansler. "It's not like looking at films; it's an experience you can't get any other way. It's such a precious commodity."

And since the US automatically qualifies for the 1994 Cup merely by hosting it, the Americans are guaranteed a place on the world stage for at least the next five years. That means more sponsors, more lucrative 'friendly' matches with world-class teams, and more TV.

"We need to change this from a participant sport to a spectator sport," says Gansler, "and this has helped tremendously."

Had the Americans failed here, they would have vanished from public view. Since soccer in the 1992 Olympics will be limited to players 23-and-under, nobody from this squad would have been eligible -- thus, the team would have been scattered to the winds. "Fifteen players would have been out of a job," said Bliss.

Now, the federation can keep this group together and use the Olympics the way the European and South American nations do -- as a testing ground for young prospects.

More important, US soccer brass can showcase the team as a motivational carrot for millions of youth players, many of whom now defect to other sports with more visibility and promise of reward.

All of the above was riding on one 90-minute match that wasn't even televised live in the States. Gansler tried to downplay the pressure to his players, telling them that T&T had even more at stake. "They've all but reserved their tickets," Gansler said.

These two small neighbor islands, with the combined population of Indianapolis, had whipped themselves into a frenzy over the prospect of qualifying for the first time, particularly at Uncle Sam's expense.

Everywhere you went, people chanted 'We goin' Italy'. All their beloved 'Strike Squad' needed do was play to a draw. The Americans, who hadn't scored in 208 minutes and hadn't won a Cup qualifier in an opponent's stadium in 21 years, had to win.

Yet history showed that any time this group of Americans had to win a match, they had. They'd hammered Canada by three clear goals and beaten El Salvador by two on the road to make it to the Olympics. They'd pounded Jamaica, 5-1, to get into the five-team Cup round-robin. "We knew we could come down here and win," said captain Mike Windischmann.

"We have this motto," said 20-year-old goalie Tony Meola, who played with the daring and savvy of a keeper twice his age. "You save me and I'll save you."

It was a day for mass salvation and a bit of redemption, too. After his team slogged through a pair of scoreless ties with Guatemala and winless El Salvador, Gansler found himself pilloried as a man bereft of imagination, of vision. Yet the lineup he fielded Sunday had four fresh faces. One of them was Caligiuri's, and with one swing of a foot he won everything on the table for his mates.

None of them were alive the last time a US squad reached a Cup final round. They grew up playing the game in youth leagues in California, New Jersey and Illinois. Their role models were foreigners such as Beckenbauer and Cruyff and Maradona.

Now, they're role models themselves. They goin' Italy.