Caligiuri: An American pioneer

Michael Lewis
Date Published: 

If Paul Caligiuri hadn't scored "The Goal" 10 years ago, I probably wouldn't be writing this column, or perhaps any soccer column, right now. And Caligiuri and his Los Angeles Galaxy teammates wouldn't be preparing for next week's MLS Cup.

That's how great an impact "The Goal" had. It was scored for the U.S. National Team on Nov. 19, 1989 -- "The Shot Heard Around the World," it was called. Not only did it propel the U.S. into the 1990 World Cup and end a 40-year absence from the most important single-sporting event on the face of this planet, it set in motion a series of events that has changed the face of American soccer as we know it.

The U.S. qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. It staved off obvious embarrassment of not reaching soccer's promised land some 16 months after being crowned host of the 1994 World Cup. It also launched the overseas careers of several promiment American players, including John Harkes, Tab Ramos, Eric Wynalda, among others.

"Never did I think that one goal or one victory would steer the course of American soccer," Caligiuri said earlier this week. "The impact it had was immeasurable.

"You're talking the federation, you're talking sponsors. Players had an opportunity to showcase their talent worldwide. It was definitely a turning point. It also legitimized our bid (to host the 1994 World cup). There were concerns from FIFA that the 1994 World Cup would be a failure.

"We have a more evolved quality of play. We have built Major League Soccer. We have let our young players have an opportunity they didn't have before. It's been a vital cause and effect, not only for the development of players but the evolution of soccer in this country." As far as the U.S. has progressed, Caligiuri is wise enough to realize we still have a ways to go.

"It's exciting to know how much progress we've made in a decade," he said. "I look forward to another decade and see how much further we can go. I believe we're one of the untapped resources worldwide."

Caligiuri's place in U.S. soccer history is secure. But it would be unfair if he is remembered just for the goal. He should be remembered as a solid central defender, midfielder or left back, and as a pioneer as well. He was the captain of the UCLA team that captured the NCAA Division I title in 1985. He represented the U.S. at a FIFA all-star two years later. He started all three U.S. games at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Caligiuri's pioneering spirit was tested when he became one of the first U.S. players to perform for a professional European team, playing with S.V. Meppen of the West German Second Division from 1988-89. He played in the German Bundesliga with Hamburg in 1987 and went on to perform with S.C. Freiburg (1991) and Hansa Rostock (1992).

"For me to watch Tony Sanneh play in the European Champions League is very exciting," Caligiuri said. "Maybe I had a little part of breaking the ice."

If that's the case, then you might say that Caligiuri and his teammates cracked a major iceberg on Nov. 19, 1989. First, let's put some things into proper perspective. There might have been as unlikely a goal-scorer as Caligiuri. He found the back of the net five times in 110 international appearances and 93 starts in a 12-year career with the U.S. National Team from 1985 through 1997. For the Galaxy, Caligiuri has exactly six goals in 83 regular-season matches, including one in 27 games this season.

Caligiuri was a surprise starter for a healthy John Stollmeyer, a midfielder with strong Trinidad ties (his father was born there and his great uncles were world-class cricket players there) who hadn't missed a minute in the previous seven qualifying matches.

Caligiuri? He had seen limited action in the seven previous qualifying matches. He missed the first three qualifiers in 1989 games because of commitments with Meppen. He played the first half of the 2-1 qualifying win over Guatemala that June, but was sidelined until the Trinidad match with a stress fracture of his left leg. But coach Bob Gansler played a hunch and put Caligiuri into the starting lineup -- for defensive purposes. "I felt his quickness was beter suited for (Russell) Latapy and (Dwight) Yorke," Gansler said.

Yes, that's the same Dwight Yorke -- he was 17 at the time -- who has gone on to greater fame and fortune with Manchester United.

While Caligiuri held Yorke at bay, it was his offense that he has been most remembered for before a sometimes raucous, always enthusiastic crowd that packed National Stadium in Port of Spain. The odds seemed stacked against the U.S., which needed a win to advance to Italia '90. Trinidad needed only a tie. The Americans also hadn't won a World Cup qualifier on the road -- not a neutral site -- in 21 years, not since a 2-1 win in Hamilton, Bermuda on Nov. 10, 1968. In fact, the Trinidadians literally painted the town red for the game after the government asked its citizens, especially the Port of Spain residents, to show their support by reveling in that color, whether it was in clothes, drapes or flags.

Calypso ballads were composed, singing the praises of coach Everett Cumming, who once played for the New York Cosmos. "When the Yankees come to the stadium, we're going to beat them like bongs," said one of the songs composed by a musician called Super Blue.

On Sunday, Nov. 19, National Sadium was a sea of red, an an overflowing crowd of more than 30,000 wore red as popular calypso stars sang about the road to the World Cup two hours before kickoff. Fans arrived six hours before the match to make sure they would get a seat. It was far from a beautifully played game. It started slow and eventually picked up steam and hit a high note in the 31st minute. Tab Ramos had given Caligiuri the ball on the left side, about 30 yards out. Teammate Bruce Murray said he thought that Caligiuri was going to slip the ball back to Ramos or to him.

Instead, he sent a looping 30-yard shot taken against the wind that beat goalkeeper Michael Maurice -- he later said he had the sun in his eyes. The ball sailed over the Trididad defense and hooked into the right side to break a U.S. goal-scoring dought at 239 minutes.

Caligiuri said at the time, "I saw I had space ahead of me. 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."

In the tumult of the U.S. locker room that was part New Year's Eve and part Mardi Gras, Caligiuri was asked to put the goal into perspective. "This game will have a tremendous impact on the sport in the United States," he said.

"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 knew what was on the line for the future of soccer in the United States." Ten years later, Caligiuri said it was a miracle that he was able to speak and didn't faint because of dehydration.

"I was bombarded by the media. I think I drank out of a faucet," he jokingly said.

Caligiuri did come home with a unique souvenir. Jack Warner, now president of CONCACAF, the governing body of soccer in this region of the world, was president of the Trinidad federation at the time. Warner traded his straw hat for Caligiuri's white cap, which said, "Italia '90" on it.

Caligiuri has been a pioneer off the field as well. He was promised by then MLS deputy commissioner Sunil Gulati that he would play for the Galaxy during the MLS's inaugural 1996 season. He wound up with the Columbus Crew before going to arbitration and eventually being assigned to the Galaxy in 1997. The players wound up suing the league -- the case is yet to be decided.

"There was no other choice left but to go to arbitration," Caligiuri said. "It wasn't me spearheading the lawsuit. A lot of players felt that this can't go on.

"I wish someone would step in and would find a solution."

At 35, his career should be winding down, but Caligiuri has other challenges to strive for. He wants to win the elusive MLS Cup in Foxboro, Mass. next week. He called winning the cup, "the greatest thing right now in my career.

"The city is starving for something. It's a great opportunity for soccer to (make an impact) here in southern California. Los Angeles hasn't had a national championship in 10 years."

He figures he has at least a couple of years remaining. After that, he would like to continue to be involved with soccer. If he had his way, Caligiuri would improve the telecasts of MLS games in quality and quantity. After playing in Germany, he has a unique perspective on how to televise soccer games.

"We need highlight shows," he said. "We need hype and excitement.

"We have a true fan base. We have to reach out to the sports fan in the U.S. Once we teach them the experience, the same passion, they'll become fans. Once you get it, you can't get rid of it.

"We have to utilize television to capture the moment the best we can. In a lot of ways we come up short compared to European broadcasts. Take a look at their broadcast abilities, from announcers to television angles to replays to slow motion. We have to take advantage of the technology. After controversial calls in Germany, they would interview the referee on television. There was no mystery."

His time as a player is waning. Caligiuri has probably a couple of years left. He sounds like he would make a great coach -- he currently coaches a girls under-14 team -- or general manager or administrator. Caligiuri said he would like to be "a true ambassador to the game in the United States, national and internationally." He would love to bring the NCAA and U.S. Soccer -- who sometimes are not only on separate pages, but in different books -- together.

"When the meter runs out, I want to use my ideas and opinions on the game, whether it's on the youth level or pro level," he said.

Thanks to The Goal and other accomplishments, it sounds like Caligiuri has gotten off to a pretty good start.

Michael Lewis covers soccer for the New York Daily News and is editor of Soccer Magazine.Michael Lewis covers soccer for the New York Daily News and is editor of Soccer Magazine.