Paul Caligiuri changed the direction of American soccer 25 years ago.
The U.S. had failed to qualify for nine straight World Cups since 1950. The North American Soccer League had folded after the 1984 season, and the U.S. Soccer Federation left its longtime office in the Empire State Building the following year to save money, moving first to a hotel near John F. Kennedy International Airport and then to Colorado Springs.
When the U.S. team traveled to Trinidad from Miami via Barbados on a commercial flight two days before the Americans’ final qualifier for the 1990 World Cup, the mostly amateur players were met at the airport just past midnight by fans packed eight deep and chanting “Go Home! Go Home!” as the team walked the 200 feet from the plane to the terminal.
Trinidad and Tobago’s prime minister already had declared the day following the game a national holiday.
And then on Nov. 19, 1989, Caligiuri lofted a 28-yard left-footed shot into the net at Port-of-Spain’s National Stadium in the 30th minute. That goal gave the United States a 1-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago and put the Americans back among soccer’s elite for the first time in generations.
“To me, it was the most important goal in U.S. history,” midfielder John Harkes, who was on the field that afternoon and later became the American captain, said this week as Wednesday’s anniversary approached.
Then 25 and best known for captaining UCLA to the NCAA title four years earlier, Caligiuri chested a centering pass from Tab Ramos after a throw-in by Brian Bliss, took a right-footed touch past a defender and beat the goalkeeper, who may have had trouble seeing the ball in the sun.
“We’ve never looked back since,” Caligiuri said Tuesday. “We’ve become a premier power in CONCACAF. We’ve ranked in the top 10 in the world. Now our goals are set to try to win a World Cup one day. It’s amazing to see where we’re at. It’s strange to look at this as a pivotal moment in history, but it was.”
It very quickly created more opportunities for American players to land jobs in Europe.
“Every time I see Paul Caligiuri I thank him,” said Alexi Lalas, who was then a 19-year-old at Rutgers and went on to become a star defender for the national team and a television analyst. “It was the start of everything. It set in motion a series of events that, to be quite honest, continues to domino. If there ever was a match that lit the candle, that was it. I’m not sure he knew at the moment that was happening, but I think you can definitely trace it back to that moment, the modern-day American soccer story. That was page one, once upon a time.”
The Sunday afternoon game wasn’t even on live television in the U.S. ESPN broadcast it two hours after kickoff following its live coverage of NASCAR’s season-ending Winston Cup race in Atlanta. (ESPN2 did not launch until October 1993.)
The Americans’ chances were boosted because Mexico had been disqualified from the North and Central American and Caribbean region for using at least four overage players in qualifying for the 1989 World Youth Championship, a tournament for players under 20. FIFA gave all Mexican national teams a two-year ban June 30, 1988 — four days before announcing the U.S. would host the 1994 World Cup.
Costa Rica clinched one of CONCACAF’s two berths Oct. 8, and the U.S. entered its final game of qualifying tied with T&T at eight points (3-1-3) and needing a win because of a poorer goal difference. The Americans were coming off 0-0 ties in qualifiers the previous month at Guatemala and against El Salvador in Fenton, Missouri.
The 33,250 tickets for the game were sold in two hours. FIFA designated it a high-risk match and ordered that 5 percent of the tickets not be sold, but it appeared thousands more people had tickets than there were seats.
Ramos, now the coach of the U.S. under-20 team, remembered seeing “a sea of red” — Trinidad’s jersey color — when the U.S bus pulled up after the short ride from the hotel.
“People were climbing every fence and trying to get into the game any way they could,” Ramos recalled this week. “The game was way oversold.”
Caligiuri had missed the first three qualifiers of the year when Meppen, his club in the West German second division, refused to release him. He played the second half of the fourth, then missed the next three with a leg injury.
U.S. coach Bob Gansler started Caligiuri over John Stollmeyer on Nov. 14 in a hastily scheduled closed-door exhibition against Bermuda in Florida and stayed with Caligiuri at Trinidad.
“One thing that Paul Caligiuri never had was a lack of confidence in his own ability,” Gansler said. “Paul would do audacious things.”
Trinidad was ready for a party. Fans in the stadium sang calypso and chanted to the sound of steel drums for 5 1/2 hours before the match. But Caligiuri silenced the crowd.
“When the ball went into the net, it was almost as if you had poured a bucket of water on fireworks,” Ramos said. “It was dead quiet. We almost heard the ball bounce in the goal.”
Caligiuri went on to score the first U.S. World Cup goal in four decades, in the 5-1 defeat to Czechoslovakia at Florence, Italy. From 2002-08, he coached the soccer teams at Cal Poly.
The Americans are now a World Cup regular — they’ve played in the last seven, a feat matched only by Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea and Spain.
“The win in Trinidad — against all odds — was extremely important for much of what followed in U.S. soccer,” said Sunil Gulati, then the USSF’s international games committee chairman and its president since 2006. “Qualifying for 1990 gave us hope that we could try to re-enter the international arena and develop the game more broadly in the U.S.”
Caligiuri took notice of the growth during this year’s World Cup.
“It’s a true American sport. It’s not a niche sport anymore,” he said. “Fans packing the streets. They’re in the stadiums and the bars. They’re glued to the TVs. They have their favorite players from around the world, our national team. People are wearing jerseys. It’s incredible to see the growth. If we could sit here and think 25 years from now where the game is going to be and predict that, we could just start dreaming away.”
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