The game that changed everything for US soccer – The San Diego Union-Tribune
The island of Trinidad is the farthest south of the Caribbean chain, so far south that on a clear day you can see South America and Venezuela, which is seven miles from its southwestern tip.
It is small, remote, tropical and quaint, with men selling coconuts out of the back of dilapidated pickup trucks and slicing them in half with machetes, with African mixing with East Indian mixing with Amerindian mixing with British mixing with Dutch mixing with colonial Spanish into a cultural stew, with churches down the street from mosques and Creole restaurants next to curry houses, with some cars with steering wheels on the left and some on the right.
It is the last place you’d expect to be the crossroads of U.S. soccer.
But Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago’s diverse capital, is where the U.S. national team made one of several airline refueling stops on its way to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, where they shocked England and the rest of the civilized world with a 1-0 victory against a team that some London bookmakers had installed as a 12-goal favorite – a result many rank among the most improbable upsets in sports history.
It is where Tuesday, 67 years later, the U.S. plays on the final day of qualifying in soccer’s CONCACAF region, needing a victory to assure a spot in the 2018 World Cup in Russia (a tie almost certainly gets it done, too) and avoid the catastrophic consequences – financial, emotional or otherwise – of missing the planet’s most popular sporting event.
And so much is at stake because of what happened in this isolated corner of paradise on a sun-splashed afternoon on Nov. 19, 1989, on the final day of CONCACAF qualifying, needing a victory to clinch a spot in the World Cup with a rag-tag collection of college players and guys living check-to-check on a meager federation stipend who had not scored in 208 minutes and not won a road qualifier in 21 years and not reached in a World Cup in four decades.
“We didn’t look at that game in terms of what it would mean to the future of United States soccer,” Paul Caligiuri said years later. “We looked at it in a selfish way. We looked at it as our livelihood, to just extend our (national team) contracts for another six months, to continue paying our bills and continue playing this great game.”
Caligiuri then offers a two-word question: “What if?”
What if he hadn’t chested down a bouncing pass from Tab Ramos in the 31st minute at sweltering National Stadium, cut left past a defender and launched a left-footed, rising, spinning, dipping shot from 30 yards that somehow eluded Trinidad goalkeeper Michael Maurice for a 1-0 win and a trip to the 1990 World Cup in Italy?
What if U.S. coach Bob Gansler hadn’t stuck Caligiuri in the lineup after he played in just one of seven previous qualifiers, or he hadn’t put him at central midfield for the only time in 110 career national-team appearances, or Caligiuri had obeyed Gansler’s instructions to stay deep for fear of surrendering a counterattack, or Maurice had thwarted his shot, or the Strike Squad, as the Trinis were known, had found the net themselves and gone to Italy instead?
We don’t know what dominoes might have toppled. We do know which ones did.
The Americans played in their first World Cup in 40 years. U.S. Soccer went from $1 million in debt and the verge of bankruptcy to instant financial stability from FIFA’s minimum $2 million payout for qualifying. It hosted the 1994 World Cup amid growing speculation that, absent qualification to Italy, FIFA would have yanked the tournament from a nation that hadn’t played in it since 1950 and sent it instead to Mexico, Brazil, Germany – somewhere, anywhere else. Major League Soccer was launched on the momentum and financial windfall from the successful 1994 World Cup.
On and on the dominoes tumbled. The soccer-specific stadiums … MLS expansion from 12 to 24 (and counting) franchises … seven straight World Cup appearances … the cultural phenomenon of the women’s national team in the summer of 1999 … an expanded youth developmental system … lucrative TV and sponsorship deals …. pros no longer living check-to-check.
Earlier this year, U.S. Soccer’s capital surplus was revealed: $100 million.
One man, one shot.
One team, delirious. One nation, devastated.
“Kind of silently landed in the back of the net,” Caligiuri said, “and that silence remained.”
An hour after the final whistle, the home locker room at National Stadium remained closed.
“If we had won that game, a lot of things would have been different,” coach Everald “Gally” Cummings said with the rear-view mirror of history. “That team did something to Trinidad and Tobago that I don’t think will ever happen again. It united the country. People were happy. People came together … That was a terrible day for Trinidad and Tobago, a terrible, terrible day.”
“It could,” midfielder Hutson Charles said, “have changed everything.”
Perennial power Mexico had been banned from World Cup qualifying after using ineligible players in an international youth tournament, gifting the rest of the backwater CONCACAF region a lifeline of hope. There were two spots available in Italy. Costa Rica grabbed one. The other came down to the final game.
The United States could have clinched with home wins against Guatemala and El Salvador in the weeks before but managed 0-0 ties. That swung the advantage to the J-shaped island in the southeastern Caribbean with a population of 1.2 million; a win or tie at home, where the Strike Squad was undefeated in qualifying, and the World Cup would have its smallest participant in history.
T-shirts were printed saying, “We going,” and “Trinis, brush up on yuh Italian.” One newspaper had a daily “Countdown to Italy.” Calypso and reggae groups penned songs about their beloved boys in red. One went like this:
When we catch them in the stadium
We’ll beat them like bongo drums
We go show them Yankees who is great
Soca tempo, tit for tat
The Friday before the Sunday match was declared “Red Day,” and everyone wore red. People painted their cars red. There were reports some painted their houses red, too. A national holiday was declared, in advance, for Monday.
In its Sunday morning edition, the Daily Express newspaper proclaimed in red block letters: “ITALY HERE WE COME.” Inside was a 40-page special section devoted entirely to the national team and the game. Royal Bank bought a full-page ad, showing a picture of the national flag with the stadium in the background and the message: “Today … the dream comes true.”