Paul Caligiuri in the U.S. locker room after the triumph. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
Here’s a story I wrote about Paul Caligiuri’s historic goal in 2004.
By Michael Lewis
If Paul Caligiuri hadn’t scored “The Goal” 29 years ago today, I probably wouldn’t be writing this column, or perhaps any soccer column, for that matter. And Caligiuri wouldn’t have enjoyed a nice, long professional soccer career here and abroad.
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,” as 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 prominent American players, including John Harkes, Tab Ramos, Eric Wynalda, among others.
“They should build a statue for Paul for what he accomplished,” Wynalda said at MLS Cup last weekend.
Unfortunately, I could not catch up to Caligiuri, with whom I have corresponded and talked about the goal through the years.
But in an interview with yours truly several years ago he eloquently put the goal and victory into perspective.
“Never did I think that one goal or one victory would steer the course of American soccer,” Caligiuri said. “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,” he said. “I look forward to . . . 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 and other English teams.
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 Stadium was a sea of red, an overflow 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 Trinidad defense and hooked into the right side to break a U.S. goal-scoring drought 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.”
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.
The rest as they say was even more history. Caligiuri went on to score the U.S.’s first goal in that 5-1 opening game loss to Czechoslovakia on June 10, 1990, the first American to find the back of the net at the World Cup since John Souza scored in a 5-2 loss to Chile in Recife, Brazil on July 2, 1950.
He eventually became an original member of MLS in 1996, first wearing the uniform of the Columbus Crew and then the Los Angeles Galaxy for most of his career before he hung up his competitive boots for the last time in 2001.