Alkis Panagoulias: “This is one of the most frustrating days in my life. The boys played their hearts out. I’m very frustrated, very frustrated . . . We created so many chances. The team deserved to win.” (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
Some 35 years ago tonight on May 31, 1985, the U.S. men’s national team was eliminated from contention from the 1986 World Cup in an excruciating defeat to Costa Rica. I happened to cover the game, which was the lowest point in modern U.S. soccer history, since the North American Soccer League had gone to that great soccer league in the sky the year prior. On Thursday night, I took an overnight People’s Express flight from Newark, N.J. to LAX. I covered the game that Friday night and returned on the first flight out Saturday morning.
By Michael Lewis
TORRANCE, Calif. — Once again the great American dream of playing in a World Cup turned into a nightmare for the U.S. national team.
The dream ended on May 31, 1985 on a football field at El Camino College, where Costa Rica extinguished the United States’ hopes, recording a 1-0 victory in the CONCACAF Group 2 qualifying match.
The United States needed a tie or victory to advance, but Evaristo Coronado’s goal, a little luck and some strategic late-game delaying tactics helped boost Costa Rica into the third and final qualifying round with Canada and Honduras. That round-robin series probably will be played in the late summer.
For Costa Rica, it was a major victory after a major overhaul of its national team. After defeating and tying Trinidad & Tobago in two previous matches, Costa Rica fired its coach and replaced most of the team, bringing in a professional club — Alajuela to take its place.
For the United States, it was just another bitter ending to another botched World Cup effort. The Americans will be spectators at the world’s greatest sporting spectacle for the ninth consecutive time. They last qualified in 1950.
U.S. captain Ricky Davis, who wasn’t born then, took the loss particularly hard, sitting slumped at his locker, head in his hands, a half-hour after the game.
“We can’t play much better than that,” he said. “It’s a shame. It wasn’t supposed to end this way.”
He wasn’t alone.
“I’m kind of numb right now,” defender Kevin Crow said. “The World Cup is a dream of mine. Now it’s blown up in my face.”
“It’s a disaster,” defender Dan Canter added. “To stumble like this, there are no excuses.”
And U.S. coach Alkis Panagoulias offered none.
“Costa Rica beat us because of tradition,” he said. “We outplayed them, but they did what they had to do. They scored on a break. They stalled. They played hard. They did everything they had to do.
“This is one of the most frustrating days in my life. The boys played their hearts out. I’m very frustrated, very frustrated . . . We created so many chances. The team deserved to win.”
But it didn’t as the United States was left with a loss dripping in irony:
* The United States was eliminated by the same country it had defeated at the 1984 Olympics, 3-0, its first Olympic victory in 60 years.
* The loss occurred exactly a year to the day to the start of the World Cup finals in Mexico.
* The loss turned out to be the United States’ best performance in qualifying competition after sweeping Trinidad & Tobago, 1-0 and 2-1, and tying Costa Rica in the first game, 1-1.
What made the defeat more difficult to swallow was the way Costa Rica scored its goal before a crowd of 11,800. It was a lucky goal, similar to the ones the United States scored in earlier matches.
Jorge Chevez sent a free kick into the penalty area that goalkeeper Arnie Mausser tried to punch away. A Costa Rican player, however, headed the ball to the right side, where Coronado knocked it into the net at 34:50.
“The goalkeeper misjudged the distance,” Panagoulias said. “He wanted to punch the ball. He should have caught the ball.”
Crow said he was ready for it. “It was a fluky goal,” he said. “I was going up for the ball with my man. I heard the keeper call for the ball and I bowed out.”
Up to that point, the United States had dominated play and owned the better scoring opportunities.
About a minute into the game, Costa Rican goalkeeper Alejandro Gonzalez dove to his right to stop a 15-yard blast by forward Hugo Perez. At 24:25, Gonzalez barely beat forward John Kerr, Jr. to a loose ball in the penalty area. And in the 30th minute, Crow just missed a shot to the left of the goal.
“Even at halftime, I thought sooner or later one would go in,” Davis said.
At least one appeared to go in.
It happened at 72:20, when Davis directed a free kick from the left of the penalty area to Canter at the top of the box. Canter then ripped a shot that appeared to have gone into the net, which rippled.
Referee John Meachem signaled a goal. Davis took the ball out of the net and walked toward midfield for an apparent Costa Rican kickoff while the visitors protested.
Linesman Robert Allen brought it to the attention of Meachem, and no goal was the ruling. The Americans did not protest.
“It hit the outside part of the net,” Canter said.
But if it was going to be ruled a goal, Canter wasn’t about to complain. “In a game like this, you take what you can get,” he said.
In this case, the United States walked away with nothing. The Americans continued to apply pressure, outshooting the Costa Ricans, 13-8, but they could not score before Meachem ended the game.
And so did the United States’ chances of playing in Mexico, as another nail was hammered into outdoor soccer’s coffin.
“I don’t know where we go from there,” Davis said. “There was our best chance to make it to the World Cup. We won’t have another chance until 1990. Who knows where soccer in American will be by then? I do know this: Unless we develop a professional league for outdoors, we won’t go anyplace. We can’t do it with indoor soccer.
“We’re playing for U.S. soccer — for its reputation and recognition in our own country. It’s another setback. We just missed a golden opportunity.”