By Michael Lewis
The head coach was suspended.
So was the team’s top central midfielder.
And neither of the team’s top two goalkeepers were available.
Nothing like a few challenges for the U.S. men as they limped into their vital World Cup qualifier against Barbados on Nov. 15, 2000.
The side was without head coach Bruce Arena and midfielder Claudio Reyna, who were serving suspensions for their conduct after the team’s controversial 2-1 loss at Costa Rica during on July 23.
Assistant coach Dave Sarachan took over the bench duties for the second consecutive match while Arena watched the proceedings from the edge of the velodrome. MetroStars midfielder Tab Ramos, who had three World Cups and numerous qualifiers under his belt, was called up to replace Reyna.
Instead of bringing in Kasey Keller, who had manned the net for four qualifiers, or Brad Friedel, who was in it for one, Arena decided to name a blast from the past — goalkeeper Tony Meola, who backstopped U.S.’s famous 1-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago in 1989, a triumph that clinched the country’s first World Cup berth in 40 years. Meola was just coming off his finest MLS season, leading the Kansas City Wizards to the MLS Cup as the top keeper and league MVP.
Friedel was nursing an injury and Keller would have had to make a rather long trans-Atlantic journey on a Monday (the day after a match with Rayo Vallecano in Spain) for a game on Wednesday.
”We felt the best thing we could do is have the team together ready to play,” Arena said. “If we need Kasey Keller to win this game, maybe we don’t deserve to go through. Having said that, Tony has been very good. If anyone doubts the selection of Tony, I think they’re mistaken. He’s a very good goalkeeper. He’ll do fine.”
A win against the hosts in Bridgetown, Barbados and the USMNT would stay alive to play another day in the Concacaf hexagonal next year.
A loss or a draw, coupled with a win over host Guatemala (2-2-1) over Costa Rica (3-1-1), which was being played simultaneously, the U.S. (2-1-2) would be eliminated – in the semifinal round.
By failing to move on the USMNT would have suffered one of is most disastrous and embarrassing results in American soccer history with the job of Arena on very thin ice.
Even after rolling to a 7-0 triumph over Barbados (1-4) in Foxborough, Mass. on Aug. 16, U.S. players were cautiously optimistic.
Barbados had nothing to lose because it already had been eliminated. The U.S., however, had everything to lose — respect, pride, sponsorship money and only one thing to gain — a long, four-year wait until the 2006 World Cup.
In fact, not since 1989 — when the U.S. needed to beat Trinidad & Tobago on the final day of qualifying — had the Americans played in a soccer game that has meant so much.
“If we lose this game it’s going to be embarrassing,” said Ramos, who would play his final international match. “This is not going to be an easy game by any means. I don’t think we’re going to win by more than two goals.”
Even Arena wasn’t talking as though a win is already in the books. It’s “If we get through the Barbados game,” and not when, he said.
Barbados tried to play some gamesmanship of its own, refusing to allow the U.S. to practice on the National Stadium cow pasture, err, field, which had ruts, holes, bumps and even sprinklers peering through what was supposed to be grass that would be danger to anyone who walked or an on the pitch.
“It’s going to be very difficult for us to play good soccer,” Ramos said. “It will be bumpy. The only thing that will matter is the result. . . . This hasn’t been a good round for us.”
Arena agreed. “It certainly is not a great field, but it’s pretty big,” he said. “There will be an awful lot of bad plays during the game.”
Arena toyed with starting Clint Mathis, off a breakthrough season in which he totaled 16 goals and 14 assists for the MetroStars and a league-record five goals in one game, at forward.
“One thing Mathis can do is finish off plays better than we have been doing,” Arena said.
For a good hour, the U.S. battled not only a plucky Barbados team, but that unpredictable field as well. Mathis had the best scoring early scoring opportunities and twice he was denied. His eight-yard shot with goalkeeper Horace Stoute out of the net, ricocheted off the post in the 36th minute. His point-blank attempt was stopped by Stoute three minutes later.
“It was almost like nothing was going in for us,” he said. “Trying to get that first goal put a lot of added pressure on us.”
Mathis finally connected in the 63rd minute, took the pressure of the world off his teammates’ backs as the U.S. went on to record a 4-0 victory and play another 10 days of meaningful matches.
“The guys did really well,” Mathis said. “No matter who you’re playing, we had to win this game. You can’t depend on another result. . . . We haven’t accomplished what we wanted to do. We have 10 more games ahead of us before we get to the World Cup. That’s the final goal.”
The Americans needed Mathis’s goal, any goal. Until Mathis found the back of the net, they were uptight and did not play close to their potential before an enthusiastic crowd of 4,000.
“We did it with our backs to the wall and facing some real pressure,” Arena said. “To this day, we haven’t put our full team on the field. I think this game will be very beneficial for the next round. I’m confident we’re going to put a much better team on the field.
“We obviously did not play a very good first half. We did OK. We came out and we did quite well. The game settled down. We played the better game.”
Arena was none too happy in the 57th minute, when he thought the U.S. thought it had taken the lead on Chris Klein’s goal. But it was called back because Joe-Max Moore was ruled offside.
Moore got it right in the 63rd minute. He bolted down the right wing, beat his man and crossed the ball to Mathis in the penalty area. Mathis slotted home an eight-yard shot for his first international goal in four appearances.
Feeling relaxed and more comfortable, the Americans began to assert themselves at the flood gates opened. Earnie Stewart hit a 16-yard rocket in the 73rd minute. Cobi Jones, a second-half substitute, connected from six yards four minutes later before Ante Razov, another late sub, closed out the scoring two minutes into stoppage time.
The U.S. (3-1-2, 11 points), which captured the group title, joined Mexico, Trinidad & Tobago, Honduras and Jamaica in the six-team group. The fate of Guatemala and Costa Rica (both 3-2-1, 10) still had to be determined. The Guatemalans had to play their rivals in a special playoff in Miami (Costa Rica went on to win, 5-2).
As the team prepared for the hex, Arena received some good news on Jan. 12, 2001: the final game of his three-match suspension had been lifted, freeing him to sit on the bench for the next game.