The USMNT celebrate clinching a World Cup spot in 1989. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)
By Michael Lewis
Hearing many soccer fans moan about what transpired in San Salvador Thursday gave me a deja vu moment.
For some reason, I felt I had lived through a similar moment at the start of a past World Cup qualifying run.
Then it hit me. It happened in 1988, a scant 33 years ago.
This is what I wrote in my 1994 book, World Cup Soccer:
Consider the irony.
Only 40 days after the United qualified for the 1994 World Cup as host of the event, it faced elimination from the 1990 competition.
The U.S., which automatically secured a berth in the 1994 World Cup when it was named host by FIFA on July 4, 1088, needed a victory over Jamaica on Aug. 13 (1988) to advance to the final round of five teams. The top two teams from that round would gain a berth at Italia ’90.
After the Americans played host Jamaica to a scoreless tie in Kingston in the first leg of the home-and-home series on July 24, a tie other than a 0-0 result would bounce ethe U.S. In FIFA qualifying, away goals were counted double if the total goals were tied.
“The whole world is looking at us now because we are the host team,” U.S. defender Brian Bliss said. “The pressure definitely has increased. Before, we were not expected to win a game. Now everybody is looking at us to be a dominant team, at least in the Concacaf region.”
The Americans then went out and recorded a 5-1 victory over Jamaica at the St. Louis Soccer Park.
“This was the most important game we’ve played so far,” said forward Frank Klopas, who paced the team with two goals. “If we lose thte game, there is no international soccer in the United States for the next three years.”
Now, here is some irony:
With the game knotted up at 1-1, a penalty kick changed the direction of the game in the 68th minute. Hugo Perez – yes, the same Hugo Perez who coached El Salvador in Thursday night’s match – had come on for the ailing Mike Windischmann at halftime, and was tripped in the box by defender Dave Brooks. It looked like Perez added some acting of his own to accentuate the call, but it was ruled a penalty kick by Canadian referee David Brummit.
“Hugo might have gotten a 9.8 on that one, but it was definitely a penalty,” U.S. head coach Lothar Osiander said.
Perez booted the ensuing kick to the right of goalkeeper Paul Campbell to give the USMNT a 2-1 lead it wouldn’t relinquish. The complexion of the game changed and the USA struck for three more goals over the final 22 minutes to turn the final result in a runaway.
The Americans qualified for the final Concacaf round, which was played in 1989.
That run is another story for another time.
Could you imagine if the U.S. failed in the second leg? There would be no Paul Caligiuri and a historic goal. No World Cup experience before 1994. Who knows how the team would have fared without Italia ’90 experience? Players on that young team probably would not have gotten the chance to play in Europe and gain valuable club experience. That likely would have affected the USMNT’s history.
As for Thursday night’s contest, there is no doubt that the USMNT underachieved badly, particularly when on attack. When you have talented players performing for UEFA Champions League clubs on the team, the expectations are greater.
The realization was that the squad lost too many balls at midfield, passes weren’t crisp or went awry and there weren’t any great scoring opportunities generated. Perhaps the return of Christian Pulisic will change some of that.
Saying that, the Americans managed to walk out of Estadio Cuscatlán with a point. That’s what matters in the standings. They don’t hand out points for goals or beautiful soccer.
In World Cup qualifying, it’s about accruing points and stopping your foes from adding three points at home to their total.