During the United Soccer Coaches convention in Los Angeles January 2017, I drove down to Torrance to take some photos of the refurbished stadium at El Camino College, the site of one of the great USMNT’s World Cup qualifying disasters in 1985. When I visited, the stadium wasn’t opened to the public four years ago. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer)
By Michael Lewis
CINCINNATI – I don’t know what drove me to fly cross-country and back within a little more than a day to watch a World Cup qualifying match – a Concacaf semifinal round game, at that, in 1985.
Heck, I wasn’t even covering soccer as beat for my newspaper at the time. I was the assistant desk chief at the Westchester-Rockland Newspapers in Harrison, N.Y. I asked to take two days off – that Friday and Saturday.
Something told me that I had to be in Torrance, Calif. and as it turned out, it was one helluva way for a writer to earn his first cap covering the U.S. men’s national team. Well, at the time, it was called the national team. The women had yet to make their debut; they did that summer.
Actually, I covered the USA in an exhibition match against N.Y. Greek-American Atlas (the old team of then USA head coach Alkis Panagoulias) at Hofstra Stadium in April of that year. But that game did not count because it was not an official game.
The final week of May 1985 had enough soccer tumult to last a lifetime.
The big news was the Heysel Disaster on Wednesday, May 29, in which 39 fans, mostly Juventus and Italian supporters, lost their lives and another 600 were injured prior to the European Cup final against Liverpool at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium. Liverpool fans caused the disaster. It transpired during a time in which English soccer hooligans were giving the sport a black eye and a half.
If I am not mistaken, Clay Berling, the founder and publisher of Soccer America, went on “Nightline” to talk about the disaster (with the legendary Ted Koppel).
On Thursday night, I took an all-night flight on People’s Express out of Newark Airport, where the flights were ridiculously cheap. I believe my roundtrip cost less than $150.
We took over around 11 p.m. and got into LAX Friday morning.
By the time I got a car and drove down to the Marriott in Torrance, Calif., it was around 10 a.m. I remember turning on the TV and there was David Lee Roth performing “Just A Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody” on MTV.
Back then, it was a big, big hit.
I went to sleep for several hours and woke up around 3 p.m., and guess what? The song was playing yet again on MTV.
I had a quick bite and drove to El Camino College in Torrance, the site of the USMNT’s game with Costa Rica. I was covering it for Soccer America.
There were only a handful of American sportswriters at the game.
I am leery of saying the names because I fear I might have forgotten one or two of my fellow scribes.
It’s funny what we remember from past encounters.
Of course, I remember the game. The USMNT lost in excruciating fashion, 1-0, and was eliminated from World Cup contention exactly a year to the day of Mexico 1986 opener.
I also remember the Costa Rica folk dances at halftime (in what country was this game played again?)
I also recall how the Ticos scored the lone goal of the match in the 35th minute. 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 Evaristo Coronado knocked it into the net.
I can’t forget how close the Americans came to scoring and how captain Rick Davis tried some gamesmanship, trying too sell the game officials the “equalizer” in the 73rd minute. Davis sent a free kick from the left of the penalty area to Dan Canter at the top of the box. The defender drilled a shot that appeared to have gone into the net, which rippled. Referee John Meachem (no relation to U.S. historian Jon 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.
And etched into my mind how stunned the Americans were in their locker room afterwards. Davis took the loss particularly hard, sitting slumped at his locker, head in his hands, still in his uniform, a half-hour after the game.
If I had a cell phone then, I might have taken a photo of Davis, because his reaction defined the entire USA team (yes, back in the stone ages, they allowed reporters in the USMNT’s locker room, before there were mixed zones).
I have lost track of how many qualifiers I have covered in person since then (any games I have written off TV do not count). Someday, I have to take a count. On Friday, I will be at TQL Stadium here to watch the USMNT take on its archrivals, Mexico in another qualifier.
I have had the privilege to attend and report about every USA-Mexico qualifier since that wild and crazy 2-2 draw in Foxborough, Mass. in April 1997. That includes the four dos a cero games in Columbus (2001, 2005, 2009 and 2013) and the uno a dos loss to El Tri in the same city in 2016.
As it turns out, this will be my 10th World Cup qualifying cycle, which even astounds me.
Yes, I know the USA did not participate in 1994 WCQ because it was the host, but it did not stop me from covering other matches. I attended the Puerto Rico-Dominican Republic confrontation in March 1992, which was the very first qualifier for USA 94. It was a trip and a game for the ages. Just ask Puerto Rican technical director Arnie Ramirez (former LIU head coach). I also was at Varsity Stadium to watch Mexico defeat Canada and book a WC spot in May 1993 and was at Wembley for an England-Poland encounter in September of that year.
I don’t know how many more WCQ cycles I will be able to attend.
After March 2022, the USA won’t have to worry about booking another World Cup berth until 2028 at the earliest because the Americans, along with Mexico and Canada, are tri-hosts of the 2026 World Cup. So, the Mexicans and the U.S. might not meet again until 2029. Eight years is a long time. In soccer, it seems like light years because so many players come and go.
Which means I will savor Friday night’s confrontation at TQL Stadium perhaps a little more than others.
I have learned to do that at every competition I have covered through the years.
In December 1985, I covered the World Cup draw in Mexico City. At the time, I didn’t know if I was going to receive a credential because the U.S. failed to qualify. So, I took in the sights and sounds, assuming I wasn’t going to return to Mexico. BTW, I did get a credential and savored my time south of the Rio Grande because I did not know if I was going to cover any more World Cups (I have been fortunate to write about 13 in person – eight men, five women).
So, I just want to remind all USMNT supporters that regardless of the final score, to savor the match as well, because classic encounters against El Tri don’t grow on trees. Sure, there could be Nations League semifinals or final or similar Concacaf Gold Cup games, but there is nothing like a World Cup qualifying contest with so much on the line (three points, national glory and bragging rights).
And by 2028 or 2029, who knows what the qualifying procedures for Concacaf will be.
Lesson: Try not to take anything for granted.
So, enjoy and savor the game, competitive spirit and fire of both teams, folks.
I know I certainly will.