Paul Caligiuri scored the USA’s first World Cup goal in 40 years at Italia ’90. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

The United States’ reward for reaching its first World Cup in 40 years wasn’t a pretty one.

The Americans were forced to play three European teams at the 1990 World Cup – Czechoslovakia, host Italy and Austria.

For any team, they would be quite a tall order, but for the youngest team in the competition, it seemed it could be mission impossible.

British bookmakers made the Americans as 500-1 longshots to win the cup.

“The idea, of course, is to look to qualify for the second round,” head coach Bob Gansler said. “History tells us that three points got four teams into the second round the last time and two points got two of the four teams into the second round. Somewhere between that we’re going to have to set our goals.”

Prior to Italia ’90, Gansler turned heads by not including two experienced players on the squad – Hugo Perez, who had been the center of the attack, but he was recovering from a broken leg, and one-time team captain Davis, who was healthy.

There were talk – serious talk – that Gansler did not want the influence of Davis on the team because the younger players – the U.S.’s average age was 24.2, the lowest of the 24 finalists – would go to him before they would go to the coach. Gansler said that wasn’t the case, that he had to pick the 22 best players he felt could help the team.

The U.S. men’s national team lived up to that assessment as very little went right against Czechoslovakia, a plodding side, in its opening match on June 10.

Quite simply, it was men against boys. The game ended nothing short of a complete disaster against a team that was expected to struggle to reach the second round.

The Americans’ 5-1 loss to the Czechs exposed their every weakness to the world: They were slow. They lacked a physical presence. And they showed their inexperience in soccer savvy.

They were outshot, 23-7. They gave up two goals off corner kicks, another from the penalty spot. They also had a player ejected. One of the few bright spots was Paul Caligiuri, who defied the experts and oddsmakers by scoring a goal for the U.S. in the World Cup.

It could have been worse, much worse. The Czechs seemingly fired at will at the U.S. goal and goalkeeper Tony Meola had to save a penalty kick in the 89th minute to save any further embarrassment before 32,226 at Estadio Communale in Florence.

In other words, it was a game to forget.

“It wasn’t like you wanted to swap jerseys and put it on the wall with 5-1 written on it,” U.S. substitute forward Chris Sullivan said. “You could call it a team’s biggest nightmare.”

Gansler’s spin on the match? “Obviously, our inexperience showed in a number of facts of the game,” he said. “It thought we started reasonably well with a measure of confidence. But we gave up a couple of soft goals. I think we will have the determination to regroup and do well in our next game.”

The Czechs did little damage early, probing the American defense for soft spots and weaknesses in the early going. Finally, in the 25th minute, the Czechs went into high gear when midfielder Lubos Kubik, a future member of the Chicago Fire, raced through the U.S. midfield, past defender John Stollmeyer on the left side and crossed the ball to Tomas Skurhravy, who surged into the penalty area to beat Meola from just about the penalty spot.

They continued to attack, and the USMNT continued to make mistakes. Steve Trittschuh’s inability to clear the ball in the area led to the second goal. Mike Windischmann, the sweeper, got possession of the ball and then lost it to Ivan Hasek, whom he tripped whie reaching for the ball. On the ensuing penalty kick, Meola guessed correctly, diving to his right, but Michel Bilek still powered it into the upper corner for a two-goal advantage.

It went from bad to worse.

In the 51st minute, Hasek headed home Frantisek Straka’s corner kick from yards while U.S. defenders played statues, standing around and watching.

Two minutes later, midfielder Eric Wynalda was given a red card for retaliating against midfielder Lubomir Moracik, who had stepped on his foot, and became the first U.S. player to be ejected from a World Cup match.

“It’s called paying your dues,” Gansler said. “Eric got baited. No. 11 stepped on his foot, and he pushed back. And a lot of times the first foul is not seen. It’s a matter of inexperience.”

Despite playing a man down, Caligiuri raced down the right wing, eluded a couple of defenders, and pulled goalkeeper Jan Stejskal out of the net to score from 12 yards in the 61st minute. It was the U.S.’s first World Cup goal since John Souza scored in a 5-2 loss to Chile in Recife, Brazil on July 2, 1950.

“At 3-0, you have to take risks,” Caligiuri said.

The Czechs were not finished. Skuhravy headed in his second goal, this time from three yards in the 79th minute, and substitute Milan Luhovy closed out the scoring two minutes into injury time.

Sandwiched between those two goals, was a penalty kick awarded after midfielder John Harkes tripped a player in the box. Again, Bilek took the kick, trying to embarrass the U.S. by blooping it into the upper right corner. Again, Meola guessed correctly, this time catching it in midair.

“I had a feeling he was going to try to beat me with something tricky,” Meola said.

Several minutes later, referee Kurt Roethlisberger of Switzerland mercifully whistled an end to the rout.

“The most frustrating thing is we made all the oddsmakers look like kings,” Meola said. “This team doesn’t deserve that.”

With that result in mind, it looked like the U.S. was going to be fed to the lions (Italy) in Rome, but the Americans had some ideas of their own, managing to turn the pro-Italian crowd against the home team on June 14 The Americans’ conservative tactics had the partisan crowd of 73,423 at Stadio Olympico whistling their displeasure in the early going. By the final whistle of Italy’s 1-0 victory, however, the crowd still was whistling, but against the Italians’ disappointing performance and poor finishing.

“They wouldn’t let us play,” Italian captain and defender Giuseppe Bergomi said. “They stayed in their half. They added a defender. It was difficult for us to do anything.”

The Italians struck first — on a goal by Giuseppe Giannini in the 12th minute after he broke through the American defense and past Harkes and Windischmann.

The U.S. did have one chance at destiny – in the 68th minute – after Meola saved Gianluca Vialli’s penalty kick in the 34th minute – when midfielder Riccardo Ferri was slapped with a yellow card for elbowing Murray 22 yards from the net. On the free kick, Bruce Murray fired a shot that goalkeeper Walter Zenga dived to his right to knock away. The ball came to Peter Vermes, who blasted a shot that Zenga saved. This time the ball squirted loose and was bounding toward an open net before Ferri barely cleared it.

“I tried to put it high,” Vermes said. “I think I should have put it in the back of the net. He made a nice save. I had an opportunity, it didn’t happen.”

Gansler was impressed by the team’s improvement. “You might call me a blooming optimist, but we tried for a point tonight,” he said. “We showed our real face tonight.”

Five days later on June 19, the USMNT reverted back to its opening-game antics in its third and final match against Austria in Florence.

The game’s turning point came in the 33rd minute. Referee Jemal Al-Sharif red-carded Austrian defender Paul Artner for brutally fouling Vermes at midfielder. The U.S. was hopeful, Austria was concerned. Some 57 minutes of playing time later, Austria was ecstatic, the U.S. stunned.

Despite playing with a man advantage, the U.S. exited its first World Cup in 40 years in embarrassing fashion via a 2-1 loss to Austria.

It wasn’t the fact the Americans lost to Austria, it was the way the deed was accomplished. Imagine: The U.S. enjoyed a one-man advantage for almost one hour and allowed two goals in a physical match that saw Al-Sharif award 10 cards, including nine yellows before a crowd of 34,857 at Stadio Comunale.

“It’s a very frustrating for us to have a man advantage and give up two goals,” said defender John Doyle, one of the U.S.’s bright spots in the World Cup. “Everybody’s hurting a little.”

And for good reason. With a victory, the Americans had a shot – albeit a long one – of reaching the second round. Still, a victory — even a tie — would have put a nice finishing touch on the tournament.

“We’re disappointed with the results,” Gansler said. “I thought we had the ability to do it [win] . . . The difference between the other nations and ourselves is not as great as we would believe.”

The wheels for this loss were put into motion in the 33rd minute when Artner kicked Vermes after he took him down at midfielder. Artner was ejected and left the field while the meager crowd of Americans sang, “Hey, hey, goodbye.”

The Austrians managed to end the half unscathed. It was a matter of time before they cracked. Or was it?

At halftime, they replaced their scoring leader, an ineffective Toni Polster (no goals in the cup) with Andreas Reisinger.

“Teams with 10 men worker harder,” Harkes reminded his teammates.

It went in one ear and out the other because only five minutes into the second half, it was the U.S. that came unwound. Austrian forward Andreas Ogris picked up a loose ball after an American corner kick, outran defenders Jimmy Banks and Desmond Armstrong int the midfielder and Windischmann before beating Meola with a 12-yard bloop shot.

The U.S. never was the same.

“It was very frustrating because we were playing well,” Ramos said. “We were closed to getting a 1-0 lead.

The Austrians utilized a counterattack for their second goal. Ogris raced down the right side and crossed the ball to Gerhard Rodax, who scored off a 10-yarder.

Finally, in the 83rd minute, the Americans struck as Murray put the ball through goalkeeper Klaus Lindenberger’s legs from 10 yards. But like Caligiuri’s goal in the opening loss to the Czechs, it was too little and too late.

For Tab Ramos, best just wasn’t good enough in Italy.

“We have the best American players here, nothing better,” he said. “As a team, we’re just not good enough. There’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. We can play with a lot of heart and intensity and hope for the best. Technically, we’re overwhelmed and physically not as talented as these teams.

“You have to remember where we’re at and at what level the Italians are at. I’m not saying we’re going to shut them down. We could beat them 1-0, but it’s very unlikely it’s going to happen.”

There was a world of difference between the U.S., the Italy’s, Brazil’s and Germany’s of the world.  “In other countries, they would shut down their businesses to watch the World Cup,” said Ramos, who along with Harkes and Doyle were the U.S. standouts. “If these lose, they cry and don’t go to work the next day. If they win, they celebrate and they don’t go to work the next day.

“The other teams have no idea of our situation. We’ll come home and at Kennedy Airport, no one will know who we are.”

Catching up to the rest of the world won’t happen overnight, Ramos said. It could take time, lots of time. A professional league needed to develop in the U.S. and the best players needed to play overseas at the highest level.

Before the cup, several Americans already were playing in Europe — Vermes with FC Voldendam (The Netherlands) and Sullivan with Raba Eto Gyor (Hungary). But having just a handful of players abroad would not turn around.

“It won’t be enough because we need 20-30 players,” Ramos said. “It’s a matter of playing in Europe, adjusting for a year and becoming one of the best players. That’s how you become competitive in the World Cup.”

Ramos and the U.S. would have another shot in 1994.