Mike Windischmann captained the USMNT at the 1990 World Cup. (FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)

Thirty-three years ago today, Saturday, Nov. 19, 1989, the U.S. men’s national team qualified for its first World Cup in 40 years by defeating host Trinidad & Tobago in the final qualifier for Italia 90. FrontRowSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis covered the game and sets the scene with this story.

By Michael Lewis
FrontRowSoccer.com Editor.

A funny thing happened to the U.S. in what they thought was going to be a 1-0 victory over Trinidad & Tobago on May 7, 1989 they gave up the tying goal in the waning minutes, a goal that almost came back to haunt them. Instead of walking away with two points, the Americans had to split them with their rivals from the Caribbean.

The U.S. was clinging to a 1-0 lead behind a goal by defender Steve Trittischuh with two minutes left. U.S. forward Peter Vermes cleared the ball into the Trinidad half of the field. Trinidad’s Brian Williams took control and knocked a long pass toward Hudson Charles, who ran into opened space, drawing defender Steve Trittschuh with him.

Two players raced for the ball – U.S. captain Mike Windischmann with an outstretched foot and Trinidad forward Marlon Morris, who got there first to gently head it to Charles, who had only Vanole to beat. No last-minute heroics this time.

“We kind of had a letdown,” Trittschuh said. “I don’t know why. We weren’t tired, but I could feel us letting down.”

It was still early and the U.S. got an opportunity to redeem itself against Guatemala in New Britain, Conn. on June 17 — a 2-1 victory behind goals by Eric Eichmann and Bruce Murray.

“You could say it was huge,” said goalkeeper David Vanole, explaining the importance of the match. “I think even if we had tied this game, it would have been disappointing.”

The victory left the U.S. with a 2-1-1 record and in second place in the tournament. Costa Rica (3-2-1, seven) led with Guatemala (1-2, two), Trinidad & Tobago (0-2-1, one) and El Salvador (0-0-0, 0) trailing.

Next up was El Salvador on July 9 (“It’s going to be like hell going down to El Salvador in July,” U.S. forward Bruce Murray said) – or so everyone thought.

The Americans’ July 25 match in El Salvador was postponed until Sept. 17, to be played at a neutral site in Tegucigalpa, Honduras because of unruly fans stopped El Salvador’s qualifier on June 25 with Costa Rica, which enjoyed a 4-2 advantage with six minutes remaining. Fans from the capacity crowd of 50,000 threw fruits, bottles and pennants onto the field to protest their team’s poor performance.

Due to the postponement, Gansler was able to experiment with the lineup and decided to use 20-year-old Tony Meola, a University of Virginia sophomore who had acquitted himself well in the Marlboro Cup, an exhibition tournament, against the Peru National Team and Benfica (Portugal). Meola, who eventually captured the Hermann Trophy as college soccer’s top player in 1989, split his time between the National Team and Virginia, helping the Cavaliers to a share of the NCAA Division I championship with Santa Clara in December.

Meola, an excellent ballhandler for a goalkeeper, could not, however, give the U.S.a needed lift offensively. The Americans did managed to get by El Salvador, 1-0, on a free kick by Perez.

The U.S. could not have planned the worst time for a scoring drought, playing host Guatemala on Oct. 8 and El Salvador at the St. Louis Soccer Park on Nov. 5 to back-to-back scoreless ties.

On Oct. 8, the U.S. outplayed Guatemala and had several serious scoring opportunities, but had trouble putting them away.

“Our Achilles heel showed again,” Gansler said. “We had difficulty putting it in.”

The U.S. (3-1-2, eight) remained in third place behind Costa Rica (5-2-1, 11), which clinched a berth with the result, and Trinidad & Tobago 3-1-3, nine).

“It feels like a loss,” said Murray, who had two of the best scoring chances for the U.S. during a five-second span in the first half, but goalkeeper Ricardo Piccinini made a pair of bang-bang saves on point-blank shots. “I’m just disappointed. We came down to get two points and we didn’t get them. We’re going to need them for the stretch run.”

Meola agreed. “I’m as depressed as if we lost,” he said. “The most depressing thing about it was we have an incentive for Italia ’90, they didn’t.”

For a team eliminated in September and rebuilt within the past couple of weeks, Guatemala (1-4-1, three) acquitted itself quite well. There wasn’t much local interest in this match, as one newspaper headlined the game “Futbol de la consolacion” — consolation soccer.

Although ticket prices were as low as 80 cents, $2 and $3.20, a crowd of only 4,723 turned up at the 45,000 seat Estadio Nacional Mateo Flores that featured a field better suited for growing rice than playing soccer because of torrential rain the past several weeks.

It was more of the same against El Salvador at the St. Louis Soccer Park on Nov. 5. El Salvador, which had been eliminated, brought in what was an experimental team, played the Americans to a scoreless tie.