Growing Up In U.S. Soccer’s Dark Ages

Tears, joy, and why I feel responsible for 0.000001% of today’s booming domestic soccer culture.

A few months shy of 25 years ago, I was standing in the doorway of a dingy banquet hall at some unmemorable Long Island hotel, imploring a good friend of mine to leave the baseball card show we were attending. This was back in the halcyon days of card trading, where tying up a significant portion of your adolescent net worth in the projected future of Jeff Treadway was a perfectly reasonable idea, and a well-worn copy of Beckett’s was a teenage boy’s must-have accessory.

On this particular November afternoon, though, the quest for additional inventory with perfect, unbent corners had to come to a premature end. ESPN, a decade into its existence but still just a couple of years into my own household’s cable offerings, was airing — on tape-delay — the decisive World Cup qualifier between the United States and Trinidad & Tobago from Port of Spain, Trinidad. The U.S., once again a complete soccer backwater after the final implosion of the North American Soccer League five years earlier, had a chance to accomplish the unthinkable: qualify for its first World Cup in 40 years.

This didn’t mean very much to the general populace at the time. While my Bar Mitzvah in 1986 was World Cup-themed, my only recollections of watching that tournament are from the Spanish language channels my 13-inch black-and-white bedroom TV could pick up with rabbit ears. Beyond Diego Maradona’s legendary star turn, England’s Gary “Leeee-neh-ker” was among the memorable standouts, as much to the announcers’ pronunciation of his surname as his play. The thought that the United States could one day actually participate in this global event wasn’t ludicrous; it was more unthought of, like not even a legitimate possibility that was considered by the few who even cared.

FIFA electing to choose the United States to host the 1994 World Cup created a brief news ripple in the late 1980s, but there were significant rumors that the Cup would be taken away from us if we didn’t qualify for Italia ‘90. Even being in position to do so took a massive break; regional kingpin Mexico had been banned from the event for playing overage players in a youth international tournament. At the time, our region (CONCACAF) had just two bids to the then-24-team event. With Mexico out, there was an extra one available to an outsider.

The U.S. got to the point where a win in Trinidad would be enough in the totally unremarkable fashion of that era. Our four home qualifiers in 1989's final round were held at St. Louis Soccer Park (twice), Murdock Stadium in Torrance, Calif., and Veterans Stadium in New Britain, Conn. Attendance, if you believe Wikipedia, broke 10,000 once. That’s probably generous.

By now, you likely know what happened in Port of Spain. Paul Caligiuri uncorked his “shot heard ‘round the world” to edge a scrappy, disjointed match, 1-0, and as a bunch of amateur kids dogpiled on the field, the animated voices of JP Dellacamera and Seamus Malin offset the visual of a red sea of 35,000 stunned Trinidadians. Eight months later, we got smacked around in Italy, but held onto the 1994 event, which helped launch MLS and everything else you see today that’s part of the U.S. soccer scene.

I started playing soccer when I was three. My final high school season had ended just days before the Trinidad match, thanks in large part to my own howler in goal. There was a bit of a college soccer scene at the time, but recruiting mainly consisted of sending shaky VHS tapes and handwritten letters to schools with modest resources. The one all-star showcase game scheduled for Long Island that year got snowed out. There were some scholarships, but it wasn’t really anything you thought about in those terms. You just wanted to play the game you loved for as long as was possible. If that meant a few extra years in college, wonderful. There certainly weren’t any heroes to which you could aspire.

That’s what changed on Nov. 19, 1989. Our peers became our heroes.

These guys were just a couple years older than us in many cases. Even by the following summer in Italy, the U.S. roster only had three players older than 25, and no one older than 27. Striker Eric Wynalda was 20. Goalkeeper Tony Meola was 21. John Harkes and Peter Vermes were 23. UCLA striker Chris Henderson was still a teenager when he made the roster.

Several of the team’s standouts were from the Kearny, NJ, area, which wasn’t all that far from where I grew up or played in annual Memorial Day tournaments with my club team. They were, essentially, amateurs, the ones that had made it through the sketchy Olympic Development Program process at the time. Suddenly, they were in a World Cup and being signed by European teams as professionals. In a way, they could have been any of us, or rather, any of us could have been them.

This is all why, a quarter of a century later, soccer remains so personal to me. I think of the hundreds of matches I played in, the thousands of practices I attended, the summer camps, the friendships, the sacrifices my parents made to fuel my passion. Passion that, until these kids won in Trinidad, had no rationality and absolutely no future. We played simply for the joy of playing and for the thrill of competition, to loosely emulate famous images from the landmark show Soccer Made In Germany and whatever we could see on grainy black-and-white feeds in Spanish.

Since then, we have moved from consuming the World Cup on TNT (with commercials inserted right into the middle of matches) to ESPN leading the charge with world-class coverage, from almost no availability of foreign club matches in this country to multiple TV networks battling over big-money rights. We’ve gone from MLS being played in front of modest crowds in ill-suited venues to a country with soccer-specific stadiums and players making millions of dollars a year playing soccer for a living. We’ve transformed ourselves from nobodies into the best team in our region and one of the better ones in the world. If you lived through this entire process, you know how stunning this all is.

This helps explain why, in 2010, I openly cried on my couch after Landon Donovan’s goal beat Algeria. It also explains why one of the greatest thrills of my professional career was receiving an email from Bruce Murray, one of the stalwarts of the 1990 World Cup team, saying he liked a soccer story I had written. I was a fan of his long before he was one of mine.

It also helps explain why I don’t think I’ll ever see the U.S. win a World Cup. I know how far we’ve come, but also know how far there is left to go. Mix in luck of the draw, bounce of a ball or incompetence of an official, and even if we do become “good enough,” there are zero guarantees. I’ll still be pinned to my television starting on June 16, though, hoping for a miracle. And, if not? Our next chance is just 1,450 or so days away.