One of the reasons I blog so much about soccer is the pure adrenaline rush of being exposed to so many live broadcasts, here in the relative comforts of 21st century America.
I do feel as if Match of the Day has effectively shortened my football attention span. MLS can be difficult to watch sometimes and is hardly ready to bid against La Liga for talent. It also appears the U.S. Men’s National Team has run out of ideas.
But this is to quibble. For a man 52 years of age, no lack of reasonable central defense options beyond Geoff Cameron can dull the fact that these here are the soccer circumstances of which we only dreamed in the 1980s… I lived through the 1980s. I played and followed the American game throughout the decade. Trust me when I tell you: It was a wasteland.
And yet, every Saturday and Sunday, most Mondays, and damn near every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday there is some football match worth watching beamed directly into my living room. There is a nearby MLS franchise for me to support. I can walk into most any bar and expect a Champions League match will be found on the TV — and the bearded, hipster bartender won’t look at me like I’m some kind of candy-ass freak for having asked. There must be demand for all this footy, in addition to my own. It seems clear the hook has been set: The U.S. loves its football now — enough that three different major networks are indeed bidding against each other. For broadcast rights.
How exactly did we get here?
That is the overarching question whose answers inform my current book project, an account of how, when and by whose efforts modern American soccer came of age, turned the corner, fledged its wings — pick your cliché. It took the U.S. Men’s National Team 40 years to break its duck and qualify for a World Cup on its own merits. It’s now been 30 years since a World Cup has been staged without us. Something changed. So, when did that change come about, and who were its agents? Who were these guys and why did they succeed where previous World Cup generations failed?
This book — Generation Zero: The Class of 1990 and the Making of Modern American Soccer — gets to the bottom of all this, and that’s a working title, for the record. There is reporting still to be done, but I’m planning to have it available prior to next summer’s World Cup in Russia. See below a taste of the introductory chapter.
Why answer these particular questions? Because the accomplishments and impact of the USMNT from 1988 through the Italian World Cup of 1990 represent a veritable recipe for pantheon-ascension. In the continuum of modern U.S. soccer, these men — all born between 1963 and 1969 — are the Founding Fathers. Yet plans for a parade (or perhaps some limited-edition coins, from the Franklin Mint) remain pending.
With this book, I intend to put this matter in the proper perspective, because this disconnect (many perfectly soccer-savvy folks feel the American game came of age with the 1994 World Cup) isn’t merely inaccurate. It effectively glosses over a truly epic yarn — the most transformative, far-reaching and dramatic story American soccer has to tell, a story that will stir and inform your soccer-loving soul while simultaneously getting to the root of this game’s newly lofty but still peculiar place in the U.S. sporting firmament these last 50 years.
Oh, and one more thing: As it happens, the story of Generation Zero is my story, too.
I was born in September 1964. Peter Vermes, Bruce Murray, John Harkes, Brian Bliss and everyone from this team are my exact contemporaries in the story of modern American soccer. We were all there at creation: wearing baseball-style stirrup socks in youth leagues during the early 1970s; learning the game from soccer-ignorant dads (and the odd, invaluably savvy immigrant dad); ogling those rare broadcasts of British and German league games (on PBS of all things); watching NASL rise so magnificently, only to fold so tragically; and ultimately traveling abroad to play (and watch) the game as it was meant to be played.
We weren’t just contemporaries; sometimes, we were opponents. I faced (and was invariably humbled by) several of these game-changers growing up, at the club level, in college, in the semi-professional leagues that carried on in NASL’s absence. Hell, some members of the 1990 World Cup team billeted in my house! In short, their story — as players — is my story, only writ larger and more successfully.
It was this particular cohort of players who qualified their country for Italia ’90, an event from which everything else has flowed. But their contemporaries, myself included, also comprise this country’s first legitimate soccer fan base. You can’t have a proper footballing nation without proper fans. You’re welcome, America. Generation Zero took care of that, too.
I. We Made It Stick
In the weeks leading up to the 2014 World Cup, soccer observers combed over the U.S. team, its players and prospects with a thoroughness befitting what is generally accepted to be the biggest occasion in global sport. Each of the 32 nations competing in Brazil was accorded similar attentions, of course, but the American broadcast effort naturally concentrated on the American campaign, on the field and off, as a solid, experienced roster (ranked #16 in the world prior to the event) also commanded an unprecedented level of fan support. No country had more fans in Brazil; at home, broadcast rights-holder ESPN rightly expected another record-setting audience.
In an open-air studio ESPN created for the occasion — high above Copacabana Beach — a massive entourage of pundits held forth. On the subject of American soccer in particular this international media assembly spoke of the U.S. team and the forthcoming campaign its new historical context. We had clearly arrived late to the party. But 2014 would mark our sixth consecutive World Cup appearance. The Yanks weren’t anyone’s pick to win it all in Brazil, nor to advance past the quarterfinals. But there was little novelty left in the country’s embrace of the game. U.S. soccer had finally come of age, and the pundits made it clear. Alexei Lalas said so.
Yet this new historical context was never explored to my satisfaction. A few references to the 1994 World Cup gave way to a discussion of Group F… I wanted to know more: If soccer had indeed come of age in America — and a thriving professional league, regular World Cup appearances, lucrative network TV packages, and scores of U.S. players competing in top European leagues all indicate that is had — when did it happen? And who, exactly, made it happen?
I engaged with these questions anew and slightly a kilter that summer when my friend Dave Rose called my office out of the blue.
“You remember that time we watched that World Cup game together, at your apartment in Watertown?”
The pool of World Cup matches I have watched, with Rose, even if we go back decades, is miniscule indeed; he is not a soccer fan, nor a sports enthusiast of any kind. That said, I lived in Watertown, Massachusetts only for a specific 12-month period covering most of 1990. I could be pretty confident he was referring to a match during Italia ’90 — not any of the three historic matches involving the U.S. (this country’s first World Cup appearance in 40 years and the first time America had ever qualified on its own merits), but probably a Round of 16 match. Perhaps Ireland against Romania? Penalties were definitely involved, and I told him as much.
“Okay. That’s all fine. But what day was that?”
This seemed a curiously over-specific response. However, because there are no arguments these days, no conversational loose ends in the digital age, Rose and I resolved to sort the matter. As it rarely does, Google didn’t disappoint: Ireland vs. Romania, at Genoa’s Stadio Luigi Ferraris, the Irish advancing after a scoreless 120 minutes, on penalties.
The date: June 25, 1990.
“Okay. Cool. Thanks.”
Wait a minute, Rose. Are you going to tell me why on Earth we needed to pin this down, this particular moment in soccer history, with such specificity?
“Well,” he explained, opting again for the slow reveal, “do you remember that place in Watertown you always ordered take-out from?”
I surely did. I maintain a long, detailed and damned accurate recitation of every decent cheesesteak I’ve ever consumed, especially those in my home turf of Greater Boston. At the time, I was city editor at a pair of daily newspapers in Central Massachusetts; the 1990 World Cup’s live afternoon telecasts, on ESPN, meshed perfectly with my essentially nocturnal lifestyle. From my apartment in Watertown, I watched most every group and elimination match that summer, for this wasn’t merely America’s first World Cup since 1950; it was also the first soccer tournament comprehensively broadcast, live, to the American sporting public, in its entirety. Prior to most of these afternoon games — being young, male and single — I would invariably order take-out food from The International, a sub and pizza joint down the road. The delivery guy, Abdul, would become part of my bachelor family that summer of 1990. At some point prior to the knockout rounds, he stopped knocking and simply let himself into my apartment, shared with me the greasy, often-deep-fried comestibles (in addition to the odd bong hit), and hung out for a healthy chunk of that afternoon’s featured match.
[For the record, prior to the match in question, Rose was unaware of my new soccer friend. On June 25, 1990, Dave and I had indeed ordered take-out from The International. I jumped in the shower before the food arrived, and apparently Rose was in the kitchen when this Arab dude let himself into my apartment, set two submarine sandwiches and some fries down on the coffee table, packed himself a bong, partook of it, and settled in to wallow in some pregame. Effectively hidden in the kitchen, Rose watched all of this unfold — frozen with confusion and not insignificant anxiety. And there Rose remained, more than a bit freaked out, until I emerged from the bathroom, greeted Abdul, rescued my friend from the kitchen, and engaged in some proper World Cup banter.]
“That’s right,” Rose recalled, these many years later. “It was The International.”
Yes, but what is the point of this inquiry? I was more than a bit exasperated by this point.
“Well, I ordered a cheeseburger sub that day.”
Yeah, and … ?
“That was the last time I ate meat.”
And so, on a purely anecdotal level, it can be plausibly argued that American soccer came of age at about the same time my friend Dave Rose went vegetarian.
Domestically, it’s difficult to identify the specific timing of any sport’s full and complete maturation. Soccer in the United States has followed a path as long and crooked as any other sport’s (its roots in this country, as we’ll learn, go back further than you think), but the international nature and scope of the game sets it apart from baseball, basketball and most other American sporting obsessions. “Coming of Age”, in soccer, means something different than establishing a credible domestic league, achieving a level cultural currency, or posting a particular overnight Nielsen rating. It actually means something quite specific: namely, the ability to compete with other soccer nations on a credible basis — not just qualifying for a World Cup, but doing so repeatedly, quadrennial after quadrennial. Ultimately, for a nation so populous, rich and ambitious as the United States, it means playing other soccer powers on more or less equal footing at successive World Cup tournaments.
By this international standard, soccer in the United States — for much of the 20th century — flat out failed to come of age. Today, it clearly has.
So, when did this change come about, and who were its agents?
These are the questions that animate this book. Conventional wisdom rarely provides the exactitude we seek when meting out these historical tipping points. Here, however, it should be spot on, for all meaningful progress in development of the U.S. game, internationally (and domestically, as it happens), stems from a single moment: Nov. 19, 1989, in Port of Spain, on the island of Trinidad.
Or, to provide further context, some eight months before Dave Rose stopped eating meat.
That sunny November afternoon early in the first Bush administration, needing a victory in its final group-stage match to qualify for the World Cup in Italy the following summer, the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) scuffled nervously and ineffectually through 30 minutes against home-standing Trinidad & Tobago, for whom the stakes were equally high: A T&T victory (or even a draw) would have sent this tiny Caribbean nation through to its first-ever World Cup.
But this coming-of-age moment was to be America’s, not Trinidad & Tobago’s. Midfielder Paul Caligiuri’s 65th-minute goal would provide the slender margin of victory. With his looping, 30-yard strike, a specific generation of American players effectively translated decades of domestic soccer ferment into a recognizable level of international credibility.
From this moment forward, what had been 40 years of haphazard, indeterminate growth on the international stage instantly became inevitable growth. This goal, this 1-0 victory, didn’t merely secure a World Cup appearance in Italy eight months hence but a World Cup held in the United States 56 months hence, in 1994. FIFA, the game’s international ruling body and organizer of the World Cup, had cannily tied bestowal of the ‘94 tournament to our formation of a proper national league — something this country had sadly lacked since 1984. And so it can be safely said that the official formation of Major League Soccer (MLS), in 1993, its inaugural season (in 1996), and the league’s steady growth since all stem from that famous victory in Port of Spain, as well — as do the bidding wars for TV rights we read about today (pitting broadcast goliaths Fox, NBC and ESPN) and the gaggle of world-class, home-grown talent now competing in leagues all over the world, and, increasingly, in MLS (a complicated issue to appraise fairly, as we’ll learn).
American soccer had surely existed prior to Port of Spain, but it had been a meager existence. Caligiuri and his teammates didn’t just come out of nowhere; they climbed out of a giant crater to qualify for Italy and this achievement utterly transformed the American game. They did so not merely with a single goal, in a single game on some Caribbean island, but with years of anonymous dedication to a sport that, until they arrived, had barely registered in the broader American consciousness. In 1984, the North American Soccer League — the only way U.S. soccer had been able to reach that broader public — folded its tent. Six years before Caliguiri and coach Bob Gansler and Peter Vermes and Brian Bliss and Marcelo Balboa punched their tickets to Italy, American soccer basically imploded.
In a very real sense, the Yanks who beat back T&T and traveled to 1990 World Cup represent U.S. soccer’s “Generation Zero”. All the soccer played professionally in this country prior to 1989 had come to nothing. It all started with this cohort of players.
Yet roadblocks riddle the pathway to right-thinking American soccer nostalgia. In this particular case, what should be conventional wisdom has failed to take hold — or, rather, the conventional wisdom has been misplaced. Ask your typical U.S. soccer observer when the modern U.S. game finally came of age and the answer is, invariably, “1994”.
There is certainly plenty to celebrate from that year, when the U.S. hosted a FIFA World Cup for the first and only time, when the Yanks clambered out of a tough group before falling to eventual champion Brazil, 1-0, in the Round of 16, before 100,000 onlookers in the Rose Bowl. Indeed, no small number of players on the field that day in Port of Spain also occupied roster spots on the ’94 World Cup squad.
But these were very different teams, representing different generations of American players. Generation Zero broke down the door following decades of domestic obscurity and international futility; their immediate successors had the luxury of walking through an open door into the limelight.
Accentuating the pivotal, historic role of the 1994 team, at the expense of the 1990 team (whose compelling, collective story actually stretches back another 20 years prior), is akin to crediting Willie Mays for breaking the color line in Major League Baseball — purely because his accomplishments were ultimately more statistically compelling, his personality more cuddly and telegenic than Jackie Robinson’s.
The accomplishments and impact of the USMNT from 1987 through the Italian World Cup of 1990 represent a veritable recipe for pantheon-ascension. In the continuum of modern U.S. soccer, these men — all born between 1963 and 1969 — are the Founding Fathers.
Yet plans for a parade (or perhaps some limited-edition coins from the Franklin Mint) remain pending.
With this book, I intend to put this matter in the proper perspective, because this disconnect isn’t merely inaccurate and unfortunate. It effectively glosses over a truly epic yarn — the most transformative, far-reaching and dramatic story American soccer has to tell, a story that will stir and inform your soccer-loving soul while simultaneously getting to the root of this game’s peculiar place in the U.S. sporting firmament.
As co-hosts of the always jaunty, often cogent podcast, “Men in Blazers”, Michael Davies and Roger Bennett have carved for themselves a clever niche. They are Brits, through and through, and yet, because they have lived in America for decades, they bring to bear keen observational powers when it comes to U.S. soccer. Like the boys in Generation Zero, they are today in their early 50s (as I am). So they’re old enough to wryly and succinctly sum up one aspect of the game’s fascinating generational dynamics here when they refer to soccer as, “America’s Sport of the Future, since 1972!”
It’s a good line. Because it rings so true. Soccer has indeed been this country’s pastime in waiting, for decades. All through the 1970s, entry-level soccer impresarios large and small were convinced they were on to something big. Here was an under-exposed sport whose spectator appeal nevertheless had a demonstrable, international track record. Here was something boys and girls could both play, as kids — strongly suggesting those same men and women would later support the game as adults. Here was a sport that, owing to its highly developed nation-v.-nation ethos, would naturally appeal to America’s highly developed strain of jingoism.
Most important, U.S. soccer backers were convinced that in courting the eyeballs and pocketbooks of young, hyper-populous, culturally ascendant Baby Boomers — a demographic which, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, seemed hell bent on cutting a path counter to traditional cultural norms — soccer also represented the opportunity to earn great riches. Surely, as it matured, an economically viable segment of this generation would take this new, non-traditional game to its collective bosom.
That never happened, not the Baby Boomer bit anyway, and soccer’s failure to engage this vast youth culture fatally undermined the sport’s maturation for two decades. These Boomers, these notoriously fickle Americans — around whose tastes and whims an entire economy, starting in the 1970s, was based — basically dabbled in the game before leaving it for dead.
So ubiquitous are Baby Boomers still today, so culturally dominant, they are often treated with kid gloves. Even in their impending dotage, they wield inordinate political power (“Don’t touch my Medicare!”). They wield even more commercial power (just watch the nightly network news and try to find an advertisement for something Big Pharma isn’t trying to sell aging, dyspeptic Boomers). Few find it in their interest to take these feckless, navel-gazing locusts to task for their many cultural transgressions.
Well, in this respect, I am your champion. I will take these fuckers to task, in these pages, because they deserve a stern talking to, AND because their sporting myopia played such a defining role in the story of American soccer — namely, its failure to come of age until 1990. Further, I will do so with a certain level of naked vitriol because there is no getting around the fact that we in Generation Zero have spent our entire lives negotiating their voracious, capricious, ever-widening shadow.
The first time I became aware of this cultural penumbra was the onset of “classic radio”, which debuted in the late 1970s and has never left us — because Baby Boomers have never left us. Seemed harmless and current enough at the time. Alas, we Tweeners didn’t realize until much later that these song lists would never change, never go away — we’d be hearing them in supermarket check-out lines, elevators and hotel lobbies for the rest of our lives because Boomers so dominate the culture. Indeed, we reckoned, naively, at first, that eventually there would be similarly retrospective radio programming dedicated to our tastes: The Clash, Joe Jackson and REM. We’re still waiting. Alas but apparenetly, there’s simply not enough money in programming or otherwise catering to the musical tastes of our relatively paltry Tweener cohort.
In truth, our dealings with these narcissists begun long before — first in the schools, where they started showing up in the early 1970s as young teachers (they are the reason I still know every last word of “Godspell”). Later, we dealt with them (and continue to deal with them) as employers and colleagues. These are the people who, as young idealists, castigated American capitalism (and militarism), then, once they’d made some money, bought BMWs, began summering in Bar Harbor, and blithely call for military intervention in places like Syria. These are the people who gauzily recall the moon landing as a timeless example of American will and know-how — then pointedly ask what purpose the Space Shuttle serves. Despite their vast capacity for contradiction and hypocrisy, Boomers cling to these selective memories of the 1960s and the ideals they once represented. Every week in America it seems we mark the 40th or 50th anniversary of this or that. For this we can thank our antecedents in the culture, who continually look back because they’re loath to imagine where in hell they’ll take the country next.
Taken individually, these may seem petty matters, but believe me: They add up. And so it’s difficult for those of us who directly followed Boomers in the culture to be objective about them. As Tweeners, born just after the Boom, how could we be anything but ambivalent, having lived every day of our lives trapped, generationally, between these cultural Goliaths and their children in Generation X? For 50 years (again: the entirety of our lives), quite against our will, we have been subject to their various cultural, political and economic fancies.
It was unfortunate timing, for us, to have followed this generation of Americans, one whose lasting accomplishment is the boning and gutting of the American Dream (and now, the functioning democratic republic they inherited, apparently). Soccer is merely another example of their poor collective judgment.
Happily, the story of Generation Zero is a story not of Boomers but of Tweeners. Paul Caligiuri — a sort of American footballing Zelig, who was everywhere important (and often got their first) prior to the 1990 World Cup — is a Tweener. His teammates in Port of Spain were Tweeners, too, all of them born between 1963 and 1969, rendering them neither Boomers nor Xers. Up to now, the failure of their story to resonate with the larger culture is, in some part, attributable to a generational crack into which this transformative narrative has fallen.
I suppose it’s fair to ask, Does any of this really matter, this misplaced conventional wisdom, this Boomer-led sporting indifference, this lost narrative of American soccer?
Hell yeah it does. The Boomers were wrong about soccer, as they were mistaken about so many things, and it’s high time we put things right. Further, this conception of U.S. soccer history — that the American game featured nothing of consequence prior to 1994 — isn’t merely inaccurate. It’s an injustice that clouds our ability to observe objectively and in context the long, fascinating arc of soccer’s story in America.
So, before we go any further, let’s state things plainly and for the record:
- The modern era of U.S. Soccer begins with the 1990 U.S. Men’s National Team, whose essence — in terms of personnel and achievement — actually extends to the 1988 Olympic team (another vital, stepping-stone event that American soccer fans little appreciate today) and to dozens of additional milestones passed/achieved throughout the 1970s and ‘80s.
- Without Caligiuri’s goal and his team’s qualification for Italia ‘90, America’s hosting of the 1994 World Cup would have been seriously jeopardized — to an extent U.S. soccer fans little understand (and FIFA will never admit). In other words, it may not have happened.
- Without a 1990-enabled World Cup here America, MLS is surely not formed two years later, and the foundation for all that came afterward — qualification for five straight World Cups (1998-2014); three last-16 runs and one World Cup quarterfinal; American ownership of iconic clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool and Aston Villa; lucrative European contracts for dozens of American-bred players; and even one contract that didn’t happen (16-year-old Erik Palmer-Brown’s January 2014 spurning of a $1 million contract from Italian giant Juventus, in order to stay and develop his game with Sporting Kansas City) — is not laid.
These events, all indicative of U.S. Soccer maturation on a 27-year fast track, may have taken place, eventually. But without Generation Zero, they would have been markedly delayed, perhaps by decades, if they materialized at all. Much as the rise of radio helped spread interest in baseball (and television turned football into a national obsession), the Internet has today brought Lionel Messi and countless other international stars to American tablets and smartphones. This internet phenomenon has not furthered the fortunes of, say, professional tiddlywinks. Soccer first needed a platform of legitimacy and broad domestic appeal. Generation Zero made that platform possible.
“That group, that time period in the late 1980s, was the spark,” says Peter Vermes, a striker on the 1990 World Cup squad, the last man cut from the 1994 team, and today the coach of Sporting Kansas City, in MLS. “That’s the group of people, the pioneers if you will, who really ignited this sport and made things start to happen. A lot of doors were opened at that time, because we did a lot of things that hadn’t happened before — not just qualifying to play in a World Cup, and the Olympics, but players signing and playing in Europe.”
Prior to 1990, only a handful of Americans had indeed broken through to ply their trade in European leagues. Not surprisingly, Caligiuri blazed that trail, in 1987. Vermes, Chris Sullivan and Bruce Murray would soon follow in his footsteps — but they were the only lads playing abroad when the U.S. showed up at Italia ’90. Today we take it for granted that top Americans play their soccer abroad. This phenomenon started with Generation Zero.
While 21st century U.S. talent routinely goes abroad (in the same way European basketball talent comes to the NBA), MLS has still managed to thrive in ways that founders of the North American Soccer League — the U.S.-based league formed in 1967, and gone by 1984 — would marvel at today. Indeed, MLS is competitive and commercially viable enough that some of those Euro-based American luminaries have been lured back home, sort of mixed blessing in certain respects, but surely another illustration of American professional soccer’s extraordinary progress since Port of Spain 1989, where it all started.
This progress surely stands on the shoulders of giants. Just understand those bestriding footballers are not Alexi Lalas, Tom Dooley or Cobi Jones. To confer upon them (and others from the USA 1994 team) that sort of standing would be akin to ignoring the exploits Washington and Jefferson to raise up the likes of Monroe or Calhoun.
No, those shoulders belong to a different generation of players: John Doyle, Bruce Murray, John Stollmeyer, Desmond Armstrong and the rest of American Soccer’s “Generation Zero”. These are the men, born just after the Baby Boom, whose stories are little discussed but who nevertheless pioneered during the 1970s this country’s now-pervasive youth leagues, who survived the chaos of American professional soccer in the 1980s, who first qualified their country for a modern Olympic tournament (1988) and the World Cup (1990), and first took the U.S. game to Europe — not just to Italy in the summer of 1990, but to leagues all across the continent.
While this foundational role is hardly lost on Italia ‘90 alumni themselves, they tend to look back on their careers and achievements with a frank appreciation for just how random, how unlikely, how utterly chaotic it all seems now in retrospect.
It’s also important to remember that these players, while born in the 1960s, were products of the 1970s, when soccer in America had appeared utterly ascendant. By the second, ill-fated Nixon Administration, the game had indeed attracted millions of kids to its ranks, boys and girls. This newly supercharged youth soccer culture (fueled in part by the movement of ethnic, soccer-savvy players/coaches from American cities to the more populou suburbs) was further burnished by emergence of the North American Soccer League, a truly professional pursuit to which young players could aspire.
Brian Bliss, for example, born in 1965, grew up in Webster, New York, outside Rochester, where he developed his game in the youth leagues that had only just sprouted there. He toiled mainly under the watchful eyes of clueless Soccer Dads, who coached those teams for want of better options. He followed the hometown Lancers, in NASL. He eventually attracted the attention of the U.S. Soccer Federation via the Olympic Development Program, something that was still quite new (formed in 1978). Bliss was a national team prospect before he went on to star in college, at Division II powerhouse Southern Connecticut State. He is one of a dozen 1990 alums who have gone on to fashion very successful careers in the game; Bliss served ably as technical director with the Chicago Fire, in MLS, before recently joining Tab Ramos’ staff coaching the USMNT’s U-20 team.
Bliss’ experience in the game was representative of others’ in Generation Zero — not just his teammates in Italy, but of all the kids who grew up playing and developing a love for soccer in the 1970s. No previous generation of Americans had been exposed to the game on such a broad level. No previous generation had NASL and its many foreign luminaries (Pele, Eusabio, Beckenbauer) pointing the way to lifelong fandom. He and his cohort lived the American soccer dream — a primitive one, but one that was clearly evolving, improving.
Yet when it came time for Bliss and his cohort to leave college and join the professional ranks, this upward trend had broken down completely. For those Americans with professional-grade talent, the mid-1980s were, in most every soccer-relevant respect, a complete and utter shit show. That Generation Zero navigated this period and ultimately found itself competing in Italy that summer of 1990 was, to them, nothing short of miraculous.
“The national team at that time really was a traveling gypsy circus,” recalls Bliss, a key reserve on the 20-man Italia ’90 roster, all but two of whom were interviewed for this book.
It wasn’t just the USMNT that suffered. After several years of declining fortunes, NASL fully expired in 1984 and would not be replaced by a legitimate national league for 12 long years. Until 1996, when MLS commenced operations, there would be no national, outdoor circuit where American professionals could train, compete or generally hone their individual games. At the time, this fact tended to boggle the minds of soccer aficionados worldwide (even if it raised barely a popular ripple here, outside hard-core soccer circles). Even tiny countries like Honduras and Burkina Faso maintained national soccer leagues, year after year, without fail. How could the richest, most powerful nation on Earth not have one?
In this and myriad organizational respects, American soccer arrived in Italy that summer of 1990 straight from the Island of Disarray. Because there was no league, neither were there club-sponsored academies to develop young talent (in truth, NASL did next none of this talent development during its all-too-brief existence). There was no broader, cultural interest in the sport — it was largely seen as a game for kids, a reputation it cemented during the 1970s but had failed to build upon. To wit, there was certainly no soccer on television during post-1984, domestic or otherwise.
Previous World Cup qualification efforts — those leading up to 1982 and 1986, in particular — weren’t just unsuccessful; they were unmitigated disasters, a fact that surprised those competing for the USMNT during this period not in the least.
“You gotta remember: Back then it was very difficult to get another national team to even give us a game — because they didn’t respect the U.S. enough to waste a FIFA date, an international date,” Bliss says. “I think I had 44 caps in 10 years, under five different coaches, which I consider to be a real achievement. When I see guys today with 110-120 caps, it amazes me because, you know, we went months without playing national team games, and even then we were playing [unofficial friendlies] against Juventus, and Sampadoria, and Independente Santa Fe — teams on some exhibition tour of the U.S. — because we couldn’t get anyone to play us.
“In between, you were struggling to maintain fitness and soccer sharpness because you literally had nowhere to play. Sometimes you’d go 6 or 7 weeks without a trip or playing any competitive, meaningful games. It was very difficult, but that was the situation.”
Remember, too, that Bliss and his compatriots were, to a man, products of American collegiate soccer — an amateur system recognized today to be highly deficient when it comes to producing international-caliber talent. No other soccer nation of consequence has ever relied on universities to groom top-flight professionals. Yet, for a time in the middle portion of the 1980s, collegiate soccer was the highest caliber soccer being played in America.
When NASL expired, U.S. soccer found itself with no professional league and no player-development infrastructure that would be recognized as meeting even the most meager international standard.
“It is amazing how this sport has found success in spite of itself on so many different levels,” says Vermes. “Whereas today, when we find ourselves in a period of organization and planning and strategy, it was all fiefdoms back then and, well… there were a lot of mistakes.”
As professionals, but with no proper league to draft/develop them, Generation Zero made do throughout the 1980s with a patchwork of regional and ethnic leagues, plus something called the A League, a loose, ever-shifting agglomeration of semi-professional clubs that, in Bliss’ and Vermes’ native Northeast, served as a patchwork unto itself, played out on raggedy fields in places like Albany (The Capitals), Rochester (Rhinos), Newark (Eagles) and Boston (Bolts).
“When the NASL folded,” Bliss recalls, “reality hit hard.”
Generation Zero didn’t quail in the face of this depressing reality. Instead it dedicated itself to periodic national team camps, stayed fit largely through its own efforts, and earned a bit of scratch via the A League (not formed until 1988) and other, more ethnic circuits like the Cosmopolitan Super League, in metropolitan New York (where Bliss and 1990 captain Mike Windischmann played); the Luso-American Soccer Association (LASA) in Greater Boston and Rhode Island, where I played; the German-Hungarian League out of Philadelphia (where Vermes played); and the Hispanic-influenced Western Alliance on the Pacific Coast, where Paul Caligiuri cut his teeth.
These leagues and others like them had existed for much of the 20th century, but together they never managed to develop a critical mass of American-born talent good enough to qualify this country for a World Cup. (All of America’s World Cup appearances prior to 1990 — including Brazil 1950, when the U.S. scored its famous 1-0 win over England — had been by invitation; the system of qualification through Federations was implemented prior to the 1954 World Cup. Until Generation Zero showed up, America had gone 0 for 9.) No one got rich playing semi-pro, ethnic-league soccer in America — not Harry Keough in the 1950s, not Bob Gansler in the 1960s, not Brian Bliss in the 1980s. On either side of the NASL era, however, these ethnic leagues served up the best club soccer the U.S. had to offer, and so they are critical to our story.
As a bonus, we all learned how to cuss in multiple languages. The LASA League was strongly Portuguese in its make-up, but there were multiple ethnicities represented from side to side. Because I spent most of my LASA time (1988-92) with Greek Sportsmen of Somerville, I can tell you the playfully derisive comment of choice among these particular sportsmen was “malaka”, meaning masturbator, though it’s probably best to translate it more whimsically as “wanker”, especially in the soccer context. “Skata” meant shit, and often the Greek was mixed colloquially with English, as in “you fuckin’ malaka,” or “Fuck this skata, man.”
On the field, one could make himself clear enough with these staples. If you really wanted to stir things up, “Gama stavros sou” took things up a notch, or two. According to Niko, the coach and general manager of Greek Sportsmen (his last name was never revealed to me), it meant, “I fuck your cross,” thereby accommodating in a single pointed phrase both obscenity and blasphemy. There was also a derivative that took into account someone’s mother — not that I understood nor dared utter this epithet in any form. I had been an ancient Greek history major at college and could appear convincingly Mediterranean after a few days without shaving. But in actuality I was the team’s token suburbanite, and no way could some fuckin’ white-bread malaka dish out gama stavros sou and make it stick.
Like many of our contemporaries, Bliss had dabbled in the multi-ethnic Cosmo League during and after his collegiate career, catching the train from New Haven down into New York for a game-stake of $150 bucks and a meal back at some grimy clubhouse populated by old fat guys smoking ungodly numbers of cigarettes. It was good walking-around money for a college kid, and better soccer than any being played in the NCAA, to say nothing of the A League.
But it wasn’t what Bliss, raised on NASL, had expected once he turned professional. What’s more, it was surely NOT the sort of playing experience that honed one’s game for the rigors of European club soccer, or World Cup qualifiers.
For Generation Zero, “professional” soccer in the 1980s took multiple forms, each one more dodgy than the last. The mighty Cleveland Force of the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) drafted Bliss, out of college, in 1986. He didn’t exactly jump for joy. “For us guys who had only played outdoor, we deemed indoor soccer a bastardization,” he says. “But that was our only option — to get paid and make a living in the game. So I did sign with the Force. [John] Stollmeyer and Des Armstrong were there, too, and some of the other guys were spread around the league.”
Twenty-first century fans may not realize it, but indoor soccer was, by default and for a short time, the American game’s dominant strain immediately post NASL — another reliable indicator of a soccer culture in crisis. Still, MISL had survived where NASL had not; indoor games were actually on TV, intermittently and for a time, filling space next to bull-riding and competitive lumberjacking on the still-infant ESPN. There were even several levels of “minor league” indoor during his period, including the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL), hardly national and barely professional. I played college and semi-pro soccer throughout this period, and the only reason I was even aware of the NPSL was David Slade, a college teammate who played for a Pennsylvania franchise called The Hershey Impact — surely one of the most unfortunate monikers in American sports history (especially at the height of the AIDS crisis).
“It was almost a good thing when the league [MISL] more or less went out of business after my first year,” Bliss recalls. “Only 5-6 teams ended up surviving, then the whole thing went under. It forced our hand really, to do something else.”
When Bliss says “something else”, he’s talking about coaching at youth camps, playing in semi-pro leagues on crappy fields for a pittance, dropping everything to fly somewhere warm to train for a week with the U.S. Mens National Team (USMNT)), or perhaps finding work outside of soccer altogether, to make ends meet. Bliss was, at this point in time, among a handful of top footballers produced by a country of 300 million people, the richest nation on earth, and yet these were their limited options. Such was the fragile, retrograde state of soccer in America in the “go-go” ‘80s — just five years before Generation Zero managed to qualify for Italia ’90 and change the course of American soccer forever.
On the one hand, it’s extraordinary what Bliss and his teammates managed to accomplish against this dire competitive and organizational backdrop. On the other, throughout 1989 — during the CONCACAF qualification tournament that led to the thrilling denouement in Port of Spain — Generation Zero walked a very fine line between success and failure, all the while bearing a burden unique to international soccer.
Let’s not be coy. In the moment, nothing has been preordained. Had T&T keeper Michael Maurice managed to parry Caligiuri’s looping, 30-yard volley over the crossbar and preserve the nil-nil draw, an entire generation’s worth of sacrifice, progress and perseverance would have gone utterly for naught. Trinidad & Tobago would have gone to Italy, not the USA. There would be no Generation Zero — and there’s no telling when America soccer’s breakthrough moment would have come, if ever.
Would there have been a 1994 World Cup on U.S. soil? There is considerable doubt, and this was precisely the burden carried by Gansler’s team. This gargantuan event had been awarded to the U.S. in July 1988, well before the team’s actual qualification for Italia ’90. Any clear-eyed examination of FIFA’s mendacious track record on such matters yields a stark conclusion: Had the U.S. failed to win in Port of Spain, world soccer poobahs would have been loath to follow through on their commitment to award the sport’s marquee event to a nation that couldn’t support a professional league, hadn’t participated in a World Cup since the Truman Administration, and had never qualified for one under its own power.
Many in the European football establishment already felt U.S. soccer was inherently unworthy. “It’s just an ethnic sport for girls in schools,” is how Francois Carrard, former media director of the International Olympic Committee, described the state of American soccer — in 2015! Even in 1988, when American stadia were nevertheless state-of-the-art and the transportation infrastructure entirely first world, FIFA, the International Olympic Committee and European football elites wondered aloud: If the World Cup were awarded to such a country, would any Americans even show up to watch?
At the time of Caligiuri’s heroics (five years prior to the ’94 event), FIFA was six years removed from having pulled the 1986 World Cup from Colombia, an event that was eventually handed to Mexico. Today, we see FIFA is engaged in this sort of gambit once again — fending off naysayers while publicly weighing the pros and cons of following through on the 2022 World Cup, officially awarded to Qatar (by the now-tainted Sepp Blatter administration) but not exactly a sure thing.
All of this FIFA intrigue hung like a pall over the 1990 USMNT qualifying campaign. For a team of semi-professionals and college kids trying to earn their country’s first-ever World Cup qualification, there was pressure enough. But losing the ’94 event was always in the background, the unspoken sword of Damocles hanging over coach Bob Gansler’s team that day in Port of Spain and all throughout the qualification process.
“You know, that’s weight you don’t need to put on your team,” Gansler says, quite rightly, “but hey, I’m not an ostrich. I never put my head in the sand.”
“That was the talk,” adds Steve Trittschuh, a stalwart defender on the 1990 USMNT. “As we started qualifying in ’89, we were hearing things: If we don’t qualify, they’re pulling the World Cup from us. I don’t know how much of it was true, but that was the word on the street. There’s a little added pressure for you.
“The way FIFA works? Yeah, it could have happened.”
But it didn’t happen. Caligiuri did score, and the U.S. did qualify on its own merits (with some further help from FIFA, as it turned out; the Mexicans are still pissed about it). At Italia ‘90, the U.S. didn’t win a game, but Vermes, Tab Ramos, John Harkes and their teammates did avail themselves well: nearly stole a point from the host nation (to the horror of Italian futbol writers), laid the groundwork for many individual careers in European leagues, and generally had the time of their lives, at once exhilarating and surreal.
“I remember Chris Sullivan got subbed on for Bruce Murray late in the Italy game,” Vermes recalls. “We had a defensive corner kick. So we’re going back to mark up. I’m running back and I turn to Chris and I’m like, ‘Sully, I got Baresi’. And he’s like, ‘I got Vialli.’ And we both look at each other like, Oh really? We got these guys? Who are we to have these two guys! Because, you know, on the other side, I don’t think they were they saying, ‘Yo, I got Vermes.’ ”
The U.S. did host the World Cup in 1994, and today Americans do more than credibly and effectively compete on the international stage. In truth, FIFA wanted to bring a World Cup to the United States because these sportocrats nonpareil, clueless as they remain in many respects, rightly recognized the huge, largely untapped commercial opportunities here. Sure enough, the 1994 event remains the best attended World Cup of all time.
Today, millions of Americans buy scarfs and jerseys, while supporting MLS sides in sold-out, soccer-specific stadia. They watch international matches beamed to them by three major networks, while a half dozen smaller fries fight like mad for a piece of that lucrative pie. [In 2015, the Bundesliga moved its U.S. broadcast rights from little-known GolTV to the much more widely distributed Fox Sports. The Germans dig the U.S. economy: A year earlier, its top club, Bayern Munich, opened an office in New York City to better market itself to North American fans.]
Americans even maintain controlling interests in iconic football clubs located thousands of miles offshore. None in the Bundesliga, not yet. But in 2011, the same outfit that owns the Boston Red Sox bought a majority stake in Liverpool FC —a move that would have boggled the mind of Brian Bliss as he toiled in the late 1980s for the A League’s lowly Boston Bolts.
That afternoon in Port of Spain moved the ground beneath the feet of world soccer, and the ripples are still being felt 27 years on.
The young men who scored that victory in the Trinidadian capital are today in their 50s. Their experiences as kids, young amateurs and fledgling professionals shaped the future of soccer in America and laid the groundwork for all these important transformations to come. This is why, in researching this book, I spoke with most every one of them, plus dozens of their coaches and contemporaries. Their stories up to and including 1990, while largely absent from the public consciousness, remain key to understanding where we are today as a footballing nation, including why it took so very long to get here.
Their mosaic recollections — of U.S. soccer in the ‘70s and ‘80s, of their development as individual players, of their first interactions with each other as members of various national squads, of the tortuous 1990 qualifying campaign and Italia ’90 itself — together form American soccer’s modern creation story.
As it happens, their story is my story.
I was born in September 1964. Peter Vermes, Bruce Murray, John Harkes, Brian Bliss and everyone from this team are my exact contemporaries in U.S. soccer’s Generation Zero, for we were all there at creation: wearing baseball-style stirrup socks in youth leagues during the early 1970s; learning the game from soccer-ignorant dads (and the odd, invaluably savvy immigrant dad); ogling those rare broadcasts of British and German league games (on PBS of all things); watching NASL rise so magnificently, only to fold so tragically; and ultimately traveling abroad to play (and watch) the game as it was meant to be played.
We weren’t just contemporaries; sometimes, we were opponents. I faced (and was invariably humbled by) several of these game-changers growing up, at the club level, in college, and in the semi-professional leagues that carried on in NASL’s absence. Hell, some members of the 1990 World Cup team billeted in my house (and those of my teammates). In short, their story — as players — is my story, only writ larger and more successfully.
In another important respect, however, the collective story of Generation Zero transcends the on-field realm.
The 1990 World Cup was the first to be televised in its entirety here in the U.S. (in 1982 and 1986, for example, only the World Cup final was made available live on domestic, broadcast television). Naturally, my soccer friends and I were over the moon that America had qualified for Italia ’90. But I remember feeling incredibly privileged just to watch those 1990 World Cup matches as a neutral — all of them, live from the old country, alongside my boy Abdul, consuming whatever deep-fried delights he delivered to my Watertown flat.
I also recall those telecasts for the snark of ESPN’s various SportsCenter desk jockeys, who, with few exceptions, plainly looked down their noses at soccer and bridled at the indignity of having to deliver reports on competitions they little understood. Keith Olbermann was the worst offender and it goes without saying that he and his dismissive colleagues were all a generation my senior — yep, Baby Boomers, still stubbornly unrepentant at having missed this particular boat.
It’s their loss, frankly. Take a look around the next time you’re part of an MLS crowd; pay attention to the men and women who, today, routinely pack American bars to watch a U.S. international or some high-stakes Champions League match. It’s a demonstrably younger crowd. Indeed, I’m often the oldest guy in there. If my elders are represented, they almost assuredly grew up elsewhere, in some soccer-loving culture of longstanding.
Put simply: The members of Generation Zero secured America’s footballing future. In the arena, it was this cohort of players who qualified their country for Italia ’90, an event from which everything else has flowed. But their contemporaries, myself included, also comprise this country’s first legitimate soccer fan base — an important component in any coming-of-age equation. Raised on soccer and spoiled by our country’s hard-won international successes, we made the game stick.