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 footballing comforts of 21st century America.
I do feel as if Match of the Day has effectively shortened my football attention span. Aesthetically, MLS can be difficult to watch sometimes. And yes, I’m still sitting shiva for the U.S. Men’s National Team, which will sit out a World Cup for the first time since 1986.
But this is to quibble. For a man 53 years of age, no lack of reasonable central-defense options beyond Geoff Cameron can dull the fact that today we bask in soccer circumstances of which we only dreamed back in the day. I lived through the 1980s. I played and followed the American game throughout that decade. Trust me when I tell you: It was a soccer wasteland. No professional league. No World Cup prospects. No games on TV, foreign or domestic.
If one didn’t live through it, that world would be unimaginable today, when every Saturday and Sunday, most Mondays, and damn near every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday there is some football match worth watching beamed directly into my living room. 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 is a nearby Major League Soccer franchise for me to support — and 21 more spread across the country. When the U.S. played at the 2014 World Cup (its 7th consecutive appearance), no country delivered more fans to Brazil than America.
Clearly there is enormous demand for all this soccer. At long last, the hook has been set: The U.S. loves its footy now — enough that MLS continues to expand and build soccer-specific stadia, while three major networks continually bid against each other for broadcast rights to this lucrative soccer market.
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. I spent much of my childhood defending my participation and interest in this “foreign” game. According to a December 2017 Gallup poll, soccer is now poised to overtake baseball as the country’s third most popular spectator sport.
Something changed. So, when did that change come about and who were its agents? The answer: The 1990 U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team. 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 it all. There is reporting still to be done, but see below a working draft of the prologue.
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 the biggest occasion in global sport. Each of the 32 nations competing in Brazil that summer was accorded similar attentions, of course, but the American broadcast effort naturally concentrated on the U.S. campaign, on the field and off, as a solid, experienced, if unspectacular squad (ranked #16 in the world prior to the event) also commanded an unprecedented level of fan support. No country had more visiting fans in Brazil, the pundits informed us; at home, ESPN rightly expected another record-setting audience.
In an open-air studio the cable sports giant created for the occasion — palm-bedecked and stationed high above Copacabana Beach — a massive entourage of pundits held forth. On the subject of American soccer in particular this international media posse scrutinized the U.S. team in its new historical context: It had clearly arrived late to the party, having failed to qualify for a World Cup from 1950-1990, but 2014 would mark America’s seventh consecutive appearance. The Yanks weren’t anyone’s pick to win it all in Brazil, nor to advance past the quarterfinals for that matter. But apparently there was little novelty left in the country’s full-on embrace of the game. U.S. soccer had indeed come of age. Alexei Lalas said so. Michael Ballack nodded in assent. Roll tape of this morning’s press conference featuring Jurgen Klinsmann…
Untold hours of coverage would ensue over the next couple weeks. There were perhaps a few more references to America’s relatively new standing as a proper footballing nation, but fleeting mention of the 1994 World Cup inevitably gave way to further dissection of Group F, the pressure on Brazil to perform on home soil, and the absence of Landon Donovan from Klinsi’s final roster. In short, the historical context surrounding U.S. Soccer was never explored to my satisfaction — not on ESPN, not in the footballing press (domestic or international), not anywhere really.
Having lived and played through the barren wasteland that was U.S. Soccer in the 1980s, 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 it had — when exactly did it happen? And who, exactly, made it happen?
I engaged with these questions anew (and slightly a kilter) a few days later when 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?”
Rose is a good friend of longstanding but the pool of World Cup matches I have watched with him, even if we go back decades, is miniscule indeed; he is not a soccer fan (note his use of the word “game”, not “match”) 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 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 affair. Perhaps Ireland against Romania? Penalties were definitely involved and I told him as much.
“Okay. That’s all fine. But what day was that?”
His response seemed to me curiously over-specific. 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 — something I know you care fuck-all about — 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 databank of every decent cheesesteak I’ve ever consumed, especially those in and around 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 Watertown flat I watched most every group and elimination match that summer, for this wasn’t merely America’s first World Cup since 1950; it was the first soccer tournament comprehensively broadcast, live, to the American sporting public. Prior to most of these afternoon fixtures — being young, male and single — I would invariably order take-out 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, Dr. Rose — who was then a mere PhD candidate at Harvard — 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 a bong, partook of it, and settled in to wallow in some pregame hype. Effectively hidden in the kitchen, Rose watched all of this unfold — frozen with confusion and not insignificant anxiety. And there he 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. “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 boy 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 an historical 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 after years of well documented ferment, its time has clearly come. A December 2017 Gallup poll showed that soccer was poised to overtake baseball as the country’s third most popular spectator sport — a finding further boosted by the fact that it came in a non-World Cup year when the U.S. national team had already been eliminated from the 2018 tournament in Russia.
Even so, the international nature and scope of the game frankly set it apart from baseball, basketball and most other American sporting obsessions. “Coming of Age”, when it comes to soccer, means something different and distinct from establishing a credible domestic league, achieving a level of cultural currency, or posting a particular overnight Nielsen rating.
It means something quite specific actually: 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 footballing 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, despite the wrenching Russia 2018 hiccup, it clearly has.
So, when did this transformation come about, and who were its agents?
These are the lines of inquiry 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 ever-consequential 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 the first half hour against an equally skittish Trinidad & Tobago side — 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. (As we learned in October 2017, only needing a draw in Trinidad can be a tall order.)
As it happened, in 1989, this particular coming-of-age moment was to be America’s, not Trinidad & Tobago’s. Midfielder Paul Caligiuri’s 35th-minute goal would provide the slender margin of victory. With his looping, 30-yard strike, a specific generation of American players would effectively translate decades of domestic soccer growth and 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 confirm 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 often feckless international ruling body, had gotten something quite right here: It had cannily tied bestowal of the ‘94 tournament to American formation of a proper national league — something this country had sadly lacked since 1984. And so we can safely assert 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).
Oh, and lest we forget the gaggle of world-class, home-grown talent now competing in leagues all over the world and, increasingly, in MLS (a complicated issue to fairly appraise, as we’ll also learn): Caligiuri and the Class of 1990 get credit for that, too.
Or do they? The 1990 team, save this one shining moment in Port of Spain, is today little discussed — on TV, in print, by the U.S. Soccer establishment, by its growing legion of fans. Why not?
American soccer had surely existed prior to Port of Spain, but it had been a meager existence. Prior to this moment, the game had barely registered in the broader American consciousness, in large part because The U.S. had not played in a World Cup since 1950 (and had never qualified for one its own merit). The 17-year-old North American Soccer League — the only means by which the game registered at all with the sporting public — had folded its tent in 1984. The following year, the U.S. was eliminated from World Cup 1986 by unfancied Costa Rica. At that moment, for all intents and purposes, American soccer imploded.
So Caligiuri and his teammates didn’t just come out of nowhere to beat T&T, qualify for Italia ‘90 to utterly transform the American game; they climbed out of a giant crater covered in primordial ooze.
Any moron could see this is one helluva story. It’s the sort of thing hack sports writers invariably regurgitate at the slightest provocation. Why not in this case?
What’s more, to be fair (and accurate), Caligiuri’s cohort turned this trick not merely with a single goal, in a single game on some Caribbean island. They did it with decades of anonymous dedication to a sport that, until they showed up, barely existed or mattered so far a most of their fellow Americans were concerned.
In a practical sense, the Yanks who honed their skills in obscurity, beat back T&T and ultimately competed at Italia ‘90 represent U.S. soccer’s “Generation Zero”. All the soccer played professionally in this country prior to 1989 had come to nothing. All that we have today, in its bounty, can be traced back to this specific group of young men, mullet-style haircuts and all.
It’s storybook stuff, this rise from the ashes.
And 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 or co-opted. Ask your typical U.S. soccer fan when the modern U.S. game finally came of age and the answer is, invariably, “1994”. Some even point to an American run to the World Cup quarterfinal in 2002.
There is certainly plenty to celebrate from 2002, when the U.S. did indeed progress further than it ever has. There is much to savor from 1994, when the U.S. hosted a FIFA (men’s) 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 at the Rose Bowl. Indeed, no small number of players on the field that day in Port of Spain also occupied roster spots on the 1994World Cup squad.
But these were very different teams, representing different generations of American soccer.
Generation Zero broke down the door following decades of domestic obscurity and international futility; their immediate successors in particular had the luxury of walking through that open door into the limelight.
Accentuating the pivotal, historic role of the 1994 team, at the expense of the 1990 squad (whose compelling, collective story actually stretches back another 20 years), 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.
This is just plain wrong. With this book, I intend to put I right — in the proper historical 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 the game’s peculiar place in the U.S. sporting firmament.
As co-hosts of the always jaunty, often cogent football podcast, “Men in Blazers”, Michael Davies and Roger Bennett have carved for themselves a clever niche. They are both 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 the U.S. game. Like the boys in Generation Zero, they are today in their early 50s (as I am). Accordingly, they’re old enough to remember the state of U.S. soccer before Caligiuri & Co. changed everything so radically. As such, they are able to wryly and succinctly assess up the game’s fascinating generational dynamics, especially when they refer to soccer as, “America’s Sport of the Future, since 1972!”
It’s a good line. Soccer has indeed been this country’s pastime in waiting, for decades. There has also been the sense that despite its many inherent charms, here was a game that, in America, needed selling.
All through the 1970s, soccer impresarios large and small took up this mantle, 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 mature and support the game as adults. Here was a sport that, owing to its highly developed nation-vs.-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 that, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, seemed hell bent on cutting a path counter to cultural norms — soccer also represented the opportunity to generate 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 development and advancement for two decades. These Boomers, these notoriously fickle Americans around whose tastes and whims an entire economy was based, starting in the 1970s, basically dabbled in the game before leaving it for dead.
So ubiquitous and cultural influential are Baby Boomers still today, 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.
In this respect, I am your champion. I will take on these fuckers, in these pages, because they deserve a stern talking-to frankly. More to the point, their sporting myopia played a defining role in the story of American soccer — namely, its failure to come of age until nineteen-bloody-ninety! Further, I will do so with unabashed vitriol because there is no getting around the fact that we in Generation Zero have spent our entire lives negotiating Boomers and 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 enough at the time. Indeed, those of us who came of age in the 1980s reckoned (naively, it turned out) that eventually there would be similarly retrospective radio programming dedicated to our tastes: The Clash, Joe Jackson, REM, etc. We’re still waiting. Apparently, there isn’t enough money in programming or otherwise catering to the musical tastes of our relatively paltry demographic. Eventually we accepted the fact that this Boomer soundtrack would never change, never go away — we’d be hearing it at political rallies, in supermarket checkout lines, elevators and hotel lobbies for the rest of our lives.
In truth, our dealings with these next-elder narcissists had 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 Boca Raton, and blithely call still today for military intervention in places like Syria and Iran.
It was unfortunate timing to have followed this generation of Americans, one whose lasting accomplishment may well prove the boning and gutting of the American Dream (and the functioning democratic republic they inherited from their own next elders). 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 (what William Strauss and Neil Howe — authors of “Generations: A History of America, 1584-2057” — call The 13th Generation). Paul Caligiuri, a sort of American footballing Zelig who was everywhere important (and often got their first) prior to the 1990 World Cup, is just such a Tweener. His teammates in Port of Spain were Tweeners and 13s, too, 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 gap into which their transformative narrative has fallen.
Still, I suppose it’s fair and responsible 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. Nearly 30 years down the road, 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, including the failure to qualify for Russia 2018.
So, before we go any further, let’s state things plainly and for the record:
- λ 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 —extends back 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 by this specific generation of footballers throughout the 1970s and ‘80s.
- λ Without Caligiuri’s goal and his team’s qualification for Italia ‘90, America’s hosting of the 1994 World Cup would have been complicated and potentially imperiled — to an extent U.S. soccer fans little understand (and FIFA will never admit). In other words, it may not have happened.
- λ Without a 1990-enabled World Cup here America, the foundation for all that came afterward — formation of MLS in 1996, three last-16 runs and one World Cup quarterfinal; American ownership stakes in iconic clubs like Manchester United and Arsenal; lucrative European contracts for dozens of American-bred players; and 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 30-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 more international stars to American tablets and smartphones. In order to benefit from this 21st century advance, U.S. soccer 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 just 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, too, 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 top European basketball talent eventually 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, a mixed blessing in certain respects (it didn’t serve the USMNT well during 2018 World Cup qualifying, for example). But a thriving MLS is yet 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. In this book, we will learn why those bestriding footballers are not Alexi Lalas, Tom Dooley or Cobi Jones. To confer upon them (and others from the USA 1994 World Cup 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: to 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, during the 1970s, pioneered this country’s now-pervasive youth leagues. It was they 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, today 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 today 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 attracted millions upon millions of kids to its ranks, boys and girls. This newly supercharged youth soccer culture (fueled in part by the demographic shift of ethnic, soccer-savvy players/coaches from American cities to the more populous, white-bread suburbs) was further burnished by emergence of the North American Soccer League, a truly professional pursuit to which young players could aspire.
GenZero defender Brian Bliss epitomized this cultural template. Born in 1965, he 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 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.
No previous generation of Americans had been exposed to the game on such a broad level, nor could it avail itself of so many soccer resources. No previous generation had grown up with a professional league, much less one stocked with stars foreign (Pele, Eusebio, Beckenbauer) and domestic. Bliss and his elite cohort had ever reason to believe they could expect to pursue the game professionally. They were living the newly minted American soccer dream.
Yet when it came time for Bliss and his cohort to join the professional ranks — just five years prior to Caligiuri’s “Shot Heard Round The World” — this upward trend had utterly broken down. For those Americans with professional-grade talent, the mid-1980s were, in most every soccer-relevant respect, a complete and utter shit show.
After several years of declining fortunes, NASL fully expired in 1984. It would not be replaced by a legitimate national league for 12 long years. Even tiny countries like Honduras and Burkina Faso maintain national soccer leagues, year after year, without fail. The idea that America could not — and that this absence coincided with the development of such an important, proficient generation of U.S. players — is quite remarkable.
Nevertheless, as young professionals with no proper outdoor league to draft/develop them, Generation Zero was obliged to make do throughout the 1980s with a patchwork of regional and ethnic leagues, contested on raggedy fields for semi-professional wages.
“When the NASL folded,” Bliss recalls, “reality hit hard.”
Seventeen years of NASL left behind no broader, cultural interest in the sport — it was largely seen as a game for kids. Accordingly, there was certainly no soccer on television post-1984, domestic or otherwise.
Today, the U.S. Men’s National Team occupies an outsized place in the American soccer consciousness, for reasons we will explore. But during the 1980s, it occupied no discernable place at all. 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.
“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. “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. 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.”
That Generation Zero navigated this period and ultimately found itself competing in Italy that summer of 1990 was, to them, nothing short of miraculous.
“It is amazing how this sport has found success in spite of itself on so many different levels,” says Vermes. “It was all fiefdoms back then and, well… there were a lot of mistakes.”
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. These guys weren’t just former collegiates; some were still in college during the 1989 CONCACAF qualification tournament, the 5-team round-robin that led to the thrilling denouement in Port of Spain.
This very inexperienced group of players carried yet another burden unique to its time, place and circumstance. And let us not be coy about it: If Generation Zero had failed to qualify for Italia ’90, a 1994 World Cup on U.S. soil could have been taken away.
“There’s a little added pressure for you,” says Steve Trittschuh, a stalwart defender on the 1990 USMNT. “I can’t say for sure just know how much of it was true, but that was the word on the street. That was the talk. As we started qualifying in ’89, we were hearing these things: If we don’t qualify, they’re pulling the World Cup from us.”
The ’94 event had already been awarded to the U.S. in July 1988. Yet 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 had no viable soccer culture or fan base, 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.
At the time of Caligiuri’s heroics (five years prior to the ’94 event), FIFA was just six years removed from having pulled the 1986 World Cup from Colombia (the tourney 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.
Throughout 1989, in that series of competitive moments so crucial to all these future elements of American soccer, nothing had been preordained. Had T&T keeper Michael Maurice managed to parry Caligiuri’s looping, 30-yard volley over the crossbar and preserve a nil-nil draw, an entire generation’s worth of sacrifice, progress and perseverance would have gone utterly for naught. Trinidad & Tobago would have traveled 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.
All of this intrigue hung over the 1990 USMNT qualifying campaign like a pall, an unspoken sword of Damocles. “That’s weight you don’t need to put on your team,” Coach Bob Gansler says, quite rightly. “But hey, I’m not an ostrich. It was real. I never put my head in the sand.”
“The way FIFA works?” Trittschuh says. “Yeah, it could have happened.”
But it didn’t happen. Caligiuri did score the most fateful goal in U.S. soccer history, and the U.S. did qualify on its own merits (with some further help from FIFA; 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 availed themselves well: nearly stole a point from the host nation (to the horror of Italian futbol writers), laid the groundwork for a dozen 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, the 2018 cycle notwithstanding (these things happen in international football; just ask Italy, Chile and the Netherlands, three of the games giants, all of which failed to qualify for Russia, too). In truth, FIFA had sought an American World Cup because these sportocrats nonpareil, clueless as they remain in so many respects, recognized the huge, largely untapped commercial opportunities inherent to an American soccer market. They were right. 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 German footballing establishment is arguably the most discerning on Earth and it clearly digs the U.S. market: A year earlier, its top club, Bayern Munich, opened an office in New York City to better market itself to North American fans.]
Today, Americans themselves 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 young Brian Bliss as he toiled in the late 1980s for the semi-professional Boston Bolts.
That afternoon in Port of Spain moved the ground beneath the feet of world soccer, and the ripples are still being felt some 30 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 broader 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. We were all there at creation: wearing baseball-style stirrup socks in youth leagues during the early 1970s; rolling our eyes at the cockamamie theories earnestly conferred by the ignorant Soccer Dads who coached us (and appreciating all the more the odd, invaluably savvy immigrant dad); ogling those rare broadcasts of British and German league games (on public television of all things); watching NASL rise so magnificently (only to fold so damned 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 (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 — 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. Take a quick 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 there. If my elders are represented, they almost assuredly grew up elsewhere, in some soccer-loving culture of longstanding.
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, in the millions, also comprise this country’s first legitimate fan base — an important component in any coming-of-age equation. Raised on soccer and tempered our country’s hard-won international successes, we made the game stick.