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 footballing 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, still reeling from having sat out a World Cup for the first time since 1986.
But this is to quibble. For a man 55 years of age, no lack of reliable central-defense options beyond Omar Gonzalez 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 — as unimaginable as the 2020 U.S. soccer zeitgeist would have been for me in 1985. Today there is some worthwhile football match beamed directly into my living room every Saturday and Sunday, most Mondays, and damn near every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday . 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 dozens more spread across the country, new ones coming on line every other year, it would seem. 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 so 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 so many 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. Men’s National Team, its players, coaches 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 catered to the viewers back home, as an experienced if unspectacular squad (then ranked #16 in the world) also commanded an unprecedented level of in locus fan support. No country had more traveling fans in Brazil, or so the pundits informed us. Back in Bristol, Connecticut, ESPN executives rightly expected another in a succession of record-setting television audiences.
Lounging in an open-air studio the cable-sports giant created for the occasion — palm-bedecked and stationed high above Copacabana Beach — a massive cross-section of international punditry 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 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, a veteran of the 1994 and 1998 USMNT, said so. Newly retired German uber mensch Michael Ballack nodded in assent. So did lounge host Mike Tirico. Roll tape of this morning’s press conference featuring Jurgen Klinsmann…
Untold hours of coverage would ensue. Over the next couple weeks viewers beheld 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 the here and now, to further dissection of Group F, to the pressure on Brazil to perform on home soil, to the absence of 2010 World Cup hero Landon Donovan from Klinsi’s final roster. The mere existence of this massive media coverage was proof something had changed, but the historical context surrounding U.S. Soccer — its long dormancy, its dramatic rise — was never explored to my satisfaction, not on ESPN, not in the footballing press (domestic or international) before/during/after the tournament. Not anywhere really.
Having lived and played through the barren wasteland that was U.S. soccer in the 1980s, I wanted to know more: Because 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, with a question.
“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 going 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 and, for reasons we’ll explore, the broadcast of World Cup fixtures in America is a relatively new development.
That said, I lived in Watertown, Massachusetts only for a specific 12-month period covering the better part of 1990. I could be pretty confident he was referring to Italia ’90 — not any of the three historic matches involving the U.S. (our 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, I recalled, 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.”
For fuck’s sake, Rose. Are you going to tell me why on Earth we were obliged to pin this down, this particular moment in soccer history — something I know you could give a shit about — with such specificity?
“Well,” he explained, again opting for the slow reveal, “do you remember that place in Watertown you always ordered take-out from?”
I surely did. I maintain a long and 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, dovetailed perfectly with my 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 World Cup tournament comprehensively broadcast, live, to the American sporting public, ever.
Prior to most of these afternoon fixtures — being young, male and single — I would invariably order take-out from The International, a quite stellar 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, he 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 first-floor apartment, set two submarine sandwiches and some fries down on the coffee table, packed a bong, partook of it, and settled down in a overstuffed but quite threadbare easy chair 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, ever more 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.”
Yes, 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.
It’s a challenge to identify the mainstreaming of a sport, the specific timing of its full and complete maturation. . It’s not something we think about here in the U.S., not with any sport other than maybe baseball. Domestically, soccer in the United States has followed an evolutionary path as long, crooked and effectively hidden from mainstream consciousness as any other sport’s. Its roots in this country, as we’ll learn, go back further than you probably think. What’s more, the critical mass of soccer fandom, some argue, has been misunderstood and under counted for decades on account of the country’s sheers size, its diversity and the struggle quantify the predilections of its immigrant communities (vs. those of the traditional mainstream). But this much we can agree upon: After years of well documented ferment on these shores, its time has clearly come. Soccer long ago passed all American sport when it comes to youth participation. 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 bolstered by the fact that this specific data arrived late in a non-World Cup year, by which time 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 the sport with which it competes here: baseball, basketball, American football and other domestic sporting obsessions. In one way, it has driven the soccer’s growth. Our natural jingoism is served by international soccer in ways it serves no other sport.
But “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, because the standard is international and has been demonstrated by other countries so many times before. In short, it’s the ability to compete internationally with other soccer nations on a credible basis — not just qualifying for a single 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.
According to this international standard, for most of the 20th century, soccer in the United States 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?
This is the line of inquiry that animates 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 on-field moment: Nov. 19, 1989, in Port of Spain, on the surprisingly consequential island of Trinidad.
Or, to provide further context, some 8 months before Dr. Dave Rose stopped consuming animal flesh.
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 dipping 30-yard strike, a specific generation of American players would effectively transform decades of domestic soccer gestation into a recognizable level of international maturity.
From this moment forward, what had been 40 years of haphazard, indeterminate growth on the international stage instantly became inevitable growth. The repercussions are hard to miss because they continue to reverberate all around us.
This goal, this 1-0 victory, didn’t merely confirm a World Cup appearance in Italy 8 months hence but a World Cup held in the United States 56 months hence, in 1994. From there, five straight World Cup qualifications would follow.
FIFA, the game’s often feckless international ruling body, had managed to get something quite right back in the early 1990s: It had cannily tied bestowal of the ‘94 World Cup 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 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, homegrown 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, his goal and those who comprise Class of 1990 get credit for that, too.
But here’s the mind-bending thing: They don’t get that credit, not among the larger sporting community in this country, not even the diehard soccer community. In fact, 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 the sport’s growing legion of American fans.
Make no mistake: Those 40 years of World Cup failure were soul crushing in any number of ways. We can perhaps forgive the U.S. soccer community for choosing not to dwell on them. But broader, salient questions are nevertheless begged: After four decades of international blunder, what was so different about Caligiuri and this generation of players? What conditions led to their arrival on the scene in 1989, as opposed to 1985 or 1969? Who and what sort of cultural factors trained them up? And why are they so pointedly ignored today?
These lines of inquiry further animate this book for while American soccer had surely existed prior to Port of Spain, it had been a meager existence. Until that 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 — global sport’s marquee event — since the Truman Administration.
One imagines the Class of 1990 was the product of steady institutional progress during the years leading up to 1989… Um, no. The 17-year-old North American Soccer League had expired in late 1984, thereby liquidating the country’s only professional league — at the exact moment when this specific group of players had graduated college and expected to start their professional careers. Until 1986, the United States Soccer Federation operated with a paid staff smaller than your average suburban Dairy Queen.
“The national team at that time,” defender Brian Bliss informs us, “really was a traveling gypsy circus. 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.”
Less than 5 months after NASL folded, the USMNT was eliminated from yet another World Cup qualification tournament — by the tiny Central American country of Costa Rica. In the preliminary stage. At that moment, in the spring of 1985 — less than 5 years from its transformational triumph in Port of Spain — American men’s soccer had officially imploded.
So Caligiuri, Bliss and their teammates didn’t just come out of nowhere to form a viable squad in this competitive vacuum, beat T&T, qualify for Italia ‘90 and utterly remake the American soccer landscape. They climbed out of a giant crater to do so, covered in primordial ooze.
Any moron could see this was one helluva story. It’s the sort of thing hack sports writers invariably regurgitate at the slightest provocation. What’s more, it’s not a stretch to assert that all the soccer played professionally in this country prior to 1989 had come to exactly nothing. The corollary: All that we have today, in its bounty, can be traced back to this specific group of young men, their mullets and short shorts notwithstanding.
In a real and practical sense, these doe-eyed Yanks who accomplished all this represent U.S. soccer’s “Generation Zero”.
It’s storybook stuff, this rise from the ashes. 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 issued by the Franklin Mint) remain pending and roadblocks still 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 (or media pundit) when the modern U.S. game 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. progressed to within a hair’s breadth of a World Cup semifinal. 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, several players on the field that day, in Pasadena, California, were also on the field 5 years prior, in Port of Spain.
But World Cup soccer is a generational exercise. 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 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.
That’s just plain wrong. With this book, I intend to put it 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 the futbol-loving soul while simultaneously getting to the root of the game’s peculiar place in the U.S. sporting firmament.
I currently subscribe to no fewer than five dedicated soccer podcasts — but my favorite may well be the always jaunty, often cogent “Men in Blazers”, one of dozens available today in America’s mature footballing culture. Hosts Michael Davies and Roger Bennett have carved for themselves a clever niche. They are both native Britons and yet because they have lived in America for decades (Bennett just gained American citizenship in 2018), 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. Indeed, they arrived on these shores during the 1980s, just before Caligiuri & Co. changed everything so radically. As such, they are equipped to wryly and succinctly assess up the game’s fascinating generational dynamics on these shores, never more wryly than when they refer to soccer as, “America’s Sport of the Future, since 1972!”
It’s a good line, equal parts bouquet and brickbat. Soccer had indeed been this country’s pastime in waiting, for decades. There had also been the inescapable sense that despite its many inherent charms, here was a game that, in America, needed selling.
All through the 1970s, impresarios large and small took up this commercial 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 a calisthenic, team activity boys and girls could both play, as kids — strongly suggesting those same youngsters would later mature and support the game as free-spending men and women. Here was a pursuit that, owing to its highly developed nation v. nation ethos, would naturally appeal to Americans’ highly developed strain of jingoism.
Most important, late 20th century soccer backers were convinced that in courting the eyeballs and pocketbooks of young, hyper-populous, culturally ascendant Baby Boomers — a demographic that, during 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 Boom generation would take this new, non-traditional game to its collective bosom.
That never happened — not the Baby Boomer bit anyway. 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 would be 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 (watch the network news and try to find an advertisement for something Big Pharma isn’t trying to sell aging, dyspeptic Boomers). In short, 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 stand up to these ingrates, 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 and conviction 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 wake.
The first time I became aware of this cultural penumbra was the onset of “classic radio”, which debuted in the late 1970s. It has never left us, you’ve probably noticed. That’s because Baby Boomers have never left us. Now we hear it in supermarkets, in pharmaceutical product jingles, wherever Boomers might be wielding their consumer power. Classic radio seemed harmless enough at the time frankly. Indeed, those of us who graduated high school and attended college in the 1980s reckoned (naively, it turned out) that eventually there would be similarly retrospective, niche commercial radio programming dedicated to our tastes: The Clash, Joe Jackson, Prince, The Cure, REM, etc. We’re still waiting. Apparently, there isn’t enough money in 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 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 our 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 imperialism, and militarism), then, once they’d made some money, bought BMWs and began summering in Bar Harbor. Today they winter in Boca Raton and blithely call for military intervention in places like Syria and Iran.
It was unfortunate timing to have followed this hypocritical 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, and crucially, 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, all of them, are Tweeners, as well — those Americans who fell between the Boomers and the children of the boom, Generation X.
Up to now, the failure of American soccer’s remarkable foundation story to resonate with the broader Boomer-led culture is, in some part, attributable to this generational gap, into which this transformative narrative has sadly fallen. It’s my job to save it from this ignominious fate.
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 wrong 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 the Russian World Cup in 2018.
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 — extends back to the 1988 Olympic team (another vital, stepping-stone event that American soccer fans little know or appreciate today) and to dozens of additional milestones passed/achieved by this specific generation of footballers, including the stunning rise of youth soccer in the 1970s.
- 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.
- Without a 1990-enabled World Cup here America, the foundation for all that came afterward — formation of Major League Soccer in 1996; three last-16 runs and one World Cup quarterfinal; American ownership stakes in iconic foreign 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) — 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 American football into a national obsession), the Internet has today brought Lionel Messi, Christiano Ronaldo and countless international stars to American smartphones. In order to benefit from this 21st century advance, U.S. soccer needed a platform of legitimacy, success 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 at Sporting Kansas City — the club Erik Palmer-Brown spurned Juventus in order to join. “That’s the group of people, pioneers if you will, who really ignited this sport and made things start to happen. A lot of doors were opened at that time. 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 over in Europe.”
Prior to 1990, only a handful of Americans had 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 overseas. This phenomenon did not exist before Generation Zero.
While 21st century U.S. talent routinely goes to Europe (in the same way top European basketball talent comes to the NBA), Major League Soccer has still managed to thrive in ways that founders of the North American Soccer League — the U.S.-based league formed in 1967, and abandoned by 1984 — would not have believed. 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 up-from-nothing progress since Port of Spain 1989, where it all began.
This progress surely stands on the shoulders of giants. In this book, we will examine 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.
Today, the rise of U.S. soccer tends to feel like an eventuality — but take it from one who was there. At the time, it never felt that way Throughout the 1980s, in the midst of competitive, developmental and organizational moments so crucial to all these future events, nothing was preordained. I can be even more specific: Had T&T keeper Michael Maurice managed to parry Caligiuri’s volley over the crossbar and preserve a nil-nil draw, for example, an entire generation’s worth of sacrifice, progress and perseverance would have gone utterly for naught. Trinidad & Tobago would have traveled to Italy in the summer of 1990, not the young Americans. And the 1994 World Cup may have been quietly pulled from the U.S. and awarded to some soccer-playing nation of legitimate standing.
Indeed the tenuous nature of all these “eventualities” hung over the 1990 World Cup 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 recalls, quite rightly. “But hey, I’m not an ostrich. It was real. I never put my head in the sand.”
Let’s not be coy about this: If Generation Zero had failed to qualify for Italia ’90, a 1994 World Cup on U.S. soil might well have been taken away. Imagine the state of American soccer in 2022 had that come to pass.
“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 how much of it was true, but that was definitely the talk within the team: If we don’t qualify, they’re pulling the World Cup from us. That was the word on the street. As we started qualifying in ’89, we were all hearing these things.
“The way FIFA works? Yeah, it could have happened.”
But it didn’t happen. Caligiuri did score the most fateful goal in U.S. soccer history, and for the first time his country did qualify for a World Cup 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, Brian Bliss and their teammates made quite an impression, nearly stealing a point from the host nation (to the horror of Italian futbol writers), laying the groundwork for a dozen individual careers in European leagues, and generally having 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 — Franco Baresi and Luca Vialli! Because, you know, on the other side, I don’t think they were they saying, ‘Yo, I got Vermes.’ They had no idea who we were.”
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 soccer, folks; just ask Italy, Chile and the Netherlands, three of the game’s footballing giants, all of which failed to qualify for Russia, too).
In truth, FIFA had sought an American World Cup because these bureaucratic caricatures, clueless though they remain in so many respects, recognized the mammoth, largely untapped commercial opportunities inherent to an American soccer market. And they were damned prescient. 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. By the tens of millions 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 notion that would have boggled the young mind of Brian Bliss as he toiled anonymously in the late 1980s for the Boston Bolts, a team so organizationally amateurish and competitive lame that it refused matches with Greek Sportsmen of Somerville, the semi-pro club team that deployed me at right back from 1988-91.
That afternoon in Port of Spain changed that ridiculous situation at a stroke, laying the groundwork for American professional soccer and a dozen other first-world footballing realities. It moved the ground beneath the feet of world soccer frankly, and the ripples are still being felt some 30 years on.
The young men who scored that victory on the island of Trinidad 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 developments 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 unlikely professionalization, 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.
In 2012, during an April visit to the Pacific Northwest, I managed to shake my family long enough to catch a critical Champions League semifinal (Chelsea-Barcelona, second leg) live from the Camp Nou. After descending Seattle’s Space Needle, we four had humped it across town to the Occidental Park area where my wife and two kids found a lunch spot — and I found a pub. I remember being delighted that it had been so easy to find a bar where such a game was already on (to say nothing of the lovely imperial stout). I shouldn’t have been surprised: Seattle is perhaps the most sophisticated and enthusiastic soccer city in this country.
One and a half pints to the good, I put my head on a swivel and began assessing my fellow viewers, of which they were two or three dozen. They were bearded mainly, replete in flannel and more than a few wooly caps. But here’s the takeaway: I was clearly the oldest guy in the bar watching this match.
Twenty years prior, this game would not have been televised in the U.S. at all. Ten years prior, I’d have been obliged to sweet-talk the barman into flipping over (from The Young and The Restless) — if the bar even had the requisite cable or satellite capability.
I was born in September 1964. Vermes, Murray, Harkes, Trittschuh and Bliss, the entire American roster for Italia ’90, are my exact contemporaries in Generation Zero. We were all there at creation: wearing baseball-style stirrup socks in burgeoning 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 “finishing” our footballing educations by 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 elite players growing up, at the club level, in college, in the semi-professional leagues that carried on in NASL’s desolate absence. Hell, some members of the 1990 World Cup team had billeted in my house (and those of my teammates). In short, their story — as players — is my story, only writ larger and more successfully.
Keep this in mind as you read these pages because, in another important respect, the collective story of Generation Zero transcends the on-field realm.
Take a quick look around for yourself the next time you’re part of an MLS crowd. Like I did that afternoon in Seattle, 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. What you’ll find is a demonstrably younger crowd, one devoid of Boomers. 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, the one we’re all living today. In the arena, it was this cohort that qualified their country for Italia ’90, an event from which everything has flowed.
But their contemporaries, in their millions, also comprise this country’s first legitimate fan base — an important component in any coming-of-age equation. These are the men and women, children of the 1970s, who took to the game as kids, who proved iconoclastic enough to stay with it, who may never have played the game past high school but nevertheless took it to their bosoms for life. These are the legion, largely unseen subjects of this narrative and I am one of them. Raised on soccer and tempered by our country’s hard-won successes, international and domestic, we made the game stick.