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When the United States clinched qualification for the 2010 World Cup last October, it marked the country's sixth consecutive appearance in the finals of soccer's biggest party, and in every respect it wasn't a surprise. Given the resources the sport enjoys in the U.S. these days, qualifying for the World Cup is the bare minimum that is expected. Any other outcome is borderline unthinkable. Yet there was a time when such expectations were the stuff of fantasy.
Between 1950 and 1990, not only did the U.S. fail to qualify, on only one of those occasions could it claim to have gotten as close as the final hurdle. That came in 1954, when the qualifying journey consisted of a single round of games.
So how is it that a country as wealthy as the U.S. couldn't manage to qualify once for those nine World Cups? You start with a sport that for years struggled to escape its ethnic roots and rise above semi-professional status. Then you add governing bodies, the U.S. Soccer Federation and its predecessors, which were constantly flirting with bankruptcy. Put that up against a relatively high-powered program such as Mexico's, and you had the perfect recipe for World Cup qualifying futility, even in a region as historically weak as CONCACAF.
The irony was that the Dark Ages for the national team began against the backdrop of its greatest victory: the monumental upset of England at the 1950 World Cup. Yet the game caused barely a ripple in the U.S. sporting landscape.
"The same crowd that saw us off, saw us come back," said former U.S. international player Walter Bahr, who was on the 1950 World Cup squad. "In my case, it was my wife."
Whatever momentum that epic result did generate was squandered. Two years elapsed before the national team played again, and another year had passed before a much-ballyhooed rematch with England took place at Yankee Stadium.
"I drove from Philadelphia to New York, roughly 100 miles," Bahr recalled. "The game was called off [due to rain], I drove back to Philadelphia. Monday morning I taught school, left school at 3 o'clock, drove up to New York and got there just a half-hour before game time, and we played the game that Monday night." The U.S. lost 6-3.
You were told to report in game condition. Well, some players looked at game condition as not having the two beers on a Saturday night.” --Walter Bahr, former U.S. international
"But that was typical of the way teams were put together," Bahr said. "And even for the World Cup, there really was no other preparation before we went down other than a game the day before we left, or even on the day we left."
Such seat-of-the-pants planning left the U.S. with little hope of beating out Mexico for what was then a single berth in the World Cup. And the federation was so desperate for cash that it either scheduled both qualifying games in Mexico or had the return leg in Los Angeles, where they knew Mexico fans would fill the stadium.
The results were predictable. In every World Cup qualifying campaign from 1954 to 1966, the U.S. was eliminated by its southern neighbors.
"You'd play in Mexico City with the altitude and no preparation," Bahr said. "A lot of those games we'd be in the game for the first half and maybe parts of the second half and usually die in the last 20 minutes. Being in shape was an individual matter. You were told to report in game condition. Well, some players looked at game condition as not having the two beers on a Saturday night."
It wasn't until the qualifying campaign for the 1970 World Cup began that some hope started to take root. With Mexico automatically qualifying as the host nation, the path to qualification no longer contained the Yanks' chief rival. And with the North American Soccer League in business to the tune of 17 teams, American players at last had the opportunity to play in a full-time, professional environment. The catch was that NASL sides were obligated to field only two North Americans at any one time, but it still beat the semi-pro environments that most players were used to.
In the preliminary phase of qualifying, the U.S. navigated its way past Canada and Bermuda, setting up a home-and-home series with Haiti to see who would progress to the last round. But just as things appeared to be lining up for the U.S., the NASL nearly collapsed, shrinking to five teams. The upheaval had a telling effect on the national squad as players were suddenly left looking for jobs.
|Bob Smith, center, in a game against England in 1976. Looking back, Smith says his teammates fostered an us-against-the-world mentality.|
"The enthusiasm was gone," said Bob Gansler, who played during that qualifying campaign and later managed the national team. "We were scurrying for, 'What are we going to do next?' And most of us returned to what we had done before."
The U.S. went on to lose both legs of that series, and another opportunity to qualify went begging.
"I think if the almost-collapse of that league doesn't happen, we were on the way," said Gansler. "We were going to qualify for the '70 World Cup."
The NASL recovered, and so began the stormy relationship between America's professional league and the U.S. national team. For many of the league's American owners, releasing players for national team duty was a foreign concept, and many teams refused to let players go. It was the USSF's job to enforce such rules, but the federation was reluctant to step in given its reliance on NASL registration fees for revenue.
"There was no management or real working relationship between the federation and the NASL," said Jack Huckel, the former director of museum and archives for the National Soccer Hall of Fame. "They sort of lived side-by-side lives. The federation wasn't telling them what to do, and [the NASL] went over their head to FIFA if they wanted to do something like change the offside rule. It was a courtesy to go through the federation. For the most part [the league] sort of ignored that."
That left the league's U.S. players to fight battles eerily similar to those being waged today. Only in this instance, the skirmishes for playing time and respect were being fought on U.S. soil as opposed to, say, the English Premier League. On those rare occasions when the national team got together, establishing team chemistry wasn't difficult.
"To be playing with Americans, and your buddies, was like unbelievable," said NASL veteran Bobby Smith. "It was like a big sigh of relief where you're in a locker room [where it's] friendly territory. Not that your team locker room was unfriendly, but it was all foreign coaches, and American players sucked, and so they all fought it and knew it. You were always a second-class citizen in your own country."
This had the effect of creating some rather unusual alliances at club level.
"There was one or two Americans in every locker room," said Smith. "We'd talk on the phone, and this foreign guy would be giving this American guy a bunch of s---. It was like, 'You tell me who's giving you the most s---, I'll tell you who's giving me the most s---, I'll play a soft ball to him, you nail him, and we'll clear up some of that s---.' There was a corps of American players who were not always laying down for the superstar English 2nd Division players who came over here to show us how to play soccer."
Alas, this esprit de corps was wasted as the USSF plumbed new depths of incompetence. Between 1971 and 1975 the U.S. burned through seven coaches, including legendary German manager Dettmar Cramer, who lasted just two games before deciding that the prospect of managing reigning European champions Bayern Munich held much greater appeal than fighting the USSF for control over such mundane tasks as player selection.
|When the NASL (seen here in 1979) finally collapsed in 1985, the powers-that-be started recruiting from the college ranks.|
In 1976, the USSF settled on American-born Walt Chyzowych, who would become the first full-time head coach of the U.S. national team to last more than a handful of games. This wasn't a cushy gig: Chyzowych was also responsible for coaching the Olympic team, the youth teams, as well as coordinating all of the coaching education programs that the USSF was getting underway.
But even as some stability finally reached the coaching ranks, the USSF was still making the kind of decisions that would infuriate players, such as continuing to stage World Cup qualifiers against Mexico in Los Angeles.
"We didn't play Mexico in St. Louis or Chicago in zero degree weather in January," said Smith. "We played them in L.A. in 80 degree weather, because there's lots of Mexicans in L.A. and the federation will get their gate. That's how messed up that was. We played two away games. That's the kind of thing that would piss you off."
So the vicious circle continued well into the 1980s, even as the number of qualifying berths for CONCACAF increased. The NASL continued to be largely unconcerned with developing American players. Even when it did show interest, like in 1983 when the league formed a team comprised entirely of U.S. citizens in Washington, D.C., and dubbed it Team America, it was unable to get the best national team players to commit. The talent pool, while growing, remained too thin to sustain the side during a qualifying campaign. Thus the ultimate goal of reaching the World Cup remained elusive.
Yet for all its faults, the importance of the NASL was brutally driven home in 1985 when the league died once and for all. For a select few players, the flickering flame of outdoor soccer was kept alive by leagues like the American Soccer League and the Western Soccer Alliance. But many more were driven to the indoor version of the sport, one where the physical and tactical demands didn't lend themselves to qualifying for the World Cup.
"It's like comparing a sprinter to a distance runner," said former U.S. international Rick Davis. "The game indoors is done really at full speed. The guys who were most adaptable were guys with great technique but don't necessarily have the ability to influence a game outdoors. Your fitness started to change and adjust to this explosive type of play. To suddenly go to an outdoor field, it was like playing on a farm."
These factors proved too much to overcome during qualifying for the 1986 World Cup. In the last game of the semifinal round the U.S. needed only to tie Costa Rica at home to progress, but the Yanks lost 1-0 in front of a largely pro-Tico crowd in Torrance, Calif.
"That was the first real taste of the agony of defeat," said defender Paul Caligiuri. "I was young, so I knew I was going to be around. But the guys around me who were older, to see the tears, it really hit home. You're so close to the World Cup dream, and you let it slip away."
It would prove to be the last time the U.S. would feel that pain. Four years later, Mexico did its rivals a favor by getting disqualified for fielding overage players in a youth tournament. But the path to the 1990 World Cup was still rocky. For every important milestone that was achieved, such as the U.S. being named to host the 1994 World Cup, there were signs of old troubles. Such was the state of the USSF that president Werner Fricker had to establish a $500,000 line of credit to fund the national team, putting up his property development business as collateral.
The lack of a stable outdoor league remained problematic for Gansler, who was now head coach. While several U.S. internationals such as Caligiuri, Hugo Perez and Steve Trittschuh began to make their way overseas, it wasn't enough to fully stock the national team. And with Gansler keen to avoid relying on indoor players, he threw his lot in with a crop of up-and-coming collegiate players that included Eric Wynalda, John Harkes and Marcelo Balboa.
"[The players who stayed indoors], that's what they had to do to keep their livelihood," said Gansler. "But we had to take the best of the young ones, and not only pick a team for 1990 but pick a team for the '90s. That's what we did."
The approach was criticized by many because the short college season meant Gansler could never be sure how much his players were actually playing.
"We'd get them for a week, play a game, and then send them home with homework," said Gansler. "Well, you know how good some of these guys were with homework. Even if they did all of their physical work -- and the vast majority of them were conscientious enough to do it -- what are they going to do technically, what are they going to do tactically when they go back home? Guys would go back to their high school teams. Guys would go back to their college team and practice alone in the spring. This is where we were at that time."
Not surprisingly, the U.S. made hard work of qualifying. The Yanks tied El Salvador 0-0 at home, this after the Cuscatlecos had already been eliminated and sent their B team instead. That left the U.S. to face Trinidad & Tobago away in a must-win game.
The rest, as they say, is history. Caligiuri scored the game's only goal in the first half with a dipping volley. The U.S. gamely hung on to survive, and for the first time in 40 years, the national team was going to the World Cup. Fricker's financial gamble had paid off.
"Whatever money we got from FIFA for qualifying, we had spent half of it already doing the little preparation that we did," said Gansler. "If we hadn't qualified, Werner would have been up the creek."
Gansler's side ended up being badly exposed at Italia '90, losing all three games. Yet it was what happened afterward that really laid the foundation for the national team in terms of World Cup qualification, and most of it happened off the field. While it was Fricker who helped land the '94 World Cup, FIFA had become very concerned at the organization's ability to host a successful tournament. At its urging, Alan Rothenberg, who had run a successful Olympic soccer tournament in 1984, was elected USSF president in 1990 with a broad mandate to change how the organization operated.
|Finally, the U.S. men's national team turned things around thanks to (from left) John Harkes, Thomas Dooley and Eric Wynalda, seen here celebrating Wynalda's goal against Mexico in 1995.|
"I'd characterize the USSF prior to 1989 as an organization whose board was primarily concerned with management and not governance," said former USSF secretary general Hank Steinbrecher. "They weren't about setting strategic long-range planning. They were very much into execution and micromanaging of the staff. That had to change."
Change it did. Rothenberg rid the organization of much of its volunteer staff and turned it over to business-savvy professional administrators. One can hardly argue with the outcome. The '94 World Cup set attendance records that stand to this day, despite the fact it was a 24-team tournament then. More importantly, the profits helped create both Major League Soccer and the U.S. Soccer Foundation, giving the USSF the financial wherewithal to properly fund programs and give American players a chance to develop in a league on home soil. Of the 23 players on the current World Cup roster, 17 have played in MLS at some point.
Looking back, it's easy to think the national team should have progressed more quickly. Certainly, the habit of the game's power brokers in making short-sighted, highly damaging decisions didn't help. But progress it did, and while it can be argued that the U.S. is simply a big fish in the small pond that is CONCACAF, what can't be questioned is how far the team -- and the game -- has come.
"Pioneering isn't always fun, but it needs to be done, and there's still pioneering work to do," said Gansler. "You just hope it gets better down the road, and actually it got better pretty quickly when you look at the rest of the world and how far they were ahead of us when this thing started."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.