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USMNT History

American Soccer in 1985: The Failure in Torrance

The United States has qualified for six World Cups in a row, but it wasn't always that way. Will Parchman takes a close look at America's star-crossed attempt to make the 1986 tournament.

BY Will Parchman Posted
February 18, 2013
9:49 AM
Editor's note: This is the third and final installment in Will Parchman's series on U.S. soccer's journey to World Cup qualification in 1985. Part one is available here; part two is here.

THE DISTINCTLY COSTA RICAN atmosphere inside Murdock Stadium was hardly a puzzling sight to the American players.

The rickety wood-backed bleacher seats rushed up to the field and seemed to sit on top of the sidelines, and they looked to be full of Costa Ricans. For as long as they could remember, U.S. national team members played games in America tailored to the opponent to maximize attendance. A game against Italy was scheduled in New York to take advantage of the city's heavy Italian immigrant population. One against Canada was put in Portland to ease the visitors' travel burden. Just a week earlier, the U.S. played Trinidad & Tobago in Torrance to utilize the sizable Caribbean fan base in Los Angeles.

All of this was done in the name of precious ticket sales, one of the few money-generating tactics available to U.S. soccer.

So it went against Costa Rica, which had a large number of ex-pats living near the southern elbow of Los Angeles in Torrance. In a lean time of survival, U.S. soccer needed gate sales. In this sense, the game was a relative success.

"I felt like I was in San Jose, Costa Rica," says Lewis. "At halftime I remember they had Chico folk dancing in the middle of the field. I have nothing against it, but when it's a World Cup qualifying match in the United States, I think you want to give your team as big an advantage as possible."

The U.S. formation that day roughly amounted to a 4-4-2, and its utilitarian spine was its strength. Crow and Windischmann held in central defense, Caligiuri and Davis folded back as deep-lying midfielders, Fox operated as the playmaker while Perez dropped in as a creative supporting striker for Kerr.

Just a month and a half earlier, three of these men were finishing their spring semester of college and the other four were making money playing indoor soccer. Panagoulias had done a lot of tinkering with the lineup in the past, but to his credit, nine of the 11 players on the field played in each of the U.S.'s qualifying matches that month. American training camps were inadequately short due to various constraints, but by all accounts Panagoulias felt confident. This was as prepared and as talented a group as U.S. soccer had ever produced (which highlighted both the organization's strides and limitations in equal measure). By now, the excuses had been melted by the heat of expectation.

The game started slowly, but it quickly became obvious the U.S. was set up to dominate possession. Caligiuri and Davis had an easy time breaking up the advances of the Costa Rican forward guard, but the U.S. struggled to turn its possession into substantive chances on goal on the other end. It was a familiar problem, but the U.S. had gotten timely goals all month from a variety of sources. This was not a group given to panic. After the teams completed the first 20 minutes scoreless, allowing the game to settle and the crowd to simmer, the U.S. figured its chances would perk up. After all, Costa Rica's possession was fleeting and broken. It was only a matter of time before the goal came. And even if it didn't, a scoreless draw was enough. The odds favored the confident Americans.

In the midst of this dominant run, Costa Rica earned a free kick in the 34th minute, and Jorge Chavez stepped up to take it. There wasn't much venom in it as Mausser stepped into its path in a thicket of players, but his parry didn't find its mark. The errant ball fell to a Costa Rican player in the tangle of bodies in the box. He pushed a header to his right, and it found an unmarked Coronado, who knocked it into an unguarded net.

After the game, Crow said Mausser called him off his man. Mausser had opted to deal with it himself but misjudged his punch.

"I heard the keeper call for the ball and I bowed out," Crow said after the game.

Nearly 30 years later, Mausser lists that moment as perhaps his greatest professional regret. "I came out of my goal to punch the ball away, but did not clear the ball very well and Costa Rica scored," Mausser told reporter Clemente Lisi last year. "We had chances to score during the normal play of the game, but came away empty. I believe that was the last appearance for me with the U.S. national team. To leave on such a sour note bothers me even to this day."

The U.S. redoubled its attack almost immediately. The Americans threw wave after wave forward, Canter and Thompson raiding down the flanks in a frantic scramble for the equalizer. Though the Costa Rican fans were legion, the U.S. players weren't expecting to trail. And certainly not after the first 34 minutes. The Americans' seemingly infinite store of optimism began eroding fast.

"I remember, for me personally, as time ticked on and we were getting closer and closer to the end of the game, there was just a huge amount of emotion," says Davis. "It was to the point where, after the game, I was just in tears."

Nothing seemed to work until, at the 72:20 mark, the U.S. seemingly found a breakthrough. Davis shuttled a free kick to Canter on the left side of the penalty area, and Canter ripped a shot that just caught the side netting and died. Canter's blast looked like a goal from certain angles, and one of them was referee John Meachin's. He awarded the goal. Davis quickly picked the ball out of the side netting and walked back toward midfield to disguise the deception, but linesman Robert Allen was wise to it. In the midst of 11 squealing Costa Ricans, Allen brought it to Meachin's attention that the ball never crossed the line. No goal. Twenty minutes later, Costa Rica's 1-0 lead stood.

Along with a group of sullen players, Davis retreated to the U.S. locker room a defeated man. Panagoulias, Mausser, Canter, Van der Beck, Thompson, and substitute Angelo DiBernardo never represented U.S. soccer in anything but a friendly again. Almost none of them would ever play in a World Cup.

"It wasn't just one game," says Davis. "It was as if this game represented the lost opportunity of my entire generation of players. This was it. There wasn't going to be an opportunity down the road. It was gone."

THE UNITED STATES GAINED some hard-won lessons in 1985. One was that gimmick does not supplant the brick and mortar of a successful club league. The NASL attempted to circumvent the difficult, lengthy process of building a working domestic league by propping its brand on the bubble of artifice. When the bubble inevitably popped, the league collapsed. Indeed, the USL followed the NASL's lead by collapsing into foreclosure months after the Torrance defeat, forcing a complete overhaul.

The other lessons orbited around the necessity of developing a disciplined, professionalized national team. The idea, for instance, of not hiring a manager on a full-time basis became an absurdity. This in itself was progress stoked by the statuesque figure of Alkis Panagoulias. It helped that the U.S. got a thunderbolt from a grizzled vet of the failed 1985 campaign to push-start the revolution.

The U.S. went on to qualify for the 1990 World Cup thanks to a famous goal from Caliguiri that has become known as The Goal Heard 'Round The World. In 1989, Caligiuri's blast against Trinidad & Tobago on the road qualified the U.S. for Italy 1990, its first World Cup since 1950. But the win only partially closed the loop. Caligiuri and Windischmann were the only two players on the field that day who also took part in the failure against Costa Rica in 1985. The rest had to live vicariously through their former teammates' success.

The U.S. has not missed a World Cup since and went until 2001 until it lost another World Cup qualifier on home soil.

U.S. soccer now boasts about 100 employees. In 1985 it had half a dozen. In 1985, U.S soccer waged an uncertain battle against financial ruin. Now, the USSF has about $50 million in reserve from a decade-plus of shrewd decisions, many of them learned from the badlands of the early to mid-1980's. There is little question how much this has benefited men like Landon Donovan and Brian McBride and Eric Wynalda. But for a lost generation of American soccer players, things somehow always seem to settle on a late May day in 1985. The robust future of American soccer was being built on their sagging shoulders.

Out of the ashes of 1985 rose the initial kernel of the 1994 World Cup bid that changed everything. While newly minted USSF president Werner Fricker began to turn that wheel, outdoor soccer began anew. Four clubs sprang up in California in 1985 that formed the nucleus of what became the A-League the next year, a seemingly small but important step to reclaiming the outdoor game from its failed, bloated predecessors. The failure of 1985 also spurred the USSF to create a formal distinction between its youth, amateur, and professional programs. This crucial bit of organization set the tone for the current American soccer pyramid.

"In every way we are more professional now," says current USSF president Sunil Gulati. "Whether that's in the number of coaches we have, whether that's in where we play our games, whether that's in the support staff, whether it's the level of hotels we stay at, or whether its how players and teams prepare. And that's not true just for the senior men's team but for the women's team and our youth teams. It's just a very different world."

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