The United States has qualified for every World Cup since 1990, but what about before that? Will Parchman's three-part series explores America's ill-fated 1985 journey toward qualification.
February 04, 2013
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Editor's Note: This is the first installment in Will Parchman's three-part series on the United States' 1985 World Cup qualification journey. The next two pieces will run on Feb. 11 and Feb. 18.
PART ONE—THE BUILDUP
RICK DAVIS SLUMPED FORWARD in his seat in the spartan Murdock Stadium locker room and cradled his head in his hands. The U.S. captain sat that way for a long time, maybe five minutes, maybe longer, his hair matted to his forehead by sweat. He still had on his blue jersey with the three white stripes running along the shoulders. His nerves were rubbed raw.
There wasn't much noise orbiting his seat in the bowels of the stadium in the urban tangle of Torrance, Calif., just the sounds of men shifting under the weight of another World Cup failure. Outside, a disproportionately large group of Costa Ricans celebrated. Their Chico dancing, which served as the halftime entertainment, stood in stark contrast with the mood in the U.S. locker room Davis viewed through a sheen of tears.
The U.S. was in its violent final throes as an irrelevant player on the international stage, and May 31, 1985, was arguably its blackest day. A 34th-minute goal from Evaristo Coronado shocked the U.S., whose eventual 1-0 loss to Costa Rica that day ended their qualification hopes for the 1986 World Cup. It was a devastating, unforeseen disaster the U.S. players had trouble putting into perspective.
It had been years since qualifying for the World Cup seemed this real, and decades since it seemed this important. The U.S. gratefully avoided host Mexico and needed only to draw Costa Rica to advance to the final round of qualifying with Honduras and Canada. U.S. soccer in those days was on rocky purchase. The NASL folded two months before Costa Rica's visit to Torrance, creditors were about to foreclose on the USL, and just years earlier the U.S. lost its 1986 World Cup bid to Mexico, its dominant big brother in CONCACAF. In-fighting, impasses, and amateurism were pervasive. Each new year seemed to bring more hardship, more dead ends, more gut-wrenching losses.
The promise of qualifying for the 1986 World Cup, which would've been the U.S.'s first since 1950, was the only light throwing up faint shadows for U.S. soccer in the wasteland of the mid-1980s. The sport's future in the U.S. appeared to be on its death bed that Friday afternoon in May. And Davis, as he absently stared into the middle distance, hoped fervently they hadn't buried the knife blade in its heart.
"We can't play much better than that," Davis told reporter Michael Lewis after the game. "It's a shame. It wasn't supposed to end this way."
THE MEN ON THE FIELD in Torrance that day were the product of a ragged lineage. In qualifying matches from Jan. 10, 1954 to Sept. 29, 1984, the day CONCACAF qualifying began for Mexico 1986, the U.S. carried an uninspiring 8-18-7 record. Most of those games were played against either Mexico or Canada, and the U.S. fed off games against regional minnows to trawl up wins that never seemed to matter.
The Mexicans were 10-1-3 in all-important qualifying games against the U.S. during this span, and it is not a touch ironic that one of the Americans' closest qualifying calls came in 1969 when they didn't face Mexico at all. Instead, Haiti's golden generation knocked the U.S. from contention on the World Cup's doorstep with two wins in the span of less than a month.
It was during this period that most of the traditional tropes about the United States' lack of soccer acumen were born and incubated. In most respects, the criticism was deserved. In April of 1957, Mexico beat the United States by a combined 13-2 in two qualifying games, and there are three entire qualifying cycles during which the U.S. didn't win a game at all.
So by the time the 1980s arrived, the United States was fresh off two-and-a-half decades of brutal soccer hardship. This was punctuated only by a successful but very brief glimpse at class club soccer when the likes of Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia moved to the New York Cosmos. But this movement never translated to the U.S. national team in any substantive way. In turn, this fostered an incredibly thick callus of apathy that's still being shorn off.
Soccer in the U.S. was in a dangerous state of atrophy. And, after a paroxysm of rabid fanaticism, the nation's beleaguered club league was in its final, tortuous death spiral.
The NASL's attendance peaked in 1980—due in no small part to gimmicks and free ticket giveaways that shamelessly plumped up numbers to obscure legitimate paid data—before beginning a slow, inexorable contraction. By 1983, the league was hemorrhaging about 1,000 fans per game. The NASL also lost somewhere between $20 and $25 million in revenue that year.
More important to long-term fiscal viability, the NASL had also lost its television contract with ABC by the start of the 1980s. Woeful ratings forced ABC to move league games to its Sunday afternoon time slot, but it had a residually negative effect on viewership for the hugely popular Wide World of Sports program, which directly followed soccer. Chet Forte, ABC's director of production, offered the NASL a truncated contract that radically cut back on the league's visibility, but NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam flatly refused. Prosaically, Woosnam later told the Washington Post that "the television thing will work itself out eventually." It did not. In its final six years of existence, the league operated without a television contract.
By this time, the NASL was drowning and desperately needed ideas. The culmination of this delirious push to bring fans back was the ill-fated Team America project. In the absence of its effectiveness, it eroded whatever leftover capital the league gained during the boom of the Pele era. Team America was Woosnam's brainchild, and he passed the buck to Howard Samuels on his way out the door. In 1982 Samuels was the replacement for Woosnam, whose position was contracted and folded into a catch-all commissioner/CEO/president title.
Samuels was a fascinatingly complex man who marched as a lieutenant colonel in George Patton's seventh army and with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala. But, like many American men of his time, he hadn't the faintest idea how to operate, market, and sell a soccer team. The league paid with its life.
With NASL attendance crashing through the basement, Woosnam hatched a desperate plan with Samuels. They appointed Robert Lifton as Team America's owner so they could drop a U.S. national team of "stars" into the NASL ranks. They'd play a schedule like everyone else, only with a roster consisting of America's brightest players. They drafted the colorful Greek Alkis Panagoulias to be its coach, who made a compelling case.
"I was almost crying when I talked about the national team," he told the New York Times in 2006. "They looked at me like I was crazy." The plan had two prongs, the first immediate the second long term: to prop up attendance and to generate cohesiveness to prepare for World Cup qualifying. Neither was particularly successful. In terms of attendance, the plan lazily ignored the fact that the U.S. had no marketable stars. In terms of the World Cup, it bypassed the fact that, by 1983, the anemic NASL was hardly competitive enough to adequately harden a group of players for the rigors of World Cup qualifying.
Jeff Durgan, one of the best American defenders at the time, gave a telling testimony to the uncertain footing of U.S. soccer.
"I still have doubts, I still have fears," he told Sports Illustrated in 1983, not long before Team America played its first game. "But I would rather be part of Team America and go under with them than with the Cosmos."
Not everyone shared Durgan's viewpoint. Davis was reticent to leave the Cosmos, the team that had developed him, so he led a horde of would-be U.S. national team players who opted to turn down Team America. This was the line in the sand for many, and as a result, Durgan deeply resented Davis. The effect on the field for the U.S. national team in 1985 was quickly negated. After Durgan was beaten by Adrian Fonrose for Trinidad & Tobago's goal in the first qualifying leg in 1985, Panagoulias pulled him off for Caligiuri at halftime. Durgan didn't play in the final three qualifiers.
Woosnam's idea for Team America was to pull the U.S.'s best players onto a single team to create a caravan of talent that traveled from city to city and, so went the battle plan, draw in fans. It failed spectacularly. NASL brass didn't approach the players or the union in advance. If they had, they'd have known few players were keen on leaving their club teams.
The plan bulled ahead anyway. Several players did join Team America, most notably Durgan and Chico Borja, but the vast majority who had been approached did not. The situation became so dire that a desperate Samuels approached several professional indoor teams for player loans, despite the fact that their day jobs involved a radically modified form of the game. All of them refused. Team America lost 15 of its final 17 games and folded, finishing its only season in operation with a 10-20 record. It was one final gimmicky heart spasm before the league flatlined on March 28, 1985.
The U.S. men's team lived a tenuous, parallel existence within this roiling sea of American soccer turmoil. Almost two months to the day after the NASL shut its doors for good, the national team played a second leg World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica in Torrance. The blow to the NASL and Team America left American soccer bloodied, woozy and out on its feet. Costa Rica soon put it on its back.
NEXT MONDAY: PART TWO—THE NIGHTMARE APPROACHES