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The relationship between the United States and the World Cup has been a bit of a rocky one that has been peppered with some success and a whole boatload of failure. Before qualifying for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the U.S. hadn’t played in a World Cup since 1950 when they handed Great Britain an epic 1-0 defeat but still failed to advance past the first round. So what happened? How could a nation with an embarrassment of riches – in terms of resources – be so woefully inept when it came to the world game?
During the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay, the U.S. was a force to be reckoned with. They beat Belguim 3-0, Paraguay 3-0, before finally losing to Argentina 6-1 in the semi-finals. This still stands as the team’s highest finish as well as the highest finish of any team outside of CONMEBOL and UEFA, the South American and European confederations. Not a bad start for their first go-round in the World Cup. Sadly, that was by far the best they were ever going to do. America was bounced in the first round in 1934 in Italy, didn’t qualify for the France games in 1938, and really didn’t experience any other success on the international stage until that victory over England in 1950.
Many thought that the victory over England would truly help bring soccer from a niche sport to the mainstream here in the U.S., but it didn’t quite work out that way. There was no heroes’ return when they came back from Brazil. In fact, there wasn’t any warm welcome at all – aside from the players’ immediate friends and families. That same team wasn’t even assembled again for another two years. Their next real competitive match happened three years later in a rematch with England at Yankee Stadium, where they tasted a bitter 6-3 defeat.
During this time there was no formal federation or training program for these players, while there were many overseas. The guys playing on the national team were normal, working class guys. Walter Bahr, a player on those teams, recalls that rematch game with England: “I drove from Philadelphia to New York, roughly 100 miles. 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.”
Preparation for the World Cup consisted of getting the players together the day before they were to leave, have a warm-up game, and then head out, which is not exactly a stellar training regiment. In World Cup qualifying the U.S. is part of CONCACAF, which basically covers all of North and Central America. Until the past 20 years, Mexico was the powerhouse in that federation. They still are to a certain extent, although the gap has closed. Between 1954 and 1966 Mexico eliminated the U.S. from qualifying every time. Mexico had the resources, desire, and most importantly the infrastructure to cultivate and develop talent.
In 1970, the World Cup was held in Mexico, and therefore Mexico was automatically qualified for the tournament. So, this was the American’s shot. With their perennial nemesis finally out of the way, they could make a legitimate push to qualify. By this time the NASL (North American Soccer league) was established, although on very shaky ground, with 17 teams. Even though owners for the teams were only mandated to have two North Americans on the field at any given time, there was at least an infrastructure in place. Players were playing and training year-round and were much better prepared than in years past. Throughout qualifying, the U.S. beat Canada and Bermuda to set up a semi final with Haiti. The Americans lost to Haiti in both legs and didn’t qualify. Many blame the miserable defeat on the fact that during this time, the NASL was in severe dire straits, shrinking from 17 teams to 5 and many of the talented players worried about where their next paycheck was coming from. Others argue that there still wasn’t enough focus on the development of American players.
In the years following, the NASL had a bit of a rebound but also started its troubling (and often damaging) relationship with the United States Soccer Federation (USSF). The USSF was set up to look after the national team’s interests. Although, due to some errant structuring, much of the funding for the USSF came from revenue collected from the NASL. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, one of the biggest problems with the development of the NASL is that team owners weren’t ‘soccer guys.’ In fact, many of the people in leadership positions weren’t that familiar with the game. Therefore, there were many bonehead moves that really make you scratch your head. For example, many of the team owners didn’t want to release their players for national team duty. They had a product and wanted to sell it and could really care less about the development of American soccer. It was shortsightedness at its best. Because the USSF was getting most of its funding from the NASL, it couldn’t really put up much of a stink. Again, it displays the constant failure to create an infrastructure for development.
Between 1971 and 1975, the USSF went through seven national coaches. It was difficult to attract any semi-talented coach because they didn’t want to deal with the headache of working with the NASL. That is until 1976.
Walt Chyzowych took the reigns for American soccer in 1976 and is really part-responsible for where the program is now. When he took over, Chyzowych did everything ranging from his regular national team coaching duties to development and coaching of the Olympic team, as well as for all educational programs and professional development of coaches in his system.
America thought it caught a break when FIFA increased the amount of teams CONCACAF could send to the World Cup in 1980. Although during that time-frame, what little structure existed in America (the NASL) fully dissolved and pushed any player with his salt either overseas or indoors. To qualify for the 1986 World Cup (where Maradona had his famous hand of God play) all the U.S. had to do was tie Costa Rica, at team they had beaten 3-0 the year before. The U.S. subsequently lost 1-0 at home in California.
With the depressing reality of World Cup ’86 behind them,two very important steps happened for U.S. Soccer. First, USSL President Werner Fricker put his money where his mouth was and put his property development business up for collateral to establish a $500,000 line of credit to fund the national team. Secondly, because most of the established American players were overseas, former player and now-head coach Bob Gansler decided to roll the dice on some young, up-and-coming, college kids including the likes of Eric Wynalda, John Harkes, and Marcello Balboa.
As to be expected, this move was widely criticized because Gansler was basically putting the future of American soccer in the hands of college kids. Although, to be fair, he couldn’t do much worse than what happened in the previous 30 years. Nevertheless, the move really paid off. America qualified for Italia ’90 after a thrilling 1-0 win over Trinidad and were off to their first World Cup since 1950. Even though the tournament was kind of atrocious for the team (losing all three initial games), it really changed the mindset for American soccer.
Old U.S. Soccer ally Werner Fricker was instrumental in getting the ’94 World Cup in America (although I’m sure FIFA saw some financial opportunity for the game if it were to really take off in the biggest economy in the world). FIFA had concerns about the tournament going smoothly so they urged the USSL to put Alan Rothenberg, whom had run a successful Olympic soccer tournament, as its president…which they did. Rothenberg gutted the system, put on a great World Cup in 1994 that served as a spring board to the MLS and was integral in establishing a solid domestic development process…finally.
The United States have now qualified for the last four World Cups, are a perennial powerhouse in CONCACAF and look to repeat their quarter-finals showing from Korea in 2002 or even match what they did in Uruguay in 1930 and make the semi-finals.