The U.S. Soccer team's plan was an ambitious one. All that head coach Lothar Osiander asked of his men was to defeat Argentina and then to play both South Korea and the U.S.S.R. to ties. That strategy, the German-born Osiander decided, was the surest route to a quarterfinal berth, which would be rarefied air for his adopted country. In the past the United States had been something less than overwhelming in the Olympics. Since 1924 the U.S. had won only two of 13 matches, with two ties, and had been outscored 53-8.
Osiander's prime target would not be an easy touch. After all, the Argentines had won the World Cup in 1986, their second in eight years, and in soccer the World Cup is to the Olympics what the Super Bowl is to, say, the Bluebonnet Bowl. But oddly enough Argentina's supremacy in the sport was exactly what Osiander figured he had going for him. Because Olympic rules bar any European or South American player who has competed in World Cup competition, many of Argentina's best players, including World Cup team captain Diego Maradona, were not able to play in Seoul.
The fact that the Americans drew the toughest foursome in the opening round of 16 didn't seem to faze them. "It is a blessing in disguise," said Werner Fricker, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. "Each game will be very important. The players will have a clear-cut task." Playing Zambia, Iraq and Guatemala would have been just as clear-cut, though a whole lot easier.
Still, except for one leg in the wrong place and referee Jamal Al-Sharif's unforgiving eye, the U.S. might have pulled off its master plan—or step 1, anyway. On Sept. 18 at Taegu, the U.S.'s aggressive offense took the fire out of the Argentines. With 11 minutes left in the second half, Mike Windischmann, a substitute sweeper who had never scored a goal in international play, slammed a 22-yard shot between goalie Luis Alberto Islas and the right goalpost, to put the U.S. ahead 1-0.
Less than five minutes later, however, John Harkes, a 21-year-old All-America midfielder from the University of Virginia, was whistled for tripping veteran forward Carlos Alfaro. And as Alfaro lined up for his penalty kick, David Vanole, the 25-year-old goalie for the U.S., concluded that his only chance was to guess where the Argentine would hammer his shot.
Vanole guessed wrong, diving to his right, while Alfaro slammed the tying goal past him to his left. "We're back to ground zero," Osiander said after the game ended 1-1. "Everything was geared to winning this game. We are a tournament team. We play the second game better. And if we last physically, we play the third game even better."
Before the match with South Korea in Pusan on Sept. 20, U.S. team captain Rick Davis said that instead of merely going for a tie, "Now we have to play them to win." But the best the U.S. could do against South Korea's lightning-quick attack was a 0-0 draw.
Two days later, back at Taegu, the U.S. took on the U.S.S.R., which had also played South Korea to a scoreless tie. Working with the precision of a Marine drill team, the Soviets put up their first score eight minutes into the game. A second goal came about nine minutes later. A tripping penalty against Vanole and a successful penalty shot made it 3-0 at halftime. The final was 4-2. That victory assured the Soviets a spot in the quarterfinals, along with Argentina, and eliminated the U.S. from competition.
"It all goes back to that first game against Argentina." said Osiander after losing to the Soviets. "If we had won that one, and we should have, we would have played the next two a lot differently."
In Osiander's view, the defeat was not a total loss. "We are not back to square one," he reflected. "Two years ago we would have lost this game eight or nine to nothing."