On Sunday evening, in a Sweltering locker room at the National Stadium in Port of Spain, Trinidad, 25-year-old Paul Caligiuri of Diamond Bar, Calif., sat on a bench, drenched with champagne, and groped for words to express his feelings. Who could blame him? Just a short while ago he had scored what might be the most significant goal in the history of U.S. soccer.
And what a goal it was. As Caligiuri described it, "I picked up a square ball from midfield out on the right. I knocked it over the defender with my right foot, then took the shot with my left." He let the ball fly from 25 yards out, and it curled away from the goalie, Michael Maurice, hitting the back of the net. That goal was all the U.S. needed to beat Trindidad & Tobago 1-0 and move into the finals of the World Cup for the first time in 40 years.
Up until match time, though, it seemed as if the U.S. were destined to spend another four years in the wilderness. It had played scoreless ties in its two previous qualifying matches, against Guatemala and El Salvador, the two weakest sides in the five-team CONCACAF zone round-robin. Now the U.S. and T & T, as the locals call their country, both had 3-1-3 records. But T & T had a larger differential between goals scored and goals allowed than the U.S. As a result, the U.S. would have to win the match to qualify for the second CONCACAF spot in the 24-team World Cup finals, which will take place in Italy next summer. ( Costa Rica had already clinched the other berth.) All T & T needed was a tie.
Moreover, T & T was on an upswing. It had won its last two games, and it would be playing before an impassioned home crowd. And, as the match loomed, it became obvious that the Americans were up against not only a surging team but also a soccer-crazed nation of 1.22 million people. Last Friday, as the Americans headed south from their camp in Cocoa Beach, Fla., Port of Spain had already moved into high carnival gear. Downtown was awash in a sea of red, as tens of thousands of Trinidadians appeared wearing T-shirts in the dominant color of the national flag. Steel bands on flatbed trucks belted out calypso songs on every street corner. YANKEE, WELCOME TO WATERLOO, read one poster. Another said, NO WAY U.S.A.!
This overwhelming show of confidence seemed to be orchestrated by T & T's coach, Everald Cummings. A few days before the match, which he considered a mere formality, Cummings said that when he took his team to Italy, "we don't intend to be a walkover."
The Trinidadians believed they deserved a World Cup berth, because in their minds they had been robbed of a spot in the 1974 Cup finals. In a key qualifying game against Haiti at Port-au-Prince, T & T netted the ball five times, but the referee disallowed four of the goals, and Haiti won 2-1. FIFA, the governing body of soccer, suspended the referee but refused to reverse the result.
The news that leaked from the U.S. training camp before Sunday's match wasn't good. Frustration over the team's lack of offense had caused dissension among the players, and there was talk that coach Bob Gansler would do well to start polishing up his r�sum�. At a press conference last Saturday in Port of Spain, he sounded downbeat. "How did [midfielder Hugo] Perez look in training?" Gansler was asked.
"Sometimes good, sometimes not so good." he replied. Perez, who had scored the U.S.'s only goal in its previous three matches, seemed to be its sole hope for putting points on the board. But he had missed the two previous games because of a groin pull and would spend the entire T & T game on the bench.
"Are you confident?" another reporter asked Gansler.
"I think so."