SI Vault
Clive Gammon
March 05, 1990
The World Cup—bound U.S. team got a taste of big-time soccer in a humbling loss to the Soviets
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March 05, 1990

No Way, U.s.a.

The World Cup—bound U.S. team got a taste of big-time soccer in a humbling loss to the Soviets

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The Americans, however, didn't get much time to celebrate. Soon after the restart, Murray was called for obstruction, which gave the Soviets a free kick just outside the box. The ball rebounded off the wall of U.S. defenders, and midfielder Feodor Cherenkov delicately slipped it into the goal, just beyond Meola's reach.

So at halftime the Soviets were ahead 2-1 and completely in control. One could argue, however, that the U.S. lost this game long before any of the above took place. The trouble began back in late December, when the U.S. Soccer Federation dispelled the players' euphoria over having qualified for the World Cup finals by offering them virtually starvation contracts for 1990. Insiders say the top money of $40,000 was set aside for a few stars, including Harkes, Meola, Windischmann and Ramos, while some other players, like Banks, were offered a mere $27,500. To supplement their incomes, the players were told they could earn money at soccer clinics for kids, organized by Chiquita, one of the USSF's sponsors.

Few players are willing to speak candidly about the bitterness plaguing the U.S. team, but it was evident in the many vicious explosions of profanity during practice last week. Further, money wasn't the sole cause of the bitterness. Gansler had made it abundantly clear that not a single player was guaranteed a trip to Italy. Needless to say, players who are frightened and intimidated do not perform well.

The player who has suffered the most is Caligiuri, who scored the winning goal in the Trinidad and Tobago match. He is the only one who refused to sign a contract with the USSF before the Jan. 14 deadline and continued to practice with the team that month at its training camp in La Jolla, Calif. Early one morning during signing week, he woke up with severe stomach cramps and was rushed by the team's trainer to the hospital. "The doctors said it was stress—a big signal of stress," says Caligiuri. "I'm 25 years old, and I'm too young to have an incipient ulcer."

If Caligiuri is the U.S. team's most bitter player, he is also its toughest. That toughness may have been strengthened during his two seasons (1987-89) with the West German professional team, SV Meppen. "There has been tremendous, unnecessary pressure put upon us," he said before Saturday's game. "From my experience as a player, I have the inner strength to go ahead and not dwell on the situation. But it won't be forgotten."

Against the Soviets, Caligiuri had to rely once more on his inner strength. Two weeks earlier, in an exhibition against Bermuda, Gansler had put him in only for the last minute of the game—a move that can only be interpreted as a deliberate attempt to humiliate Caligiuri. Then, a couple of hours before the Soviet game, Caligiuri learned that he wouldn't start. He could still grin, though. "What am I supposed to do?" said Caligiuri after he had heard the news. "Go out on the street and picket?"

Without Caligiuri, the Americans became more and more ragged. In their attempt to execute Gansler's scheme for containing the Soviet wing play, they had no link between the midfielders and the forwards. In short, the U.S. had conceded "no man's land" to the U.S.S.R.

After the Soviets brought in Protasov for the second half, Gansler finally decided to use Caligiuri to bandage his hemorrhaging defense on the right flank. He was too late, however. At 67:07 Protozov scored the Soviets' third goal, with a pinpoint shot into the lower right of the goal.

Six minutes before the end, Caligiuri almost scored with a rocketing shot from 10 yards that went just over the Soviet crossbar. It would have made a fine climax. Short of another miracle, though, the way things look now, the U.S.- Italy game in the first round of the World Cup finals could be Rome's biggest mismatch since the Christians vs. Lions series.

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