PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago — Memories from a special day in the Caribbean are beginning to bubble back to the surface, indelible keepsakes from the most important victory in modern-day U.S. soccer history.
Almost three decades have passed, a generation since Paul Caligiuri’s long-range shot dipped through afternoon shadows at Hasely Crawford Stadium to end a 40-year World Cup drought and shatter the dreams of this twin-island nation.
Almost three decades, and yet “I can remember every single detail,” Bruce Murray, a national team forward at the time, said last week. “An incredible experience. Crazy memories,” he added.
The current U.S. squad (12 points) has come here to secure its own World Cup berth, needing probably just a draw against the last-place Soca Warriors (three) on Tuesday to gain passage to Russia next summer.
A victory would clinch a berth regardless of how the other group matches finish. The only way a draw wouldn’t suffice is if either Panama (10 points) or Honduras (10) wins its respective match by an enormous margin and overtakes the Americans in the first tiebreaker (goal differential). A U.S. defeat and, well, things get dicey.
Mexico (21 points) and Costa Rica (16) have already clinched. A third team will advance, while a fourth will head to a playoff next month against Australia or Syria.
The United States hasn’t needed points in the final qualifier of a World Cup cycle since that 1989 visit here. Back then, the Americans did not have the luxury of settling for a draw; they had to win. Otherwise, Trinidad and Tobago would qualify for the first time.
Port-of-Spain dressed for the occasion.
“We arrived at the airport, and that is when it really hit us how important it was to them,” said John Harkes, a midfielder who would go on to play in two World Cups, captain D.C. United and, like Murray, gain induction into the U.S. Hall of Fame.
Late at night, thousands of supporters, equipped with steelpans and whistles, greeted them.
“They were welcoming, but at the same time, they made it clear it wasn’t going to be easy for us,” Harkes said last week.
In the day leading to the deciding match, the buzz of excitement reached the U.S. delegation at the team hotel, the “upside-down Hilton,” so named because it was built into a hill and featured the highest-numbered floors at the bottom.
The bus to the stadium crawled through city streets, past what Murray said seemed like the entire population dressed in red.
Stadium capacity was roughly 35,000, but “there had to be 60,000” crammed into every open space, he said in an interview last week.
When the match began, “everything was going against us — the heat, the fans, the field conditions,” Murray said.
“We’re in a must-win situation, and we’re having a hard time,” Caligiuri said Friday from his home in California. “I know these guys like brothers, and it felt like everyone was a little timid. The effort was there, but something was missing.”
Faced with missing the World Cup again, Caligiuri took the initiative. He was, after all, one of the few U.S. players with full-time pro experience (in Germany’s second division). Deployed in defensive midfield to mark playmaker Russell Latapy, the former UCLA star morphed into a historic goal-scorer in the 30th minute.
He settled a bouncing pass and dodged a defender by faking right and going left. With the ball hopping on the hard surface, he tagged a left-footed shot from well beyond the penalty area past goalkeeper Michael Maurice.
“It was all instinctive, the way it played out,” Caligiuri said. “But there was a driving passion to get something going, the energy from missing the World Cup four years earlier and what was at stake, all coming out in that one shot.”
The Americans survived the remaining 60 minutes and won, 1-0. The next summer in Italy, the inexperienced U.S. squad — “a glorified college team, really,” Harkes said — was done after three defeats in the group stage.
Getting to the World Cup, though, ushered in a new era for the U.S. program, which has appeared in every tournament since and hosted the 1994 event. Only six other countries can say the same.
“It would’ve been an embarrassment,” Murray said, “to be awarded the 1994 World Cup [in 1988] and not qualify for 1990. It really propelled U.S. soccer to where it is today.”
The current U.S. squad will not confront the same challenges in Port-of-Spain. In fact, the match won’t even be played in the capital city. With apparent electrical issues at Crawford Stadium, a qualifier will, for the second time in six weeks, take place 25 miles south at a 10,000-capacity venue in Couva named for Olympic track star Ato Boldon.
“Hopefully, we get the result we need,” said Caligiuri, now coaching fourth-tier Orange County FC, as well as youth teams. “So many years later, it’s Trinidad again. U.S. soccer has come too far [since 1989] to miss the World Cup.”