On 11 November, USA will continue their quest for an eighth successive appearance at the FIFA World Cup. With the Stars & Stripes one of the favourites to pass the ‘hexagonal’ third round of CONCACAF qualifying for Russia 2018, and the 21st Major League Soccer (MLS) Cup Playoffs in full swing, it is hard to imagine football in USA as an arid landscape.
However, just a short hop back in time to the 1980s, the options for an aspiring American player were threadbare. When the old North American Soccer League (NASL) folded after 16 years in 1984, having burned emphatically to dazzle with the likes of Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and George Best, it left a crater in the structure of their game.
This was where Mike Windischmann – future captain of USA at Italy 1990 – found himself. Studying at Adelphi University on a football scholarship, his prospective career path had ceased to be. But while any dreams of ending the USA’s absence from the World Cup since 1950 looked beyond fanciful at this stage, it turned out to be the birth of some unlikely underdogs.
“It was shocking to be in college and find out that the professional league had folded,” Windischmann recalled in conversation with FIFA.com. Growing up in New York City, the defender had harboured dreams of following in the footsteps of Beckenbauer at the New York Cosmos.
Club football regressed to a purely regional level, with games for Brooklyn Italians and New York’s state side supplementing the inconsistent schedules of the youth and senior international sides. The latter played just twice in 1986 – a two-day tournament in Miami.
But 1988 proved pivotal. First came the awarding of the 1994 World Cup to USA, followed by some impressive showings at the 1988 Olympics – featuring the backbone of their historic 1990 side. “At that point, the US Soccer federation began talking about having the players play all year round with salaries, though not big salaries. But, when you have a love for the game and it’s just starting, that’s enough,” the now teacher explained in his gravely east coast tones. “In 1984, we used to just get paid with a per diem.”
While many of the established names from NASL – and the national team itself – had relocated to the popular indoor leagues, “a very different game”, US Soccer opted to build a side made from up and comers. “[The established players] knew the next generation were hungry. They didn’t necessarily think they were better, but knew they could compete and get the job done. Having the World Cup in 1994 meant that if we hadn’t qualified in 1990, it would have been a dark day.”
And so came the moment in 1989 which arguably transformed the whole trajectory of football in the United States to where we see it today: the final game of Italy 1990 qualifying. The place: Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago. The stakes: locked on points, a draw would send USA through, while the hosts had to win.
“It was kind of like fate, having it come down to that last game,” the Germany-born skipper recalled with a smile. “We arrived at about 3am and heard something from outside the plane, as we landed. There were a couple of thousand home fans all in red, chanting and declaring that they were going to make it to the World Cup, not us. The pressure around that game was incredible.”
In the cauldron of the National Stadium, Paul Caligiuri’s long-range strike dramatically decided the 1-0 win. “Once you realised that you’ve finally made the World Cup, 40 years on, it was an unbelievable feeling of relief,” Windischmann said. “A lot of us were together for many years building up, so it was special.”
A long-awaited return
While their position as a giant in western culture and world sport in general makes it hard to picture USA as outsiders punching above their weight, back then they were exactly that. With the four-decade old monkey off their back, they landed in Europe facing a tough trio of games – first meeting Czechoslovakia, followed by the hosts and Austria.
“The experience of being at the World Cup, going to the stadiums, featuring in a tough group and playing the host country, those are the things that you dream about.” But their opener - a 5-1 defeat - proved to be a rude awakening.
“I think there was even more pressure going into that second game [following the loss]. You’re playing the hosts and you want to prove that you belong there. Training the night before in the empty Stadio Olimpico, then playing there the next day full of fans, was really something.”
And they duly stood up to the wave of Italian expectations, narrowly losing 1-0 to an en early Giuseppe Giannini goal, earning the respect of fans and players alike with a gritty, steadfast performance. “Even after the game and we’d lost, the Italian players were coming into our locker room, wanting to trade equipment and say hello – it was fantastic. [Roberto] Baggio came in, spoke with us, trading his shirt and equipment. I got his shirt and I still have it today,” Windischmann revealed with pride.
A 2-1 loss to Austria saw the trip end without a point, but it began a run of consecutive World Cup appearances currently bettered by just five teams – and four of those (Brazil, Italy, Spain and Germany) have shared all but one of the titles on offer in that time.
“It’s kind of incredible that, even without a professional league, the team were able to stay fit, train and be able to be successful,” Windischmann said. “The 1990 team doesn’t get as much respect, I think, as it deserves for being some of the pioneers for what happened in 1994 and beyond.
“Each generation of players tries to make it better for the next one coming up. There were the ‘dark days of soccer’ before us and somebody had to change that. I think we did.”