Earlier this year, Americans were mesmerised by the Stars and Stripes’ success at the FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil. Diehard supporters, first-time fans and celebrities alike all came together to cheer on Jurgen Klinsmann’s charges as they escaped a challenging Group G alongside eventual champions Germany.
Even though USA were beaten by Belgium in the Round of 16 at Brazil 2014, it was evident that football fever in America was running at an all-time high. In a crowded sporting environment often dominated by baseball, basketball and American football, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) needed something big to help push their version of football into the mainstream media.
And while football still struggles at times to make headlines across the country, there is no doubt the game has progressed over the past 25 years from an afterthought into the forefront of the American sporting scene. The catalyst for this change came in the form of ‘the shot heard round the world’, which took place 25 years ago today on a searing hot Sunday in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
The goal, arguably one of the most important strikes in the history of the USA football, came from an unlikely source. Paul Caligiuri, who had been recovering from a broken bone in his foot, filled in for John Stollmeyer, Bob Gansler’s centre-back of choice at the time and scored a lovely arcing strike with from roughly 30 yards. The Soca Warriors goalkeeper Michael Maurice claimed the blistering sun blinded him as Caligiuri’s shot settled in to the far corner, sending the United States to their first World Cup in 40 years.
Turning point in Trinidad
Rarely is there one defining turning point like Caligiuri’s goal to look back at and base a team’s progress from, but that goal in Port of Spain set the tone for the next generation of football in the United States. The USA team that took down Trinidad and Tobago, courtesy of Caligiuri’s dipping strike, 25 years ago bears little-to-no resemblance of the Stars and Stripes side that are currently 23rd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Of course the players have since retired, though many of whom are now coaching or serving as television pundits, but the actual make-up of the United States national team programme is far more advanced today than it was in the late 1980s.
The introduction of Major League Soccer in 1996 has enabled a large group of Americans to develop on the professional level, compared with most of the team who qualified for Italy 1990 who were still attending university at the time or were playing low-level semi-professional football. There were several trailblazers among the group who were plying their trade in Europe, however; Caligiuri was one of the first to head to Europe, alongside John Harkes, Bruce Murray and Peter Vermes, to name a few.
In the relatively short span between now and then, though, the make up of the most recent USA squad to qualify for a World Cup – a competition the Americans have not missed out on since Caligiuri sent them to Italy 1990 – was a healthy mix of players from Europe and those playing domestically in Major League Soccer. The development of a top flight in the United States, born from the winning bid to land the 1994 World Cup, combined with a core group of the team playing overseas has helped the Americans experience success on the international stage, including a historic quarter-final run at Japan/Korea 2002, a runners-up finish at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa and back-to-back Round of 16 appearances at the World Cup.
As a result of that fateful Sunday in Port of Spain, football in the United States has grown at a phenomenal rate, which has helped developed USA into the regional powerhouse they are today. Current coach Jurgen Klinsmann has publicly stated his goal for Russia 2018 is to reach the semi-finals. While many view that as an optimistic target with the competition’s cycle only in its nascent stages, Caligiuri’s ‘shot heard round the world’ showed why the world should expect the unexpected. If the past 25 years of football in the United States serve as any indication, the next 25 could see the Stars and Stripes reach unimaginable heights.