No Shots Fired: The Obscure USMNT Victory that Laid the Groundwork for Port of Spain
Following is a sneak-preview excerpt from Hal Phillips’ new book, Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories and the Making of Soccer in America. Visit www.GenZero.halphillips.net for more stories from GZ — the modern history U.S. soccer doesn’t know it has.
When coach Lothar Osiander welcomed his new charges to their first U.S. Men’s National Team training camp in January of 1986, he encountered a generation of players unlike any the country had yet produced. Each one had taken part in the so-called Youth Soccer Revolution during the early 1970s. As such, this was the first cohort of native-born Americans to literally grow up with the game. These were also the first elite U.S. players to benefit from the Olympic Development Program, a groundbreaking, nationwide system of coaching and talent identification launched in 1978. The early 1980s would devastate much of the game’s professional infrastructure — before this unique generation of American footballers could partake of it. The North American Soccer League, for example, expired in October 1984. Seven months later, a USMNT stocked with NASL talent crashed out of World Cup qualifying, for the ninth consecutive quadrennial. By January 1986, this ever-teetering national team program had been dropped in the laps of Osiander and this extraordinarily young, untested player pool, many of whom were still in college or fresh out.
Come November 1989, this same group of players changed the course of American soccer. Paul Caligiuri’s famous goal in Port of Spain, the so-called “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” earned the U.S. a World Cup berth for the first time in 40 years. That was huge. But his goal and that victory also effectively secured the next World Cup: here in America, come 1994. This tournament and cultural event, in turn, laid the foundation for Major League Soccer, which launched in 1996. In short, everything we associate with this country’s modern, mature, fulsome futbol culture started with the 1989 USMNT. Indeed, that is the central thesis and the historical record laid out in my new book, “Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories and the Making of Soccer in America,” available in July from Dickinson-Moses Press.
However, by Nov. 19, 1989, when the U.S. played that decisive encounter against Trinidad and Tobago, the American players weren’t quite so inexperienced. Not anymore. By that time they’d played dozens of high-stakes matches together, elimination and otherwise. On a visceral level, they knew they were good enough to win a World Cup place.
That belief first formed on May 30, 1987, against Canada, in a crucial but little-known Olympic qualification tie whose 35th anniversary we celebrate this month. The magnitude of that obscure result still resonates with those who were there, who took the field that day. “When I think of the 1990 World Cup team, I go back two years before that, almost three years actually — to the 1987 qualifying group that went to the Seoul Olympics in 1988,” remembers USMNT midfielder Brian Bliss. “The bulk of those World Cup players came off that Olympic squad, and that tournament experience was really cool and very important in its own way. To me, that’s when the World Cup team really came together: May 1987.”
A quick scan of that 1988 Olympic roster supports Bliss’ recollection and assertion. Fully 13 of those players on the Seoul squad would ultimately represent their country at Italia ’90.
The preliminary Olympic qualifying stage held in late May 1987, 15 months ahead of the tournament in South Korea, featured no group play. The objectives were stark and simple: survive over two legs, home and home against a single opponent, so as to advance via aggregate score. The opening match was scheduled for May 23 in the maritime outpost of St. John, New Brunswick, Canada — the return engagement a week later, Saturday, May 30, at The Soccer Park in Fenton, Missouri.
So far as the young Yanks were concerned, the draw was unfortunate: Only a date with Mexico would have represented a bigger ask. El Tri would eventually be banned from these Olympics, and Italia ’90, for fielding underage players in an U-20 World Cup qualifier. Yet the Canadians were arguably the second strongest side on the continent at this time, in the entire Confederation. They were fresh off the country’s first World Cup appearance — in Mexico, less than a year before. Their quarterfinal performance at the 1984 Olympic tournament in Los Angeles had launched this run of form. While the U.S. had turned its national team program over to a bunch of 20-somethings, Canada was flush with senior, seasoned, professional talent. What’s more, the stakes in May 1987 were identically high for both national team programs.
“I've given the lads enough pep talks about what we can accomplish in going to another Olympics,” Canadian coach Bob Bearpark told the Toronto Star ahead of the first leg. “They understand how critical this series is with the Americans and that a trip to Seoul starts here. Losing would be disastrous for Canadian soccer. We'd be out of pre-Olympic competition through '88 and wouldn't start World Cup qualifying until 1989. I think getting to the L.A. Olympics ultimately helped the team get to Mexico. We'll need to get to Seoul to have as good a chance at getting to the 1990 World Cup.”
In May 2022, soccer fans on both side of the northern border are only now reacquainting themselves with the idea of a U.S.-Canada rivalry. Each nation has produced a new generation of men’s talent blooded by elite international club competition — just in time for this winter’s World Cup in Qatar. The recent qualification Hexagonal, a competition won by the newly ascendant Canadians, lays the groundwork for a decade of titanic border battles to come.
In May 1987, however, none of these salutary conditions existed, not on both sides of the border. While the Canadian program had never been stronger, U.S. soccer remained a global joke of longstanding, a sporting oxymoron akin to Jamaican bobsledding. History tells us that once these Olympic qualifiers concluded, the two countries’ respective soccer fortunes would radically diverge. Thirty-five years ago this week, the good money would have been on Canada.
The International Olympic Committee had first accommodated professional soccer players only in 1984, in advance of the L.A. Games. There was a catch, however: Only those pros who had not participated in previous World Cups were allowed to represent their countries in Olympic competition going forward. A further compromise was reached in advance of the Seoul Games: The joint FIFA/IOC ruling would apply only to countries from the European and South American confederations. Those countries representing the African, Oceanian, Asian and North American confederations were exempt.
Accordingly, Canada was free to deploy all of its senior players for Olympic qualifying in 1987, and this cadre of professionals was the best yet assembled north of the border. It included the likes of striker Dale Mitchell, a Portland Timbers legend then playing in the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) for the Kansas City Comets; centerback and NASL vet Ian Bridge; Carl Valentine, top scorer for the MISL’s Cleveland Force in 1987; a young Alex Bunbury, who’d eventually spend six seasons with Maritimo in Portugal’s top flight; stalwart NASL midfielders Paul James, Branko Segota and Mike Sweeney; defender Randy Samuel, he of Dutch first-division sides PSV Eindhoven, Fortuna Sittard and FC Volendam throughout the late Eighties and early Nineties; and prolific Canadian Soccer League striker John Catliff. In 2012, the Canadian Soccer Association issued its All-Time Canada XI. Seven players from this golden era made the squad.
Despite this surfeit of talent, however, only four of these established stars — Mitchell, Bunbury, Catliff and James — would suit up for the May home-and-home against the United States. Did Coach Bearpark and the Canadians look past the young, unproven Americans?
For fully 90 minutes of this tie, the lack of Canadian star power didn’t matter a lick. Before a crowd of 7,000 at St. John’s Canada Games Stadium, Mitchell — who retired as Canada’s all-time goal leader — staked his country to a lead after just 6 minutes. Strikemate Stormin’ Norman Odinga notched another crucial tally shortly after the interval. His goal meant the U.S. needed a comprehensive 3-0 victory back home, in suburban St. Louis, in order to advance.
Lothar Osiander was characteristically forthright in assessing America’s punchless, first-leg performance. “It was a nervous breakdown, I suppose, or lack of experience, or something,” he barked, to the Toronto Star. “It was our worst nightmare come true... I don't know how you would describe Canada's play, but we just sucked.”
Osiander was the antithesis of the warm, cuddly, player-friendly, New Age coach. His old school vibe might better be described as brusque and ornery. As a German émigré and a product of San Francisco hardscrabble, urban/ethnic soccer scene, he was at times put off by the suburban youth soccer products then in his charge. “Our team is too homogenous,” he told the Associated Press in 1988. “They’re all the same age, all college students, all middle class. They all go to good schools, read the same books, like the same music, probably chase the same type of women. Everything’s equal. It’s flat as a pancake.”
Starting in January 1986, the squad nevertheless thrived under Osiander’s regimented tutelage, in each other’s company. Yet we’re talking (as Allen Iverson might put it) about practice, mere training. Despite the team’s obvious lack of senior experience, the U.S. Soccer Federation did not schedule another official national team fixture between two friendlies on February 1986 and May 1987. When the Americans finally did face a proper opponent over 90 minutes, it wasn’t some exhibition. The stakes were enormous, and the first 90 minutes of could not have gone worse.
U.S. outside back Paul Krumpe wasn’t so puzzled by the performance, then or now. “There were about six of us who came straight from indoor, and we were not game fit for an outdoor match of 90 minutes,” he recalls, noting that many of the Canadians, including Mitchell, had also arrived straight from indoor clubs. “The team just didn’t perform as a group — and how could we? We were just a bunch of guys thrown together a week beforehand — for an Olympic qualifier. I don’t even know if it was a week.”
Osiander and the Federation had organized a camp ahead of the first leg, in northernmost Maine, at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. “We trained there for a week. We also had a moose walk in front of our bus,” striker Bruce Murray says of the most consequential time the USMNT ever spent in the great state of Maine. “They wanted to acclimate us for St. John, I guess. It was beautiful in Maine. But when we went up there, it was 34 degrees with flurries. Then we went to St. Louis and it was 92 degrees!”
But camps are camps. Match experience is an altogether different animal. Discounting two March 1987 exhibitions contested in Miami — against Deportivo Cali and Millonarios, a pair of Colombian club sides — the first leg against Canada was the first meaningful 90 minutes of soccer the USMNT had played together since those two friendlies back in February 1986. Olympic soccer today is essentially a U-23 tournament. During the late Eighties, this was the second most important competition in world futbol. The stakes were, in fact, higher still: FIFA considered U.S. qualification for Seoul almost mandatory, to vindicate its pending ’94 World Cup site selection (FIFA made it official on July 4, 1988). Failing to advance out of preliminary Olympic qualifying would have been, to use Bearpark’s word, “disastrous.”
“I remember feeling demoralized,” Krumpe says. “I remember thinking on the way home, ‘If we don’t win this next game, this whole group is probably gone and — as U.S. Soccer had done in the past — they’ll probably bring in a whole new group for World Cup qualifying.’ ”
Instead, the second leg kicked off the best 18 months of Krumpe’s young soccer life — and the finest stretch of results the U.S. Men’s National Team had produced. Ever.
Let us not bury the lead any further in soccer-centric context from the second Reagan administration: The U.S. claimed the second leg in spectacular, unprecedented fashion, coming all the way back to take this tie — and advance — with a dominant 3-0 victory in Fenton. Home-soil, second-leg comebacks like this one happen quite routinely in soccer, as part of Olympic or World Cup qualifiers. However, prior to 1987, the U.S. rarely if ever authored them. The USMNT had not won an international fixture of any kind, friendly or otherwise, in two years (a 1-0 win in May 1985 over T&T, in Port of Spain). This specific roster had played only three official matches together and hadn’t won any of them. Traditionally, the USMNT hardly ever came back to win, and certainly didn’t score three times to overcome 2-goal deficits.
The result against Canada changed all of that.
“We had to go to St. Louis and win by three goals; that was the job we left for ourselves,” American midfielder John Stollmeyer remembers. “So we went to the Soccer Park in St. Louis, scored one, the next goal, and another goal! That was so huge. We had a confidence going forward because we’d gone and done that.”
Having watched Mitchell score a decisive goal in Canada, Osiander scrounged up his own indoor creator for the second leg — from another indoor team recently eliminated from the MISL playoffs. Wichita Wings attacker Hernan “Chico” Borja replaced injured defensive midfielder Paul Caligiuri in the starting XI. Bruce Murray also started the Fenton match, after coming on as a sub in St. John. Osiander went all-out offensive, and it worked.
Krumpe scored but one time during his five years with the senior national team; his 24 official caps don’t include any Olympic matches. As a result, his two-goal performance in the return leg vs. Canada on May 30, 1987, is easy to lose in the shuffle of time and circumstance. Thankfully, ESPN televised this match, among the first USMNT fixtures ever broadcast by the cable channel. All three goals in the 3-0 victory are preserved via YouTube. Go watch them. After 35 years, their quality and historic significance remain undimmed. In fact, they ought to rank with Caligiuri’s 1989 goal, in Port of Spain, among the most consequential in U.S. soccer history.
“These were for sure the biggest goals of my entire career,” Krumpe recollects. “And two goals in a single game, from right back? That’s pretty crazy.”
The opener, on 31 minutes, was a bona fide golazo. Borja set the table, making a run down the right flank and playing the ball back to Krumpe, who made no mistake, on the volley, from just inside the box. After halftime, the defender inexplicably found himself on the doorstop, tapping home the equalizer on a cross from Bliss. All of a sudden, three goals and a clean sheet to advance seemed eminently doable. Inevitable, even.
Midfielder Jim Gabarra claimed the third and decisive goal that crucial afternoon in suburban St. Louis. It was another beauty. “He hit an absolute rocket from outside the box!” Krumpe recalls. “It went through at least one defender’s legs — but it was a laser. Canada got taken for two really good goals that day.”
Gabarra’s goal was not heard ‘round the world, but without it — without the clinical, shutout performance in the second leg — the story of this young national team would have played out very differently. For starters, the Americans would not have played the half-dozen additional Olympic qualifiers, all impressive victories, that further reshaped the squad. They would not have played all those pre-Olympic friendlies, matches that were suddenly attractive to quality opponents because here was national team headed to the Olympics. Finally, the USMNT would not have participated the 1988 tournament itself, in South Korea, where draws with mighty Argentina and the host country, followed by a 4-2 loss to the eventual gold-medal-winning Soviets, served notice that this U.S. side was different.
Each and every member of Generation Zero I spoke to pointed to this specific match in Fenton as the moment everything changed. “That game in St. Louis sort of catapulted us forward,” Bliss contends.
May 1987 signaled a change for the Canadians, too. But not in a good way. They took the field in Missouri riding a crest of talent and success. Just a year removed from Mexico ’86, the Canadians would not go to Seoul. They have not been back to a World Cup in 35 years. After their quarterfinal appearance at the ’84 Summer Games, they have not qualified for another Olympic tournament. Post 1987, and prior to its stellar, game-changing 2021-22 qualification cycle, it cannot be said that the Canadian men’s national team even competed among CONCACAF’s elite.
Goals change games, and certain games change history.
“We got such a huge boost of confidence by getting through that first round. We were like, Oh wow. We can do this!” Krumpe says. “We actually got into a little bit of a groove after that, a run of form. I’m not sure that U.S. Soccer ever had that opportunity before, where they simply got through a round and kept the same group of guys together. We started to blossom. Good things started to happen.”
When Olympic qualifying resumed on Sept. 5, 1987, following an entire summer of playing friendlies and training together, the Americans displayed their newfound swagger for the rest of CONCACAF to see. They dismantled Trinidad and Tobago back in Fenton, 4-1. In the return leg two weeks later, the Yanks ground out a 1-0 away victory in Port of Spain. Yet the real head-turner came Oct. 18, 1987, in El Salvador, where Osiander’s young squad scored the first three goals and cruised to a “comfortable” 4-2 victory. This result clinched Olympic qualification and made an enormous impression: on potential competitors within the Confederation; on the U.S. Federation, which could now negotiate more credibly with FIFA about hosting World Cup ’94, having qualified a team for the Olympics; and on the U.S. players themselves. The trip to San Salvador was also this generation’s first taste of a senior national team qualifier in Central America. That Oct. 18 match isn’t played if Canada isn’t beaten in May 1987.
Away matches in CONCACAF are like nothing else, a sui generis competitive experience. For Generation Zero, I coined a new word to describe it: CONCACAFkaesque. That October 1987 match in San Salvador proved CONCACAFkaesque in the extreme: Play was stopped three separate times, as the home crowd grew increasingly annoyed at the dominant, completely unanticipated U.S. performance. “When that game started and El Salvador was stringing some passes together, they got the Olé! chant going,” Krumpe recalls. “But once we were up 3-0, it got ugly… By that time, the crowd was Olé-ing us and throwing trash at their own guys!”
Eventually the crowd lit seat cushions on fire and started flinging them about the stadium. “I think the seat cushions were given out by sponsors as a promotion,” Bliss says. “The fans lit them up and turned them into fiery Frisbees!”
Winning in San Salvador, in Port of Spain — amid all the chaos that road games in CONCACAF entail — helped establish yet another foundation of self-possession for the young Americans. Their away performance in El Salvador also concluded what amounted to an extended goal- and victory-fest, the likes of which opponents and U.S. soccer fans were not accustomed to seeing: 13 goals in four straight Olympic qualifying victories — 16 in five, if we count the final leg against Canada. During its long and largely forgettable history, the USMNT simply didn’t win or score with this sort of frequency.
Rivals in CONCACAF were accustomed to having their way with the U.S., especially at home. But here was something different: a collection of young Americans, none of whom had been trained up by NASL or any formal club structure, who appeared to have nonetheless been “professionalized”. The kids certainly knew how to win.
The phrase “golden generation” can be thrown around somewhat carelessly in soccer circles, worldwide, but it’s a genuine phenomenon. What’s more, a critical mass of talent can develop from unlikely petri dishes. Witness the coming together of Canada’s best-ever national teams prior to Mexico ’86. Witness the current incarnation up north, which, all of a sudden, includes the young, international-caliber attacking talents of Alphonso Davies, Tajon Buchanan, Cyle Larin and Jonathan David.
On May 30, 1987 — a Saturday, under the sign of Gemini — the Canadian National Team and a modest ESPN audience were among the first to recognize a shift in the world futbol landscape, the birth of something entirely new: a golden generation of Americans.