In November 1989, the week-long training camp before the most important U.S. soccer game in 40 years was the usual no-frills affair. In the days before cell phones and the Internet, the U.S. players slept two to a dorm room in Cocoa Beach, Fla., and shared a single pay phone among all of them to call home. But they did have basic televisions in each small unit, and one night defender Paul Caligiuri was sitting on the floor when his roommate, goalkeeper Tony Meola, commandeered the couch and started flipping through channels looking for a show to watch.
Their talk turned to the game they would play two days later in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, a World Cup qualifier that bore the highest of stakes. To clinch the U.S.’s first World Cup berth since 1950, the Americans had to win on the road against a team that had not lost at home during the qualifying campaign. If the U.S. tied or lost, tiny T&T would end up grabbing the first World Cup spot in the nation’s history.
But there was even more on the line for the U.S. players, most of whom were either still in college or barely making ends meet on small contracts with the U.S. Soccer Federation. The word going around was that the U.S. might lose the hosting rights for World Cup 1994 for a number of reasons, including the possibility that the U.S. wouldn’t qualify for Italy 1990. “We heard in camp that Mexico and Brazil were going to be alternate sites,” Caligiuri recalls. “Soccer was their No. 1 sport, and they had stadiums in place and were ready to move in. The big reasons were that we hadn’t participated in a World Cup in the modern era, we didn’t have a professional league, and the question of whether the American sports fan would come out and support the World Cup was a huge concern.”
It was a heavy burden to put on the shoulders of young American players who were neophytes on the world stage. After their previous qualifier, a 0-0 home tie against El Salvador, the U.S. appeared to be choking away its chance to take advantage of Mexico’s banishment from World Cup ‘90 for using an over-age player in a youth tournament. “We went into that game with our dreams, and our dream was to play at the highest level [at the World Cup],” Caligiuri says. “And for most of our players, their livelihoods were on the line. We didn’t have a professional league, and we relied on this monthly income from the federation. There was a lot riding on it, you know?”
All those thoughts were in Caligiuri’s mind that night in Florida as he spoke with Meola, the cocksure Jersey boy and University of Virginia goalkeeper. But Caligiuri was the prototypical sunny Californian, an optimist at heart. At one point in the evening, both men swear today, Caligiuri turned to Meola and said: “I’m imagining the headlines: usa wins 1-0, meola gets the shutout and caligiuri scores the goal.”
Twenty-five years later, Caligiuri still remembers all the little signs, the portents that in his mind foretold history. That he predicted the headline to his roommate in Florida. That the plane the U.S. took to the Caribbean, an old Pan Am jet, was named Destiny. That they left from departure gate 8, a lucky number. “I just felt this energy that we were on a mission,” he says, “and we were going to change American soccer forever.”
The U.S. tried to sneak into Port of Spain by arriving late at night, but that didn’t work. More than 5,000 red-clad T&T fans were waiting at the airport, banging steel drums and chanting songs for their Soca Warriors. Unlike fans in Central America, though, these supporters were festive, not threatening, and many of the U.S. players welcomed the atmosphere in a country where this game clearly mattered to the populace. Not that they enjoyed the noise outside the U.S. hotel. “We had to sleep with earplugs,” Meola says. “People were partying outside our windows, so we asked to move over and over again, but they wouldn’t move our rooms.”
Truth be told, Caligiuri was hardly a lock to start the game. He hadn’t been in the U.S. lineup for any previous World Cup qualifiers, due in part to injuries, and coach Bob Gansler had flat-out benched a healthy Caligiuri for the last match, when the U.S. had wet the bed in St. Louis. But during the team meeting on the night before the T&T game, Gansler dropped a stunner when he told the players his lineup. Caligiuri would start in the central midfield. “It was the first and only game out of my 110 national team games that I played at center mid,” says Caligiuri, who replaced John Stollmeyer, the player everyone had expected to be in that position.
For Caligiuri, it was a difficult situation. He was thrilled to start, but Stollmeyer was his roommate on the Trinidad trip. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t sleep the night before the biggest game of our lives because Gansler announced I would take his position.’ I had to break the ice with John.” So Caligiuri pulled Stollmeyer aside and talked it out, and he found a way to catch some sleep that night.
Gameday in Port of Spain was bedlam. U.S. midfielder Tab Ramos remembers inching through traffic to the stadium, which was packed well over the listed capacity, and seeing “people climbing fences, people hanging from everywhere. The atmosphere was crazy.” But he recalls something else, too. When the teams marched out of the tunnel, the T&T players were the opposite of their fans: Tense. Quiet. Overmatched by the moment. “The other team looked scared,” Ramos says. “They didn’t look ready at all, like they didn’t want to be there. It was just too much for them.”
Caligiuri had earned his one and only start in the U.S. central midfield for a specific reason: To mark out T&T playmaker Russell Latapy, whose main function was to distribute the ball to Dwight Yorke, the hosts’ main attacking threat. The instructions from Gansler didn’t exactly encourage Caligiuri to think about scoring goals. “My orders were very clear: ‘Do not go forward and risk a counter-attack,’” Caligiuri says. But in the 31st minute of a 0-0 game, an opportunity presented itself. From a throw-in by Brian Bliss, Ramos hit a simple square pass to Caligiuri. “I gave him a bad ball,” jokes Ramos, whose pass skipped up on the bumpy Caribbean playing surface.
Stationed some 45 yards from the T&T goal, Caligiuri turned on the ball and saw open space closing quickly as defender Kerry Jamerson rushed toward him. “There were only two things to do: Push the ball into the space or try to connect with a teammate and stay back,” Caligiuri says. “I decided to try and beat the player and do something. My instincts just carried me from that moment on.” Caligiuri pushed the ball forward with his chest, skinned Jamerson with a nifty move and in an instant had a look at goal.
Four years earlier, in his first start for the U.S., Caligiuri had scored on a header against T&T goalkeeper Michael Maurice. Another sign, Caligiuri thought. Now Maurice was in the net again, and the tropical sun was bearing down on him, and here came Paul David Caligiuri, formerly of Diamond Bar, Calif., with 40 years of U.S. World Cup misery in his backwash, about to change everything. “I shot it as hard as I could with some sort of topspin and velocity to keep it low enough to have a chance to score,” Caligiuri says. “Golfers and baseball players and soccer players, we all talk about the touch, the feel, the moment. I just had that feeling. I knew it had a chance to score.”
Poor Maurice. He got a late jump on the shot, and now the ball appeared to move in slow motion, arcing and then dipping … dipping … dipping … in. There’s a famous photograph taken after the goal in which U.S. forward Bruce Murray is gazing up at the heavens in thanks for the goal, looking as though he was the one who scored it. Next to him is Caligiuri, expressionless, all business, as if the most significant goal in U.S. Soccer history—The Shot Heard ‘Round The World—is no big deal.
More than anything, Caligiuri remembers the sound in the stadium that moment. “The crowd,” he says, “was absolutely silent.”
When the U.S. entered the locker room at halftime, Caligiuri looked in the faces of his teammates and saw a resolve and a confidence that convinced him: There’s no way we’re going to falter here. Despite being unable to add another goal, the U.S. kept the narrow lead in the second half, not least because the American goalkeeper came up big on several occasions. “Tony Meola played so fantastic in goal, and Tab Ramos and John Harkes controlled the game with their ball possession and ability to dribble out of pressure,” Caligiuri says. “Everyone played their role, and we carried that through the second half.”
When the final whistle blew and the U.S. was in the World Cup for the first time in four decades, Caligiuri stood stock still for a few seconds. usa wins 1-0, meola gets the shutout and caligiuri scores the goal. Soon enough he would join in the celebrations, but Caligiuri wanted to freeze this moment in his mind’s eye forever, the scenes on both sides. He watched the players from the U.S. bench rush the field in ecstasy, rolling around on the ground together like kids. And he also watched the T&T players, their dreams crushed, consoling each other, not because he wanted to enjoy their pain but because he respected the hell out of their effort and what this day meant to them, too.
Caligiuri remembers the exultant U.S. locker room and drinking the only liquid available—Carib beer—to try to deal with his cramps on that hot and muggy day. But he also remembers the sportsmanship shown by, of all people, Jack Warner. In the years to come, Warner would come to symbolize all that is wrong with corruption in FIFA as a banished member of its executive committee, but on this day Warner, the president of T&T’s federation, came into the U.S. locker room and leaned in close to Caligiuri. “Please represent the United States at the World Cup as Trinidad had wanted to represent Trinidad,” Warner told him. “You deserve the victory. Congratulations.”
And with that, Warner removed his straw hat, placed it atop Caligiuri’s head and walked out of the locker room.
The U.S. ended up losing all three games in World Cup 1990. It wasn’t always pretty, but Caligiuri did score the lone goal in a 5-1 loss to Czechoslovakia, and the Americans earned respect from nations around the world for their 1-0 loss to host Italy, a game the U.S. came thisclose to tying through Peter Vermes late in the match.
But the significance of Caligiuri’s Shot Heard ‘Round The World goes far beyond putting the U.S. into a World Cup. His goal was nothing less than the launchpad for U.S. Soccer’s modern era, 25 years of growth that was hardly inevitable. After his goal, any serious concerns over the U.S.’s fitness to host World Cup ’94 disappeared. Contrary to doomsayers inside FIFA, USA ’94 set records for attendance at a World Cup that have yet to be broken. With a boost from the World Cup, Major League Soccer started in 1996 and is now here to stay, having laid a soccer stadium infrastructure around the country while taking the development of U.S. players to a new level. Meanwhile, the success of World Cup ’94 emboldened the organizers of Women’s World Cup ’99 to stage the event in giant stadiums around the country—stadiums that would be filled when pioneers such as Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers and Kristine Lilly created a momentous American cultural moment.
“It’s fascinating to see how far we’ve come,” Caligiuri says. “And to think: What if? If that had never happened, where would we be?”