They may have represented a country considered one of the world's superpowers politically and economically, but in the sport of soccer, they were minnows, fighting their way upstream to the biggest stage. Their victory was in arrival -- in reviving a program in danger of losing funding and giving future squads a compass for future improvement.
They were the U.S. 1990 World Cup team.
"You look back now and see how far soccer has come, that was a pretty good achievement for that team," John Doyle, a defender on that team, said last weekend.
In November 1989, the U.S. faced a daunting challenge to reach the World Cup in Italy: a match on the road against a motivated Trinidad and Tobago team that needed only a draw to qualify. The U.S. last participated in the World Cup in 1950 and the fledging soccer program was in danger of losing funding, as well as the chance to host the '94 World Cup.
"Going away from home and where you have to win," recalled Peter Vermes, a midfielder on the squad, "it's usually a pretty big hill to climb. It was a difficult environment, having not done that in 40 years. We were proud and there was also a little relief and exhilaration."
Yet after the thrill of the 1-0 victory, the Americans had few resources to prepare them for World Cup competition.
"They were overmatched," Bruce Arena said. The current Los Angeles Galaxy coach mentored two key players on the '90 squad, John Harkes and TonyMeola, as collegians, and traveled to Italy for that tournament. And Arena was right: The U.S. lost every match in the group stage -- to Italy, Austria and Czechoslovakia by a combined score of 8-2.
"We were extremely naive," Vermes said. One specific incident in a 5-1 loss to the Czechs highlighted the U.S.' lack of composure on the biggest stage, when Eric Wynalda retaliated in full view of the referee after LubomirMoravcik slyly stepped on his foot. The fiery American striker, just a day after his 20th birthday, threw a nasty elbow at the Czech midfielder and was immediately shown a straight red card.
"Was Eric baited? For sure!" Vermes said, pointing out that with such a long gap between World Cups, there were no players with World Cup experience in the '90 squad. "It was obviously something that none of us had ever experienced before. No one on the team could tell us what it was like."
Even with the losses, there were treasured memories of the experience. "The bus rides and going to the stadiums in the World Cup in Italy was something," Doyle recalled. "The crowds, playing in Rome against Italy, walking out on the field, that was special. I actually traded shirts with [Paolo] Maldini afterward."
Vermes fondly remembered David Vanole, the backup goalkeeper for the U.S., who tragically became the first member of the team to die, in '07 from heart failure. Vanole had played a crucial role for the Americans in the qualifying campaign, and his ardor was undimmed at the World Cup, where he sat on the bench bedecked in extra U.S. gear.
"He had a hat, flag wristbands, everything," Vermes said. "He brought a different mentality. He pushed everyone on the team."
Some who never set foot on a field for the Americans in Italy played important roles in getting the squad there, through scouting, coaching assistance or administrative work.
"There's a lot of people," Vermes said. "Werner Fricker, Lothar Osiander, Sunil Gulati, Ralph Perez and many others who made a difference in very scary times, because the U.S. Soccer Federation wasn't in the black; it was in the red."
Yet there's an undeniable legacy to the team itself, as pioneers who fought to get the U.S. back to the world's biggest sporting tournament. "It was an important starting point," Arena said. "They were the first step."
Doyle, however, doesn't feel like a sacred hero today. "I feel lucky that I got to be a part of it," he said. "I don't ever think, 'Because of me.' I played in the games and truly enjoyed it."
Most members of the '90 squad are still deeply involved in soccer, whether it's coaching, broadcasting or other ventures. Doyle is the general manager of Major League Soccer's San Jose Earthquakes, while Vermes is the technical director and interim coach of the Kansas City Wizards. Wynalda, Harkes, Christopher Sullivan and Marcelo Balboa are in TV broadcasting. Vermes isn't surprised that many of the '90 team are still focused on growing American soccer in one way or another.
"That group of guys has a little piece of that history, a catalyst to get things going," he said. "A lot of us were survivalists. The money in the game wasn't like it is today. But somehow, we made it happen. We were guys who had a lot of perseverance and passion for the game and it resonates today."
The changes in U.S. soccer, compared with the early days when many players scraped to get by, encourage Doyle.
"The facilities are great now," Doyle said. "It's wonderful to see that you have stadiums that are soccer-specific -- we're up to eight professional sites. We've had a pro league now for 14 years. That's incredible. Even guys who aren't at the very tip-top level on the national team, these players can make a good living and play soccer and live their dream of playing all the time."
Vermes pointed out that since the U.S. has qualified for the World Cup six times in a row, every squad has featured veterans from the previous tournament, acting as mentors to the new generation. Even for the '90 team -- which had no such mentors -- its inability to win a point in group play was instructive. The team's struggles underscored the country's lack of a top-level pro league.
"The experience [of 1990] was invaluable," Vermes said. "We were definitely outmatched. If we were going to compete at that level, we needed guys who were playing at a high level as much as possible. It helped the people in U.S. Soccer realize how important it was for us to have our own league."
Now, the U.S. national team features a coach and several players developed primarily by MLS. Progress for U.S. Soccer hasn't always been linear, but it has come a long way since the cobbled-together effort in '90.
Arena, who served as national-team coach for eight years, noted that the U.S. program still had room to improve. "I think that after the next two cycles, we'll be right there in terms of being contenders for the World Cup, one of the teams seen as a threat," he said.
When the latest version of the U.S. does contend for the 2010 World Cup, the players who were overwhelmed no-hopers 20 years ago will be cheering them on.
"I'm proud to watch the U.S. play," Doyle said. "You look at it differently when you're in your 40s, because it's way past you. You're not competing against anyone anymore; you're a fan of the team. I saw [U.S. coach] Bob Bradley last night at the UCLA game and I said congratulations and thanks, because it helps all of us."
Bradley and his team wouldn't be anywhere if it weren't for that team of 20 years ago, which deserves congratulations and thanks of its own.