By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Feb 29, 2016) US Soccer Players – There are some years that are considered watershed moments in American soccer. Some, like 1989, the year the USMNT qualified for its first World Cup in 40 years, clearly stand out. Then there’s 1994, the year the US hosted the World Cup. And there’s 2002 when the USMNT reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup. The year few remember is 1986.
In 1986, indoor soccer reigned supreme a year after the demise of the original North American Soccer League. The NASL going out of business signaled the “dark ages” of the game in this country. However, the National Team stood out for what it did in a year of disarray with few options for professional soccer players. The MISL was the only league where players could earn a decent living, but the league did nothing to elevate the level of play for the USMNT.
After failing to qualify for Mexico ‘86, the National Team spent the year practically dormant – playing in just two games – but the year was significant for what the team accomplished.
Thirty years ago this month, the side endured a massive makeover at the hands of its new coach, the German-born Lothar Osiander, who took over for Alkis Panagoulias who had amassed an unimpressive 6-7-5 record over two years. Osiander had moved to the United States with his family in 1958 and played with the University of San Francisco. Osiander then went on to coach a number of teams, including years later in Major League Soccer with the Los Angeles Galaxy and San Jose Clash.
Under Osiander, the US rebuilt around college players in 86. This was out of necessity. Some of you are old enough to rankle at what seemed like a shot at the indoor game and its contributions to the USMNT, but in 86 a schedule conflict meant no MISL teams releasing player. Left with few options, Osiander turned to the colleges.
The USMNT assembled in February for the Miami Cup. That was a six-team exhibition tournament staged entirely at the storied, 75,500-seat Orange Bowl in Miami. The field featured the host USA, Uruguay, Canada, Jamaica, Paraguay and Colombia club Deportivo Cali. The United States joined Uruguay and Canada in the “Sunshine Division,” while the other three teams placed in the “Citrus Division.” The whole tournament had a baseball spring training feel to it. For the United States, however, it was a chance to test itself against two fairly competitive squads.
Uruguay and Canada both qualified for the 1986 World Cup, with the USMNT facing teams preparing for Mexico. Uruguay in particular was on an upswing. They would reach the knockout round of the 86 World Cup and win the 87 Copa America. Whatever momentum Canada had coming out of the 86 World Cup where they finished last in their group but still impressed wouldn’t last the summer. In August, Canada traveled to Singapore for the Merion Cup. Four of their players ended up suspended for bribery. That was the future. In February, the teams lined up for a new tournament in Miami.
The United States played Canada on February 2 before a small crowd of 5,182 in a cavernous football stadium. They fielded a lineup that years later would make the nation proud. David Vanole was in goal, with Paul Krumpe and Jimmy Banks (Mike Windischmann would replace him in the second half), along with Brent Goulet spearheading the attack. The final was a scoreless draw.
“This was my first invite to the National Team,” recalled Krumpe. “I was 23 and had recently just graduated from UCLA. … We had a very good group of college guys, but we needed to gain some valuable experience with these international tournaments. This proved to be very valuable experience indeed.”
Krumpe said Osiander “made us work and found a way to allow us to enjoy ourselves at the same time. Not an easy thing to do, especially at this level. … I felt I knew what he wanted from me, individually, and for the team as a whole.”
Murray had similar recollections of camp, calling Osiander’s style “pretty strict” but also a man who could “have a laugh with the group.” Murray also said Osiander “always called me ‘Murphy,’ which drove me crazy. I’d tell him it was Murray and he’d say, ‘OK, Murph.’”
Soccer historian Roger Allaway said Osiander’s choice of college players and recent grads was “a good one.”
“While they may have been college players in 1986, by the time 1989 and 1990 rolled around, they weren’t just college players any more. Of the players who appeared for the United States in World Cup qualifiers in 1989, Paul Caligiuri, Peter Vermes, Bruce Murray, Hugo Perez, Eric Eichmann and Frank Klopas all had playing experience in Europe, mostly in the first division. I think that the only player in those 1989 qualifiers who was still a college player was Tony Meola,” he noted.
In its second match, the USA took on Uruguay on February 7 before 15,852 fans, needing a win to advance to the final. Uruguay, 3-1 winners against Canada, needed just a draw. Osiander changed things up a bit, starting Bruce Murray in midfield. Uruguay (who would go on to win the Miami Cup) was without its star Enzo Francescoli, but did field a team of mostly regulars. Uruguay manager Omar Borras was known for his feisty attitude on the sidelines and ability to give reporters colorful quotes in post-match news conferences. He is also widely credited with being the first person to use the phrase “Group of Death” to describe his first-round group at Mexico ’86 when his team was placed in the same group with West Germany, Denmark and Scotland.
Against the two-time world champions, the USA took the lead with Murray in the 9th minute. “I was a right-sided midfielder tasked with playing simple and not trying to do much,” Murray said. “Anyway, I intercepted a pass in our half. I looked to find someone to pass to, but was immediately under pressure so I had to beat two players off the dribble. Now I’m 35 yards out. Still no help, so took another touch and let it fly.”
The ball, like a “rocket,” Murray recalled, sailed into the upper left corner out of the reach of goalkeeper Fernando Alvez.
“One of the best strikes of my life,” he said.
The Americans tried in vain to extend its lead, but it was Uruguay who would find the back of the net, tying the score with Carlos Aguilera 15 minutes from the end. Although the US failed to advance to the final, two draws from two games was considered a success for a young team that had never played together before.
Krumpe, who went on to play indoor soccer with the Chicago Sting, recalled that using college players turned out to be the right call, saying, “It was a huge transition to play indoor soccer full time and then quickly became an international outdoor player. I had an excellent fitness base as a high school distance runner, a college defender who liked to join the attack and was easier to make the transition easier than most guys. It was not easy.”
Allaway agreed, saying, “As for whether building the team back from the depths of 1985 by using MISL players would have been a better idea, I am very dubious about this.”
Allaway said two games that “have been largely forgotten” shed light on the subject.
“In the winter of 1989-90, after the U.S. had qualified for the World Cup, Ron Newman, one of the MISL coaches, challenged the USSF to a series of games between the USMNT and an all-star team of the best Americans in the MISL, with the winner gaining the right to represent the United States in the World Cup. The USSF declined. However, later in 1990, after the World Cup, the USSF relented, and two games were played. The USMNT won one game and the other was a tie. These results happened despite the fact that the USMNT was vastly weakened from the one that had played in the World Cup and the MISL team was vastly strengthened from what had originally been proposed. … Still, the USMNT won the series. I have always assumed that the reason for this is that the MISL players couldn’t keep up the pace for 90 minutes on a large field.”
MLS would begin 10 years later, propelling the National Team to new heights. It’s hard to imagine a time when the USA did not have a pro league and a National Team that regularly makes the World Cup. However, there was a time, not so long ago, where this was a reality.
More from Clemente Lisi: