By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (May 29, 2017) US Soccer Players – It was 25 years ago that US Soccer came up with the novel idea of turning a bunch of National Team friendlies into a competitive mini-tournament. What followed was the creation of the US Cup. It answered an obvious issue for the USMNT. Competitive games on the schedule at a time when there was no pro domestic league and only a select few Americans played abroad.
Bora Milutinovic, famous for leading Mexico to the 1986 World Cup quarterfinals and Costa Rica to the second round four years later, had taken the USMNT job in 1991. Milutinovic’s approach was to treat the National Team like a club side. Many of the players were under contract with US Soccer playing a packed schedule.
At the time, scheduling games was one of Bill Nutall’s main tasks. Nutall, who served as the National Team’s general manager, recalled that the creation of the US Cup was the perfect place for Milutinovic to test his players ahead of the 1994 World Cup. It also coincided with three of Europe’s strongest teams – Italy, Portugal and Ireland – failing to qualify for the 1992 European Championship that summer. It was there that US Cup ’92 was born.
“That was the perfect moment for the United States to play top European talent,” Nutall recalled. “That’s what the US Cup was all about.”
The round-robin format would mimic a World Cup opening round. It allowed Milutinovic to field his European-based players as well. Among the call-ups were two notable 1990 World Cup vets: John Harkes, who played with Sheffield Wednesday in England’s top flight at the time, and Tab Ramos, who was with second-division club Figueres in Spain. In addition, the team called upon naturalized players such as Thomas Dooley, who was born in Germany, and Roy Wegerle, a native of South Africa.
The USMNT would play Italy, coached by Arrigo Sacchi, who would finish runners-up to Brazil at the 1994 World Cup. The team, led by Roberto Baggio, was in a rebuilding phase, but loaded with Serie A stars such as Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Gianluca Vialli. Ireland, managed by English legend Jackie Charlton, featured a healthy mix of English league stats like Roy Keane, who played for Nottingham Forest at the time. Portugal, led by coach Carlos Quieroz, featured that country’s greatest generation of players, including Luis Figo and Fernando Couto.
The tournament opened on May 30 with the US taking on Ireland at RFK Stadium in Washington DC. Aside from RFK Stadium, games were at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Soldier Field in Chicago, and Foxboro Stadium, outside Boston. The tournament also had the added attraction of a May 31 Italy vs Portugal game at the Yale Bowl – a venue that catered to the Northeast’s large Italian and Portuguese immigrant communities – between two teams drawn into the same World Cup Qualifying group. The game would end scoreless under a torrential rain.
Two months before the opening game, US Soccer held a news conference in New York to announce the tournament schedule. It was there that Milutinovic said the competition would be hard for his team to win, but was key for his USA ’94 preparations.
“Americans want to win all the time, but I don’t care,” the candid Serbian told reporters in broken English. “Our problem is we don’t have too many games against the best teams.”
Looking back 25 years reveals that those games were certainly important. It was a transformative time for the National Team, the start of something special after qualifying for the 1990 World Cup, an event 40 years in the making, and capturing the Gold Cup a year later after upsetting Mexico in the semifinals. The team would add a US Cup to that list after defeating Ireland 3-1 – a feat that even impressed Charlton.
“Not many teams beat us 3-1,” he told reporters after the game.
When reached last week, Peter Vermes, who currently coaches Sporting Kansas City, looked back at the US Cup as the place where the National Team started to develop a winning mentality.
“We were not just trying to get out of games without embarrassing results, but we were actually going into games to try to win them,” he recalled.
It wasn’t the only win for the USMNT. They stunned Portugal 1-0 on June 3 in Chicago. Three days later in Chicago, they played Italy to a 1-1 draw to finish in 1st-place. The decisive point against the Italians came in dramatic fashion. Italy had taken the lead after just two minutes with Baggio. The play started in the back with Baresi’s long kick and just three passes later, Baggio was able to unleash a powerful shot that zoomed past goalkeeper Tony Meola.
The Americans would tie the score in the 23rd minute. Wegerle moved the ball on the left flank, placing the ball into the path of Ramos. He tried in vain to stab the ball into the net, but Italy’s back-up goalkeeper Luca Marchegiani ran out and got a hand on it. With the goal devoid of its keeper, Harkes grabbed the ball and blasted it into the back of the net. His goal celebration – blowing kisses at a section of US supporters who were among the 26,875 people in attendance – came to symbolize that the Americans had arrived onto the world scene.
“We had to seize the moment,” Harkes, who would finish as the tournament’s top scorer with two goals, told reporters in the tunnel. “This match was being shown around the world.”
There would be seven more US Cups, held annually except in World Cup summers through 2000. The 1993 edition was arguably the most star-studded and featured Germany, Brazil and England. The Americans would finish third that year.
Vermes said the legacy of that first US Cup went beyond tying Italy. He said it gave the players “something to aspire to.”
“It raises your expectations about what you can do,” he said. “All of that has been good, the quality games we’ve gotten over the years has helped with the advancement and the evolution of the US National Team.”
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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