By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Mar 25, 2019) US Soccer Players – The year was 1988 and the US Soccer Federation had embarked on the uphill task of putting together a bid to host the 1994 World Cup. Although soccer had suffered a setback with the NASL’s demise, the National Team continued to play games. In 1988, the team bucked the odds and qualified for the Olympics, the start of an era that would include winning the ’94 bid and qualifying for the 1990 World Cup.
The big story of 1988 took place on July 4, America’s birthday, when FIFA awarded the United States hosting rights to the 1994 World Cup. A month before that announcement, the National Team played a series of friendlies, three against Chile, three with Ecuador, and one versus Costa Rica as part of the Clasico International Cup.
After qualifying for the Seoul Games, the Federation set up a program to pay players a salary in order for them to train and play for the US on a regular basis. While the players remained with their clubs mostly from the MISL, ASL, and WSA, several decided to leave to play full time for the National Team. Scheduling games became the primary strategy in the years following the soccer boom, something the US would do again in the years leading up to the 1994 World Cup.
Ahead of the USMNT’s friendly on Tuesday against Chile at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, a look back at when the sides met in 1988 in the long-forgotten Clasico Cup helps put into context how far the National Team has come over the past three decades. The United States has a 3-2-5 all-time record against Chile, with three of those games taking place in 1988 over the span of a week. At a time when the US is rebuilding ahead of this summer’s Gold Cup, the team back in 1988 was also looking to jumpstart the National Team after the disappointment of narrowly failing to qualify for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Following the failed Team America experiment a few years earlier in the NASL, the US Soccer Federation tried again with the USMNT as club experiment. This allowed for a mix of veterans and young players to come together and face better teams and gain experience. The move, along with qualifying for the Olympics in the era when teams outside Europe and South America could field their senior sides, boosted the program under German-born coach Lothar Osiander.
The US featured some familiar names at this time, including goalkeeper Mark Dodd, defender Marcelo Balboa, and striker Bruce Murray. For the June 1 game against Chile, Osiander fielded Steve Fuchs in goal, while Balboa and John Doyle anchored the defense. The midfield composed of Eric Eichmann, Robin Fraser and, Chris Sullivan added speed and creativity, while indoor players Jim Gabarra and George Pastor were up front. It was a time when players came together from a hodge-podge of leagues scattered across the country. For Osiander, who worked as a waiter when not coaching the team, these games were also a chance to experiment with lineups and test younger players.
“We’ve only been at it for about 20 years. Give us another 80 years and we’ll be there,” Osiander said, a line he used often to describe the gulf in talent between the US and the world’s established soccer powers.
Chile, a formidable opponent, brought a squad dominated by domestic players hailing mostly from the country’s famed club Colo Colo. Chile played at the 1982 World Cup and finished runners up at the Copa America the previous year. Chile hosted that tournament, defeating Brazil in the group stage and losing to Uruguay in the final. Before this series, the US had last played Chile at the 1950 World Cup, a 5-2 defeat that had come on the heels of that historic 1-0 US win against England.
For its US swing, the Chileans featured the bulk of its starters, including goalkeeper Roberto Rojas a year before the infamy of El Maracanazo and striker Ivo Basay, who played with Stade Reims of France. That first game ended 1-1, the sides trading goals as Gabarra scored for the US and Basay for Chile.
Just two days later, the USMNT lost 3-1 in San Diego with Dodd in goal and Hernan “Chico” Borja scoring. What the Americans lacked in technique, it made up for with a fighting spirit. Borja embodied that spirit after having played for the New York Cosmos and Team America. At age 29, the Ecuadorian-born Borja was one of the team’s veterans. Borja put the US ahead after 13 minutes on a penalty kick, but a three-goal barrage in the second half helped Chile sail to victory.
Borja played in the MISL at the time with the Los Angeles Lazers and was club teammates with Gabarra and defender Fernando Clavijo, who would become a part of the US player pool in 1990. Borja had played in World Cup qualifying and at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. As a footnote, the US game against Jamaica, the following month on July 24, marked Borja’s last National Team match when he came on as a second-half sub.
Despite Osiander putting Fuchs back in net, the US defense were unable to fend off the experienced Chileans on June 5 in Fresno. The Americans lost 3-0, two goals coming from striker Sergio Salgado, to cap off the three-game tour of California. The USMNT would go on to play three games against Ecuador on June 7 (a 1-0 defeat in Albuquerque), three days later (a 2-0 defeat in Houston), and on June 12 (a scoreless draw in Fort Worth, Texas) to close out the week.
The Americans would eventually grab a victory on June 14, defeating Costa Rica 1-0 in San Antonio on a goal from striker Rob Ryerson. A member of the ASL’s Maryland Bays, Ryerson had missed all but the final game of the tournament due to club commitments. It would be his only official career cap and goal in a US jersey. The victory was a big one, Ryerson recalled, because it marked the first time the United States had defeated the Central American nation in a senior international.
“I played multiple friendlies with the US Men’s National Team, was with the Olympic team in qualifying matches against Jamaica and Trinidad, but did not play and was on the bench as a sub,” he said. “Most games back then were against first division Mexican teams like Cruz Azul, Club America, and Chivas.”
In all, the US would play seven games over a 14-day span, an unusually-torrid pace at the pro level. Perhaps that helped put the team on the path to success a year later under coach Bob Gansler. That would usher in an era of unprecedented success and respect for the USMNT.
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.
More from Clemente Lisi:
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- Counting down to the 2019 MLS season
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