USMNT veteran Paul Caligiuri is truly a pioneer in the contemporary age of American soccer. He was the first American-born player to land a major playing contract overseas in the professional European leagues and also was a major force on the 1990 and 1994 World Cup teams. However, Caligiuri is probably best-known for the “goal heard around the world,” the shot he took against Trinidad and Tobago that sent the USMNT to the 1990 World Cup for the first time in 40 years. US Soccer Players took a time out recently to catch up with Paul and talk to him about what he is up to these days after his induction into the Soccer Hall of Fame in 2004 …
Can you talk about your present work as head coach of both the men’s and women’s programs at Cal Poly Ponoma? Do the men and women play in the same season? How hard is it to be the coach of two varsity sports?
They play in the same season, we play doubleheaders on the same day. It was a slight adjustment at first. But I always enjoyed it. It is a challenge. I generally enjoy both teams equally. They are two teams, two different genders, so I make different adjustments in my approach. Basically, I use two different methods, but my coaching philosophy is the same. This is my first major coaching position, but I had my youth “A” license for a while. I did various jobs with the “A” license, including consulting and training youth coaches, but nothing full-time. Nothing like this. At this level, it’s not just a matter of coaching, it’s a matter of managing. I manage six budgets, I make travel plans, hotel arrangements, I do recruiting, I keep an eye on grades, and I make the calendar. It’s very challenging. Coaching is one thing, but everything that goes along with it is another. During the season, I have a two-hour practice with each team, four hours a day total. And that’s just practice. Because I coach at the level I do, I don’t necessarily have all of the great assistance that you get at a Division I school. I do learn a lot, doing all of the legwork. By the time I hired my assistant I had the structure in place; I had built the program to the point where it could be run by itself, with the infrastructure in place.
Turning to your playing days: you scored the famous “goal heard around the world” that sent the US into their first World Cup in decades. Did it hit you at the time, the impact of what this goal meant for American soccer? What was your first thought after scoring the goal?
I didn’t really guess the impact of where the goal would lead this country in terms of development. We knew it was important. We were on the fringe of losing our National Team program, losing our sponsorship and deals. Soccer was heading into do or die. But that wasn’t in our minds, it wasn’t our motivation. Our motivation was the competition. We wanted to win the game. Our livelihood was on the line as well. I was fortunate to be playing in Europe at the time, and it was all lined up for me to return after the Cup. But the other players didn’t have places to go. In that situation, scoring the goal gave us a huge relief. We needed to score and we needed to win. By scoring first, we were in a better position throughout the game, like you always are when you score early. The initial stress was gone, and then game ended up at 1-0. We had no idea it would end up that way. In that way, history wrote itself, and I had the game winner. I’ve been labeled the hero. But we’re all smart enough to know it’s a team sport. All players, all the coaching staff, made the collective effort. I believe until we win the World Cup it will remain one of the biggest victories in American sports history. Sports, not just soccer. There’s not been one touchdown, not one slam dunk, that has had the impact that that victory had. One day we will win the World Cup, and look back and say we wouldn’t have won without that goal. I look back on it with joy. It’s exciting to see players have the opportunity to play in MLS and overseas as well nowadays. We weren’t regarded as cherished players, players that could make an impact. We’ve come a long way. Now, we’re a big shopping mall for European coaches. That wasn’t the case ten years ago.
How was your reception in Germany as one of the first Americans playing professionally overseas?
I think I was the first to have a major contract. I basically broke the ice. There was no one to ask for advice. That was the hardest part. I was in the Bundesliga, now, we call this league one of the cream of the crop. I wish in some ways I hadn’t been the first. It was a little harder. When things happened, I couldn’t pick up the phone to call someone and ask for advice. I knew the most important thing was to learn the language. I learned about ten words a day. That helped me to communicate. But it was always strange. I never knew how I stood in the eyes of anybody, from teammates to the checkout person at the grocery store, to the coach. It’s just something you have to go through, and you learn a lot about yourself.
Do you have any children? Are they involved in soccer? What do our youth leagues need to focus on so that our country will become as professionally competitive as European soccer leagues?
I have two daughters—one is eight, one is 12. They both play soccer. I play with them, but they don’t let me coach. Well, to start, we’re one of the biggest countries in the world, and we’re always looking for ways to improve. But when you make comparisons to Europe, it’s more fragmented here. I mean fragmented in that there are so many leagues and associations. If we find more ways to create competitions to integrate leagues and associations, it becomes more simple to find the best players. Sometimes scouts don’t know where to start looking. The players all want to play. We need to integrate the associations and allow their top teams to play one another. Two all-star teams from different parts of the state should be playing each other. We see this somewhat in high school. But high school is not the pivotal area in terms of soccer; instead, we focus on the clubs. For example, here in Southern California, we’ve got to find ways to take the Hispanic leagues and have them participate more in the youth system, integrate them more with top clubs in state associations. We’re seeing a gradual improvement with interconnectedness. I’m excited to see us reach into our true potential as a country. I think the solution is to create the competition and everyone’s job will become easier. I played youth soccer in Germany as well in an exchange program in high school, so I learned their system. They have a youth club system, but it’s all under one umbrella, all under the national federation. We have state associations that ascribe to do exactly that. The infrastructure is set for this to happen, but it’s not happening. I found that Cal South Youth has about 110,000 kids playing club soccer. But there are 60 Hispanic leagues, with 140,000 kids playing in them, and only 8,000 of those kids are eligible for ODP because their leagues pay the state association fee. Over 130,000 kids that may be as good or better that the current ODP standard are not being scouted. Competition is the quickest and easiest solution to getting these kids noticed. It will make everyone’s job easier. it will be very simple to find out where the games are and start evaluating. Get the Hispanic leagues to play the Cal South leagues. You need a middle man, so as not to feel like your infringing upon the leagues’ setup.