That men’s football national team was nothing else than a mere application in sports of the meltin’ pot, the phenomenon which is at the root of America. It was almost natural that Team USA was composed of footballers whose origins sailed oceans and crossed boundaries. No manager could have been better than Velibor “Bora” Milutinović for that team, a sort of UN of football.
Born in Serbia, 100 metres from the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Milutinović swiftly became a cosmopolitan. He coached in Mexico and the Mexico national team, he deeply knew South American football as well the Italian one, he made the history of Costa Rican fútbol leading the national team to the round of 16 in the 1990 World Cup.
One year after that extraordinary achievement, “Bora” was hired by the stars-and-stripes football federation in order to set up Team USA with a view to the first ever football World Cup staged on North American soil. Curiously, the appointment of the United States as hosting country of the tournament was announced on 4 July 1988, in correspondence with Independence Day. Being unprepared for the main event was strictly forbidden and Milutinović began to mould his national team.
In very truth, the Serbian coach, who was in possession of the Mexican passport, picked many players from the overseas championships. Sadly, the domestic league did not offer anything. Almost surprisingly, the World Cup would have functioned as a vehicle for the establishment of a national football championship livened up to such a name.
It was from this perspective that Alan Rothenberg, US football federation chairman, announced the formation of the Major League of Soccer (MLS), the first domestic league since the NASL ages, on 17 December 1993. The kickoff was scheduled in 1995, but at the end it would have been postponed of one year.
Meanwhile, Milutinović came face to face with a national championship really poor in terms of footballing ability. This was the American Professional Soccer League, the embryonic stage of the future MLS. This league was born from the merger between the Western Soccer League, which englobed teams from cities on the Pacific coast, and the American Soccer League, the participating clubs of which came from the Atlantic one.
The situation was even more complicated by a galaxy of other acronyms such as CISL, MISL and NPSL, all of them identifying leagues exclusively devoted to indoor soccer. Introduced in 1939 and occasionally practised in various stadiums, this was institutionalised in 1977 with the creation of the Major Indoor Soccer League by lawyer Earl Foreman. It was him to portray the discipline as “the game that Americans want”, as stated in the book Offside. Soccer and American exceptionalism by Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman. In his view, indoor soccer should have been a spectacular hybrid between football and ice hockey, played on an artificial turf pitch without throw-in or goal lines.
Many of Milutinović’s players came exactly from this bizarre sport, as well as from the academic world. Almost unusually, numerous players affiliated to the US Soccer Team figured in the squad for the World Cup. They had signed a contract with the football federation for being full-time players only for the national team, who planned many friendlies in order to be ready for the big event.
That Team USA was the result of immigration and integration, rather than of indoor soccer or colleges, for more than one player had European or South American origins. The perfect captain for this (multi)national team was goalkeeper Tony Meola, a paisà. His father Vincenzo had moved from Avellino, an Italian city near Naples, to Kearny, a Newark suburb populated by Irish and Scots where he seeked his fortune as a barber. Tony inherited from him the passion for football and cooking, and the delicacies he prepared in the Mission Viejo training camp have gone down into history.
Meola’s replacements had roots in Europe, too. Second choice Jürgen Sommer descends from a German family, as well as third goalie Brad Friedel. They both spent most of their sporting career in England, differently from Meola.
The defensive line looks the UN Security Council. Its main protection was holding midfielder Thomas Dooley, born of a German mother and an American father, an army officer, in Bechhofen, former West Germany. Dooley formed himself in Central European football, unlike many of his future team-mates, and arrived in the Bundesliga after his early years in the lower leagues. Once his origins were discovered, the Soccer Federation offered him the opportunity to participate in the 1994 World Cup and he accepted, as Germany manager Berti Vogts had never taken him into account for the national team.
A really eccentric defender played close to him. Born Panayotis Alexander from Dimitris Lalas, a Greek emigrant, he was soon nicknamed “Alexi”. He grabbed the attention because of his long, carroty hair and goatee, and he was an artist whom football borrowed from music. In fact, he was the singer and guitarist of the rock band The Gypsies, who figured among Chelsea Clinton’s favourite musicians. However, he performed well also on the football ground. After the 1994 World Cup, a Serie A side, Padova, signed him, perhaps mainly for marketing purposes. In the end, Lalas proved to perform decently in what was considered the toughest league in the world. He played in Italy for a couple of seasons and scored three goals, one of which against Fabio Capello’s AC Milan.
Another fundamental piece of the defence was centre-back Marcelo Balboa. Popularity among American fans was guaranteed by his Telenovela-actor-like moustaches and, above all, stunning bicycle kicks. Balboa was born in Chicago of an Argentinian father, Luís, a professional footballer in his homecountry as well as in the late NASL.
In order to protect Meola’s goal, Milutinović called also Cle Kooiman, a beanpole with Dutch ancestors who was playing for Mexican side Cruz Azul after his early years in the MISL. Above all, the Serbian coach hired two old stars of American soccer, Paul Caligiuri and Fernando Clavijo.
Caligiuri was an inside right with Calabrian blood in his veins, later recycled as a defensive midfielder. It was him who scored the historical goal against Trinidad and Tobago which qualified Team USA for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Clavijo, a 38-year-old big name in indoor soccer, was born in Maldonado, Uruguay, but got the American passport. He even helped the US futsal national team to win the silver medal in the 1992 World Cup in Hong Kong. The defence was completed with Mike Burns and Mike Lapper.
(1 – to be continued)