The most important tournament for the U.S. men’s national soccer team is the one that kicks off this weekend, the one that gives the U.S. the right to go to the World Cup in the first place.
It’s known by a simple name: the Hex.
It includes the final six teams from CONCACAF qualifying (hence hexagonal). The top three qualify for the World Cup. A fourth goes to a difficult, pressure-packed playoff against an African team.
Anything but a top-three spot will be a failure for the United States. But you don’t have to go back very far — 27 years this week, in fact — to find a time when American World Cup qualification seemed all but impossible.
In 1989 the United States hadn’t been to a World Cup since 1950, and in most years hadn’t come close to qualification. Five CONCACAF teams were competing for two spots in the 1990 World Cup. For once, though, the Americans were optimistic. Mexico, the perennial favorite, was banned for fielding an ineligible player in a youth tournament. The Americans were riding a wave of young talent and were positioned to qualify.
But after the United States blew an easily winnable match at home, everything came down to one final game at Trinidad and Tobago, where the home side hadn’t lost a single game in qualifying. Anything but a victory and the Americans were staying home yet again from the World Cup.
To add to the pressure, there were rumors that FIFA was rethinking its decision to award the 1994 World Cup to the U.S. If the Americans couldn’t qualify in 1990, the rumors said, FIFA might decide that the country wasn’t ready to host the whole tournament.
Enter Paul Caligiuri, a defender who was playing in midfield that day. A half-hour into the game, Caligiuri received the ball in space in the opposition half. He sidestepped an onrushing defender, then launched a looping 30-yard shot that dipped inside the right-hand post. The U.S., improbably, led 1-0.
For the next hour, Trinidad attacked the U.S. goal, mostly through Dwight Yorke, who went on to star for Aston Villa and Manchester United. On this day, though, he couldn’t break down a U.S. defense that was, effectively, a college all-star team. The Americans held on for an unlikely 1-0 victory and a wild celebration in Trinidad, thanks to one moment of brilliance from Caligiuri.
Caligiuri’s goal has become known as the “Shot Heard Round the World,” and for good reason. It got things rolling for the national team. The United States has qualified for the past seven World Cups. The 1994 World Cup in the United States set attendance records that still stand. Major League Soccer is now successfully into its third decade.
Now the United States will count anything short of the World Cup as a major failure. For one day in 1989, that all seemed up in the air. But one looping shot got everything started for American soccer.
SOCCER SHORT TAKES
• The break for international games means that there aren’t many must-see games on TV this weekend. The best is probably the NASL Championship game (6 p.m. Sunday, CBS Sports Network), which pits the New York Cosmos against the Indy Eleven. The Cosmos are gunning for their third title in four years. Indy — the league’s best-supported team over the past three years — is looking for its first.
• With few club games this weekend, you’ll have to get out of the house for a soccer fix. May I suggest the Gophers women’s soccer team, which starts its NCAA journey at 7 p.m. Saturday at Robbie Stadium. Minnesota is the No. 4 seed in the Palo Alto Regional.
• Several reports have indicated that midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, the ex-Bayern Munich star currently with Manchester United, is looking to move to Major League Soccer this winter. But only to play with either New York or Los Angeles, just like virtually every other European standout. It’s an illustration of the struggle for a middle-of-the-country team like Minnesota. It would be tough for the Loons to attract a big name like Schweinsteiger, over the glitz and glamour of the country’s two biggest cities.