The four times the USMNT survived must-win World Cup qualifiers

ISI Photos-Brett Whitesell
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1990: United States 1, Trinidad and Tobago 0

The most important victory in American soccer history, fueled by the most celebrated of U.S. goals, got the Yanks back to the World Cup for the first time since 1950, ensured that the following World Cup would, indeed, be staged on U.S. soil, and kick-started in earnest the revolution that has led to the game's status on these shores today.

The Nov. 11, 1989, showdown was must-win for the Yanks, who were even on points with Trinidad and Tobago (both 3-1-3 for 9 points) but behind on goal difference heading into the finale of the 1989 CONCACAF Championship, which determined the region's two World Cup berths. Costa Rica was already through -- Mexico was banned following an overage-player scandal at the previous year's CONCACAF U-20 Championship -- and T&T needed only a draw at its National Stadium in Port of Spain to join the Ticos.

Trinidadian confidence was rocketing. The capital had been painted red, literally, and the government had already declared the day after the match as a national holiday in celebration of the certain victory. The Americans were no powerhouse. Bob Gansler's team was young and internationally inexperienced, and most of the players were toiling in college, in the indoor game or in what passed for professional soccer in this country three decades ago.

And there was added pressure: The U.S. had been awarded the 1994 World Cup in July 1988, and there was fear FIFA would move it elsewhere should the Yanks fail to make it to Italy. It was settled by Paul Caligiuri's majestic goal a half-hour in -- a dipping, 26-yard, left-footed volley over goalkeeper Michael Maurice and into the lower-right corner, dubbed “the shot heard 'round the world” -- and strong defense under constant T&T pressure to the finish.

The U.S. would go 0-3 in Italy, coming within a Walter Zenga butt save of tying the host, but it led to greater opportunity in Europe for American players, the most lucrative World Cup in history four years later, the birth of MLS and flowering of the professional game, and a string of seven successive World Cups.

2002: United States 2, Jamaica 1

CONCACAF went to the final-round qualifying hexagonal for the 1998 World Cup, and the U.S. has since struggled to make the top three just once before. It led to what certainly looked like a must-win game in October 2001, and although it didn't play out that way, the Yanks' victory clinched their spot in South Korea/Japan.

Bruce Arena's side had faced a similar situation in the semifinal round, when defeat in the last game would have ended its campaign. That last game was against Barbados in Bridgetown, and it didn't come easy. It was 0-0 until Clint Mathis struck in the 63rd minute and ended up 4-0.

The Hex had started nicely. Halfway through, the Yanks were 4-0-1, three points clear at the top and eight points above fourth place. It was nearly a done deal. Then captain Claudio Reyna was lost for three games, to suspension and then a groin injury, and they tailspinned to defeat at Mexico, at home to Honduras, and at Costa Rica. The rivals made up a lot of ground -- Mexico and Costa Rica picked up nine points, Honduras six -- and the U.S. dropped into fourth place with two games to go.

Defeat in the Oct. 7 clash with Jamaica at Foxboro Stadium coupled with the expected results in the other games -- Mexico taking three points at Costa Rica, which had already qualified, and Honduras winning at home over last-place Trinidad and Tobago -- would leave the Yanks all but finished. To get through, they'd have to win their finale at T&T while Mexico, requiring at least a point, would have to lose at home to Honduras, which would already have clinched its berth. Not likely.

Instead, every result went the U.S.' way. Mexico and Costa Rica were scoreless in San Jose and T&T stunned Honduras, 1-0, on Stern John's second-half goal in San Pedro Sula. The Americans did what they had to, beating the Jamaicans, 2-1, on two Joe-Max Moore goals. His glancing header from a Reyna free kick provided a fourth-minute lead that was gone in the 14th, when James Lawrence equalized, and he netted the winner on an 81st-minute penalty kick after Tyrone Marshall tripped Landon Donovan.

That pushed the U.S. into second, two points ahead of Mexico and Honduras, who were, of course, meeting in the final qualifier. That meant only one of them could catch the Yanks, who went from the verge of elimination to World Cup qualifier in barely two hours. And what a World Cup it would be, with a quarterfinal run that might have gone deeper had Torsten Frings been whistled for a hand ball.

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