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USMNT qualifying failures, then and now: How 1985 compared to 2017

The U.S. men failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since the 1986 edition. The roster - and landscape - was much different back then.

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In 2017, a bunch of players who ply their trade in Dortmund, Newcastle, Hamburg, Liga MX and MLS were eliminated from World Cup qualifying.

In 1985, when the U.S. men last met qualifying doom, the players’ employers included the St. Louis Steamers, the Minnesota Strikers and the mighty San Diego Sockers. Others came to the team from UCLA, Duke, UNC Greensboro and Adelphi.

With U.S. pro soccer in a state of flux in the mid-80s, the 1985 team was cobbled together on the fly, mostly from indoor and college leagues. Defender Kevin Crow helped the San Diego Sockers win the Major Indoor Soccer League title, then started for the U.S. just three days later.

Still, they had a little bit of experience. Most of the indoor players had played in the NASL, which collapsed in 1984. Several had played together for Team America, the hybrid national team/club team that was assembled for the 1983 season.

The Concacaf semifinal group stage took place entirely in May. The U.S. won two games against Trinidad and Tobago, both on U.S. soil, then took a 1-1 draw in Costa Rica on May 26. A draw would send the Americans through to the three-team final round alongside Canada and Honduras for one World Cup berth alongside host Mexico.

But on May 31, in Torrance, Calif., the U.S. lost the return date with Costa Rica 1-0, extending decades of futility in World Cup qualification dating back to 1950. A couple of players never played again for the full national team; a couple more played in a friendly the next month against England before disappearing from international play. But a couple of players continued and made the 1990 World Cup and wore the denim stars in the 1994 World Cup in the United States.

Here’s a position-by-position comparison of the lineup from that day and the lineup for the 2017 debacle in Trinidad, with each player’s then-current team and number of caps at the time.

GOALKEEPER

2017: Tim Howard, Colorado Rapids (MLS), 121st cap. So many times the hero -- a standout for the MetroStars, a surprise starter (ahead of Fabien Barthez) immediately upon his move to Manchester United, an ever-dependable keeper at Everton for a decade, and a viral sensation after making 15 saves against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup. He returned to MLS with Colorado in 2016.

1985: Arnie Mausser, Kansas City Comets (MISL), 34th cap. Trained with Chelsea in 1974, started his NASL career in 1975 and was the domestic league’s goalkeeper of the year in 1981. He bounced around the NASL, including a stint with Team America. He didn’t play for the U.S. after 1985, but he played a few more seasons indoors and outdoors through the early 1990s. The 2003 Hall of Fame inductee also coached for a while in the college and pro ranks.

DEFENDER

2017: DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle United (England), 48th. The right back from Seattle, who spent one year in college at Akron, has settled nicely at Newcastle after stints with Tottenham and Sunderland and seems set to feature for the national team for at least one more qualifying cycle.

1985: Dan Canter, Chicago Sting (MISL), 8th. The Penn State alum played in the NASL for Fort Lauderdale, Team America and the New York Cosmos, then went indoors with the Sting and the Minnesota Strikers. During the Costa Rica game, Canter marauded forward and slammed a shot into the side netting that nearly fooled the ref into thinking he had scored. He returned outdoors to reunite with Mausser (and familiar names such as Ray Hudson and Thomas Rongen) in Fort Lauderdale in 1988.

DEFENDER

2017: Matt Besler, Sporting KC (MLS), 47th. The Notre Dame alum has spent his entire pro career to date with Sporting KC and started all four games in the 2014 World Cup. Now 31, he’s also the co-author of No Other Home: Living, Leading, and Learning What Matters Most.

1985: Mike Windischmann, Adelphi (NCAA), 6th. The German-born defender was a young college player at the time but would go on to be the U.S. captain in the 1990 World Cup and join the Hall of Fame in 2004. He played very little fully professional soccer, spending much of his playing career with the Brooklyn Italians. He has since worked as a teacher and coach.

DEFENDER

2017: Omar Gonzalez, Pachuca (Mexico), 48th. The longtime Los Angeles Galaxy defender isn’t the luckiest defender in the world. Given an opportunity to play in the Bundesliga on loan to Nurnberg, he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in a collision with U.S. teammate Timothy Chandler in his first training session. Against Trinidad and Tobago, he opened the scoring with a shocking own goal. He has been in and out of favor with Pachuca, perhaps destined to return to MLS.

1985: Kevin Crow, San Diego Sockers (MISL), 10th. U.S. coach Alkis Panagoulias singled out the Sockers as a rare team that actually cared about the national team, and Crow and Hugo Perez were on special fitness programs to be ready to play outdoors. Though he spent nine years playing indoors with the Sockers, Crow played in two Olympics (1984 and 1988) and earned a couple more caps for the full national team. He later served as general manager and interim coach of the WUSA’s San Diego Spirit.

DEFENDER

2017: Jorge Villafaña, Santos Laguna (Mexico), 14th. The left back with the compelling path to the national team -- discovered in Chivas USA’s “Sueño MLS” reality show -- was subbed out in 72nd minute for Kellyn Acosta. The longtime Chivas USA and Portland Timbers player was on the field when Santos Laguna clinched the Clausura in May, just two days after he was robbed at gunpoint.

1985: Gregg Thompson, Minnesota Strikers (MISL), 12th. Remembered by Tab Ramos as a “skillful left back,” Thompson scored the winning goal in the eighth overtime of the 1982 NCAA final to give Indiana the championship over Duke and went on to be the top pick in the NASL and MISL drafts. He chose the NASL and played for the Tampa Bay Rowdies before moving indoors. His son, Tommy, now plays for the San Jose Earthquakes and was nominated for the MLS Humanitarian of the Year award in 2017.  

MIDFIELDER

2017: Paul Arriola, D.C. United (MLS), 15th. Maybe an odd, inexperienced choice to start at right mid, giving way at halftime for Clint Dempsey. The former Development Academy player went south to Tijuana to start his pro career in 2013 and moved to D.C. United in 2017.

1985: Perry Van der Beck, Dallas Sidekicks (MISL), 22nd. An original U.S. phenom, going straight from high school to the Tampa Bay Rowdies, where he stayed from 1978 to 1984 aside from one year with Team America in 1983. He’s largely associated with Tampa Bay, serving as a player/interim coach with the indoor Tampa Bay Terror in the mid-90s, a player with the revived Rowdies of the APSL in the early 1990s, interim coach of MLS’ Tampa Bay Mutiny in 2001 and later in the front office of the again-revived Rowdies in the NASL and USL.

MIDFIELDER

2017: Michael Bradley, Toronto FC (MLS), 140th. The captain, who has had better days for the USA, played a defensive midfield role against Trinidad and Tobago. The son of veteran coach Bob Bradley started his pro career as a teenager for his father’s club, the MetroStars, and went on to a productive run with Heerenveen (Netherlands), scoring 15 goals in the 2007-08 season. He had mixed success elsewhere in Europe before moving to Toronto, which he led to the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup trophies in 2017.

1985: Paul Caligiuri, UCLA (NCAA), 13th. Understatement alert: Caligiuri is far better known for the next qualifying cycle, when he scored the lone goal in Trinidad and Tobago to clinch the United States’ qualification for the 1990 World Cup, ending four decades in the wilderness. He went on to start all seven U.S. games in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups. He also played professionally in West and East Germany before returning home to play in MLS. The Hall of Fame inductee (2004) and veteran college/amateur coach has served on the U.S. Soccer board and ran for the federation’s presidency in 2018. Remembered mostly as an outside back, but in the Costa Rica game, he lined up as a deep-lying midfielder, Will Parchman reported for American Soccer Now.

MIDFIELDER

2017: Darlington Nagbe, Portland Timbers (MLS), 24th. The left mid was subbed out in the 83rd minute for Benny Feilhaber. The 2010 Hermann Trophy winner at Akron spent seven seasons with the Timbers before joining Atlanta United between the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

1985: Mike Fox, Las Vegas Americans (MISL), 11th. The pride of Cal State-Fullerton, where he’s still the career scoring record-holder, joined the Cosmos in 1983 and played in the 1984 Olympics. He played much of his indoor career with the Wichita Wings and returned outdoors with the APSL’s Los Angeles Salsa in the early 90s. He also played a few more times for the USA during a busy stretch of games in June 1988.

MIDFIELDER

2017: Christian Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund (GER), 20th. One of the most exciting prospects in U.S. history, Pulisic was barely 19 years old for this game and, by many accounts, the best player on the field. The great disappointment of this game is that U.S. fans won’t get to see him in a World Cup until at least 2022.

1985: Rick Davis, St. Louis Steamers (MISL), 29th. The wunderkind of his day, spending just one year at Santa Clara before jumping to the Cosmos. The attacking midfielder played more than 150 league games for the NASL cornerstone team, then went indoors as the NASL collapsed. With the U.S., he was the captain for much of the 80s. A knee injury in 1989 ruined his chances of going to the 1990 World Cup, and he finished his career indoors. The 2001 Hall of Fame inductee spent several years as a youth soccer executive before taking over a steakhouse in rural Kansas.

FORWARD

2017: Bobby Wood, Hamburg (GER), 36th. From Honolulu via the Irvine Strikers and 1860 Munich’s academy, the striker has been quite successful in the 2.Bundesliga but has struggled to find his feet in the Bundesliga. With Hamburg relegated from the Bundesliga in May, rumors will surely swirl around the still-young (25) player through the summer.

1985: Hugo Perez, San Diego Sockers (MISL), 10th. The Salvadoran-born forward started his NASL career in his teens and wound up with San Diego, where he was part of the Sockers’ indoor dynasty. Unlike most American players of his generation, he pursued options overseas, ending up in Sweden and Saudi Arabia. Unlike Crow, he took leave from the Sockers for national team duty. The 2008 Hall of Fame inductee missed the 1990 World Cup through injury but played in the 1994 World Cup, ending his career with 73 caps. He has coached U.S. youth teams and has been an outspoken voice on issues in the youth game.

FORWARD

2017: Jozy Altidore, Toronto FC (MLS), 110th. A teen phenom in New York, a prospect in Spain, a scorer in the U.S.’ 2-0 win over then-unbeatable Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup, a goal-scoring machine in the Netherlands and a much-derided struggler in England. Altidore has seen a bit of everything in a decade under an unforgiving spotlight. He again faced his share of criticism after the loss in Trinidad, then bounced back with an MVP performance in MLS Cup 2017. He’s third on the all-time U.S. men’s scoring list with 41 goals.

1985: John Kerr Jr., Duke (NCAA), 8th. This was just the third start for the college star, the son of a Scottish-born NASL player. After returning to finish his college career, winning the 1986 NCAA title and Hermann Trophy, he became the first American in England’s top flight, playing one season for Portsmouth. He then embarked on a peripatetic pro career without playing much part with the national team as it went to two World Cups. He wound up reviving his career alongside U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller at Millwall (England) and was capped a few more times in the mid-90s before returning to the United States full time to play for Dallas and then New England. He went into coaching and spent several years at Harvard before returning to his alma mater in 2008.

SUBSTITUTES

2017: Clint Dempsey, Seattle Sounders (MLS), 141st. One of the most creative strikers the U.S. men have ever seen came on at halftime as an offensive sub for Arriola and provided the expected spark. He’s third on the all-time list of U.S. men’s appearances behind Cobi Jones and Landon Donovan, and he’s tied with Donovan on the goal-scoring list with 57. He had a good run with New England and a great run with Fulham (England) before a shorter spell with Tottenham (England) and a return to MLS with Seattle. He’s the first American man to score in three World Cups.

2017: Kellyn Acosta, FC Dallas (MLS), 16th. A second-half sub for Villafaña, typically a midfielder but also a capable defender. One of the most notable homegrown players in MLS, coming through the FC Dallas academy and signing a pro contract just before his 17th birthday.  

2017: Benny Feilhaber, Sporting KC (MLS), 44th. A late sub for Nagbe who has been in and out of the national team picture, notably feuding with former coach Jurgen Klinsmann. The Brazilian-born midfielder played a couple of years at UCLA before heading to Hamburg (Germany), then Derby County (England), then Aarhus (Denmark) before signing with New England in 2011. He moved to Kansas City in 2013 and LAFC in 2018.

1985: Angelo DiBernardo, Kansas City Comets (MISL), 20th. Perhaps you know his daughter, Vanessa, a midfielder with the Chicago Red Stars. Angelo DiBernardo was born in Argentina and moved to the Chicago area as a teenager. He went to Indiana University and won the 1978 Hermann Award before going pro with the Los Angeles Aztecs and New York Cosmos. When the Cosmos folded during the 1985 MISL season, he moved to Kansas City. After the Costa Rica game, he never again played for the USA, and his pro career was cut short by injury. He coached at Waubonsie Valley High School for more than 20 years.

COACH

Coincidentally, the 2017 and 1985 coaches each called Vienna, Virginia, home at one point. (Your FourFourTwo correspondent also lives there.)

2017: Bruce Arena. The architect of the United States men’s national team’s greatest modern-day World Cup performance (the 2002 quarterfinals, best since a semifinal appearance in the small-scale 1930 World Cup) was also the man on the sideline for one of the darkest games in U.S. history.

1985: Alkis Panagoulias. The colorful Greek coach had already led his native country’s team to the European Championship, and he made it to the World Cup himself in 1994, again coaching Greece. He retired to Virginia and passed away in 2012. His thoughts on the Costa Rica game were best expressed in a famous postgame quote: “God is not an American.”