We continue our series on the US in the World Cup with a look at why the US failed to qualify for the tournament between 1950 and 1990. You can read more about US World Cup appearances in 1930 (part 1), 1930 (part 2), 1934, 1950, 1990, 1994, 1998 (part 1), 1998 (part 2), 2002 (part 1), 2002 (part2) and 2006.
The US shocked the world when it defeated England at the 1950 World Cup. Yet for forty years after that famous victory – that’s nine consecutive World Cups - the US would not make it out of the qualifying rounds. Here’s a brief review of the US qualifying attempts by World Cup year. After that we’ll look at some of the reasons why the US were, well, just plainly bad.
1954: The US is dead in the water right from the start with 4-0 and 3-1 losses to Mexico.
1958: The US loses 6-0 to Mexico in the first qualifying match. In the return game, the first against Mexico to be held in the US, the team loses 7-2. Still with a slim chance of qualifying, the US Open Cup and National Amateur Cup winners, St. Louis Kutis, are chosen to play Canada rather than a picked team. They lose 5-1 and 3-2.
1962: The US rallies from a 3-0 deficit to draw 3-3 with Mexico at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. In the return leg in Mexico the US lose 3-0.
1966: Before the US plays Mexico in its first qualifying match, Mexico has already defeated Honduras twice. The US manages a 2-2 draw at Memorial Coliseum and then loses 2-0 to Mexico away. With Mexico thus in first place in the qualifying group, the US plays two meaningless matches against Honduras away, winning the first 1-0 and drawing the second 1-1. In Honduras, the US team has to find its own transportation (including a painter’s truck) from the airports to their hotels. They also have to find their own transport from the hotels to the stadiums, at which no dressing room facilities are provided.
1970: With Mexico having an automatic qualifying spot as the host nation, the US does not have to face their nemesis to qualify for the first time since they beat them in the 1934 qualification match in Rome. The US loses 4-2 away to Canada but manages a 1-0 victory at home. The US then comes up with a big 6-2 victory over little Bermuda followed by a second victory by the score of 2-0. After a seven month break during which the coach, Phil Woosnam, leaves the team to become director of a struggling NASL, the US can advance to a playoff against the winner of the matches between El Salvador and Honduras (which would spark the Soccer War on 1970) if they can beat Haiti. They lose 2-0 away and 1-0 at home.
1978: The US begins its qualifying campaign with a 1-1 draw away against Canada followed by a 0-0 draw against Mexico at home. It then loses 3-0 to Mexico away and beats Canada 2-0 at home. With CONCACAF changing the qualification format for this World Cup so that two North American teams will advance to the next qualification round, the US faces Canada in a tie-breaker on neutral ground in Haiti. The US loses 3-0.
1982: With the same qualification format as the 1978 World Cup, the US will advance to the next round if it can finish in second place in its games against Mexico and Canada. The US first has a scoreless draw against Canada at home and then loses away 2-1. The US then loses 5-1 to Mexico. The US would need Canada to win in Mexico and to also beat Mexico themselves in their return leg match in Florida. It was not to be. Canada tied Mexico and the US was left with the consolation of a 2-1 victory, its first full international win against Mexico since 1934. The team’s performance in this campaign is not helped by the divisiveness within the team over the NASL players’ strike.
1986: With Mexico again hosting the World Cup thanks to Colombia’s withdrawal, the US again doesn’t have to face Mexico for qualification. They began their campaign with a 0-0 draw against Netherlands Antilles, defeating them 4-0 in the return leg at home. The US then beat Trinidad & Tobago 2-1 and 1-0. Against Costa Rica away, the US are pleased with a 1-1 result and need only a tie at home to win their group. They lose 1-0.
Why did it happen?
For much of its history, the governing body of soccer in the US was essentially a semi-professional organization that lacked both financial and organizational power and prowess. This was long reflected in how the national team was selected, managed, prepared, and maintained.
On the pitch, the US faced two consistently better opponents for much of its forty year drought of World Cup appearances, one which is a continuing challenge to this day, the other just as the federation and the team were beginning to resemble something like a professional international soccer organization and address longstanding problems, much as existed already throughout Europe and South America.
When the US and Mexico faced one another in a qualification match in Rome before the World Cup in 1934, the US was the more developed soccer nation and easily won 4-2. Roger Allaway and Colin Jose write in The United States Tackles the World Cup, “It is easy to overestimate the significance of this victory. Mexico was not yet the strong team that it was later to become. This was only the ninth full international game it had ever played.”
With a comparatively small number of participating countries following the devastation of the Second World War, the US qualified for the 1950 World Cup despite losing to Mexico 6-0 and 6-2. It wasn’t until the qualification games for the 1958 World Cup that the US actually played Mexico in the US for the first time and it wasn’t until the qualification games of the 1982 World Cup that the US managed to beat Mexico in a meaningful match. The US is currently 0-22-1 in Mexico, the lone draw being a 0-0 tie on November 2, 1997.
In the qualification games for the 1958, 1970, 1974, 1978 and 1982, losses or draws to Canada were all factors in the US being eliminated.
A weak federation
What is now called the US Soccer Federation got it’s start in 1913 as the United States of America Foot Ball Association. In 1945 it became the United States Soccer Football Association and adopted its present name in 1974. I’ll refer to it here as “the federation” for the sake of simplicity.
For much of its history, the federation was a weak organization with little power to enforce its own or FIFA regulations, as evidenced by the American Soccer Wars of the late 1920s. Some of this weakness was due to the fact that the federation was chronically short of money. For years the federation was run out of donated office space at the Tuttle Brothers textile firm in New York. The shortage of money also meant that there were little resources for teams to train together for meaningful periods of time before competitions. For far too long the federation was also myopic in its vision, tied as it was to the soccer establishment of the Northeast of the US.
The lack of money also effected the selection process: for years teams were made up of players from the East Coast and Midwest on the basis of geographical convenience as funds were not available to pay for the travel and living expenses of players from the West Coast. When money was not available for participation in international tournaments such as the Olympics and the World Cup, federation officers often had to donate their own money or had to strong arm federation members into making donations.
Chronically poor preparation
The lack of money led to absurdly poor team preparation before the beginning of qualification campaigns. For example, let’s look at the qualifications for the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland.
As had been the case with the qualification games for the 1950 World Cup, the qualifications matches were held in Mexico. Because Mexico rightly insisted that the US comply with FIFA regulations stipulating that only native-born or naturalized citizens were eligible to be selected for a national team, the US roster was not finalized until just days before the team left for the games. While the Mexico team had been training together for weeks the US team had only two days for training before meeting their opponents in front of 60,000 spectators in Mexico City where they promptly lost 4-0. This would also be the case in the first qualification game against Mexico for the 1958 World Cup where the US lost 6-0 in Mexico and 7-2 two weeks later in Long Beach. It was not until the qualifications for the 1966 World Cup that the national squad was scheduled time to prepare as a team: twelve days of training in Bermuda with four warm-up games.
Things began to look up in the preparations for the 1970 World Cup qualification games. Under the guidance of Phil Woosnam, for the first time the squad was chosen by the coach rather than a selection committee. Players were paid a weekly wage of $75 and given a very modest stipend, a vast improvement over the previous qualification campaign when Alex Ely, who played for the Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals, had to borrow $10 from the federation in order to get home to Philadelphia after the team returned from Mexico to New York. “When they asked for the money back, I couldn’t take it any more. I was so disgusted, I left the country.”
When the federation hired Walt Chyzowych before the 1978 World Cup qualifications, he was only the second full time coach in the history of the federation.
The Olympics versus the World Cup
The popularity of the Olympics was itself a problem. It was simply easier to raise funds for the Olympics, a tournament every American sports fan had heard of, than to raise money for the World Cup, a tournament likely to be known only to fans of soccer. This was even more true after the Second World War when the Olympics became a place for the East and West to fight the propaganda battle that was so much of the Cold War.
In the 1950s the federation chose to focus its scant resources on the Olympics. Tony Cirino writes in U.S. Soccer vs the World,
The U.S. Soccer Football Association, though not particularly active in promoting the game, kept an eye on the calendar and never missed important dates. While it left the “professional” team [e.g. the World Cup team] to ASL interests, the federation took the Olympic team seriously, as it had in the past. The Olympics had a bigger national response in the press and was considered the official federation function. In addition, it was easier for a national Olympic committee to raise money, not to mention receipts from the gate.
While the federation would begin to direct more support to qualifying starting with the 1966 World Cup, it would take the NASL to widen support for soccer in the US.
Weak professional leagues
Several professional leagues existed in the US before the first season of the NASL in 1968. But these leagues were at best semi-professional and players did not make their living from the game. No matter how gifted US players may have been they were simply no match for truly professional players, particularly in terms of fitness. This had been the case at the 1934 and 1950 World Cups and it would also be the case in qualifiers against Mexico through the 1950s and 1960s, then emerging as the soccer powerhouse of North America.
Though never as successful as its first incarnation in the 1920s, the long established semi-professional American Soccer League (ASL) long provided a competitive environment for the development of the county’s best soccer players, even if the names of many of the league’s teams reflected the ethnic marginalization of soccer from the mainstream of American sport. Though the NASL got off to a rocky start, it soon eclipsed the ASL and by the late 1970s was proving to be a surprising success. But its success was based upon a dependence on foreign players and, with the exception of teams like the St. Louis Stars and the Philadelphia Atoms, native-born players had difficulty finding playing time.
The NASL and the federation attempted to address this problem with the formation of Team America in 1983. Based in Washington D.C., Team America was intended to be a professional version of the national team. It proved to be a complete flop. With several US national team players refusing to leave their existing club teams and the Major Indoor League Soccer (MISL) refusing to allow its players to join an NASL team, the roster had to be filled out with foreign players. Team America got off to a 8-5 start before losing fifteen of its last seventeen games. At the end of its first season, the owner, Robert Lifton, pulled the plug on the team.
When the NASL folded in 1984, that left indoor soccer as the top flight of professional soccer in the US ahead of qualifications for the 1986 World Cup.
US soccer gets its act together
With the demise of the NASL, the MISL in financial trouble and the US hosting of its first World Cup soon to be a reality, US Soccer realized it was time to get its act together. In August of 1988, the federation announced it would offer full time contracts for national team players so that they could make a living playing the game. When the US began its qualifying campaign for the 1990 World Cup, only one player was not under contract to the USSF. When Paul Caligiuri scored the goal for the US in its 1-0 victory over Costa Rica on April 16, 1989 at the National Stadium in San Jose, Costa Rica, the US would be back in the World Cup for the first time in forty years.
Images of 1973 USMNT and Team America courtesy of Dan Loney and Big Soccer.