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An uphill battle for the Americans in Port of Spain

The following are excerpts from a report by US Soccer on the United States' qualification for the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy. It presents details on the USA's famous 1-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago at the National Stadium in Port of Spain on November 19th, 1989.

But the World Cup qualifying gods giveth and they taketh away, as two weeks later the USMNT squandered another home win by allowing Trinidad & Tobago to equalize in the waning minutes for a 1-1 draw in Torrance, Calif. The USA was clinging to a 1-0 lead behind Steve Trittschuh's goal with two minutes left. After Vermes cleared the ball into the Trinidad half, Brian Williams took control and knocked a long pass toward Hudson Charles, who ran into opened space, drawing defender Trittschuh with him. Two players raced for the ball -- Windischmann with an outstretched foot and Trinidad forward Marlon Morris, who got there first to gently head it to Charles and had only Vanole to beat.

The U.S. got an opportunity to redeem itself against Guatemala on June 17 in New Britain, Conn. -- a 2-1 victory behind goals from Eric Eichmann and Murray. Originally scheduled to play away at El Salvador on July 25, the game was postponed until Sept. 17, and would instead be played at a neutral site in Tegucigalpa, Honduras due to crowd unrest during El Salvador’s match with Costa Rica on June 25. That day, fans from the capacity crowd of 40,000 threw fruits, bottles and pennants onto the field to protest their team's poor performance in a 4-2 defeat to the Ticos.

Gansler had some three months to prepare for the next qualifier, and he decided to try something that was a bit unorthodox in U.S. Soccer, giving the nod in goal to 20-year-old Meola, who was about to enter his sophomore season at the University of Virginia.

Three of the Americans' final four matches were going to be played on the road in the Caribbean and Central America where the USMNT was going to be tested on and off the pitch. Gansler already had been through the perils of away qualifying as a player and assistant coach on the 1978 and 1982 qualifying teams.

"There were always elevators that would get stuck on game day," he said. "The menu had been indicated to them and somehow they never had the right food. The buses -- we knew where the stadium was, and we knew that we should have been going north, but we were going south as we were going to the game. We were on the first floor of the hotels when we asked not to be on the first floor. All night there would be pick-up trucks circling outside the hotel and I think their horns were stuck.

“This is part of it. You say that to other people, and they say, 'Well, that's an excuse.' Well, no it's a reason. Others will say no that didn't happen. That’s fine. You know that you have to deal with it. And if you make it about, 'Oh my God, what are we going to do?' No, you just deal with it. Ear plugs are allowed."

Gansler then laughed.

Only hours prior to the El Salvador game in neutral Tegucigalpa, it wasn't a laughing matter to Meola (pictured above) who returned from a team meeting in the hotel.

“We were going back up to our rooms to gather our stuff,” said Meola, who at age 20 was set to become the second youngest goalkeeper to appear for the USA in a World Cup qualifier. “We had maybe a half hour to get on the bus, and about 10 or 12 of us got stuck in the elevator. Of course, the first thought was they were doing this because Honduras is another Central American country in Concacaf. We had to climb through the shaft of the elevator up top. For someone who was a little bit claustrophobic this took forever. We were late getting to the stadium."

Due to several days of rain, the field was in horrendous shape. Yet the USA prevailed, 1-0, on the antithesis of a textbook goal by Hugo Perez in the 62nd minute. Harkes' 23-yard free kick was saved by keeper Carlos Rivera. The rebound came to Vermes, and his six-yard attempt bounced off Rivera. Perez, in the right place at the right time, headed the ball just inside the right post.

Born in Morazán, El Salvador, Perez became the first USMNT player to score against the country of his birth. What’s more, his 78-year-old grandfather made a seven-hour drive from El Salvador to see his grandson play. "I've been looking for that goal for months," Perez said. "I wanted to play well [for my grandfather]."

A berth to Italia ’90 was in sight, but the USA picked the wrong time to enter a deep scoring slump, playing a pair of scoreless draws, at Guatemala (Oct. 8) and against El Salvador in Fenton, Mo. (Nov. 5). What made it more confounding was that both foes already had been eliminated and did not deploy full squads.

The defense had saved the USA, having conceded but three goals during the final round, including four consecutive shutouts, while managing only six in eight games.

"Had we given up a goal in any of those games, we don't go to the World Cup," Meola said. 

The USA had only one match left in the 1989 Concacaf Championship – an away fixture at Trinidad & Tobago on Nov. 19.

Before flying to Port of Spain, the team had a training camp in Cocoa Beach, Fla., for about a week, playing another island team that had similar characteristics to Trinidad: Bermuda. The USA won, 2-1, as subs John Doyle and Eichmann scored.

Bliss remembered how the tension was building during camp.

"I remember multiple guys getting into fist fights at the training field over whatever tension, stuff you wouldn't think would lead to something," he said. "Just a regular charge along the sideline, the guy goes down. It's normal and all of a sudden it turned into a fist fight. I think the tension got to everybody."

Well before the USA got close to Hasely Crawford Stadium, the team had seen red - at the Port of Spain airport - as 20,000 citizens wearing the colors of the Soca Warriors greeted the team.