Soccer Nation USA logo

The 1980’s: The Lost Years

Recovering from Failure and the Lost Years

The 1980’s turned into the lost years for professional soccer in the United State. When you are older and you look back and your life and think of regrets, it is hard for me to believe those people who say they had no regrets in life. I don’t believe them. 

Quitting soccer in high school was my regret. I don’t know what I was afraid of. Maybe fear of failure. Maybe hard work. Maybe I was just lazy. I gave up on what I loved, but soccer was still always lingering in the back of my brain.

For my senior year in high school,  soccer was not a part of my life.  I had lost touch with the sport I loved, and when the NASL and the LA Aztecs collapsed in 1983, I was sad, but it didn’t really have much impact on my life at the time. I did not know why it fell apart and did not want to find out.  Seems like nobody else in America cared either. 

At this point, I was convinced that Americans would never embrace soccer.  If Pele’s and Cruyff’s NASL league could fold, then what else was left.  Over my life, the LA Aztecs, LA Skyhawks, California Surf, the Heat, the Wolves, the Salsa, the Lazers,  and every other soccer team in Los Angeles folded. 

Yes, I still went to the 1984 Olympic soccer final with a record 100,000 fans, but the hoopla came and went quickly. It was obvious to me that 90% of the crowd had no clue and no interest in soccer. They were a bunch of suburban well-to-do families cheering on Olympians.

College Soccer and the Forgotten World Cup

In 1987, I began my college days at UC Santa Barbara, and still did not think about soccer much at all. But I wanted to do something sporty. I took a PE class on golf, which was probably the most useful class I took at UCSB. A few of my dorm mates talked me into playing intra-mural flag football. It was super fun, but it made me miss soccer. The next year, I joined an intra-mural soccer team. It was fun too, but something was still missing.

In 1986, the World Cup was given to Mexico. I wanted to go so badly. I wanted to see the World Cup, which was really the only soccer I knew about. I couldn’t find anybody to go with me, so it did not happen. But with the lack of TV coverage, I still somehow watched a few games as Maradona stole the game from the poor English, with probably the cheekiest goal and then the most brilliant goal in World Cup history. 

On the day of the final, I was on vacation on Bourbon Street in New Orleans with my brother. I remember going bar to bar trying to find anywhere showing the World Cup final game. We finally found a ratty little Irish bar which had one staticky TV on with the World Cup final, surrounded by a bunch of mid-season baseball games. With little fanfare, my brother and I sat the bar in an empty bar watching the hated Argentines become World champs. 

Without the US in the World Cup, we were told that the American public had little interest in soccer. It was hard to argue, although deep down, over the last month, I knew there were millions of Americans rooting for Mexico, England, Argentina, Italy, Brazil, and every other team in the tournament. The mainstream media just did not cover it.

In 1987, I graduated from UCSB, and took the obligatory trip to Europe. Soccer was so far from my focus, that I never even thought of attending a European game. Luckily, when I was in Switzerland, the family I was staying with had extra tickets, so I did end up attending a Young Boys game in Bern. All I remember is that it was freezing cold!

Working at the Right Place at the Right Time: City of Pasadena

When I returned to Los Angeles, I started working for the City of Pasadena, which I really enjoyed. This became more important, when in 1988, out of the blue, FIFA (the organization in charge of all soccer in the world) chose the United States to host the 1994 World Cup, and they decided to have the Final game at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl! I was in the right place at the right time, or so I thought. 

I thought it was odd that the US was awarded a World Cup tournament. There was no league. The US national team had not qualified for a World Cup in 40 years. There seemed to have no soccer culture whatsoever, at least in the mainstream media. All I knew was the US had big stadiums, had lots of money to spend, and a spectacular World Cup would finally make soccer exciting to mainstream America. And the best part was that the US team, because of an automatic spot for a host country, was the first team to qualify for the 1994 World Cup!

Shot Heard around the World

Because the US had never previously qualified in my lifetime, I had not really followed the US team at the time. In late 1989, I had heard they may be playing in some final qualifying game on the island of Trinidad & Tobago and had to win or they would fail again to be in the World Cup. I paid little attention, until I heard about the “Shot heard around the World”, the winning goal by Paul Caliguiri. With one goal, everything changed. The US in the 1990 World Cup! What a great buildup for the 1994 World Cup. This would definitely change the course of soccer in this country!

I was dead wrong, or at least I thought I was. With little media about the 1990 tournament, the World Cup came and went. The US had lost big time with a moral victory from a 1-0 loss to Italy. I was in Reno for the final and dragged my friend to some dungy bar that actually showed the game. The final between Germany and Argentina was dreadful, the worst final ever and, in my mind, just another example of how difficult it will be to win over the hearts and souls of Americans to the low scoring sport of soccer.