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World Cup team 'changed the game forever' for US

Kevin Baxter, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Soccer

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Brian Bliss remembers coming off the field after the game that changed everything, believing nothing really was different.

Perhaps it was the fatigue of playing 90 minutes on a stiflingly humid day in Trinidad. Or the shock of the 1-0 win that had qualified the U.S. soccer team for a World Cup for the first time in four decades.

Either way, the future wasn't clear to Bliss or his teammates on that autumn day in 1989.

"We just took it as the moment," he said this week, looking back instead of forward. "We didn't know how much the game was going to grow in the U.S. We thought, 'Who knows when the next (World Cup) will be?' "

Yet in the span of one generation, that result has transformed men's soccer in the U.S. from a game played largely by amateurs and college players to one with two thriving professional leagues. Its national federation went from broke to flush and the soccer industry nationwide expanded from a niche business to a multibillion-dollar enterprise, fueled by a boom that has seen more kids join organized leagues in the U.S. than in any country other than China.

The most profound change, though, was a mental one. Because before that game, imagining the U.S. in a World Cup was a little like imagining a donkey running in the Kentucky Derby: Theoretically possible, but unlikely.

Now it's hard to imagine a World Cup without the U.S., one of only seven countries to play in the last seven tournaments.

And it all began with the looping, left-footed shot from Paul Caligiuri that beat Trinidad and Tobago and sent the American team to its first World Cup since 1950.

"We changed the game forever in the United States," Caligiuri said. "In a positive way. We built this game."

Now that foundation is in danger of cracking. For the first time since Caligiuri's goal, the U.S. will enter its final two qualifiers with its future in doubt. Without wins over Panama on Friday and Trinidad and Tobago next week, the U.S. could miss the next World Cup, something 16 players on this year's national team have never been alive to see.

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