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World Cup team 'changed the game forever' for US

Kevin Baxter, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Soccer

"We have a generation that expects us to go to every single World Cup. And that's the consternation right now," said Alexi Lalas, a former national team defender and now an analyst for Fox Sports. "We find ourselves in a seemingly unfamiliar place."

Yet that's the place where Caligiuri spent most of his life. Growing up in Diamond Bar at a time when soccer was as foreign as cricket or curling, Caligiuri practiced alone, booting a ball against a garage door.

"I lived in the era where it wasn't realistic to think, 'Oh, we can make to the World Cup,' " he said.

At UCLA, he led the Bruins -- and coach Sigi Schmid -- to their first national title before joining the semi-pro San Diego Nomads. He also moonlighted with the national team, which typically played at small stadiums before even smaller crowds.

"We were making like $25 a day per diem, just to stay alive," he said. "But all that adds fuel to the fire. It feeds your desire to be successful."

When Caligiuri joined the national team, the U.S. had never had a winning record in a year in which it played more than two games. Four years later it took part in the Olympic tournament for just the third time since 1956. And though the Americans didn't win a game, they won some confidence.

"That kind of gave us a platform, that group of guys, to continue to play for our national team. And helped us grow to help us qualify for the (World) Cup," Bliss said by phone from Kansas, where he serves as director of player personnel for Sporting Kansas City of MLS.

"I wouldn't say that anybody was really thinking so much about not doing it for 40 years. What guys were saying (was), 'Hey, we qualified for the Olympics. We can do this because we just did something similar.' "

Caligiuri agrees. But he remembers there was something else weighing on the team that made their qualifying campaign even more important.

Although the U.S. had been awarded the rights to host the 1994 World Cup, pressure was building to rescind that offer. The U.S. had no soccer tradition, no success in the sport and, some worried, no interest in it, either. The thought of empty stadiums kept FIFA officials up at night.

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