WORLD CUP ’90 : It Will Get Worse for U.S.

It took only one game to confirm what many of us already knew:

That the United States is more prepared to play host to a World Cup than to play in one.

The U.S. side will qualify automatically in 1994, when the tournament comes to California and Florida and points in between. And that’s a lucky break, because for the time being, the U.S side might be good enough to lick Guatemala or El Salvador or the lovely and talented Trinidad and Tobago, but beyond that, they’ve got two left feet.

Still, the news was hardly all bad for the United States in Sunday’s 5-1 World Cup loss to Czechoslovakia.


At least nobody was seriously injured.

Goalkeeper Tony Meola did crash face-first into a goal post. Forward and serious scoring threat Peter Vermes did go down wailing with an injured hip. And midfielder Eric Wynalda did have somebody step on his toe, whereupon he gave the Czech a body-check and promptly was excused from playing the rest of the game, making Wynalda either the most foolish or most fortunate man on the American team.

“We got stomped,” U.S. defender Desmond Armstrong said. “But hey, it comes with the territory. We’re here with the big boys now.”

Said teammate Michael Windischmann: “Around the world, people think we can’t play soccer. And when the score’s 5-1, you understand why people think that way.”


Now we know how it feels to be one of those countries like Egypt or Uruguay that draws the United States as a first-round opponent in Olympic basketball. The Americans went into this World Cup being told that they didn’t stand a chance . . . and guess what? They didn’t stand a chance.

Czechoslovakia’s not even one of the good teams. The Czechs are slow. Just wait until the United States has to play Italy Thursday at Rome. A calf stands a better chance to win a rodeo.

“It isn’t going to get any easier,” Paul Caligiuri said.

It is Caligiuri whom we have to thank--or blame--for being here. UCLA’s contribution to the U.S. cause is the one whose goal in Trinidad put the United States into the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. And Caligiuri’s thing of beauty early in Sunday’s second half gave the United States its first World Cup goal in 40 years--another gem for the kid from Diamond Bar.


Otherwise, the team sputtered and stalled like a broken-down Alfa Romeo.

You would never know that you were watching the youngest and physically lightest specimens in the tournament. Time after time, the Americans were a step behind. When they went heads-up for a ball, the Czechs were always several inches higher. Some U.S. players, Caligiuri included, even mentioned “fatigue” as a factor.

Fatigue? For a team with an average age of 24?

The Americans also come billed as the most-educated team in the field, each of them having attended college. It was proved Sunday that this does not necessarily make them the brains of the tournament.


Wynalda, the former San Diego State player from Westlake Village who turned 21 on Saturday, used his head on the soccer ball better than he did when he flattened Czechoslovakia’s Jozef Chovanec, who evidently had stomped on Wynalda’s foot. For striking back in anger, Wynalda drew a red card from an official, suffered the indignity of being thrown out of his first World Cup game, and becomes ineligible for the next game as well.

Not his greatest move, as even teammates agreed.

“I think any time you get a red card, it’s stupid,” Windischmann said. “Wynalda, he’s younger. He has to learn. You have to wait until later to retaliate if you feel you must. To outright push somebody, right in front of a linesman, I think it’s dumb, and it doesn’t help us, and now he doesn’t get to play the next game. It’s just dumb.”

It began as such a lovely day, too. American flags spangled the Communale Stadium grandstand. Backup goalkeeper David Vanole led the U.S. procession onto the field with a tiny flag protruding from the top of his cap. And starting goalie Tony Meola spent the first 27 minutes stopping everything that came his way.


After that, it turned brutto. Ugly. The Czechs averaged a goal every 10 1/2 minutes. They had several near-goals, too. Meola flopped around like a seal. He actually played pretty well. He just needed three or four more arms.

It hurt, too. “It’s my dream to play professionally in Europe someday, and this put a big dent in it,” Meola said. “It’s tough to think how this must have looked. I mean, 5-1! That’s bad, man.”

“I’m playing in the World Cup, and I wouldn’t trade my spot with anybody,” midfielder Tab Ramos said. “But it’s difficult to swallow and forget when you’ve never taken a loss as bad as this.”

And the Italian side awaits.


“And Italy,” as Armstrong said, “is scary.”

Especially when you belong to a team that loses by four, and the sport isn’t basketball.