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 By Sam Borden

Missing the World Cup party: How the U.S. failed to qualify for 1986

Despite recent struggles in the Hex, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard is confident ahead of the crucial upcoming WCQ matches.
Stewart Robson questions Bruce Arena's management of the U.S. ahead of two crucial matches to end World Cup Qualifying.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Even now, three decades on, Paul Caligiuri still remembers the feeling.

No, not that one. Not the feeling of pure joy that came after he scored the goal that sent the United States to the World Cup in 1990, a goal that stands as one of the most historic in men's national team history. This is the other feeling -- the one that was, in many ways, the exact opposite. 

In 1985 -- four years before Caligiuri and his teammates experienced the ecstasy of stunning success -- there was the utter emptiness of failure. After losing to Costa Rica 1-0 in a World Cup qualifying match that May, the Americans sat in a dank, quiet, community college locker room in California and collectively moped. The World Cup would be played in Mexico in 1986, they knew, and the United States would not be there.

That night 32 years ago stands as the last time the United States failed to qualify for a World Cup and, with the Americans potentially facing such a dispiriting possibility heading into their critical match against Panama on Friday night, Caligiuri has recently found himself hoping against hope that the none of the current roster of players go through what he did.

"It was a dead, dry sort of feeling," Caligiuri said in an interview. "It was horrible."

The circumstances now, of course, are markedly changed for this group of American players. What's different from back then? Just about everything, really, though the most notable shift is in the level of expectations.

Entering the qualifiers for the 1986 World Cup, the U.S. had missed out on eight straight World Cups, having last appeared in 1950. In contrast, the present U.S. squad will be looking to clinch a berth in an unprecedented eighth straight World Cup, having advanced to the round of 16 at each of the past two tournaments.

Even putting aside the growth of U.S. Soccer's operating budget (which, at about $150 million annually is nearly 15 times what it was in 1985), the measure of soccer's place in American sports culture lies in how a potential failure to qualify by this year's team would be perceived both internally and externally. 

If the United States doesn't get the necessary points against Panama and in its final qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday, it will be seen as a massive disappointment among fans and within the soccer industry, and lead, almost surely, to an overarching examination of how the federation operates. Beyond just the players and coaches -- who will surely face a reckoning -- the philosophies of player development and training will be under scrutiny, too.

Paul Caligiuri would go on to to appear at the 1990 and 1994 World Cups but is still reminded of the failed campaign of 1985.

Even Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer since 2006, could face fallout. Gulati is up for re-election in February and will face for the first time at least one challenger in the relative outsider Steve Gans. Missing out on the World Cup in Russia would provide weighty fodder for Gans and those critical of Gulati's leadership.

"Now it's expected that the team will be in the World Cup -- everyone expects it from the players to the fans to the federation," said Arnie Mausser, who played 10 years for the national team and was the starting goalkeeper for the 1985 qualifiers. 

"Back in our day, I'm not even sure the federation believed in us," he added.

That might not be much of a stretch. While Friday's game will be played at Orlando City Stadium, a soccer-only venue known for its raucous crowds and vibrant ambiance, the final match for the U.S. in 1985 -- which actually came in the second of three rounds of regional qualifying -- was staged at Murdock Stadium in Torrance, California, on the campus of tiny El Camino College.

The stadium held only about 12,000 people, and the reason U.S. Soccer used it for qualifiers was that, at that time, there was so little fan support for the American team that organizers were hoping the area's Hispanic population would at least give them a chance at filling the place.

At the game in 1985, both Mausser and Caligiuri recalled clearly the halftime entertainment that U.S. Soccer arranged: "It was a concert by a Mariachi band," Mausser said. "At a home game for the U.S. against Costa Rica. A home game!"

There are still instances when the United States team faces a hostile crowd in its own country -- the atmosphere at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey against Costa Rica just last month certainly wasn't completely friendly -- but the situation in 1985 was commonplace. 

Caligiuri also remembered just how grass-roots the entire program felt, with players often working other jobs in the offseason and the entire support staff consisting of a coach or two, a single trainer and one guy who took care of the equipment.

Still, even if no one else expected the Americans to qualify, the players had high hopes for themselves and believed they could be the ones to end the then 35-year drought for the U.S. at the World Cup.

That was why they were crushed when Mausser, who was one of the best American goalkeepers in national team history to that point, made a bad mistake in the first half, rushing out to try and punch away a ball that he should have left, and Costa Rica took advantage to take a 1-0 lead. 

The Americans weren't able to score the rest of the way and, instead of moving on to the final round of qualifying, sat in that locker room and considered what it meant to come up short.

"I was devastated," Mausser said. "I missed my chance and that was it. I really hope that these players don't do the same."

Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.

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