Free Book Excerpt: The USMNT Trailblazers of Generation Zero
From Hal Phillips's new book Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories & the Making of Soccer in America.
There are so many great soccer books coming out around the World Cup, and in the Book Talk segment of my podcast this Thursday I speak to Hal Phillips, the author of Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories & the Making of Soccer in America.
Adapted from GENERATION ZERO: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories & the Making of Soccer in America by Hal Phillips. Published in July 2022 by Dickinson-Moses Press. Copyright © 2022 by Hal Phillips. Reprinted by permission.
Fact is, American soccer stumbled along for a century, amounting to very little domestically or internationally, before a proliferation of youth soccer leagues exploded across suburbia during the second Nixon administration. This cultural happening, the so-called Youth Soccer Revolution, did more than introduce the game to every member of the 1990 U.S. men’s national team, the side that qualified this country for its first modern World Cup after 40 years in the wilderness. The YSR also introduced soccer to each member of the world champion 1991 women’s national team — to much of Generation X, in its millions.
I refer to this proto-cohort as Generation Zero, because it all started with them. Everything we enjoy in today’s rich, mature U.S. fútbol culture we can trace back to these Americans, born in the Sixties and raised on the game during the Seventies. These were the first authentically indigenous soccer players and fans this country ever produced, en masse. Generation Zero grew up with the sport and fell in love with it, as kids do. It is logical, ultimately even unsurprising, that this peer group of soccer natives delivered the nation from its century-long, footballing dark age.
Nowhere along the line, however—not at the ’88 Olympic tournament in Seoul, not in Port of Spain, not at the 1990 World Cup itself—did these young USMNTers presume such a grandiose role in American soccer history.
Instead, in Italy, competing on remarkably equal footing against the host country and tournament favorite, they found their mountaintop experience exhilarating—and a bit dizzying. As young men do.
“I remember Chris Sullivan [b. 1965] got subbed on for Bruce Murray late in the Italy game,” Peter Vermes [b. 1966] recalls. “We had a defensive corner kick. So we’re going back to mark up. I’m running back and I turn to Chris and I’m like, ‘Sully, I got Baresi.’ And he’s like, ‘I got Vialli.’ And we both look at each other like, Oh really? We got these guys? Who are we to have these two guys—Franco Baresi and Luca Vialli! Because, you know, on the other side, I don’t think they were saying, ‘Yo, I got Vermes.’ They had no idea who we were.”
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“They were probably saying, ‘You take the dude with the blond mullet and I’ll take the dude over there with the dark mullet,’” adds Vermes’ teammate in Italy, Marcelo Balboa [b. 1967]. “We wanted to leave something behind, a legacy—and I think it was the mullet. We tore it up on the mullet front.”
No amount of cultural cachet could save the mullet. Happily, the legacies of Generation Zero have proved more numerous and sweeping than “business in front, party in the back.”
With 15 minutes remaining against the vaunted Italians, trailing 1-0, striker Bruce Murray was taken down in a dangerous position: “I got fouled. Free kick from 24 yards out,” he recalls. “I sent it over the wall, and [Italian goalkeeper Walter] Zenga dove and knocked it down, right in the path of Peter Vermes.”
Brian Bliss had the best view of anyone. He was standing by the Italian goal with his fellow reserves, trying to stay loose: “When the whistle blew for the free kick, we were right there, warming up on the sideline—we all stopped to watch it being taken. Murray cracked the free kick, Zenga saved it, and Peter went in alone to finish it. Everyone’s heart kind of stopped.”
Coach Bob Gansler: “Peter’s shot was not cleanly taken but goes through the keeper’s legs.”
Murray: “It hits both of Zenga’s ankles.”
Bliss: “Then it bounces up and hits Zenga on the ass!”
Murray: “Then it starts spinning on the line—in slow motion. You could see the ball spinning!”
Vermes: “Then it got cleared off the line…”
All this happened in an instant. Just as quickly, the moment passed. “I always say one of two things could have happened there,” remembers Vermes, today the manager of MLS club Sporting Kansas City. “I score that goal and I immediately get signed to play in Italy somewhere. Or I could be where I am today—but I am happy where I am today.”
“It was like Caligiuri’s goal: a surreal moment going in slow motion,” adds USMNT captain Mike Windischmann. “In the moment, I was just hoping that ball would go over the line. That would have been so nice…”
Soon, the match was over, and so began the sustained applause—not from the meager American contingent on hand, but from tens of thousands of Italians. No supporters in fútbol appreciate a stalwart, highly organized rear-guard action like the Italians. They refer to this tactic colloquially as catenaccio, or “the door bolt.” And so the 80,000 spectators inside Stadio Olimpico applauded the young Americans off the immaculate pitch—half in appreciation, and half to show their own side their mild displeasure.
“All we ever wanted was to finally get a little respect in the world of soccer, and that’s the day we earned it,” Balboa asserts. “That applause? When we walked out of that stadium? That was a great day.”
The 21st-century temptation is to fixate on that ball spinning in suspended animation behind Zenga, on the goal line. An equalizer there would have been an even bigger statement, of course, resulting in more than mere baseline respect for these gallant American underdogs. A tying goal would have kept alive U.S. hopes of advancing out of Group A, as well. For a few more days anyway.
Nevertheless, the legitimate and lasting quality these young Americans showed that night in Rome was their determination to bravely hold the ball against a clearly superior opponent, to bide their time through their own ardent defending, waiting for the one opportunity that always comes. This exercise isn’t exactly rare, but it does require maturity, practicality and tactical discipline—especially from a callow team that had been blown out in the World Cup opener four days prior. This tactical and technical moxie is what impressed the Italian crowd that June night, 32 years ago.
And it wasn’t just the crowd. Next thing you know…
“There’s a little bit of a commotion, and the Italian team comes into our locker room to shake hands,” Murray told The Guardian in 2015. “I don’t know who the spokesman was, but he said, ‘We want you to know that your country should be proud of you.’ I’ve never had that happen in my entire life. These are superstars: Paolo Maldini, Roberto Baggio, Riccardo Ferri. That was incredible.”
Windischmann was similarly touched: “The whole Italian team comes in and wants to trade jerseys, which was pretty amazing.”
For his near miss, Vermes exchanged game shirts with none other than Franco Baresi, perhaps the world’s preeminent defender back in 1990, and the man he nearly beat for the tying goal. Defender Paul Krumpe, still nursing the groin that never did heal in time, traded his jersey for the Great Baresi’s warmups.
This tradition of trading jerseys is unique to fútbol and somehow survives into the modern age undimmed by money, celebrity or cynicism. Practically speaking, it can only be deployed by professionals: Amateur clubs and individuals don’t have the resources to give game jerseys away and replace them willy-nilly. Even so, this tradition remains simple and moving because its participants are wealthy pros. There really is no U.S. sporting equivalent to this peer-to-peer expression of respect.
“There was a player who wore No. 6 on the Italian national team. I think it was Ferri,” recalls John Harkes, who also wore No. 6. “I wanted to change my jersey with him. He was trying to explain that he had promised it to someone else, so he took off his shorts, and I looked at him and thought, ‘Well, OK.’ So I took off my shorts. I remember walking down the tunnel in my underwear with his shorts in my hand.”
Harkes wasn’t the only one. Defender Steve Trittschuh, who sat out the Italy game, encountered the one and only Roberto Baggio in the hallway outside the U.S. changing room. The Italian didn’t feature in this match either (neither did future coaching legend Carlo Ancelotti). Baggio was a young star in 1990, not yet a worldwide icon. He wasn’t even wearing his game jersey when he happened upon Trittschuh. After an awkward moment, the Granite City, Illinois native came to the same realization Harkes had.
“I had Baggio’s shorts forever, man,” Tritt says with a laugh. “It was the coolest thing.”
Baggio didn’t have his jersey—because Bliss got to him first: “I’ve still got it,” he reports. “We looked at each other and did the international hand signal for ‘You want to exchange jerseys?’ So we both stripped our shirts off, shook hands, gave each other a hug, and traded. I’ve got it somewhere in a bin, in my basement.”
Beginning that unlikely summer of 1990, soccer’s haphazard, indeterminate expansion in the U.S. instantly became inevitable, headlong growth. Generation Zero provided the foundation for all of it. Many cite the World Cup of 1994 as the tipping point, the moment soccer finally took root in this country. But six starters on the 1994 USMNT first competed at Italia ’90. The heart of both teams was created in 1989, when Paul Caligiuri’s goal set in motion what I call the Modern American Soccer Movement. We don’t call his goal “the Shot Heard ‘Round the World” for nothing.
Indeed, something else became clear that summer of 1990: Generation Zero had produced both ends of the critical formative equation—a golden generation of world-class talent, and a ready-made American audience that would care.
Remember those millions of boys and girls who participated in the Youth Soccer Revolution? Starting with Italia ‘90, these young men and women emerged as this country’s first legitimate soccer fan base. It was they who made a success of World Cup 1994, still the best-attended tournament in FIFA history. It was they who, over time, made a success of Major League Soccer, launched in 1996 but announced in 1993. It was their appetite for the game that resulted in the flood of live soccer that is today beamed from around the world onto American screens.
The narrative and developmental connections between the embryonic 1970s and the game-changing 1990s remain clear and unbroken, even if the history itself is never so orderly, linear or preordained. The seeds of the North American Soccer League, for example, first germinated in 1966. Twenty years later, U.S. professional soccer had disintegrated—just as the members of GZ were prepared to make their livings in it. The 1966 World Cup final was the first soccer programming ever presented on U.S. television. The only fútbol on American TV in 1986 was the indoor variety, aired very late at night, on a content-starved ESPN, right after competitive bull-riding.
Twenty-year gestation periods can be neat and clean, but American soccer’s coming-of-age proved anything but. It wasn’t supposed to take that long, for starters. Nor was it supposed to involve Generation Zero at all. The Baby Boomers, our next elders in the culture, were supposed to found and foster a modern soccer nation here. Instead, their indifference left the game for dead.
And so the mantle fell to the next cohort in line. Raised on the game and tempered by hard-won successes, we made the game stick.
In fact, GZ has done for U.S. soccer what government scientists did for Steve Austin, fictional fulcrum of another iconic cultural happening from the 1970s, The Six Million Dollar Man. After the crash and burn, we took to our bosom a sport that was barely alive. We had the technology, so we rebuilt it. We made the American game better than it was.
Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories & the Making of Soccer in America is available in bookstores now.