How the YNT revolution shaped U.S. soccer

How the YNT revolution shaped U.S. soccer
by Will Parchman
March 6, 2015

As the towering colossus of Beijing’s Workers Stadium came into view, growing ever larger as the horizon shrunk, the Americans fidgeted on the bus. Were they even ready for this? At this point, the question was irrelevant, anyway. The tournament was here. Time to play.

They’d only been a team, this team, for a week. After a frantic scramble to find players, coach Angus McAlpine had only just finished putting the rough final touches on the first U.S. U16 World Cup team in American history. None of these players competed on the 1983 CONCACAF qualifying team that got them to China in 1985. By the time the World Cup arrived two years later, none of those players were eligible. Only a handful of the boys on the bus had ever even played together.

And yet here they were. Several months before the 1985 U16 World Cup began, the long-eroding NASL finally collapsed. The USL was close behind, completely shutting the door on professional outdoor soccer in America for the first time in 52 years. Not a single player on the U16 team had ever watched the U.S. play in a senior World Cup match. Few had ever heard of this tournament before the truncated tryout process began earlier that summer. Most didn’t even know why they were there, how they’d qualified.

Amidst this sea of turmoil and confusion and excitement and anxiety was that growling stadium. The U16s only got to practice in it before the tournament once, the night before their first World Cup match against Guiana. Since they were paired in a group with the hosts, they played their matches at the biggest arena, the 80,000-seat Workers Stadium in the nation’s capital. The U.S. team bus pulled up to its hulking mass at dusk. The Americans were still trying to find a shred of team chemistry, since most of them had played against one another on ODP teams more often than they’d played together.

Henry Gutierrez, a member of the 1985 World Cup team, remembers walking onto the stadium track for the first time and seeing Bolivia running through the final 10 minutes of its training session. Except for the players and coaches the stadium was entirely empty, the dying light playing off its spiring expanse of plastic, multi-colored seats.

All the team could hear was the constant, rhythmic thwack of boot on ball echoing around the cavernous space. Pass, move, shout. They were transfixed.

It was one-touch, small-sided soccer the likes of which none of these players had ever seen outside the professional game. Today, Gutierrez identifies it as something resembling the tiki-taka of Barcelona fame. Back then, he stood rooted to the spot, watching a player with a thick mane of hair and a No. 10 on his back orchestrating possession. Even if he’d heard the name then, it wouldn’t have meant anything to him.

But now? Gutierrez knows that team watched Marco Etcheverry train as a 14-year old. Gutierrez still remembers the awe.

“You couldn’t hear anything but the ball,” says Gutierrez, who now coaches the Triangle Futbol Club Alliance U14 program in North Carolina. “The sound of the ball being hit by the Bolivian players, and you could hear them communicate, just the sound of the ball getting pinged around was to me like, ‘Wow.’ What I got from it, as we’re walking onto the track, I was mesmerized.”

In the midst of the darkest days in the history of U.S. Soccer, an unlikely band of unknown youth players on some of the first U.S. youth national teams in the 1980’s kickstarted a groundswell of youth national team soccer that carries through to today. And as with most any building project, it began with a methodically poured foundation.

The world builds as the U.S. slumbers

For 47 years, from 1930-1977, the senior World Cup was the only global tournament of its kind in the world. Gradually, the world’s governing soccer bodies adopted locally-sourced international youth tournaments that augured the introduction of something considerably grander. It had been a pipe dream for years, but by the 1970s FIFA had finally approached the prospect of a youth World Cup.

National team youth sides had existed in informal formats for at least as long as the first World Cup in 1930, and FIFA’s organization in 1948 of what eventually became known as the UEFA U19 Championship was a watershed moment for youth national team competition. Nothing on that scale for a sub-senior team age group had ever existed before. In its wake, international youth tournaments popped on like light bulbs across the globe. CONMEBOL’s flickered on in 1954. UEFA took control of its U19 tournament from FIFA in 1955. AFC’s crackled into life with a U19 Championship in 1959. CAF’s finally arrived in 1979.

CONCACAF, meanwhile, bucked the trend by making its premier youth tournament a U20 affair when it organized its first tournament in 1962. That came less than a year after the federation merged previously separate North and Central American organizations into one. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mexico won seven of the competition’s first eight U20 tournaments.

U.S. Soccer fell into a developmental trench after the 1950 World Cup. As much of the world ramped up its production of teenage superstars through the foundation of well-greased national team pipelines, the soft underbelly of the American system fell into disrepair. Outpaced by systems that received considerably more attention, American soccer for decades was content to allow fragmented high school soccer and far-flung state Olympic Development Programs to feebly pump blood into its lone youth national team artery.

It wasn’t nearly enough.

The game in America hadn’t been professionalized in the same way it had globally. A national team apparatus that relied on poorly placed and sloppily tended youth identification systems was quickly and decisively trampled, even in its own region. Between 1950 and 1980, the only piece of international hardware the U.S. won on any national team level was a bronze at the 1959 Pan-American Games. The U20 CONCACAF tournament, meanwhile, wasn’t prioritized.

“It was state and regional ODP and really playing high school soccer. Coming from those environments to U.S. Soccer, you felt then like it was professional,” said George Gelnovatch, a member of the 1983 U.S. U20 World Cup team and current Virginia men’s soccer coach. “But compared to now? Being professional in everything you do - in how you travel, having a team doctor, those kinds of things - helps develop professionalism. That’s what we’re trying to do. We are clearly there, in my opinion. I’ve seen the progression of professionalism from those early 80’s.”

Meanwhile, on the international administrative level, gears began locking into place. When he was elected FIFA president in 1974, part of Joao Havelange’s campaign involved the rapid expansion of the game on all levels. In many ways, Havelange’s platform was big government, and on that score he succeeded spectacularly. The pathfinding Brazilian oversaw the expansion of the senior World Cup from 16 to 32 teams, generously ballooned the magnitude of FIFA’s operational capacity and presided over the foundation of both the Confederations Cup and the Women’s World Cup.

But one of his most enduring legacies was the creation of the biennial U17 and U20 World Cups, the latter of which drew back the curtain on its first tournament in 1977 just three years after Havelange took office. It was the second World Cup in a system that now boasts six between the men’s and women’s game. The first U20 tournament can’t be classified a failure, but it wasn’t FIFA’s most valiant moment either. The tournament took place in Tunisia during the summer, and searing heat warded away the few traveling fans who even knew it was happening.

The 1979 U20 World Cup (then known as the FIFA World Youth Championships) forever changed the event’s global perception. A precocious 18-year-old named Diego Maradona guided Argentina to the championship, and his glittering performances earned him the tournament’s Golden Ball. Suddenly the event had cachet. It had star power. It had a name.

In the young, tempestuous cauldron of international youth soccer, the U.S. was simply trying to stay afloat. In 1974, U.S. Soccer hired Angus McAlpine to take control of the ragtag U.S. Youth National Team, then just a single U20 squad. McAlpine geared up as rapidly as he could for the first U20 World Cup, but the U.S. lost to Honduras in qualifying in 1975 and was cast out from joining in Tunisia. The next qualifying cycle several years later finished similarly. Again, CONCACAF proved too much for the Americans. And again, Honduras dealt the killing blow.

Finally, the U.S. broke through for the first time in 1980. While Mexico managed to win its staggering seventh CONCACAF U20 title that year, host U.S. topped its group and exorcised old demons by besting Honduras in the semifinal 9-8 on penalties. That clinched a spot in the final and its first World Cup appearance on any level since 1950. But it had to wait another two years for its first victory. The 1981 World Cup did not go well for the starstruck Americans. The U.S. was routed by Uruguay, drew Qatar and was smashed by Poland 4-0 to finish at the bottom of the group.

But the tide was gradually rolling in. U.S. Soccer was slowly shaking off two decades of desolate international hibernation.

A new benchmark

Gelnovatch remembers the pink eye. He can recall a referee being knocked out with a punch to the face by an opposing player in the middle of a game. And it’s hard to forget the tipping bus and the rocks, McAlpine shouting for the team to hit the ground and get away from the windows. In fact, the more he thinks about it, the more his time with the U20 Men’s National Team feels like something out of the wild west.

By the time the U20 team reached the 1983 World Cup, it had already accomplished a great deal. The U.S. technically shouldn’t have even been in the World Cup after losing to Honduras 1-0 in the CONCACAF Championship final in 1982 in Guatemala. But the Hondurans were disqualified for using overage players, replaced by an American team that had come closer to winning a CONCACAF tournament than any in U.S. history.

The U.S. traveled to Guatemala without a team doctor, so when Gelnovatch contracted a stubborn case of pink eye that infected both eyes, he had to venture into Guatemala City to find medication. Further, Guatemala was racked with civil war in 1982. In April of that year alone, just three months before the U20 tournament began, the military under General Efrain Rios Montt committed 3,330 documented killings, although the number is estimated to be far higher. At night, the team could hear the chatter of machine gun fire from their hotel.

The U.S. beat host Guatemala in the tournament’s semifinals on Sept. 1, 1982, and after the match the American team wasn’t afforded a security detail by either CONCACAF or its own federation. Irate Guatemala fans charged the American bus and nearly tipped it over, throwing rocks at the windows while the team scrambled for cover.

“Our bus was literally almost rocked over on its side,” Gelnovatch said.

The 1983 U20 World Cup was held in Mexico less than a year later. To this day, it remains the best-attended U20 World Cup in history, which the Mexican FA used to bolster its case for the 1986 senior World Cup. In many ways, the U20 team that traveled to Mexico had been hardened and bettered by the two unsuccessful cycles that came before it, and it held the kernel of the senior side that eventually broke through at the 1990 World Cup. Hugo Perez, Tab Ramos and Paul Caligiuri, who scored the goal in 1989 that ultimately snapped the 40-year World Cup drought, headlined the roster. McAlpine’s third team was no pushover.

The Americans opened the tournament against a strong Uruguay side in Guadalajara and lost a respectable 3-2 after falling behind 2-0.

Two days later, breakthrough.

The U.S.’s 1-0 win over Ivory Coast on June 5, 1983 was a momentous one. Most notably, it was the first time an American team had won a game at any World Cup since the senior team’s unlikely 1-0 victory over England in 1950, 33 years earlier. Gelnovatch bundled in a free kick from Perez in the 79th minute, and the U.S. closed up shop over the final 10 minutes to take home the win.

But the lack of top-down oversight and inexperienced referees created an uncertain on-field atmosphere at the tournament, and the Ivory Coast match was among the worst offenders. Ramos, the U.S. creative hub and clearly the best American player on the field, was an immediate target for the Ivorians. At one point, he took an elbow to the face that broke his nose. He finished the game despite being nearly knocked out, but he was rushed to the hospital afterwards and missed the U.S.’s final group match.

Later in the match, an Ivory Coast player punched the referee in the face and knocked him out of the game. By the time the final whistle went, the Ivorians had been issued two red cards and finished the game on nine men.

“The ball was a hot potato, because you literally felt like somebody was going to hurt you,” Gelnovatch says.

The American experience in 1983 was vital from a learning perspective. The U.S. didn’t emerge from its group, but for the first time in decades a modern American team overcame adverse conditions at a World Cup - on any level - to get a result. The U.S. missed the U20 World Cup in 1985 but it qualified for 12 of the next 15, including the 2015 incarnation in New Zealand later this year.

“We’ve come a long way,” says Ramos, who now coaches the same U20 MNT. “We’re a very professional organization now. At the time, we only had a U20 team. With the new approval of our new U16 and U19 teams, now we have 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20s, and we have the 23s. It’s a completely different setup now than we used to be.”

The U16 revolution

Exactly 51 days after Gelnovatch’s winner, the U.S. began its journey toward the first U16 World Cup ever devised. And the American organization behind this tournament was even more slapdash than the U20 version that preceded it.

The tournament was a brand new invention, and most nations had to create teams to fuel it. Continental U16 tournaments (this was re-crafted as a U17 age group at the 1991 World Cup) were rooted into the ground like support beams, and CONCACAF was no exception.

The U20 team wasn’t the only branch on the U.S. Soccer developmental tree for long. FIFA had devised a U16 World Cup to run alongside the U20 version, but it wasn’t able to get it off the ground until 1985, eight years after the U20 tournament began. U.S. Soccer, which had no money to burn at the time, was strapped for resources, so McAlpine seemed like a natural - if not economical - choice to head up the program’s first ever U16 team. He knew the U20s and had a better grasp on the player pool than anyone. So less than two months after McAlpine’s U20 team won its first ever World Cup game in the summer of 1983, he was on a plane with a group of teenagers to the first CONCACAF U16 Championship.

FIFA ran continental qualification tournaments worldwide some two years out, meaning most of the teams that qualified for the World Cup were playing with a brand new cycle by the time the tournament was organized in 1985. It also meant that for the handful of players who came together for the 1983 U16 CONCACAF tournament, this was ostensibly their World Cup. Even if some of them had no clue there was a World Cup at all at the end of the rainbow.

That 1983 U16 team and its band of historically anonymous players largely passed into faded legend the second the tournament ended, but it holds a special place in the annals of U.S. Soccer history. That team became the first in American soccer history to win a major, competitive international tournament.

On any level.

The 1982 U20 team had technically won the CONCACAF tournament that year, but on a forfeiture. The senior team had previously qualified for the 1950 World Cup (the 1930 tournament didn’t involve qualification), but it only finished second at the 1949 NAFC Championship. By 1983, the U.S. had never so much as finished in the top four at the Gold Cup (then the CONCACAF Championship), and its CONCACAF senior World Cup qualification cycles had inevitably ended in disappointment.

Plus, the U.S. had only accumulated two medals at the Olympics: a silver and a bronze it won in 1904, before full national teams were involved. They still aren’t recognized by FIFA. While the U.S. women’s team has racked up plenty of trophies since its formation, including four Olympic golds since 1996, the men still haven’t improved on 1904.

The U16 team was fresh born in 1983. Formed to support the U16 World Cup beginning two years later, the tournament featured six teams, all of which were new creations. CONCACAF qualifying ran for little over a week in August and September in Trinidad & Tobago, and the U.S. was prepared despite the fact that the team had never practiced before they flew to T&T.

"We trained in a very dilapidated field," says Jeff Agoos, the captain of that team who got his start at left back in that tournament. "People were staying at the University of West Indies, and they had sort of Caribbean type of housing where the walls and doors had slits in them, and it was incredibly hot and humid. Just a completely different environment than from what we were growing up in as 15-year-old kids."

Guided by Agoos, the Americans, outfitted in T-shirts with numbers on them, barreled over El Salvador 4-1 in their first ever game together at a major international tournament just days after their first practice together.

The U.S. drew the hosts 1-1 to get into the knockouts - a game in which the Trinidadian locals stormed the field after the hosts scored a late equalizer - where they dumped Honduras 2-0 in the semifinal. Trinidad & Tobago waited in the final, and the teams slogged through regulation and extra time scoreless. McAlpine’s group kept its nerve, winning 5-3 in penalties to bring home its first true CONCACAF championship since the confederation was formed 22 years earlier.

The cruel twist in it was that none of those players were age eligible to play in the World Cup once it was finalized in Mexico two years later. At the time, none of the players had much of a concept of what that meant anyway.

"There was no soccer culture the way there is now," Agoos said. "We just saw this as a tournament, but we didn't understand the enormity of it. We knew that it was a qualification for a World Cup, but for most of us we didn't know what a World Cup was. Nobody had ever gone to one. We may have seen one on TV, but we were so oblivious to what was going on around us."

But there’s little question that first team will forever have a carved niche in U.S. Soccer history. At a time when the senior team was all but dormant - the USMNT played two total games, both friendlies, between 1981 and 1983 - the youth national teams were a sweeping gust of wind.

The 1985 U16 World Cup arrives

While the 1983 U16 team played the age group’s first substantive international matches in 1983, the team that gathered for the 1985 U16 World Cup might as well have been doing the same thing. None of its players had ever represented the U.S. at a competitive international tournament, and few even understood how or why the team qualified for Beijing.

The process of pulling the team together was a ramshackle business of last minute paint and duct tape. Because the players who qualified for the tournament in the first place were no longer eligible, McAlpine had little time to craft his team. With no infrastructure to drill or train his players, he had weeks to finalize a roster of 20 players. From nothing. There was no residency, no two-year qualification cycle, no friendlies, no familiarity. The federation didn’t have the resources or the know-how.

The U16 coaching staff conducted tryouts that utilized the regional ODP system in place, which was deeply flawed but mimicked the general idea of a national scouting network. McAlpine picked a wider group of regional standouts and invited them to a four-day national camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. After another round of cuts, a winnowed group of 30 was brought to a final tryout at LIU Post University on Long Island, New York.

Several of the players who initially tried out had to be convinced. Curtis Pride, for instance, wasn’t going to bother until his high school coach cajoled him into going. Shortly thereafter, he scored two goals at the U16 World Cup in China, including the first World Cup game-winner in American U16 history.

The final World Cup roster was only 20 players, but McAlpine hadn’t yet chosen his team, and the World Cup itself was now less than two weeks out. Each of the 30 players invited to LIU Post was told to pack his bags to go to Beijing, since they’d be on the plane less than a week after they arrived for the tryout. For 10 of those players, that meant packing bags for a trip that never arrived.

For the other 20, who had less than a week to train for a World Cup as a full team, it meant a journey into the wider unknown.

“We had no idea or really any concept of what a youth national team was all about, or youth international competition at all,” Gutierrez says. “We went into it blindly and just said, these are the best players they picked, and we’re going to go to this international competition kind of naive to the whole process. We had no idea what was going on.”

The first U16 World Cup showed that FIFA benefitted from the experience of its U20 predecessors. The tournament experienced few of the issues that plagued the 1977 U20 World Cup, and China’s sporting infrastructure was well-placed to handle the tournament’s demands. For the U16s, though, that meant launching straight into games. Their first training session was the night before their opener against Guiana, where they ran into Etcheverry and Bolivia training rhythmically for the first time.

The opener of the entire tournament between China and Bolivia was played in Workers Stadium just two hours before the Americans kicked off their own opener. The 80,000-seat stadium was a sell-out for the curtain-raiser. While some trickled out after China and Bolivia drew, most stayed, creating a raucous environment for the Americans’ eventual 1-0 loss to Guiana.

“Quite honestly, I didn’t understand what it meant until we flew to China and realized the magnitude of it and how we were treated by our hosts,” says Pride, who played in all three games and eventually went on to a career in Major League Baseball. “It was a big stadium we played in. That’s when it hit us. Plus, representing the USA on an international stage was a huge honor, and I was proud, very proud to be apart of this team.”

Just two days after Guiana, the U.S. followed their U20 counterparts from 1983 into history. In their second group match, the U.S. faced down Etcheverry and the feared Bolivians with their tiki-taka style. The game began like most expected. In the 31st minute, Etcheverry and his boundless mullet found space and scored the opener for a 1-0 lead, which is how it stayed into the second half. But Larry McPhail netted an equalizer just six minutes after the restart, and Pride banged in an unlikely winner in the 64th.

The U.S. ultimately lost its final group match 3-1 to host China to miss the knockout stage, but its crowning accomplishment is almost hard to grasp now. With extremely limited resources, no knowledge of their opponents, minimal practice time and just one tournament game under their belt together, the U.S. knocked off the group favorites in the team’s second ever match together halfway across the world.

“It all seems a little bit crazy,” Gutierrez says. “But I guess that was the national team back in 1985.”

The U16 and U20 teams of the 80’s helped reshape and remake a previously desolate American soccer landscape from the ground up. The senior team spent three full decades wandering in the hinterland of international soccer before the switch flipped and the youth national team system came online. By the time the U20 team qualified for its first World Cup in 1983, and then the U16 team did the same in 1985, the gear teeth were already clacking together. The beating core of the 1983 U20 team matriculated and became the 1990 senior World Cup team. The U16 team, which became the U17 team in 1991, didn’t miss a single World Cup until an unlikely stumble in 2013. In 1999, a Golden Generation produced future senior team stalwarts like Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu and Kyle Beckerman.

The proof of the system’s professionalization in the years since the first YNT World Cups is impossible to miss. Now, U17 and U20 teams have two full years and dozens of games together before they travel to World Cups. International friendlies draw throngs of scouts from top leagues positioned all over the globe. In 2013, American midfielder Christian Pulisic was first identified by German club Borussia Dortmund at a friendly tournament in Florida with the U.S. U17 team. He officially joined the club last month.

Stories like those didn’t exist in the youth world of the 1980’s. But for a handful of early pioneers, the memories were all the more indelible thanks to the foundation they were pouring.

“Soccer, as big as it was back then, it’s 100 times better and bigger now,” Ramos says. “Soccer has grown so much even in the last 15, 20 years, so everything is different. It was almost like a different game back then.”

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