The USA carries a 14-game unbeaten streak into Sunday's game against Canada in Toronto (TV: NBC Sports Network, Univision Deportes, 7 pm ET). It hasn't lost to Canada in a full international
in more than 27 years, but there was a time, in the days of the NASL, when Canada dominated its North American rival.
There was no Gold Cup. There was only World Cup qualifying into which Concacaf divided teams by region.
For three straight World Cup cycles, Canada, not the USA, moved on with Mexico to the final round of qualifying. The low point came three days before Christmas in 1976 when the USA and Canada met in a playoff in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Few Americans got much playing time in the NASL. Their big star was Juli Veee, then playing in Belgian First Division with Lierse. He had fled Communist Hungary, settled in Southern California in 1969, played a little soccer but needed more gainful employment, so he worked at Spahn Ranch, famous as the hideout of Charlie Manson and his family.
Veee, later a big indoor soccer star, tells the story of one day meeting Manson, who asked him what he was doing on the ranch. Veee's response -- "Oh, I'm a Hungarian" -- confused the crazed Manson enough to leave without bothering him.
Most of the other Americans played supporting roles if they started at all on their NASL teams. NASL's rules on home-grown players didn't differentiate between Americans and Canadians, and teams often met their "North American" quota stocking up on Canadians.
Canada had Croatian-born goalie Zeljko Bilecki, who won the NASL in 1976 with the Toronto Metros Croatia, Bruce Wilson, later named to the Concacaf Team of the Century, Robert Iarusci, a four-time Soccer Bowl champion, and the Lenarduzzi brothers, Sam and younger brother Bob, then only 21.
Perhaps the best-known player from the 1976 Canada team was the late Brian Budd -- a World Superstars champion so dominant that ABC invoked the "Budd rule" to exclude him from the competition as a three-time champion.
Budd scored in the first half, while Bob Lenarduzzi, now the Vancouver Whitecaps president, and Bob Bolitho added late goals and Canada won 3-0.
Four years ago, Canada got the better of the USA again, tying in Fort Lauderdale and winning in Vancouver to eliminate the Americans before they even played their fourth and final game of their qualifying group.
Canada qualified for the World Cup for its first and only time in 1986 but had no time to build upon its achievement. In the fall, Canadian soccer was reeling as four players were implicated in match-fixing scandal that broke out at a tournament held in Singapore.
By then, the NASL had also folded. The USA handled the collapse of the NASL much better than Canada did. Both national teams had relied in the early years on players from ethnic ranks. By the late 1980s, the U.S. national team had begun producing players coming through the growing youth and college ranks.
The turning point in the fortunes for the USA and Canada is no longer considered a full international, but the Olympic qualifier held at the St. Louis Soccer Park in late May 1987 involved two teams fielding full national teams according to the FIFA rules of the day.
Canada had won the first leg, 2-0, at home, but the Americans came back to win the second leg, 3-0.
Only one of the Americans, Chico Borja, had ties with the defunct NASL. The rest of the players were young college kids from places like UCLA, Virginia, Clemson and Indiana.
With no place for them play professionally, the USSF took the bold step of paying its national team players to keep them together.
The U.S. national team was off and running, leaving its neighbors to the north in the dust.