Brian Bliss on the USA's historic 1987 win at El Salvador -- and the impressive depth of today's USMNT

Brian Bliss  had turned 22 a few weeks before he took the field with the USA in San Salvador for a 1987 Olympic qualifying game. About 45,000 fans filled the Estadio Cuscatlán.

"Had I ever experienced a crowd like that?" Bliss responds to my query with a question and gives it some thought. "Never. I'm pretty sure there were more than a 1,000 Canadians cheering their team on at our first Olympic qualifying game in New Brunswick. A college all-star game I played in I think drew about 2,500."

During this era of Olympic soccer, the regulations allowed the Concacaf countries to use their full national teams. Coach Lothar Osiander, whose full-time job was waiting tables in downtown San Francisco, was charged with guiding the USA to the 1988 Games in Seoul and steering the USA through the first phase of 1990 World Cup qualifying. Against the Canadians, Osiander's squad fell 2-0 in Saint John, New Brunswick, but advanced thanks to a remarkable 3-0 second-leg win at the St. Louis Soccer Park that left Trinidad & Tobago and El Salvador as the obstacles to reaching South Korea.

On Thursday, the USA opens it 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign in San Salvador. The USA failed to win on the road in the final round of its ill-fated 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign. When Osiander took his squad to San Salvador in 1987, the USA had only one road win under its belt against a Central American foe in full national team qualifying play -- a 1-0 win over Honduras in San Pedro Sula during 1966 World Cup qualifying.

After a pair of away-and-home wins over Trinidad & Tobago, the USA could pretty much a secure an Olympic ticket with a win at El Salvador on Oct. 18, 1987. For however much we've heard of the formidable road game challenges in Concacaf play -- which apply to all teams -- this was a unique scenario. It took place amid the 1979-1992 Salvadoran Civil War during which 75,000 Salvadorans lost their lives and the subsequent United Nations-approved Truth Commission for El Salvador attributed an overwhelming amount of the atrocities to USA-backed counterinsurgency tactics.

"I'm not a political expert," Bliss says. "But I did get the sense it couldn't have been just the soccer, that there was political motivation. The level of security was similar to  what we're used to now, but in those days it was unique. ... We probably didn't have the best reputation as Americans in Central America. I suppose for the fans the soccer game was a chance to take it out on someone."

Indeed, the U.S. embassy, Salvadoran military and San Salvador police provided more than a 1,000 security personnel, according to Soccer America's report, in "perhaps the greatest security effort undertaken to protect a U.S. soccer team."

In the fifth minute, Brent Goulet gave the USA a 1-0 lead on a goal assisted by Hugo Perez, who will be coaching El Salvador against the USA on Thursday. Frank Klopas scored in the 10th minute and the USA went up, 3-0, on a Perez free kick in the 20th minute awarded after a foul on Goulet, who had gotten the ball from Bliss' pass. The Salvadorans reduced the deficit with a penalty kick retaken after David Vanole was judged to have moved off his line early when he saved the first attempt. Before El Salvador scored its second, Perez stroked home a pass from Eric Eichmann in the 4-2 win.

The assistant referee Rob Allen getting hit by an empty plastic bottle in the 76th minute prompted the third stoppage of play by security. Allen was unhurt and no serious injuries were reported despite the hurling of fruit, plastic bottles and flaming seat cushions.

"I think the seat cushions were given out by sponsors as a promotion," said Bliss. "The fans lit them up and turned them into fiery frisbees."

Looking back on it now, Bliss is himself puzzled that he and his teammates ended up performing so well and not feeling as afraid as one would expect.

"I think we were so naive, it didn't faze us," he says. "That's how dumb we were. We didn't know better. We thought, I guess this is the way it's supposed to be. ... And I do remember that Lothar was a master of preparing us, painting a picture for us of what to expect."

Osiander, Bliss says, would give the team speeches warning them of dangers so dire that they expected even worse than they would encounter.

That win in San Salvador sent the USA to the 1988 Olympics. Osiander also coached the USA to a home-and-away series win over Jamaica that advanced it to the final round of 1990 World Cup qualifying, for which Bob Gansler took over. Bliss, Paul Krumpe, Klopas (twice) and Perez scored in a 5-1 win in St. Louis after a scoreless tie in Kingston. The series victory launched the USA's ultimately successful quest to qualify for its first World Cup since 1950.

When Bliss, Sporting Kansas City's technical director/vice president of player personnel, watches Thursday's game, it won't just spark more memories of his playing days and that San Salvador experience. He served as Tab Ramos' assistant for four cycles with the U.S. U-20 national team that included the biennial World Cups 2013 though 2019.

"There's a lot of guys coming through that at some point we had for one or two years," Bliss says, "and three years if they were on the younger side, like Kellyn Acosta, who we had for two cycles."

Ten of the players Coach Gregg Berhalter named to the 26-man roster for the upcoming three-game qualifying window played for Ramos and Bliss in U-20 World Cups and/or Concacaf U-20 Championships.

"Every cycle, Tab would tell the guys, somebody will emerge and come through from this group," Bliss says. "Tab told the group: 'We don't know who. Make that person be you.' It's a great speech because if you look at it statistically, even with national teams like Argentina and Spain, it's true that two or three guys from each U-20 cycle would make it to the full national team and have an impact. ... Now there are actually more guys than I expected getting through into Gregg's group."

The national team pool's depth in general is unprecedented, says Bliss:

"When they pick a final squad, you're like, 'What happened to that guy?' Then you start doing the math, and see how deep the pool is. It's huge. There are just so many guys. I've never seen anything like it before -- the national team coach having so many high quality players available to him at one time."

While Bliss credits much the Development Academy and MLS youth club environments for the accelerated progress of young U.S. players, he believes that youth World Cups and their qualifying tournaments contribute significantly. 

"For however challenging and valuable league play is," Bliss says, "it's not the same as international soccer. Whether a kid is with an MLS club or a LaLiga club, however good the environment is, it's hard to replicate national team play. I'm not saying youth national team experience is a prerequisite to be successful on the full national team, but I'll tell you what, especially in Concacaf, getting the international experience at a youth national team level can be huge."

POSTSCRIPT: Soccer America's coverage of the USA's 4-2 win in San Salvador on  Oct. 18, 1987, included Paul Gardner interviews with Bliss and Eichmann, both 22 years old at the time, and 23-year-old Goulet. "Our game plan was to feel them out for the first 10 minutes or so -- to see what formation they were using and so on," Bliss told SA. "Then we scored at four minutes and 10 minutes -- that was supposed to be the feeling out period. The fans we stunned, the El Salvador team was stunned -- and to tell you the truth, we were too."

3 comments about "Brian Bliss on the USA's historic 1987 win at El Salvador -- and the impressive depth of today's USMNT".
  1. Christine Benedictis, August 31, 2021 at 5:18 p.m.

    I fell in love with the USMNT and international soccer because of that Olympic qualifying team!  This article brings a smile to my face.  

  2. Santiago 1314, August 31, 2021 at 7:14 p.m.

    Ahhh.... To this day, (and I Paraphrase) ..."I Love The Smell of Burning Seat Cushions in The Morning. It's the Smell of Victory". ... The reason for the Straw Seat Cushions was that, at that time, there were very few actual seats in the Cuscatlan... If you Sat on the Cement, You Burned your A$$.!!! (Similar to Las Ventas, the Plaza de Toros en Madrid).... The fans were actually making Bonfires in the Stands and then "Frisbeeing" the Flaming Cushions out onto the field... The Fans became Incensed at the Referee, Because on Hugo's 1st Goal(a FK) The Referee did NOT make Hugo wait for a Restart Whistle... He put the Ball down and Took the Shot before El Salvador had their Wall and GK "Ready" ... " "Exquisito toque de Hugo Pérez, desde unos 30 metros. Sobre la barrera, la pelota describió una curva hacia afuera y besó la red por el lado izquierdo de Rivera."(EL DIARIO DE HOY 19Oct1987) ...."Perfectly Legal, Perfectly Binding"(Monty Python)

  3. R2 Dad, September 1, 2021 at 12:44 a.m.

    "and see how deep the pool is. It's huge. There are just so many guys. "
    It is quite a change from the 80's and 90's, and the sheer number of American professionals playing the game. So i understand the sentiment. However, we are already on the downside of that burst of kids born in the 90's and early 2000s. And we should have 3 to 5 times the number of professionals we do now, based on population and dollars spent on the sport in the US. The total number of players is decreasing. Has the cultural change in players, fans and US Soccer taken place yet, to ensure we continue on this upward trajectory? I fear not.

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