Taxi cabs and the ‘real’ birth of U.S.-Mexico rivalry, the first Gold Cup in 1991 had it all

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Much has changed since the first Concacaf Gold Cup in 1991. Now the top men’s competition for national sides from North and Central America and the Caribbean — including the United States and Mexico — it was originally a fairly unknown tournament that had a compressed nine-day sprint for eight teams.

Years before battling with El Tri for regional dominance, the U.S. men’s national team arrived at the Gold Cup keen to make their mark. Months after taking part in the 1990 World Cup, their first qualification for the global event in 40 years, there was an eagerness to show that they could be taken seriously by the rest of the continent. Guided by manager Bora Milutinovic and stunning Mexico 2-0 in the semifinal round, the USMNT would go on to win the 1991 tournament, thereby laying the groundwork for a new and promising era for U.S. men’s soccer.

Looking back at that competition through recent conversations with ESPN, former USMNT players Peter Vermes, Hugo Perez and Brian Quinn shared some of their more memorable and offbeat moments from the first Gold Cup.

Taxi cab procession to pivotal Rose Bowl game

Cleats? Check. Jerseys? Check. But what about the bus?

“Our first game of the tournament, our bus didn’t show up,” said Vermes, a former USMNT forward (1988-1997) who is now manager and sporting director at MLS side Sporting Kansas City. “There was some communication error somewhere. I don’t know whose fault it was, whether it was the bus company’s, ours, I don’t know, but it was never going to get there in time.”

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Desperate to leave the team hotel and make it to match against Trinidad & Tobago at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, the team realized that their best and perhaps only option was a not-so glamorous one: taxis. “We’re going to play in the Gold Cup and we’re coming up in taxis as a team, like three, four guys in a taxi, so that was an interesting way to start it off,” Vermes said.

The caravan of taxis, carrying some of the brightest American soccer stars, eventually arrived to the venerable stadium with little time to spare. With about 20 to 30 minutes to prepare before kick-off, coaches, staff and players all scrambled to get ready and onto the field.

“We were rushing around to get ready, because we had to get in, we had to get changed into our uniforms,” Vermes said. “Everybody was in fast pace mode.”

Expending plenty of energy to just get into the stadium, the USMNT would first fall behind after allowing a goal in the 67th minute. But just like their late arrival to the game, their goals came late, with an equalizer from Bruce Murray (forward, 1985-1993) in the 85th minute and a match-winner from Marcelo Balboa (defender, 1988-2000) in the 87th.

With a 2-1 win in hand, the U.S. kicked off the tournament with three massive points, but also with very limited time to recover.

No rest, and no need for a translator

In the current 2023 Gold Cup group stage, the USMNT have nine days to take part in three group stage matches, before preparing for the knockout round.

In 1991? Nine days were somehow enough to squeeze in a five-game run through the whole thing.

“There was no rest,” said Perez, a former USMNT midfielder (1984-1994) who is now coaching El Salvador‘s men’s national team. “The worst part was the game between every two days … so we didn’t rest much.”

Despite a small window to recover one day and then play the next against Guatemala back at the Rose Bowl, Perez and his teammates had no issues with either transportation or their opponents in their second group stage game. The USMNT cruised to a 3-0 win and in a reminder of what the sport in the U.S. once was and how far it’s come, the second goal was scored by Quinn (1991-1994), a professional indoor player.

“I hadn’t played much outdoor because I had been with the [San Diego] Sockers for the past eight, nine years [playing indoor] prior to the Gold Cup … it was all new to me,” said the Irish-born U.S. citizen who is now head coach of the University of San Diego men’s soccer team.

“I scored against Guatemala and I was thinking, this is great, there’ll be no problem scoring every other game,” Quinn laughed. “That was the only goal I ever scored for the national team, and the guys tease me to this day.”

With a second win in hand, they would then close out the group stage two days later with a 3-2 victory over Costa Rica, a perfect three-for-three thanks to new tactics from Milutinovic. No longer just booting the ball and chasing it in the hopes of avoiding a loss, their coach believed they were capable of something more complex in which they themselves could be the protagonists.

“More possession-oriented. We had more of the ball, we wanted the ball more. Bora, I think one of his first meetings when he came in, he says we’re going to change the style of play,” Perez said.

“He gave us the confidence to start keeping the ball. He really set a foundation,” added Vermes.

Even though, sometimes, there was confusion with the message he was trying to convey. The Serbian-born Milutinovic, who spoke mainly in Spanish, had joined the USMNT after coaching Mexico and Costa Rica at the respective 1986 and 1990 World Cups. The USMNT’s team liaison, who was designated as the Spanish-to-English translator for Milutinovic, was occasionally scrutinized by the coach.

“Bora did not need a translator,” said Quinn, noting that Milutinovic would correct the staff member when he believed his ideas weren’t being translated correctly into English. “Bora would say: No, my friend, this is not what I said.”

The ‘real birth’ of the rivalry with Mexico

When things weren’t lost in translation, the USMNT were building up the confidence and courage to be on the front foot at the Gold Cup. After a successful and undefeated group stage, they then had a chance to play in a semifinal against regional giants Mexico, a team they’d only beaten twice since 1934.

But this was a different USMNT side that was now being led by Milutinovic, a manager who knew plenty about Mexico after coaching them from 1983 through 1986. “Right then and there is when the rivalry, in my opinion, really became a rivalry,” said Vermes about the semifinal at the L.A. Coliseum.

Unafraid to pin the ball around, and supported by some crucial saves from goalkeeper Tony Meola in net, the USMNT kept pace with Mexico as they went into halftime with a 0-0 scoreline. Then, by the 48th minute, John Doyle (defender, 1987-1994) would put them up 1-0 after pouncing on a redirected ball off a freekick from Perez, and then sending his close-range shot into the back of the net. On the Televisa broadcast, Doyle was incorrectly given a “Doley” TV lettering after scoring, almost as if he were an unlicensed character in a ’90s soccer video game.

Then in the 64th minute, Vermes — nicknamed “Superman” by famed Mexican commentator Enrique Bermudez — stole the ball off a poor touch from Mexico, cut inside towards the 18-yard box, and then launched a shot from distance to make it 2-0.

With a Dos a Cero lead for the U.S., the pro-Mexico crowd at the Coliseum then began to support the USMNT during the final minutes.

“The Mexican fans were yelling ‘Olé‘ every time we passed the ball,” said Vermes. “We gained a lot of respect that day and I believe that’s where the real birth of this rivalry started.”

After sprinting through four games in just seven days, it made sense as to why players were later exhausted in the final against Honduras. Scoreless after 90 minutes and extra time, the championship was then set to be decided through penalty kicks.

Tied 2-2 after five rounds of penalties, the shootout then went to sudden death. Both shots were saved in round six, both were made in round seven, but after American indoor player Fernando Clavijo (midfielder, 1990-1994) scored to make it 4-3, Honduras’ Juan Carlos Espinoza sent his attempt off target during the eighth shootout round, providing the USMNT with their first-ever Gold Cup title.

History, in American men’s soccer, had been made.

“It was a big step towards us having, well, being respected more,” said Perez about the title. “In our region, it was the first tournament that we won and that marked, for me, a big change for the future of soccer here.”

“We changed, basically, the way we perceive how we wanted to play football.”

Ushering in the early stages of a new modern era, the 1991 tournament helped reshape the expectations and respect for the USMNT that are still growing today. With larger ambitions in mind for the current program that wants to be part of the global elite, it’s easy to forget that it all stems back from a group of guys who had to take shared taxis to their first Gold Cup game.

“I saw it as this big step in the right direction of where the U.S. men’s national team could be going … that really laid the foundation,” Vermes said. “It gave us a tremendous amount of confidence moving forward.”

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