On June 25, 1950 the U.S. Men’s National Team lined up for its first match of the 1950 FIFA World Cup against a highly regarded Spanish side.
This was the first meeting between the two countries in soccer history and, as we approach the renewal of the rivalry, it brings to mind that famous World Cup and the little known story of an almost-success.
Right back Harry Keough would captain the U.S. on that day, chosen not because he was the regular captain, that was Walter Bahr, but because he could speak Spanish!
For the opening match manager Bill Jeffrey primarily chose a mix of his St. Louis-based players and players from the American Soccer League.
The W-M line-up looked like this:
Borghi (St. Louis)
Keough (St. Louis)—Colombo (St. Louis)—Maca (ASL)
McIlvenney (ASL)———Bahr (ASL)
Souza (ASL)———Pariani (St. Louis)
Wolanin (Chicago)—Gaetjens (ASL)—Wallace (St. Louis)
The U.S would open the scoring in the 17th minute when Gino Pariani would slice through the Spanish defense with a toe ball from the top of the box to beat the Spanish ‘keeper Ignacio Eizaguirre.
“Gino had a way of kicking with his toe that caused the ball to knuckle,” Harry Keough and Walter Bahr told me in an interview. “The goalie dove to catch the ball in the air, but it dipped in front of him, bounced up, and hit him in the face before going into the goal. He didn’t play again in that World Cup!”
While Spain’s passing and team ball possession were superior, (Keough stated it was about a 60/40 game in terms of possession) the hustling Americans would keep the score at 1 – 0 until deep in the second half.
“We had them on the run,” the pair related. “Their first goal never should have happened.”
A tiring Joe Maca would make the fatal error. On a ball along the end line, he raised his hand – the ball was out of bounds – but play continued and, in the 81st minute, Silvestre Igoa would score off the cross and level the match.
In an interview some 30+ years later, Harry Keough still expressed anger at Joe for not continuing to play!
The fatigued Americans, crushed by the unfortunate incident, allowed two more goals to a revitalized Spain in the final minutes of the match, one to winger Estanislao Basora in the 83rd, and one to center forward Zarra in the 89th.
“The second goal was the one that really hurt us, not just because it was the winning goal, but Joe Maca was placed to head it clear, but chose to let it drop so he could kick it away. Spain’s outside right (Basora) came in and headed before it reached where Joe could kick it,” Keough related.
In the end the U.S. “…gave them a run for their money.” Keough said. The Mexican team, staying in the same hotel, offered sincere congratulations.
“We played well together against Spain,” Bahr said. “We were not discouraged.”
The U.S. team left the match believing they could have won and felt some confidence in moving ahead to their next match.
On June 29th, 1950, the U.S. would meet the odds-on favorite, England, and their rendezvous with World Cup history.
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