The U.S. national team's problems in competitive matches - matches that are part of a league or other championship competition - became obvious in 1989, during the final CONCACAF qualifying tournament for the 1990 World Cup. That year, the Americans won a string of friendlies (some of which were matches in exhibition tournaments) against European and South American pro clubs, including Portuguese national champion Benfica, Polish champion Ruch Chorzow and Soviet champion Dnepr. But concurrently, the Americans were having to fight for their lives in the competitive matches of the World Cup qualifying against four tiny countries.
Clearly, it was easier to beat a team of European professionals playing in the off-season with very little at stake than to beat a semipro Central American team playing its heart out to qualify for the World Cup. Friendlies were just not the real thing.
Decades ago, friendly matches were among the biggest occasions in soccer, but that was before the calendar became filled with competitive events in Europe and South America. The three friendlies that are probably the most famous are ancient history now: England 4, Austria 3 in 1932; England 3, Italy 2 in 1938, and Hungary 6, England 3 in 1953.
Now, although European and South American teams still play a fair number of friendlies, they are - with the exception of traditional rivalries, such as England vs. Scotland and Hungary vs. Austria - mostly just chances for the coaches to see their teams in action as they prepare for competitive matches.
A diet of friendlies can leave a team ill-prepared for intensely competitive situations. That probably contributed to the Americans' being taken unaware by the ferocious intensity with which Czechoslovakia played in the 5-1 beating that opened the World Cup finals for the U.S team.
Friendlies were the order of the day worldwide in the last six months before the World Cup, but national teams on most continents have since returned to a regular schedule of competitive matches. There are the qualifying rounds of the 1992 European Championships and the 1992 African Nations Cup. Next summer, it will be the 1991 South American Cup tournament.
In the CONCACAF region, however, there was nothing competitive on the calendar until the qualifying round of the 1994 World Cup, and the United States won't be playing in that anyway, because it is an automatic qualifier as host nation.
So the new CONCACAF Nations Cup is a welcome addition to the schedule for the U.S. national team. Depending on how far it advances, the 1991 and 1993 tournaments, including qualifying, might provide the U.S. team with as many as 20 competitive matches over the next three years.
The United States' qualifying schedule for the 1991 tournament has not been announced, but it is to be grouped with Canada, Bermuda and the Bahamas, of which two will qualify. The United States and Canada appear almost certain to be the two. The eight-team final tournament is scheduled to be played in Mexico between June 23 and July 7.
In the meantime, the number of top American players in competitive situations with European professional clubs has been on the rise since the end of the World Cup.
At one time or another this autumn, there have been 15 Americans with European clubs: John Doyle, Hugo Perez and Chris Sullivan in Sweden; John Harkes and Tony Meola in England; Phillip Gyau, Ian Feuer and Steve Snow in Belgium; Tab Ramos in Spain; Paul Caligiuri in Germany; Steve Trittschuh in Czechoslovakia; Ernie Walker in Holland; Rick Iversen in Denmark; Dale Mulholland in the Soviet Union, and Frank Klopas in Greece.
Going into the World Cup finals in Italy, United States players tended to have their hopes very high about what to expect in the way of European club offers after the World Cup, as well as about what to expect in the World Cup itself. They were disappointed on both counts, but while there has not been a flood of Americans into Europe, there has certainly been movement.
There likely will be more Americans joining European pro clubs in the next few years, learning what it's like to play with points in the standings - and their livelihoods - constantly hanging in the balance. That and the advent of the CONCACAF Nations Cup should combine to give the top American players significantly more experience in competitive situations over the next few years.
Coming at the end of one of the most eventful years in the history of American soccer, it's a situation with which the U.S. Soccer Federation has to be pleased.
Walker, who holds dual American and Dutch citizenship, may get his debut with the U.S. national team when it plays Portugal in Oporto on Wednesday. Walker, 21, has a Dutch mother and an American father. He has lived most of his life in Holland (he lived in California from 1971 to 1975) and is currently one of the top scorers in the Dutch first division with the Willem II club of Tilburg.
The new-found cooperation between the U.S. Soccer Federation and the Major Soccer League was underlined last month when three MSL players, Ted Eck, Fernando Clavijo and Steve Pittman, were released by their MSL teams to make a two-game trip to Trinidad with the U.S. national team.