U.S. Soccer Legend Paul Caligiuri on Developing a Complete Player
Who has made a difference for America on the soccer field? In recent years, Christian Pulisic has appeared on the horizon with a promising future and there have been several recent homegrown U.S. Development Academy players signed by MLS teams — and of course, there are the many stars of the MLS, but no one has changed the trajectory of American soccer more than Paul Caligiuri. He is the Man Who Got the USA Back in FIFA World Cup after a 40-year drought.
Soccer News: Former U.S. Men’s National Team star Paul Caligiuri is known the world over scoring the winning goal for our country’s historic victory over Trinidad in a World Cup qualifier in 1989 — it was his goal that was heard around the globe and clinched our U.S. MNT’s 1990 World Cup Qualifying campaign … our country’s great quest to return to the World Cup for the first time since 1950.
When U.S. Soccer celebrated the Federations’ Centennial in 2013 and looked back on the 100 Most Important Moments in American soccer history, Paul Caligiuri’s goal which ended our World Cup drought ranked high on the list.
It was the final match of the cycle in Trinidad & Tobago — John Harkes, Tab Ramos, Tony Meola, Peter Vermes were on the team led by former head coach Bob Gansler — all working hard on the field but it was Caligiuri’s miraculous goal that secured the World Cup berth.
A key player in the USA’s successes at the 1991 CONCACAF Gold Cup and the 1995 Copa America, Caligiuri played for the U.S. in two World Cups — and was on the field for all but 18 minutes of the seven matches in those two tournaments.
Caligiuri made several more firsts — The first American named to a FIFA World All-Star team, he was also one of the first U.S. players to play in the German Bundesliga.
Caligiuri retired after a six-year MLS career playing for the Columbus Crew and the LA Galaxy, winning the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Championship in his final Galaxy match in 2001. Caliguiri believes America can be a great soccer nation and he entered the race for president of U.S. Soccer earlier this year.
Here is GoalNation’s Diane Scavuzzo’s exclusive interview with Paul Caligiuri — a great conversation on soccer and how the sport is growing today more than ever before.
Diane Scavuzzo: You have had the most amazing soccer career — how old were you when you first joined a soccer team?
Paul Caligiuri: I was 7 years old and it was at AYSO.
Diane Scavuzzo: How long did you play soccer at AYSO?
Paul Caligiuri: I played three seasons in AYSO. I remember all of their names. The first team was the Mustangs. The second name as the Pintos and the final team was the Cherokees.
Diane Scavuzzo: Did you score a lot of goals?
Paul Caligiuri: I was a goal-scoring machine up until eighteen. I never played another position besides forward.
Diane Scavuzzo: How did you feel when the coach changed your position from forward to a defender?
Paul Caligiuri: (Laughing) I still have a chip on the shoulder about that. How would I get forward? I would try to work deals out with the defensive midfielders and the coach to see if I could attack.
Diane Scavuzzo: Why do you think you were moved from forward to being a defender?
Paul Caligiuri: The determination to win the ball back was something that was important for U.S. Soccer. I remember walking out for a tryout with the state team — I wasn’t supposed to be there, and one of the coaches said he needed a defender, so I jumped out of the crowd and said I could play.
Diane Scavuzzo: So you did it to yourself? Changed your position from Forward to Defender?
Paul Caligiuri: I guess I did — I just wanted the opportunity to play – but then I tried to break out of it and 90 days later, I’m the captain of the U.S. Junior National Team, which is U19/U20 today. You don’t turn back from there.
Once I turned 22, I did play other roles, particularly in Germany as they recognize my talents on the flanks and in the central midfield in the back.
It’s very interesting because I played one World Cup as right back and the next World Cup as left back.
The part most people remember is ‘The Shot Heard Round the World,’ which was when I played center midfield for the U.S. National Team.
So, was I left midfielder or a right midfielder? Sometimes I was both in the same game. Did I play center mid? Yes.
I wasn’t a playmaker but I was a good defensive center mid and also played all four positions in the back.
Diane Scavuzzo: The ‘Shot Heard Round the World’ — U.S. Soccer has said it is one of the most important moments in America’s soccer history. When you scored that goal, did you think you would still be talking about it decades later?
Paul Caligiuri: I knew that goal would be defining. The second I scored the goal — at that moment, the game ended in a 1-0. I knew that moment that would be remembered — it was the most important turning point in U.S. Soccer history. As time goes on, I think the younger generation — and those in the professional ranks today — can’t imagine what that time period was like.
Soccer has been so different ever since.
Diane Scavuzzo: What advice do you have for youth soccer defender today?
Paul Caligiuri: I would say it’s important to learn the different roles of all back positions. Don’t limit yourself to working the ball out of the back. I think in the modern game, it’s important to push defenders into the midfield. Especially when holding possession in the attacking half.
The ultimate goal is to make a difference. Make a difference and exploit risk and getting forward.
The biggest part of making a difference on the field as a defender is having the confidence that you can get back faster than that ball. While this may be impossible all the time, having that belief system is important. With that belief system, you can achieve anything.
Diane Scavuzzo: How important is confidence for a soccer player?
Paul Caligiuri: Some people are born with confidence while other build it as they grow. Those players born with it are driven but most of us have to work hard for it and to be a dynamic player, you need to be confident.
My advice is to practice hard than the actual game.
Confidence comes in the preseason or offseason. It’s not just what you do on the practice field. Sometimes we look for confidence from our coach or teammates or look to our parents for reassurance. Confidence doesn’t come from other people. Confidence comes from within; the tools are easy …
To be confident as a soccer player, just put the extra work in and do the best you can every time.
Diane Scavuzzo: What is a dynamic player?
Paul Caligiuri: To be a dynamic player is really to take more risks on the ball. Players who want to be dynamic and make a difference on the field need to have the ball at their feet and do exceptional things — exceed your limits. Like when making runs, you should be pushing yourself further than you think you can go.
It is critical to test what you can do with the ball in the best environment you can under the highest extremes of pressure that you can imagine so when you receive a ball during a match, you know what you want and can do with it.
You must be thinking at all times.
Being a dynamic player is not thinking “I want to trap a ball well or receive it better.” It is figuring out how you can add something to it and make a real impact on the game at that moment. Why not add a fake before you receive the ball? Maybe under pressure with three people, it’s normal to just clear the ball, but instead, bring it down when you can. Remember to try your moves out in a safe environment, like when you’re at practice first so you are ready for the game.
Being a dynamic player can be different depending upon your position, but it always is about pushing your limits and doing the best you can.
As a forward, you take on a player 1v1 when you have space; then practice your success when you take two on.
As a midfielder, how can you make a difference getting forward? Maybe getting off a shot or a cross? Maybe the ball is lost immediately from a turnover — ask yourself how can you make an immediate impact on getting the ball back? If it’s not you closest to the ball, how do you generate that attitude with your teammates?
In the back as a defender, how can you push the envelope a little better and get forward in the attack with the confidence to get back in time?
- It takes work off the field.
- It takes a mindset.
- Sometimes you have to dream about it; draw diagrams; taking notes as well as watching the game. Basically, don’t leave a rock unturned.
Diane Scavuzzo: You became team captain when you were U19/U20. What were the traits that made you a successful captain?
Paul Caligiuri: The soccer coach was from Scotland, Angus McAlpine, and I had never looked at myself as being a captain. I think what he recognized was my leadership by doing and how determined I was. Not just that I had the will and drive to win, but I was able to lift my teammates in the tough moments of a game and set an example working hard at practice. McAlpine felt that I was a natural captain.
Diane Scavuzzo: How old were you the first time you went to Germany to play soccer?
Paul Caligiuri: My first experience in Germany was when I was fourteen years old. I came off a ten-day tournament in Oslo, Norway, where we finished second out of 172 teams in our age bracket,
Then, we went three weeks to Germany where I spent a week in Berlin playing with the same club, on three different levels of teams. I was identified by the Hertha Berlin director and he asked for me to return.
Diane Scavuzzo: Did you return to train in Germany as a youth soccer player?
Paul Caligiuri: Yes, I went back at fifteen and stayed in Germany to train. After training for 3 months, the German club asked for me to stay another year.
I found it surprising that the German club offered incentives to stay — like a moped (small motorcycle) or some compensation. I didn’t know this existed but I was too homesick, so I came back to high school in California and then went on to UCLA.
Diane Scavuzzo: When did you sign your first contract?
Paul Caligiuri: My first professional contract was at 22 after my UCLA college career.
Check out a short documentary on Caligiuri and his impact on U.S. Soccer by FIFA here.