It wasn't easy for UCLA's Paul Caligiuri to get into soccer. When he was 7 and he and his older brother spied an American Youth Soccer Organization registration table outside a supermarket, he "more or less begged our dad to let us play," he said.
The entreaties paid off for Caligiuri, who starred on youth soccer teams in Diamond Bar, played for four years for a strong Walnut High team, went on to twice captain the U.S. junior national team and became one of the best college defenders in the country at UCLA.
Caligiuri, a fourth-year junior, was expecting an even bigger payoff when he was named to the U.S. Olympic developmental team and spent months in training and playing for that squad with hope that he would represent the U.S. in the 1984 Olympics.
But in March of last year, the U.S. Soccer Federation fired Manfred Schellscheidt as coach of the Olympic team and named Alkis Panagoulias, the U.S. national team coach, as his replacement.
And in July, 1984, Panagoulias, who unlike Schellscheidt favored using professionals on the Olympic squad, named his roster. It included 13 professionals, and only four amateurs who had been on the developmental team. In defense of his choice of 13 pros, Panagoulias was quoted as saying that some had been members of the U.S. team that was denied a chance to play in the 1980 Moscow Games because of the U.S. boycott.
However, that was little consolation for Caligiuri. "I was replaced by one of the 13 pros, and that was 12 days before the Olympics," he said.
Ordinarily, he would have returned to play last fall for UCLA, which lost to eventual national champion Clemson in the semifinals of the NCAA playoffs. But even before he was cut from the Olympic team, the NCAA had ruled that he would have to miss that college season because his involvement with the U.S. team forced him to drop out of UCLA classes.
UCLA Coach Sigi Schmid said Caligiuri "in essence, was the last player cut when they brought in the pros. . . . He was on the original list as a U.S. Olympic team player, and then he was cut along with a couple of other amateurs."
Dreams Go Begging
"In essence, he paid the price without receiving the ultimate reward," Schmid added. The boy who had begged his dad to let him play had seen his Olympic dreams go begging.
Caligiuri, 21, said that not making the Olympic team was "a blow, but it was something you have to accept. It was the coach's decision, and I pretty much took it in a positive way."
He said he does not know if he was equal in ability to whichever professional replaced him on the Olympic squad. "I never got a chance to play against the pros or to know if I was as good or better."
Schmid thinks Caligiuri's unfortunate experience with the Olympics "allowed him to put school and soccer into a better perspective; school became more important. I think he realizes that the athletic world and, in the future, professional teams, can be quite fickle at times. I think it has helped him mature."
World Cup Experience
After the Olympics, Caligiuri got the chance to improve by making the U.S. national team for the World Cup last summer.
In the first round of qualifying, the U.S. defeated Trinidad-Tobago, 2-1 and 1-0, and Caligiuri scored the only goal in the second game. But his team then tied Costa Rica, 1-1, and lost to the same team, 1-0, and was eliminated.
The second game with Costa Rica was played before an enthusiastic U.S. crowd at El Camino College, and Caligiuri said the loss was disappointing because "all we needed was a tie to advance. It would have helped the game a lot in the United States if we had qualified for the World Cup."
But the competition was good for him because "I'm young and I played at the international level."
Caligiuri is back at the national level, playing for the highly ranked Bruins again. He and his teammates will entertain Cal at 11 a.m. Saturday in the opening match of the Metropolitan Life Pacific Classic at UCLA's North Field. In Saturday's second game, Stanford and Washington will meet at 1 p.m. On Sunday the opening round losers will play at 1 p.m. and the championship match will start at 3.
Counting on Caligiuri
Schmid is happy to have Caligiuri back. The coach will lose six seniors, including All-American midfielder Dale Ervine, after this season. Because Caligiuri will return next season, "it lengthens the time that we'll have a very high-caliber team," Schmid said. "Last year we got to the NCAA semifinals; with a player of Paul's caliber, it might have helped us get a little bit beyond that."
A bit beyond the end of Caligiuri's college career looms the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
Caligiuri said he would welcome another chance to be on the U.S. team for the 1988 Games and hopes the team will do better than in 1984, when it defeated Costa Rica, lost to Italy and was eliminated when it tied Egypt, 1-1, because the latter had scored one more goal than the U.S. in its two previous games.