Paul Caligiuri is often credited with scoring the most important goal in U.S. men’s soccer history, the “shot heard ’round the world” in 1989. Four years prior, he took part in another legendary moment: the longest soccer match in NCAA history, one that didn’t end until nearly four hours after kickoff.
These days, soccer matches have a finite end. More than any other sport in the world, you can predict within a couple minutes how long a match will take from the moment it kicks off. Even in the rare instance of extra time (overtime in American parlance), penalty kicks decide a match after a predetermined amount of added play.
This was not always the case.
Penalty kicks weren’t added to the beautiful game until 1891, nearly 30 years after the original rules of the game were written down. The first penalty kick shootout to decide a match wasn’t until 1970 (a Watney Cup match between Hull City and Manchester United), with the first shootout in a World Cup occurring in 1982 (West Germany vs. France). These days, NCAA tournament matches are decided by shootout after two 10-minute overtimes.
But in the final of the 1985 NCAA Division I Men’s Soccer Tournament, there was no shootout, no limit to the number of extra periods that could be played to determine the outcome of a match. (Shootouts were used in earlier rounds.)
That year, the final went eight overtimes, lasting 166 minutes and 5 seconds, the longest soccer match in NCAA history.
The eight-overtime match was won 1-0 by UCLA over American University in front of 5,986 fans at the Kingdome in Seattle. The iconic stadium featured an Astroturf surface that was awful to play soccer on for eight seconds, let alone eight overtimes.
With each sudden-death period lasting 10-minutes, the match lacked any real consistency. American went down a man in the third overtime when defender Serge Torreilles headbutted UCLA’s Dale Ervine. In the eighth overtime, American star Michael Brady had a leg cramp just before the game’s only goal. Brady, who had been mostly neutralized by Caligiuri’s defense that day, stayed on the field instead of coming to the sideline, and the referee allowed play to continue.
The two sides persisted for nearly four hours after the opening whistle. This wasn’t like the longest high school football game in history, a 12-overtime game in East Texas in 2010 I covered in a past life, where one team was actively trying to extend the match because of some weird playoff rules. Nor was it like the 18-inning marathon between the Astros and the Braves during the 2005 NLDS I watched from the stands, which set the record for longest MLB playoff game — baseball does not fatigue a player like soccer. These two teams went at it full tilt for nearly three hours of playing time, tallying a total of 47 shots. (I didn’t cover this longest soccer match as I had only just turned three months old.)
Finally, a seldom-used bench player by the name of Andy Burke made the difference. Burke spent most of the 1985 season injured and wasn’t expected to play. The night before the match he spoke with his father, who told him about a Wall Street Journal article that said it’s often the most unexpected person who makes the biggest contribution. Sure enough, after coming on as a sub in his first appearance of the tournament, Burke scored the title winner, a 13-yard shot in the 167th minute.
“We were starting to think on the bench that we had to get some fresh legs out there, no matter whose they were, and there was Andy,” UCLA assistant coach Steve Sampson told the LA Times after the match.
While a little-known player scored the winner, the match featured some future hall of famers. Caligiuri, who captained the UCLA side, went on to make 110 caps for the USMNT, scoring the “shot heard ’round the world” against Trinidad and Tobago in 1989 to send the U.S. to its first World Cup in 40 years. He later scored in that 1990 World Cup in Italy, one of five goals he netted for the national team.
Leading Caligiuri and his teammates were two iconic U.S. coaches: Sigi Schmid and assistant Steve Sampson. Schmid, who died in 2018, was elected into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2015 after winning three College Cups with UCLA and two MLS Cups with the LA Galaxy and Columbus Crew. Sampson later coached the USMNT at the 1998 World Cup (the country’s worst-ever showing) and later followed Schmid as coach of the Galaxy in 2004. Sampson’s greatest coaching success came in 1989, when he led Santa Clara to a shared national championship after a draw in the final against Bruce Arena’s Virginia (they stopped the match after four overtimes).
Even the referee, Brian Hall, went on to great things. Hall later officiated in MLS and was the only American ref to work the 2002 World Cup. Having started his professional career in the NASL at the age of 19, he became Concacaf’s director of refereeing in 2016.
Hall, who was 24 at the time, may not remember the match too fondly, however. After the lengthy match, he was disturbed at his hotel room by a call from a Washington Post reporter, who wanted to ask him about his calls to send off Torreilles and allow play to continue after Brady’s injury.
“I had never experienced anything like that before or since in my refereeing career,” Hall later told Referee.com. “To have a reporter contact the officials’ hotel to get a quote about a call is something I had never heard of before. I simply told him we would not answer any questions like that. And, in all the years since — I retired in 2008 — I’ve never had that happen again.”
The 1985 final remains the longest soccer match in NCAA history, though it wasn’t actually the record for most overtimes. Three years earlier, Indiana beat Duke 2-1 in eight overtimes, the winning goal arriving in the 159th minute (Gregg Thompson scored 145 minutes apart for the Hoosiers). The 1959 semifinal topped both of those, with Bridgeport beating West Chester 2-1 in 10 shorter overtimes. The longest soccer match in recorded history was an amateur charity game in the UK that went 108 hours.
The NCAA’s overtime rules have changed over the years. Nowadays teams play two 10-minute golden goal periods before heading to a shootout, so we’ll never again see an eight-overtime epic like we saw in 1985. That’s probably a good thing.