Jimmy Banks is Milwaukee through and through. He was born, raised and became a soccer star at nearly every level possible, all within minutes of the city he has always called home.
There was that month, however, in 1990 when he reached the pinnacle of his playing career almost 5,000 miles away at a world soccer tournament in Italy—the World Cup.
Throughout his early playing career and into his post-playing days, articles have chronicled the improbable love of the sport for an urban black kid in the '70s. He started on a Salvation Army team and then progressed through German club teams.
"Like many other kids who grew up playing soccer, Pele was my soccer role model," Banks said. "I enjoyed watching the NY Cosmos whenever we were fortunate enough to catch a televised game, and I also was a big fan of watching 'Soccer Made In Germany' televised games."
While his star was on the rise locally, it went national during a standout prep career at Custer High School. There, he was the first high school All-American in state history, a feat which earned him some high-profile attention from national powerhouse college programs.
He began his collegiate career 35 miles south at UW-Parkside. Even though he was an All-American with the Rangers, he returned to home to play at UW-Milwaukee for Bob Gansler. With the Panthers, he was a two-time all-region honoree.
After college, Banks was the No. 1 selection of both the Major Indoor Soccer League, by the Kansas City Comets, and the American Indoor Soccer Association (then the National Professional Soccer League) by the Milwaukee Wave. He chose to stay home with the Wave starring for the franchise from 1987-93 and was inducted into the franchise hall of fame in 2013.
Qualifying for the Cup
At the end of the 1980s, the United States was in a precarious position. In 1988, the U.S. was awarded hosting rights for the 1994 World Cup, but had not qualified for the tournament since 1950. The host country is an automatic qualifier to the World Cup, so the Americans had one more chance to prove they belonged in the world's biggest soccer tournament: 1990.
"Many people strongly believe the Americans must qualify for the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy to prove the U.S. deserves to be the host country in '94," Ken Bunch wrote in an April 26, 1989, article about the national team for the Milwaukee Sentinel.
A familiar face for Banks, Gansler coached at UWM from 1984-88, also leading the U.S. U-20 National Team from 1987-89, was selected to take over the full National Team in 1989.
The U.S. played eight matches as part of the 1989 CONCACAF Championships under the leadership of Gansler—a familiar face for Banks. They needed to finish in the top two to advance to the World Cup. Banks played in four matches during the tournament, helping the team to two wins and two draws in those matches, while conceding just one goal.
Heading into its final match, the Americans had three wins, three draws and nine points, the same as its opponent, Trinidad & Tobago. The U.S. played in Trinidad Nov. 19, 1989, knowing a win was the only way to qualify for the World Cup. A 30th-minute goal put the United States ahead and it fended off a late Trinidad & Tobago charge to seal the victory.
"There was high expectation from the team as a whole on qualifying," Banks said. "We knew we would make history if we qualified. Needing nothing short of a win vs. Trinidad & Tobago gave us a bit of pressure to either be a success or failure."
The World Cup
The United States faced a difficult group in Italy, squaring off with Czechoslovakia, the host Italians and Austria. The team would lose all three games it played, but by the end, demonstrated that it belonged on the world stage.
In the opening game against the Czechs, Banks did not play in a 5-1 rout. The U.S. saw Eric Wynalda sent off early with a red card in the second half and could not rebound.
"It was very obvious that defensive strategies were going to be adjusted in the second game," Banks said. "Although (Wynalda) was very attacking-minded, I had more experience on the defensive side and being a natural left-footed player was a factor."
Banks made his World Cup debut against Italy, a team that went on to take third place. He had reached the peak of soccer for an American at the time.
"My best (World Cup) experience was standing in the tunnel," Banks said, "then walking out to midfield of the stadium in Italy and hearing our National Anthem."
Gansler utilized Banks' speed to help stabilize the defense, and it worked. The U.S. was able to earn respect with a tough 1-0 loss to Italy. The team then got on the scoresheet in another tough one-goal loss, 2-1, against the Austrians in another match in which Banks started.
"We played a 3-5-2 system at the time and according to who we were playing I would play out wide as a midfielder or in the middle as a man-marker," Banks said of his role on the field. "Usually when we would play against a smaller but quicker player I would line up in the middle as a man marker otherwise I would play out wide left and have the ability to get forward and attack."
The 1990 U.S. World Cup team was a stepping stone to the success the U.S. Men's National Team has found. MLSsoccer.com recently wrote of the team as "unheralded heroes" leading up to the 2014 installment of the World Cup.
It's true. After Banks and the 1990 team qualified for the first time in 40 years, the 1994 team advanced to the Round of 16 on its home soil. From that success came the momentum for the start of and lasting success of Major League Soccer in 1996. Since that time, the U.S. has finished as high as eighth in the World Cup (in 2002) and been ranked as high as No. 4 in the FIFA World Rankings (April, 2006).
Entering the World Cup, Banks was one of the most-capped players in the squad. He had played 19 of his 35 career caps prior to Italy, having debuted with the full national team in 1987 against Uruguay.
Following Italy, he returned to Milwaukee and brought the team with him. The side played an international friendly against East Germany at County Stadium. Unfortunately, he was booked with yellow cards in each of his World Cup matches and was unable to play in the match.
"I was very disappointed that I didn't get to play because of my World Cup cautions, but it was great for the city to see the U.S. team play East Germany because we have such a big German population," Banks said. "It was also big for East Germany, as it was their final game as a country divided from West Germany."
Banks resumed his career with the Wave, playing through 1993, and played with the national team through 1991. That was when Banks continued to stand out on Milwaukee soccer fields, this time as a coach.
He has coached locally since his playing career ended, coaching urban teams through the Boys & Girls Clubs and the Milwaukee Simbas. He credits the coaching he's received for his success as a coach.
"I've had the privilege to be coached by many great coaches in the area," Banks said. "Bob Speilmann, Jerry Panek, Keith Tozer and Bob Gansler—I have taken some of their knowledge and coaching philosophies and developed my own style of coaching."
That style of coaching came to the collegiate level in 1999, as he took over the men's soccer program at MSOE. Since taking charge of the Raiders, he has led the program to 133 wins and been named conference coach of the year three times.