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Mar 5, 2014

American Underdogs: The Moment of Truth

FC's members and US Nationals Alexi Lalas and Kasey Keller explain the far reaching impact that hosting the 1994 World Cup had on the US.

After the preparation and the roster cuts, part three of Roger Bennett's oral history of the United States' 1994 World Cup campaign begins with the team on the brink of their opening matches. Ahead of them, three emotionally driven group games which would determine their fate. Emerging from the first round would prove themselves to a nation. By contrast, becoming the first host to fail to do so would lead to humiliation before the eyes of the world. 

1. On the eve of battle

Marcelo Balboa (defender): The night before the [first] game, [coach] Bora [Milutinovic] took us to the [Pontiac] Silverdome. We had no idea why he wanted us to go. Once we arrived, he took us onto the field and made us stand under the stadium jumbotron. Suddenly, a motivational video he had cut filled the screen. It had every memory of our shared training experience put to music. We held hands at center field and were struck by a sense of possibility. I felt that everything we had worked for was about to come true. We swore we would find a way -- any way -- to get out of the first round.

The United States squad comes together on the eve of their opening game.

Alexi Lalas (defender): Bora cut the video to Queen’s “I Want It All” which, for me, undermined the emotion of the moment.

Bora Milutinovic (coach): I do the video edit with every team I play. I did it with Mexico, with Nigeria, with Costa Rica. It’s part of my motivation techniques.

Eric Wynalda (forward): I snuck my boots in to the stadium when we went to watch Bora’s video. Once it was done, I put them on and took the opportunity to practice a couple of free kicks. Bora went mad with me and told me to stop. He thought I might pull a hamstring but I was eager to find out how the ball flew inside the Silverdome. It went crazy indoors in the hot air and I discovered I could not afford to hit it too hard. Knowledge that would serve me well.

Tony Meola (goalkeeper): I was exhausted on the day of the game. I roomed with John Harkes and we had spent the night watching the O.J. Simpson chase. Harkes kept yelling at me to turn the television off but I was totally glued to it.

John Harkes (midfielder): Tony fell asleep with the television on. He said it was O.J. Simpson. I thought it was World Cup nerves.

Meola: I was exhausted come breakfast time. We had a morning kick off for European television’s benefit so we started our pre-game process at 6:30 a.m., which was unheard of. But it turned out to be a positive as the minute I woke up it was just rush, rush, rush and before we knew it we were suddenly in the locker room getting ready to play.

2. Group stage, game one: June 18, 1994; Pontiac Silverdome, Detroit

USA 1 (Wynalda 44') Switzerland 1 (Bregy 39')Attendance 73,425

Temperatures top 106 degrees as the World Cup’s first-ever indoor game is played on giant squares of grass flown in from California at great expense.

Lalas: A lot of that day is a blur. People tell me stories of Henry Kissinger coming through the locker room but I have no memory of it. I was nervous. But I viewed the whole thing as a performance I had rehearsed for so well. In my mind, I was about to hit Sunset Strip and take it.

Tab Ramos (midfielder): Once we walked out on to the field it was like 150 degrees and you could barely think. The Silverdome was a soup. Fans were being carried out with heat exhaustion from just sitting there and we were about to run around in it for 90 minutes.

Meola: I had a pre-game ritual in which I would walk to the top of the penalty area and turn and stare at my goal for several minutes so I could envision all the space around me. That first World Cup game felt completely different to any other game I had ever played in terms of the stakes and the mission. For the first time in National Team history we had a 100 percent pro-American crowd to play in front of. True homefield advantage. Something we had dreamed of but never tasted. In the pre-game huddle my message was simple. This is our time. This is what we worked for. It is our time to show the world we can play.

Lalas: Switzerland opened the scoring off a free-kick. When that ball went in, I told myself, ‘this is not how this game was supposed to go’. It was the sum of all our fears.

Wynalda: We got a free kick 28 yards out. Normally, Claudio Reyna took the set pieces but he was out with a bad hamstring. Tab Ramos did not want to take it because it was out of his range. He told me to put it on goal and not make us look stupid. Balboa was urging me to tap it to him so he could shoot, but I did not listen. I felt in the zone. In that minute, it seemed to me as if there was no one else in the stadium. I just swung my foot at the ball and it flew in. The noise that greeted me was deafening. I had one slight problem as I have no rehearsed signature celebration. I just jogged to the fans. I saw a 7-year-old girl in the front row of the crowd so I ran towards her and winked. I have often thought about using social media to find that kid today ask her what she remembers about that moment.

U.S. players celebrate Wynalda's goal.

Lalas: More than ecstasy, I felt relief. The goal was the first moment when our confidence in ourselves was justified.

Wynalda: I had to leave the game in the second-half because I had a reaction to some Powerade. Gatorade had been a sponsor but we switched drinks at the last minute and I quickly learned I was allergic to the new one. I blew up like a pumpkin, but it was a rash I should have played with more often because that was the best free-kick I ever scored.

Harkes: The pitch had been laid in sections and it was slippery as hell. I could not find my footing for much of the game. [In the 89th minute] I slid into a Swiss midfielder who just laughed as I received a yellow card.

Lalas: The game was a point won. The United States had a point. Accomplishment.

3. Group stage, game two: June 22, 1994; Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif. 

USA 2 (Escobar o.g. 35', Stewart 52') Colombia 1 (Valencia 90'); Attendance 93,869

Ramos: We were playing at the Rosebowl. We were playing a great team. We were definitely inspired by both of those things.

Harkes: From the opening kickoff we were immediately under pressure. I do not know how they failed to score in the first five minutes.

Meola: Colombia were the one team we were focused on and told ourselves we could beat. We had played them enough. We knew we could outwork them and get at them. In the first couple of minutes, my defender Fernando Clavijo saved one off the line from a corner. If that had gone in, it could been a long day. 

Fernando Clavijo (defender): My reaction was just the kind of instinct a defender forms in his career. I thanked God in that moment and then kept on running. Only after the game did I understand the magnitude of my action.

Balboa: After 10 minutes it was somehow still scoreless and the mood of the game suddenly changed as quickly as when the sun breaks through the clouds on a stormy day.

Harkes: Colombia turned the ball over in midfield and was clipped out to me. I started to run down the left. Paul Caligiuri overlapped me but then I saw Earnie Stewart sprinting and I knew he had so much pace. I whipped in an “English” kind of ball toward him. Andres Escobar just reached out his leg … the ball went behind him and he knocked it into his own net.

Cobi Jones (midfielder): Escobar’s own goal is what is remembered from the game. At the time, when it happened, we were ecstatic. The second it hit the back of the net was the moment we started to believe we could beat them.

Ramos: Meola kept us in the game making saves at the right time. I realized if we were to seal the victory I had the responsibility to take over that game and do all I could to keep the ball at my feet, controlling everything by running with the ball and drawing fouls. I remember cutting inside and seeing Earnie Stewart make a diagonal run. I had two defenders on me. I did not know whether to put the ball between them or try and bend it around the last one which I ended up doing. It landed right on Earnie’s foot for a big-time goal. In that one minute it felt like everything we had talked about -- about not being World Cup tourists but a real team who could legitimately progress from the group had come to pass. For the first time ever, we knew we could face a big team in a big game and win. That is why I believe that goal changed U.S. soccer forever.

Stewart's goal put the U.S. 2-0 ahead vs. Colombia.

Wynalda: Earnie’s goal was the happiest emotion I ever experienced in my career on a field. It went down how we had planned it. I was meant to be the link between the midfield and the forwards. Tab was meant to find Earnie on one of his darting runs. That was the moment it all worked out. And when the ball went in, I was overwhelmed by an awareness we would win a World Cup game, 40 minutes from where I grew up and right in front of my family and friends. I can only compare the feeling to the release you experience when a child is born. Only difference being there were 90,000 people with us right there in the delivery room. 

Meola: It could have been 3-0 if Balboa’s bicycle kick had gone in. He missed by two inches. We always joke, if he had scored, he could have asked for a $5,000,000 transfer from a European team.

Balboa: As a kid I had practiced bicycle kicks like crazy in the backyard pretending to be Pele. Twice in my career, I have hit the ball so purely, I can feel it explode off my foot. This was one time. I got up and saw the shot spinning in the netting. For a second, my spirits soared but then I saw the ball roll away and I realized it was just in the side-netting. Because I was both American and a defender, the move still shocked a lot of people. I can claim to have the greatest miss in World Cup history.

Meola: I had eaten breakfast with my best friend before the game and he told me that if I kept a shut out, he would run on the field naked and streak. With 10 minutes to go and us 2-0 up, the whole stadium was going mad with anxiety and anticipation. The ball ran behind the benches out of bounds. I look over and caught sight of my friend moving down into the first row and taking his shirt off. There were 90,000 in the stadium and all I could see was him, preparing himself to take the field. When Colombia scored in the 93rd minute, my first thought was we have to do whatever it takes to hold on. My second thought was, thank God there will be no streaking.

Lalas: The final whistle was the finest moment of my whole World Cup experience. I looked around at the massive crowd, all the stars and stripes flags, their “USA! USA! USA!” chanting. Growing up, my reference point was the Miracle on Ice. As I looked around, I felt that I was now living that moment on a soccer field.

- American Underdogs, part one: Slogging Away In The Shadows

- American Underdogs, part two: Destiny Approaches

4. Group stage, game three: June 26, 1994; Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.

USA 0 Romania 1 (Petrescu 18'); Attendance 93,869

Meola: I always took chances as a goalkeeper. I gave up a goal by cheating the other way and being caught on my near post.

Lalas: Meola got caught cheating but what made Tony a good keeper was that he cheated and cut things off at the pass. I saw him do it a hundred times successfully. Once in a while you get caught out. He got caught out in the World Cup and he paid the price in the media afterwards.

Meola, who won 100 caps in all, was part of three United States World Cup squads.

Meola: I had made a mistake in the biggest tournament in the world but I did not go into a hole. I actually had an amazing game because they could have scored three or four times and as it turned out, we ended up qualifying for the next round on goal difference. Bora’s coaching was the reasons I was able to brush off my mistake. He had drilled it into us that there is nothing you can do about something that just happened but you can always do something about what is about to happen. He was so right and it is a lesson that has served me well throughout my life.

Harkes: I got my second yellow card of the tournament. Gheorghe Hagi was taking a free kick. I was in the wall, gesturing to my own team to get men back into the area. The referee walked up to me and because I was closest, he booked me for encroaching. That is what he said anyway. I could not believe it. I was not sure if the second yellow meant I would be suspended for the next round. I was panicked and had to struggle to suppress that thought. After the game reporters confirmed the ban and I felt so sick. The team were on a high because we had made it and showed the country we could compete but I realized I would not be playing with them. For me, it was a night of mixed emotion.

Lalas: Harkes was the constant in our machine who could keep possession and pick passes out. He was a big loss from a tactical perspective.

The United States finished third in Group A with 4 points. Four of the six third-place teams in the 24-nation field advanced to the 16-team second round.

Meola: We did not know who we would face in the next round until Italy and Mexico had played. We all watched the game together and when Mexico tied the game up late we were left in the hole: we would be facing Brazil. Even though they were the best team in the world, we were confident. We had beaten Colombia. We had competed with Romania and Hagi who was the Messi of his time.

Jones: Brazil! The pinnacle opponent! On July 4!  That alone seemed like an omen. We sat around in the hotel trying to relax. We had qualified from our group. The pressure was off. The conversation was how to do more. We believed we could.

Ramos: I didn't celebrate qualifying. To be honest, I was upset that we had not qualified better and we paid for it by being drawn against Brazil. If we had not lost to Romania, we could have faced Spain in Washington, D.C., … the old Spain who were not the force they are today.

Balboa:  Most of us went to bed knowing we had blown a great opportunity.

5. Round of 16: July 4, 1994; Stanford Stadium, Stanford, Calif.

Brazil 1 (Bebeto 72') USA 0; Attendance 84,147

Balboa: The locker room was quieter before this game than at any other time. There was little movement, even amongst those guys who normally buzzed around with nerves. We did not have to admit our fear to each other. It was known. We knew what we were up against even though we were only familiar with the Brazilian players from seeing them on television.

Jones: The Brazil game was my first start of the World Cup. I walked out before a stadium packed with 84,000 screaming fans. Brazil walked out alongside us and they chose to hold hands as they did so. I looked over at them. The two guys next to me happened to be Romario and Bebeto. I suddenly realized I was just a 24-year-old environmental lawyer from California about to have his first World Cup start … against those guys. The true nature of the challenge kicked in.

Harkes: I was feeling sick for myself. I wanted to contribute so badly but I knew I had to stay positive and pump up the guys from the bench by reminding them they could not get stretched too early and let the occasion become bigger than the actual game.  

Meola: We could have been 2-0 up within five minutes. If [Thomas] Dooley’s foot was a size 12 instead of an 11 he could have touched the ball home. We got at them for sure. Then Bebeto and Romario started to come at us over and over. I got an early save in from Bebeto on a play that was whistled for offside but it allowed me to settle and persuade myself this was just another game.

Ramos: I was having a good game. I tried to push the ball between Leonardo’s legs and tugged on his jersey a little. His elbow slammed into me. I don't know what provoked it. It came out of the blue at a moment in which I had just become confident in the game, and was beginning to control the right side of the field. I felt an amazing noise in my head that sounded like a train passing by. The next thing I remember was in the locker room with Bora asking me if I was going to be able to play the second half. I said “Yes.”  The doctors said “no.” To this day, I have never watched the second half of that game.

Ramos goes down, the victim of a Leonardo elbow.

Harkes: I had grown up with Tab so when it happened I was sick to my core. I just jumped off the bench and screamed for a red card then rushed to walk with his stretcher into the locker room. He was completely out of it. You only had to look at him to know our most creative player was done.

Meola: At halftime a real sense of upset kicked in. There was a pushing match between the coaches in the tunnel on the way to the locker room. We were all desperate to see Tab. We came in and the medical staff were desperate to get him back into the game but his eyes were rolled back in his head.

Wynalda: It is so hard to play after a guy has that kind of injury. If a teammate hurts his knee you get on with the game. But there was a genuine concern Tab’s life was in danger. I was the substitute who replaced him on the field. Before I went on, I felt compelled to touch him so I reached out and grabbed his hand as he lay on the stretcher, muttering something about how we would win it for him. He moved slightly and as he did so, I could see the crack in his skull slowly separate. I had to go out onto the field and try and play football after seeing that image. I have never felt more human or distraught. 

Meola: Brazil attacked down the left with Bebeto. I told myself “don’t cheat, don’t cheat.” Alexi closed him down  I wanted to stick near post and have my defender take away the far post by using his leg to block the angle but the ball went underneath Alexi and hit his calf to my right. Goalkeepers have an instinct if a shot is going wide, high or in. I honestly thought it was going past the post but when the ball was two yards out, it bobbled on the turf, and I thought “holy s--- it is going to sneak in.”  My instant reaction was “we got to get back into the game” but then I looked over at Brazil’s bench and saw a young Ronaldo. I realized how many weapons they had and just how hard it would be.

Meola: When the final whistle went, I remember the fans lifting us. We appreciated what they had done for us so much. It felt like for the first time American soccer fans knew their team could compete.

Meola and Lalas come to terms with their World Cup elimination. 

Balboa: With Tab knocked out and Harkes suspended we lost our ability to hold onto possession and without it, our confidence evaporated. When they finally scored, the Brazilians celebrated as if they had just won the World Cup

Balboa: Bebeto told me after the game the Brazilians were not afraid of any team -- even Italy. The only thing they had been afraid of was playing the United States on July 4.

6. The Immediate Aftermath

Balboa: A lot of guys cried at their lockers. I was among them. Everything we had worked towards for years was over. Soon we would all disperse and never be together as a group again.

Ramos: I woke up several hours after in hospital  and someone -- my wife I think -- told me we lost. I felt such disappointment because when I had left the game, Leonardo had been sent off and Brazil were reduced to 10 men. I had really believed we had a chance. But rationally, with Bebeto and Romario up front, I knew Brazil could score with seven men on the field.

Meola: We did not celebrate our achievement after the game. All we could do was try and take in a sense of what had happened that day. All of that pressure of the last couple of years was off our shoulders. A whole bunch of us went to dinner. Robin Williams joined and told us how proud he was of us. Our journey was over but our big concern was Tab. As we flew home, we knew we had left our buddy behind in a hospital in Stanford. 

Wynalda: Everyone played the “what if” game. What if the goal against Romania had not gone in at the near post and we had not had to play Brazil. What if Tab had not been injured? What if Dooley had scored early in the game? July 4th ,1994, is the one game in my career I wanted back.

Milutinovic: It’s pointless to play the “what if” game. Against Brazil, you can talk all the theories you want but nothing is going to change. My players left everything on that field. The Brazilians were just much better. Remember, they ended up winning the World Cup that year.

Ramos: Leonardo was suspended for the rest of the tournament. He came to the hospital to visit me and just broke down and started crying; he felt real sorrow for the situation he had put me in. The truth is, Leonardo is a good man who was not a violent player. Everyone loved him. He just lost his head in the moment and it was unfortunate because it ultimately had a huge impact on my career. The injury knocked me out of the game for five months and I was never the same player again. Did I root against Brazil for the rest of the tournament? No, I cheered for them. In any tournament, I want the U.S. to win, Uruguay failing that, or else the team who played the best soccer. That was the Brazilians.

Milutinovic: Our players did what they were supposed to do. We set the foundation for future generation. The most important thing to me was the number of young players who made their debut with the national team who proceeded to transcend the international stage.

Wynalda: After the game, the press asked us if we were glad we “did not embarrass ourselves in the tournament?” I was glad to see how many of my teammates were p-----off by that question. We deserved more respect. We still don’t get enough respect. People don't credit our play for our achievement and it has largely been forgotten as a footballing success but we had made chicken salad out of chicken s--- and proved that we belonged in the world football conversation.

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