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Mar 6, 2014

American Underdogs: The Circus Leaves Town

Eighteen months after the United States' pre-tournament training camp opened in Mission Viejo, Calif., the World Cup was over. With memories fading of a Las Vegas draw and as Brazil celebrated its fifth title, the U.S. players faced up to life following their own big adventure

1.  Money, Fame, Leaping Pit Bulls

Alexi Lalas (defender): Money is something we had never had. It quickly became clear we were suddenly going to get some. We had a team meeting after the tournament to discuss how much we felt we deserved. The conversation went, “We should ask for this much.” I think the number was something like a $10,000 appearance fee. A couple of players laughed and said, “No one gets that much.” I sheepishly raised my hands and admitted I was receiving that much already. The room went completely quiet but I did not say it to be a d---. My world had exploded and I wanted them to know what possibilities were out there and above all, to be aware we should not settle anymore.

In the aftermath of the World Cup, Lalas was a man in-demand.

Marcelo Balboa (defender): Every era has a face. Cobi, Meola and Alexi got a lot of hype as ours. Alexi was being pulled in a thousand directions so the fact he played so well amazed me.

Lalas: Before the World Cup, I had played acoustic sets regularly at a bar in Laguna Beach. No one there had a clue who I was. Now, whenever I walked into any restaurant, everyone got up and cheered. That kind of adulation lasted everywhere until 2000 when I cut off my goatee.

Tony Meola (goalkeeper): I got my share of endorsements. There was even a Tony Meola video game called "Sidekick Soccer." It sold really well at the time, but the last time I moved houses, I found the game and was so psyched to show my kids their dad once had his own computer endorsement. I pulled it out; they looked at the [lo-fi] graphics on the box and just mocked me. 

John Harkes (midfielder): I imagined there would be more attention given to us in truth. I had a week’s break then had to return to Derby County to meet the team for preseason in Sweden. No Letterman, no hurrah for me. Just straight back into the grind.

Cobi Jones (midfielder): Everyone knew who we were all of a sudden. Strangers who were not soccer fans would approach me in restaurants and tell me how proud they were of the way I had represented the country. They all felt like they had played a small role in our success. I felt a sense of justification. We had been noticed at last. Finally, the sport was getting respect in America.

Meola: The things I did in the name of growing the sport in America. I was on the Jay Leno show with some soccer-playing pit bulls. I love big dogs but there are few things scarier than pit bulls that can leap five feet into the air. When the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup, Conan had a kid dress up as the trophy and take penalty kicks at me. He was actually a college soccer player and he proceeded to hammer the ball at me from eight yards out. It was humiliating. I learned the art of self-deprecation very, very quickly.

2.  The Professionals

Jones played in England for one season before moving to Vasco da Gama of Brazil.

Jones: Coventry City came in for me. Coventry is a small English city that was heavily bombed in the Second World War … It was quite the cultural change for an L.A. kid. I quickly learned why English parents tell their kids they’ll be “sent to Coventry” if they don't behave! For the first time I encountered players who saw football as their job rather than a passion they loved.

Tab Ramos (midfielder): I had to treat my head injury with care. I went to one of the Olympic boxing team doctors and he told me with the head injury I had received he would not recommend my playing again. I had to make a career decision which took weeks to determine …  I found it extremely depressing …  I returned to Spain with Real Betis but I had lost my spot on the roster because I had been out for four months. It was the end of my career in Spain. In truth, the wake of the World Cup was a very low time for me: the worst part of my career.

While playing in Serie A, Lalas scored goals against both MIlan clubs.

Lalas: I had the chance to move to Serie A to play with Padova. When we played Inter Milan I was randomly selected for post-match dope testing along with the Dutch star Dennis Bergkamp. We both had to hang out in a room until we could pee. Chatting to him, you could just look in his face and see the footballing pressure he was under day-to-day and the extent to which it was just destroying him -- exactly what he had had to sacrifice to get there. And I realized in that moment the extent to which I had been oblivious to that struggle.

Balboa: Agents from Mexico came calling. I hopped on a plane and got a contract there within 24 hours.

Jeff Agoos (defender): I signed a contract with the LA Salsa [of the American Professional Soccer League]. I was back scraping a living as if the World Cup never happened. The crowd was small: diehards and people who had just wandered in to see why the floodlights were on. In truth, 1994 pushed the ball forward just a little bit. The World Cup was a slow burn. It took until 2002 when we had incredible luck and incredible players for soccer to really boom.

Meola in New York Jets uniform in October 1994.

Meola: Southampton came in for me. So did Leeds. A return to Watford was also a possibility but we believed MLS was due to start in seven months’ time; it was originally meant to kick off March 1995. My life’s dream had been to play soccer at Giants Stadium but then they postponed the start for a whole year, which made many of us fearful. It was a time of strange choices. We had fame but nowhere to play. I was offered a Hollywood role in a pirate movie and a chance to join the cast of "Tony and Tina’s Wedding" off Broadway. I even had a stint as a kicker with the Jets … I went to try out thinking it would just be me and coach Pete Carroll but when I came out of the locker room there were hundreds of TV cameras there. To kick field goals in front of all those cameras was more nerve-wracking than anything I experienced in the World Cup.

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

- American Underdogs, part two: Destiny Approaches

- American Underdogs, part three: The Moment Of Truth

3.  American Legacy

Jones: The World Cup was about what we did for soccer fandom in this country. FIFA had originally thought there was a risk giving the United States the World Cup, yet it was the best-attended tournament ever.

Lalas: For a generation of Americans, it was the first time they had seen up close a United States team they could relate to, that was successful, that they could take pride in and become emotionally invested in.

Joe-Max Moore: For the first time in history, kids in America had soccer-playing heroes to look up to: Tab, Lalas, Cobi, Meola. It completely changed the way the sport and the athletes were perceived.

Harkes: Ultimately the big outcome of all this exposure was the birth of MLS. Football was finally for real in the United States. For us players, that meant it became possible to make a living out of the game on the business side, which was what we had always dreamed of.

Ramos: The legacy of the World Cup was that soccer truly existed in the United States now. I prayed the tide would not turn back. Those of us who had come of age in Jersey had lived through the false promise of the New York Cosmos-era. Soccer mattered one minute but not the next. We prayed it would be done the right way: through investing in the players. The launch of MLS became the step forward we knew we all needed. I had the honor of signing on as the first player to join the league. It felt amazing. To be home at last.

4.  Lives Forever Changed

Balboa: Tearing my ACL was really my life reality check. In 1992 I was a cocky young kid who had thought he was better than he was. My injury taught me how easy it could be taken away from me, which put my life into perspective and taught me what I needed to know about the true power of team.

Harkes: I carry the 1994 World Cup with me. It was such a time of personal development … So many players on the current [2014] team don’t know this country once hosted the World Cup, but it remains an unbelievable experience to be a part of.

Since 1994, only the 2002 and 2010 U.S. squads have qualified from World Cup group stage play.

Meola: 1994 shaped my life. That group was special because of the effort we had to put in. I look at the guys who play now -- their money, training, coaching and routine -- and know back then, we had no idea what was coming the next day. We would be sent to Saudi Arabia a couple of times in eight weeks to play with just a few days’ notice. We did not build U.S. Soccer, but we kept the ball rolling for the likes of Tim Howard, Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan to keep pushing it forward.

Wynalda: I learned more about myself and what it means to be a teammate, to be competitive in those three weeks than I could have learned in four years. There was so much to absorb about the willingness to try things, to take risks, to never be afraid of big moments. Everything we need in our players today. Some of us thrived in 1994. Others hid from that responsibility. My goal now is to pass that on to the next generation.

Lalas: To this day, I have moments in my life, like when I meet new people or am about to do something for the first time or I muck up -- and I muck up a lot -- that I hear Bora’s voice in my head saying, “That’s okay, in soccer, what is important is the next play!” That phrase works in life as well as it did on the World Cup in 1994.

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