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American Underdogs: Slogging Away in the Shadows

In the first of a four-part series, Roger Bennett winds the clock back 20 years to the eve of the 1994 World Cup and talks to members of the United States squad, who were preparing to represent their country on home soil.

The frenzy surrounding the fast-approaching 2014 World Cup masks an important transformational milestone for anyone who cares about the United States and its football program: the 20th anniversary of 1994, the year the World Cup finals came to America. 

I consider myself lucky to have glimpsed that U.S. squad experience on home soil. I remember watching with wonder and admiration as that gaggle of risk-takers, dreamers and pioneers swaggered onto the field in their stonewashed denim jerseys. Soccer in the U.S. has come so far, so fast since 1994 that we often forget the sacrifices those players had to make, and their true quality as footballers. 

In 1994, the United States hosted the biggest sporting event in the world for the first time.

Just as Captain Kirk considered space his final frontier, the U.S. had been football's. Hosting duties meant qualification was automatic, a mixed blessing as a woefully inexperienced squad faced four long years in which it was deprived of the one thing that could battle-harden the players: competitive matches that mattered. This challenge was reinforced by the reality that only a handful of American soccer players had found professional opportunities in Europe.

Desperate to avoid the humiliation of becoming the first home team unable to emerge from the tournament’s opening round, the United States Soccer Federation undertook a bold experiment, establishing a residential training center for its team in Southern California. With no guarantee of a place in the final 22, and no definite path to a professional future after the tournament, players moved in and took a leap into the dark.

By the time the World Cup kicked off, most of the U.S. players had racked up vast international experience -- up to 79 caps -- without ever having played a professional game of club football. 

To celebrate the 20th anniversary, I tracked down 13 members of the squad, and coach Bora Milutinovic, to listen to their memories of the preparation, the tournament and the aftermath.

1. And so it begins: Mission Viejo training camp opens, Jan. 11, 1993

Marcelo Balboa (age 26 at the 1994 World Cup, Cerritos, Calif.): No one in America knew who we were. That did not frustrate us. Our real challenge was that most of us lacked the opportunity to play overseas. American soccer players had no credibility in the eyes of European scouts. The chance to come together in Mission Viejo, to live and train year-round, made us feel blessed.

Jeff Agoos (26, Geneva, Switzerland):  We knew the United States was going to host the World Cup, but that reality was almost impossible for us to get our head around. We had no conception of how big the tournament really was. We loved playing soccer but we did not really have a real relationship to the global game of football. Soccer-wise the United States was as undiscovered as America before Christopher Columbus. A couple of us had gotten to play in Europe. Most of us were struggling to make a living playing indoors or on a local team which provided a salary equivalent to an intern.

The U.S. players stretch in the California sunshine.

Alexi Lalas (24, Birmingham, Mich.): We arrived in Mission Viejo during El Niño season. The place was completely flooded. All we could do is run on the beach every day for weeks. When we were finally able to play, they had not built a locker room, so we had to change outside a Wiener Schnitzel place at a shopping mall and run across a freeway to get to the training field. One out-of-control Mack truck could have wiped out an entire generation of U.S. soccer talent

Agoos: I suddenly found myself sharing a room with Alexi Lalas. He was like the messy one in “The Odd Couple.” His room was all guitars, clothes on the floor and broken mirrors. I was Mr. Clean in comparison.

Lalas: They gave us the apartment and a month-to-month contract of $2,500. That might not sound like a lot of money, but it was everything to me.

Tony Meola (25, Kearny, N.J.): Initially there was a lot of the 1990 World Cup squad there, but some of the younger guys from the 1992 Olympic team -- Brad Friedel, Cobi Jones, Alexi Lalas and Joe-Max Moore -- started to filter in. Then the foreigners dropped in and out like Earnie Stewart from Holland and Thomas Dooley from Germany. But the world of American soccer players was very small and we were generally very tight, bonded by a dedication to making the program bigger and an awareness of the sacrifice we would have to make to do so.

Cobi Jones (24; Westlake Village, Calif.): I had to take leave from UCLA to join. Both my parents were teachers, so the decision to play football full-time was harrowing. In the early days, to be part of this project felt both exciting and mysterious. We knew everyone in U.S. soccer had high hopes for this experiment, but we had no idea at all where it was heading.

Lalas: We talked all the time about the fear of embarrassing ourselves. The pressure was immense. We were not just playing for our team or our nation. We were fighting for the future of our sport. If we went out there and s--- the bed, the profile of soccer in the United States would never recover. We had to get out of the group stages

2. 'My name is Bora. B-O-R-A'

Milutinovic was charged with preparing the U.S. players to play as the host nation in 1994.

Bora Milutinovic, a Serbian coach who was both itinerant and mysterious, had been entrusted with the U.S. manager’s job in March 1991. He had previously guided Mexico to the 1986 World Cup finals, and Costa Rica to the second round in 1990.

Bora Milutinovic (49, Bajina Basta, Yugoslavia): Why did I take the job? Because my life is an adventure. I like to explore, discover new places. 

Balboa: The first time we met Bora he walked in and introduced himself by saying, "My name is Bora." He then spelled it out slowly -- "B-O-R-A" -- as if we were all children. His whole style was calculated cunning.

Lalas: Bora was an incredible combination of Yoda and Yogi Bear. Sometimes his words did not make sense to anybody. I did not know if it even made sense to him.

Meola: I had the responsibility of being Bora's captain, which was no easy task because he would not speak to me for the longest time. He would only talk to the guys who were fluent in Spanish. 

Balboa: I spoke Spanish so he had me translating. The more you knew him, the more you realized his English was actually quite good. He just picked and chose when to use it to motivate us. 

John Harkes (27, Kearny, N.J.): Bora could speak three or four languages, but if a difficult conversation had to take place he would pretend he could not understand you. He would just shout back in a different language.

Milutinovic: It is not true I could speak English. I hadn't practiced the language much at that time. I do believe I have God-given talent to communicate with soccer players for some reason, though. Soccer language is very simple.

Lalas: To Bora, everything was important. He would put his fingers to his nose and command us to "sniff what was going on." To suburban white guys like me it was often hilarious. I would show my frustration at times, but with hindsight, I realize as an inexperienced 20-something, Bora’s cerebral approach was exactly what I needed. It made me understand every decision I had on the field had consequences and the best defenders are those who can compute the countless possibilities on the field in an instant to choose the best one.

Balboa: We knew we were by far the most inexperienced squad Bora had ever coached, yet he kept telling us even Mexico wore the same kind of cleats as we did. Before Bora, when we played a big team, we would go out on the field and hope we could only let in three or four goals. He began to make us believe we were skilled enough and smart enough to break down any team. 

Lalas: Bora knew what buttons to press. One day, he sent an administrator to tell me I had to cut my hair. I was pissed but I was a young buck who wanted to be on the team so I walked into a barbershop in Phoenix, Ariz., and cut it short. When Bora saw me in the team meeting later that day he said, "You look very nice Mr. Lalas." I gritted my teeth and smiled. But I started growing it back that day and Bora never said another word about hair to me. I had passed the first of many of his tests and proved that I would do whatever it took to be on the team.

3. Training days

Milutinovic: I realized the team had plenty of talent. I had to use the time I had to improve the players and get them ready.

Jones at the Mission Viejo training camp in 1993.

Jones: Bora had an exhausting regime of "Doubledays" -- two long practices a day for a year and a half. I learned exactly what the body could physically endure.

Joe Max-Moore (23, Tulsa, Okla.): I was so young and raw; I viewed everything as an opportunity to learn from being surrounded by guys who had such experience. But I also felt sorry for them, because training was so punishing, it really exhausted the old guys.

Janusz Michallik (28, Chorzow, Poland): Bora's attitude was that he was working with Americans who did not know anything about the game. To be fair, many of the players loved football, but they had no idea about the world of football and the stars of the major teams. That made him skeptical of us.

Jones: Bora was a coach that liked to control every minute detail. He would coach us on how to tie our shoes. How to run. How to make a short pass correctly. In Italy, he even took Mike Lapper aside to coach him on how to eat spaghetti the right way.

Meola: Bora asked me to be the link between him and the European-based players. He had no idea how they would react to the setup and I was left to explain to them why we were doing up to five hours training, and then go right from practice on Wednesdays to watch the Champions League games in a Laguna Beach bar. It was so we had some familiarity with the players we would meet at the World Cup.

Tab Ramos (27, Montevideo, Uruguay): I was one of the few guys playing overseas [for Real Betis in Spain] so I did not spend much time at Mission Viejo. I would travel back and forth and it was always strange. They had these unbelievably long two-a-day training sessions and in Spain I was used to keeping it short and to the point -- light training with days off and massages. It was a massive cultural adjustment. 

Harkes: Coming back from England [where I was playing for Derby County], I found the training to be totally bizarre. I pulled Bora aside to speak to him about it and he assured me it was exactly what these boys needed. He seemed bonkers but Bora understood the immaturity of this group -- their lack of experience -- and he knew exactly what we needed to meet this challenge on home soil: lots of confidence building and praise.

Ramos: Bora would put you through exercises that made no sense. He just wanted to see what reaction he could provoke from you. He would get players jogging up and down between goals for 15 minutes, rolling the ball to a keeper. Some players would purposely punt their shot way over the bar just so they could leave the field to retrieve it and not come back. Bora was testing them.

4. Global barnstormers

To blood his players, Milutinovic fielded the squad against all comers. In 1993, the United States earned 10 wins, 11 draws and 13 losses, form so poor that The New York Times wondered, "When does awful become meaningful?"

Meola: We were on the road constantly. In 1992 I counted 250 travel days. We gave our life to the game. Bora’s mission was for us to have competed against every player we could possibly meet at the World Cup before the tournament kicked off, so that nothing was new. We were in the Soviet Union on the eve of a coup against [Mikhail] Gorbachev. We were the last team to play Yugoslavia before the region became war-torn. We were the last team to play East Germany just as the wall was being chiseled down.

Balboa: We played the equivalent of a full MLS season against international teams. One day we would face England or Germany in a huge stadium. The next we would play a tiny team like Cayman Islands on a high school field with a couple of people watching. I loved the big games but feared the smaller ones. They were always on wretched little fields and I lived in fear of getting injured. 

Thomas Dooley, left, celebrates his goal in a 2-0 win vs. England in June 1993.

Ramos: We got some big wins. We beat England and Portugal. We tied Italy. We beat Jack Charlton’s Ireland who had not lost in like 50 games. … Wins like that made us begin to believe.

Balboa: I finally injured myself against Iceland. I had been miked up, too, NFL films-style for a shoot. Three minutes into the game my knee just buckled. I was caught on mike just screaming and yelling. I had torn my ACL. The doctors told me it would take 12 months to recover. I was a young guy who had tied his future to a World Cup I had very little chance of making. I stood in the shower and sobbed and sobbed. Bora took me aside and told me that my job now was to get back to the team, and that drove and inspired me.

5. The foreign legion

In 1991, Harkes was a League Cup winner after Sheffield Wednesday beat Manchester United at Wembley.

Harkes: I was the first American to play in the English Premier League with Sheffield Wednesday. Back then we were not released for international games by our club teams. We stayed in Europe for the whole season fighting for our living. I knew the guys were together in Mission Viejo playing game after game but there was no email back then. I mostly stayed in touch with the other European-based players and we communicated by fax. Tab Ramos and I spent hours in the club offices hanging around the fax machine. It was one step up from sending each other messages by owl.

Eric Wynalda (25, Westlake Village, Calif.): I was the first American to play in the German top flight [with Saarbrücken]. I quickly learned how different European football was from the U.S. when Oliver Kahn told me, "In Germany, you don't smile when you lose" and a teammate hit me in the face with his cleats when I missed an easy chance. Tab Ramos, Earnie Stewart, John Harkes and Thomas Dooley understood that. I didn’t know what to think about the rest of the squad. All I knew was I had to be a role model and not be afraid to have a go at my American teammates as I had in the past. 

Balboa: Bora would only let guys try out with us if they could beat him at soccer tennis. He was obsessed with that game. We would play for hours before practice. Tournaments were held. Joe-Max Moore often won. The ultimate success of 1994 was built in large part on those tennis courts.

Lalas: New players were coming into the mix all the time, churn and burn. The fight for places was a brutal competition fought by brutally competitive men. Cle Kooiman arrived from Cruz Azul in the Mexican league and immediately spat on one of our opponents. We just looked at each other and said, "What the heck is this?" Off the field he was the sweetest guy in the world. On it, he was a pure psychopath.

Balboa:  We did not welcome outsiders with open arms as we knew we were competing for places. You had to prove yourself quickly as we would kick the crap out of you.

Jones: With the foreign players coming in and out of the team we all began to think about the possibility of a professional career. … Rumors abounded about MLS being established but we did not really know. They did a very good job of keeping our minds on the World Cup. We all still hoped to be seen by an overseas team. That was our dream.  

Lalas: We did not harbor resentment toward the Europeans. We knew they were an important part of the team. But we did have the feeling we were going through something that was pretty difficult and at times, hellish, and they got to parachute in and only get a tiny dose of it. Yes, we may look bedraggled, but they should try and do what we had done every single day for a year and a half. We trained together. We went out and had beers together. We travelled together. We were warriors.

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