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Mar 4, 2014

American Underdogs: Destiny Approaches

In the second part of Roger Bennett’s oral history of the U.S. team at the 1994 World Cup, the tournament draws closer as 1993 comes to a close. After months of training in California and playing around the world, the players’ public profiles start to grow and the final roster is announced. Before that, though, the group stage draw takes place.

1. The Draw: Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas on Dec. 19, 1993

Las Vegas-style preparation for the draw.

Tony Meola (goalkeeper): The World Cup draw was in Las Vegas. I was up on stage doing the draw alongside boxer Evander Holyfield, supermodel Carol Alt and singer Barry Manilow, none of whom knew a thing about football. We were in the green room beforehand and Manilow refused to speak to anyone, while Holyfield just wanted to talk about how excited he was about the World Cup. He had no idea what it was exactly, but boy was he excited.

Cobi Jones (midfielder):  There was some kind of mistake with the draw. We were not meant to be in Colombia’s group. [United States Soccer Federation president] Alan Rothenberg, who had organized the event, was incensed backstage, storming around and letting people know that something had gone very badly wrong. It certainly appeared to be a very tough draw.

Meola: Pele had picked Colombia as his team to win it all. They were definitely meant to go to the semifinals. But Bora’s world travel master plan had meant we had already played Colombia a bunch of times. We were not meant to be drawn against them but because we were so familiar with their play we were actually calmer than you would think.

Eric Wynalda (forward): I was flying to Los Angeles when the draw was made. My dad picked me up at the airport and when he greeted me I could tell something was wrong because he was so quiet. He told me our opponents and made a sad face. But I knew most of the Swiss and the Romanians from Germany and I was like, “so what!” As for Colombia, we had played them in friendlies so many times, we no longer saw them as the rest of the world did. [Freddy] Rincon and [Carlos] Valderrama were good but they had a lot of egos and were vulnerable. We were not afraid.

FIFA General Secretary Sepp Blatter holds up the USA card at the draw.

Jones: We went back to Mission Viejo [in California] and the place was swamped with photographers and cameramen but that was not the only change. We now had a sense of exactly what we had to do to get out of our group. We talked to each other about our sense of fear but we tried to focus on the positive and what we needed to do to be successful as a team, all the time trying to vie for a starting place for that first game. 

Alexi Lalas (defender): Bora went around telling the press he thought the draw was great and that we would win the World Cup in Pasadena.

Bora Milutinovic (manager): I like to put away any negative thoughts, and prepare ourselves for the small details before match day. Why couldn’t we win? You gotta be an optimist on every occasion.

2. Fame!  “I’m gonna learn how to fly”

Harkes was named one of People’s “50 Most Beautiful” before the World Cup (according to the article, “Wherever he is, Harkes practices one inflexible beauty ritual: a daily slathering of Oil of Olay.")  

John Harkes (midfielder): People Magazine had to call three times before I believed it wasn’t a wind up. It made me realize football was mainstreaming. MTV always seemed to want us. We were never quite sure if there was a true love of soccer growing in this country or if it was just the circus coming into town.

Lalas became one of the faces of the team and of the tournament.

Lalas: Because of the way we looked, Cobi and I had a lot of opportunities come our way. I was the rock guy, he was the dance guy. I did not plan it but since it started to happen, I knew what I was doing. I had grown up with 1980s metal and that was all about image and self-promotion, so I just tried to act very L.A. Sunset Strip. 

Jones: There was a lot of times I would be mobbed by 30, 40 or 50 teenage girls after a game, screaming my name (the press called it “Cobi-mania”). I was definitely a big personality.

Lalas: Even though I had not been part of the 1990 World Cup squad, I quickly became a leader of the team at a time when we started to make money for the first time and become recognized. Even though we played a team sport, I put everything I could into looking the best. That sounds egotistical and arrogant but I am comfortable saying I never did anything individually that harmed the team. 

- Part one: Slogging Away In The Shadows

3. Jersey Boys: A vision in stonewash denim

Meola: We saw the jerseys for the first time about a month before the World Cup. We were in Dallas to play Bolivia and were instructed to turn up wearing jeans for a team photograph. The jersey was presented to us at a meeting by people from Adidas. Crickets. No one said a word. Then Mike Burns, who was sitting by me, started chuckling and the whole room erupted with shock and laughter. 

Thomas Dooley, Eric Wynalda and Paul Caliguri before the group game vs. Switzerland.

Harkes: The jersey was bad, but the shorts were worse. They were made of the saddest material known to man.

Lalas: At first, a lot of us thought the jersey was a joke or a prank. When it dawned on us that was not the case, I was like, “Oh Crap!”  We were already under incredible pressure not to be a laughing stock and someone had thought it was a good idea for us to take the field in faux denim.

4. A Goalkeeping Rivalry Like No Other

Lalas: The goalkeeper dynamic was brutal. Meola, Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller battled hard. The competition was so intense, it was like watching some kind of Shakespearean rivalry unfold. 

Meola: It felt strange. I was the team’s captain but I only played every other game. Was I afraid I would not make the team? You never knew with Bora. When he took over the Costa Rican team, he cut their four most well-known players. Though he had a history of surprise moves, I did not think he had the luxury of doing that with the U.S. as we just did not have the depth of talent, but it was a battle for sure. Kasey was on the outside as he had issues with Bora. Friedel wanted my job and did everything he could to grab it. We talked to each other but it was a real rivalry. Ultimately Brad made me a better player and I hope he feels like I did the same for him.

5. Selecting the Final 22: The Last Cut is the Deepest

Milutinovic: Making the final cuts is the toughest moment for any international team manager. You must put sentimentalism aside. We got it right and we set the foundation for the future of U.S. soccer in doing so. 

Agoos: As we got closer to the final roster date, we all started to go into the training complex as little as possible to avoid running into the coaches and minimize the chance of them telling you to report to Bora.

Lalas: With a month to go, the light at the end of the tunnel was visible for all of us after 17 months of hell. All we thought about was being in a chair by the time the music stopped.

Meola: If I could change anything, it would be the way guys were cut. Sometimes, they were just told to report to the secretary of the training building, who was the nicest old lady in the world. They lumped her with the s---iest job in U.S. soccer. She had to tell some of the guys they were not going to make the team and gave them their tickets home. I roomed with Dominic Kinnear on the road and, when he was cut, I could not speak to him for months, it was that painful to lose him. 

Lalas: Joe-Max Moore was reputedly the last one to make the team. The story has always been that he had a really competitive game of foot tennis with Bora the night before the final cuts and that is what sealed it. 

Joe-Max Moore (forward): I was probably one of the last players to make the team. I was so young and lacking in experience. At the end it became nerve wracking. I saw great friends like Dominic Kinnear get cut and I witnessed how devastating it was. At the same time I knew it was either you or them. Bora took a shine to me. We did play a lot of soccer tennis after practice but to put my selection down to one game of that sounds crazy to me. Bora and I did have some crazy competitive games of soccer tennis though.

Michallik: I was in the last group cut and it was emotional because my father had played professionally in Europe and football was everything in my life, the World Cup meant more to me than the other American-born players. I was cut after a run on the beach. Bora always had problems communicating properly. Even more so in this moment. I had been at Mission Viejo from Day 1. I had given up the chance to play in England to stay with the U.S. team and chase my World Cup dream. He just told me I would not be part of the squad. It took me a long time to get over this, to be truthful. I was devastated. I kept training for weeks on the slight off chance there would be an injury and I would get my chance. The hope was unrealistic but you cling onto hope. I honestly trained harder on my own than I ever had. The pain still lingers. It still haunts me to this day. It still hurts me and I don't understand why.   

Jeff Agoos: On the last day, we went back to the beach for a really rigorous run. We felt safe because the day was coming to a close. As I was headed up the steep hill back to the parking lot, a coach intercepted me and told me to meet Bora by a huge rock at the end of the beach. Bora simply said “you are not going to be a member of the team. We are going to go in a different direction.” I tried to push him for a reason why. After all, I had put in blood, sweat and tears for months and months. But Bora’s answers were canned and he gave me nothing. I was left to head back to my car covered in sweat and sand. Back at the apartment I hit the shower and stood under it for 20 minutes just letting the water run over me. As I did so, I vowed to myself not to let this affect me. I told myself I had to move on and start thinking about the next World Cup. [Agoos represented the U.S. in 1998 and 2002.] When I got out of the shower, all my U.S. training kit was there on the floor in front of me. I could not bear to see it any more. I realized if I simply stuffed it in the garbage I would still see it, so I flicked on the gas fire and watched cathartically as each item went up in flames.

Lalas: At its core, Mission Viejo was like a reality show with no rules and, thankfully, no cameras. 

Meola: No one was ever told they had made the team. Once the last cuts were made, the rest of us were invited to some kind of fashion event sponsored by Macy's. We got on the bus and it dawned upon us that we were the squad who would be going to the World Cup. No one announced that officially. Back in those days we had those early huge cell phones and we just started to make calls to spread the news. It was a night of mixed emotions. The guys who had been cut were more than players. We had been with them for 24 hours a day from January 1993 to the World Cup. Each player that was cut was like losing a brother.

Lalas:  I will never forget driving home knowing the squad had been finalized and I was in. I was excited for the $20,000 bonus as I was to be going to the World Cup. 

Harkes: I came back from Derby having played a 58-game season and I was exhausted. I came back having adapted to all the English football clichés -- the hair, the style -- and everyone on the team let me know how much I had changed. 

Ramos: The overseas players joined back up three weeks before the tournament began and it was weird to arrive. All the players who had been there for over a year seemed burned out. But America somehow felt different. I grew up at a time when people in this country did not care about soccer. I returned to a country in which soccer was in the streets, on TV, at the airport, everywhere. It was as if America had been invaded by another superpower that was a real soccer country. 

Harkes: I was honestly exhausted physically after the English season and Bora understood that. He let me take my time to build up my strength. I spent a lot of time in the ice bath. I only had six or seven games with the full squad before the World Cup began.

After the squad was finalized, Milutinovic showed his lighter side.

Wynalda: I was released from Germany on May 8. I came back and discovered a group who had been tested by Bora’s mind games every day for too long. They never discovered the answer to the riddle he was throwing at them. I knew there was no answer. Once the final cuts had been made, Bora’s attitude changed completely. He had spent months telling them that everything they did was wrong. Condescending to them about their technique. Suddenly he was all love and encouragement and positivity, telling the players to enjoy the best time of their life. He flipped the script.

Harkes:  A large part of our group was young. We were excited. We had a gut feeling we could do something historic to cement soccer’s profile in this country forever. There was a lot of chatter in the background about creating our own league. I was a player who had beaten Manchester United and played a final at Wembley. I knew that I had experience most of the others had not and I knew I had to use that and be a leader. At times, I felt too much pressure simply because the stakes felt that high. 

Lalas: Right before the World Cup, Bora discovered "successories" -- business jargon they produce for offices to make people work harder. “Teamwork!” and all that kind of stuff.  He was amazed that this actually existed where he could go buy it and he didn't have to just say it to everybody. He went crazy with all these different sayings. We all felt so much pressure. We were about to face three very good teams. We felt the pressure to represent the United States in soccer. We felt we represented the future of the sport in this country. Success meant getting out of the group. So Bora tried to impress upon us the lesson of one of his successory slogans: “Carpe Diem.” He wanted us to recognize the opportunity that was before us so he ran round the locker room screaming and yelling in his clumsy English “Size the Day! Size the Day! Size the Day!” 

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