1995 Copa America Oral History: The Tournament Begins

Twenty-one years ago, a hungry and ambitious United States Men's National Team journeyed to Uruguay to prove it could play with the world's best.

The Americans did, making some history along the way. 

A year older and wiser after reaching the second round of the 1994 World Cup, the USA proved to the rest of the world it was for real.

Not only did the U.S. MNT finish fourth at the 1995 Copa America, they turned some heads and surprised many soccer observers and experts along the way. Their victories included a triumph against Chile, the team's first win over a South American team on that continent in 65 years, a stunning 3-0 victory over highly-rated Argentina and a penalty-kick shootout win against archrival Mexico at a neutral venue. 

To many soccer fans back in the States, the tournament might as well have been a well-kept secret because access to matches was greatly limited. Games were available only through closed-circuit TV at bars and restaurants or if you were willing to pay $19.95 per match to watch it on cable. Since the competition was held in the early days of the internet and social media was years away, acquiring information about the MNT's success proved to be a monumental task at the biennial competition, the oldest international soccer tournament in the world.

To truly appreciate the quality of the team that U.S. Soccer sent to Uruguay, it must be noted that a dozen from that squad have been elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame. The impressive list includes goalkeeper Kasey Keller; defenders Marcelo Balboa, Alexi Lalas, Paul Caliguiri and Thomas Dooley; midfielders John Harkes, Tab Ramos, Cobi Jones, Earnie Stewart, Joe-Max Moore and Claudio Reyna; and forward Eric Wynalda. Another teammate, goalkeeper Brad Friedel, who retired from professional soccer in 2015, is considered to be a strong candidate when he becomes eligible. 

Part One of this three-part series illustrates the events leading up to the 1995 Copa America as well as the first matches against Chile and Bolivia.

Part 2 | Part 3

Defender Paul Caligiuri: It was a big deal. Reaching the semifinals was absolutely a huge success, and at that time it was the greatest success in U.S. Soccer history in competing in one of the world's elite tournaments. And to do it so quickly, without the opportunities that we see today, without development academies and Major League Soccer, this was a unique group that accomplished a heck of a lot in a short period. After this year's Copa America Centenario, American fans will know a lot more of the magnitude of Copa America.

Goalkeeper Brad Friedel: This wasn't a friendly. This was a competition that every single South American team and Mexico and us in this instance wanted to win desperately. So whether you were Brazil or Argentina or Uruguay or Paraguay or Chile, if you didn't do well you knew you were going to get a lot of negative attention back in your home country. We had just done fairly well in the '94 World Cup and it was important to keep building on that.

Midfielder Cobi Jones: If that happened now, the world would be going crazy. The United States would be going crazy beyond what they've seen up until this point in the World Cup. That's absolutely massive for us to not just beat Argentina, but to annihilate Argentina. It was 3-0 and it was a dominant performance.

Forward Frank Klopas: No pressure on us. We just really wanted to compete, to continue the success we had in '94 and prove to the world that we were a good team with a lot of good players and prove the U.S. would be a soccer country in the future that deserved a lot of respect.

Caligiuri: It was some of the best times of my life in my entire experience. It was absolutely amazing, from the camaraderie of the team to the success we had on the field to the impact and imprint on the Uruguayan people.

Forward Eric Wynalda: We just wanted to see our country get what we felt it deserved, and that meant being recognized as a footballing nation. That was really what we wanted. It was not a team that people feared, but they certainly didn't want to play us. I remember that the Mexicans wouldn't look at us, and after the game was over the Argentines respected us. That was cool. I don't know how the other guys feel, but I wouldn't change a thing.

Interim coach Steve Sampson: I can believe that if we had that kind of a run today it would be incredibly well received. I think it would break the internet.

Copa ‘95 wasn't the first time the USA had participated in the biennial tournament. Two years prior under coach Bora Milutinovic, the Americans competed at the 1993 Copa America in Ecuador as preparation for USA '94. It was a difficult initiation with many lessons. They did not win a match, losing to Uruguay, 1-0, and Ecuador, 2-0, before squandering a three-goal, second-half lead to Venezuela and settling for a 3-3 draw.

Sampson: It was a tremendous honor for the United States to be invited to both of those Copa Americas. Given our history, some respect was being paid by the fact we were hosting the World Cup in '94.

Defender Alexi Lalas: I had just gotten to the team that year, so it was my first big tournament with Bora [Milutinovic]. I think Bora recognized very early on, "Hey, this is great experience for my team as a whole to go to this tournament and a lot of individuals, assessing what they could do.” It was going to be the closest approximation to a World Cup that he was going to get.

Jones: I was a youngster at that time. I was just trying to get my bearings, trying to figure everything out, what I was going to do, where I was going to go. It was a significant difference, because in '95 I had a better understanding of what everything was and what we were trying to do and the possibilities and the meaning of what Copa America is all about.

Sampson: We were by and large a very young team compared to the rest of the field of Copa America. Bora wanted to see who could manage the pressure of playing in an event like that. I think he learned an awful lot about guys like Wynalda, guys like Balboa and guys like Lalas. I think it really helped him really solidify a lot of his decisions on who he was going to select for the World Cup the next year.

Caligiuri: We did not have international experience at altitude. Our first game, we are playing in Ecuador in Quito. Though there was a lot of excitement going into it, we weren't prepared for that altitude. Guys just couldn't breathe after 10 minutes of the game.

Sampson: The Venezuela game stands out. I don't think I've ever seen Bora more disappointed than after that match, having lost that much of a lead and having squandered that lead for a tie. Bora was never one to be animated, but he was incredibly animated in the locker room after that match to the extent where he was angry. I thought it was an incredible growing experience, having said that because it allowed Bora to make some changes in the team which he might not have made otherwise and to the benefit of the U.S. National Team. You could say that a number of players played themselves onto the World Cup roster in the first half and then a number of players played themselves off the roster in the second half. In hindsight, that was a watershed moment for our development as a country.

Midfielder Tab Ramos, who captained that team: The most important thing we learned was that we could not participate in the tournament without having a full team. In '93, five or six guys decided to take a break and we had a very tough time.

Two years later, Jones, Ramos, Lalas, Calgiuiri and their teammates had another chance at Copa America, this time in Uruguay. This was a different and more experienced team. It had the World Cup experience and many more international matches under its belt. The Americans also were coming off a superb performance at the U.S. Cup. They defeated Nigeria, 3-2, in Foxborough, Mass., shocked and rolled over Mexico, 4-0, in a virtuoso display in Washington, D.C., and secured the title with a scoreless draw with Colombia in Piscataway, N.J. Defender Mike Burns headed a ball off the line to preserve the tie. Less than two weeks later, the U.S. would head for Paysandu for Copa America '95.

Sampson: To this date, the 4-0 victory against Mexico remains the biggest margin of victory for the USA in the history of United States vs. Mexico. The way the team played against Nigeria, then completely dominating Mexico, then having to go down to Rutgers to play Colombia. This was after we beat Colombia the year before in the World Cup. I think they wanted to make a statement and certainly everything that happened with (Andres) Escobar (who was assassinated in Colombia) and all the emotion of that event in '94 was playing out in the '95 match in the U.S. Cup. For us to get a 0-0 result in that match to win the U.S. Cup, it built up the confidence of the National Team. I think it began to raise the overall image of U.S. Soccer.

Goalkeeper Kasey Keller: Up to that point it was a one-way rivalry. It was just Mexico really beating up on us for the most part. And not only to beat Mexico, but to truly comprehensively beat Mexico and do it with style and do it with a little bit of flair and score lots of goals. It was something that stepped us forward into a tournament where nobody gave us much of a chance.

Jones: All those tournaments before that, the World Cup and U.S. Cup, it went from us being the underdogs and the understanding that we can compete at any level with any team in the World Cup and get a result. It gave us that bit of confidence, that gave us not a lot, but a little bit of swagger.

Keller: There were no real expectations. We had an interim manager. We were going down to a tournament where you're playing Argentina in our group. It also was a situation where we started previous to the World Cup in '94 we started to find ways to get results at home. We knew we had a good team. We knew we were in good form, but we still had that little bit of apprehension because we were going away from home and we hadn't really proved ourselves.

Sampson: I had to make this decision because two weeks later we were supposed to head down to Paysandu. Everyone in U.S. Soccer expected me to stay in Miami and train the team for those two weeks. Instead, I decided to give those two weeks off to everybody. Part of that was because they had a long club season and they had a very emotional U.S. Cup. I think that decision played very well with the players and then we went down to Paysandu (laughs).

Ramos: Obviously it was exciting for me personally. We were six hours away from the city where I was born.

Caligiuri: You go to Uruguay and you look at your draw and it's Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. It's different than having Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela (in Copa America '93). You could look at traditional South American success, Ecuador and Venezuela not being strong opponents, and you have one solid opponent with traditional Uruguay. Our group was way more tough in '95 than it was in '93.

The team's three group matches were played in Paysandu, which was just over the border from Argentina and separated by the Uruguay River. The city of 76,000 was in rural Uruguay, some 235 miles northwest of the capital in Montevideo. The hotel accommodations were far from five-star quality. For one player, it was kind of a homecoming. For just about everyone, it was going to be the start of an unforgettable experience that included some intriguing twists and turns.

Many U.S. players figured they would lose to Chile and beat Bolivia, but as it turned out the opposite became reality. The Americans defeated the Chileans at the new 22,00-seat Estadio General Artigas on July 7. Wynalda struck twice within a six-minute span, in the 14th and 20th minutes to give the Americans a surprising two-goal lead. Halftime substitute Sebastian Rozental, who played for the Columbus Crew in 2006, pulled one back against Keller in the 63rd minute. The USA, however, held off its foes to secure a precious three points and win on South American soil against a South American side for the first time since a 3-0 victory over Paraguay at the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930.     

U.S. midfielder John Harkes played so well at the 1995 Copa America that he was voted co-MVP of the tournament alongside Uruguay captain Enzo Francescoli.

Sampson: I decided to have training at 10 o'clock in the morning because we didn't have training all week. We trained on the day of the game and that night we played a team that was incredibly unified. The chemistry was remarkable and they showed that in the way they played.

Wynalda: That first game against Chile was really pivotal. We were in a good mood obviously. We had just come off a good set of results. That was the closest-knit team as far as the National Team that I've ever been a part of. We were pretty hell bent on doing something special. The guys were in good form and we hit the ground running. The first goal, it was really spectacular. It was a great team goal. It really was. I got to the near post and tapped in a great cross by Earnie Stewart but everybody contributed. The ball must have touched everybody.

Keller: When we jumped out to that 2-0 lead, there is that kind of, "Whoa! What's going on here?” We may have scored on our first chance, maybe our second. We didn't necessarily have 10 chances to score two goals.

Wynalda: I still get so upset because I got pulled at halftime. I pretty much lost it on my coaching staff. I just didn't want to come out of the game. I had never scored an international hat-trick. It was somewhere in the back of my mind: "Wow, I might have a shot at scoring three today." You get the first one, you want to get the second one. You get the second one, you want to get the third one. It was probably the right move. It was a long tournament and we planned to be there for a while.

Keller: There was a response from Chile. They came at us in the second half. Going into it, we would have been very happy with a point but when you're two-nil up, you think here's an opportunity and seizing that opportunity. I had to make a save or two in the second half. I was busy, but not like crazy busy. I just remember everybody fighting for everything.

Ramos: What stands out for me was the intensity of the team. Now that we had the experience of the World Cup, we had the experience of having gotten some major wins over the previous two or three years, and our program in general was on the rise. I know the team was working really hard. The team was happy and ready to give a good effort.

U.S. forward Eric Wynalda conjured a memorable performance against Chile in the 1995 Copa America.

Buoyed by the early and surprising result, the Americans were hoping to make it two in a row against Bolivia at the same stadium three days later on July 11. A win would have clinched a spot in the quarterfinals, and a draw would have gone a long way in securing one of eight quarterfinal berths.

Ramos: Bolivia had been in the World Cup the year before so they had done well. They had a good generation of players. At the same time, we felt we had been coming along and we really had a better team.

Sampson: I'm thinking to myself, Marco Etcheverry at the time is probably one of the best players in the world. We just came off playing an exceptional game against Chile. Do I mark him man-for-man and just have him covered by one player for the entire match, or do I just play our style and close him down whenever he got the ball in the midfield? I chose to play our style and not to pay too much attention to it; 20-20 hindsight, that was a mistake because Etcheverry picked up the ball in midfield and went on a 40-yard run and put the ball into the back of the net.

Ramos: These are the kind of games that we continue 20 years later to have difficulty with. We have been the country over the years that can get the big result against teams that we are not supposed to. Then we go on to the field and we play a team that we're supposed to beat, we don't. This was something that was disappointing about this tournament.

Keller: I remember the disappointment. It was a very even game. Coming after the win, a draw would have been huge going into play Argentina the next game if we wanted to advance in the tournament.

Wynalda: We really outplayed them. We could have easily scored two or three goals that night. The feeling was, "Oh great, how we kind of shot ourselves in the foot."

Jones: It's funny how that happens, isn't it? You have expectations and everything goes out the window once the whistle blows (laughs). That's soccer. That's how it goes. The team was playing well and the team was together. Yes, not the result we expected. It slipped around a little bit. But it still got us to the point to put ourselves in the proper position to move forward. That's what it was all about.

Off the field, something special was building around the American team. As the USA experienced more success in Paysandu, the more the locals took to the team. It certainly did not hurt that the Americans’ hotel, Hotel Boulevard, did not have a restaurant, so they could not eat there. After the Argentina game, thinking it was probably heading toward another Uruguayan venue for the quarterfinals, the team unfurled a 25-foot long banner that said: "Gracias, Paysandu," accompanied by the words, U.S. Soccer. As it turns out, the Americans played there in the quarterfinals as well, and they repeated their goodwill gesture after eliminating Mexico.

Sampson: We were staying at this one or two-star hotel. Certainly nothing to what our National Team players were accustomed to, but it was not a big issue for us. There was rust all over the bathroom and the faucets. The federation had nothing to do with it. That was the organizing committee for Copa America.

Klopas: I remember pulling up the first day. The kids and everyone in the city came out. They were around our hotel all the time. All the players, we gave so much stuff away: clothing, hats, extras to the kids. We became their team. It's different times now.

Lalas: We were a curiosity, but this also was a very big deal for this town to have this tournament and to host it. There was a responsibility and an incredible pride that they had. We recognized that early on.

Ramos: The lobby downstairs was the only place you could be out of your room, but the lobby was surrounded by glass walls. So when we were in the lobby, we were exposed to the public. Whether the guys were playing cards or doing whatever, we were completely exposed.

Friedel: They had a little area in the front where we used to play cards and had coffee and stuff like that, downstairs in the reception area. When we first got there, people really didn't take notice to us. But after we won the first game, they started taking notice of us.

Klopas: The expresso machine, that's where we spent most of the time, the cafe downstairs. How many times can you listen to Alexi Lalas sing songs on his guitar?

Keller: I remember playing a lot of backgammon.

Caligiuri: We would literally go from our hotel and drive three blocks to go eat lunch or dinner. Get back on the bus, drive three blocks, get out of the bus and back in the hotel. But as the time went on, instead of walking through the tunnel of guards to our bus 10 steps from the hotel front door, we went through the barrier and did our thing, didn't have that fear and started walking the streets in Paysandu. People walked with us and talked with us.

Keller: That little bit of freedom was part of that looseness that this team had. Guys were pretty focused on what they were doing and they had the freedom to grab a beer if you wanted. You can only look at the same guys in the hotel lobby so often before you start banging your head against the wall. 

Klopas: You go outside and you see the fans there whenever we went. When you have guys like Alexi, Marcelo and Cobi on the team, they were easy to recognize. We were connecting with the fans and the people in that city as we continued to do well. We were the favorites. We became their team against Mexico.

Sampson: It was great for the image of the National Team. That wouldn't happen today with all of the security issues. When we walked from one place to other, no bodyguards, no police escorted us. We were on our own. There were no issues. A different time, no question. 

Jones: It was ridiculous. The Uruguayans, (Argentina's) their rivals, they were all behind us, giving us tremendous support so it was great to see. You still have players to this day that remember it. We can talk about things that happened, being in the hotel, the training sessions, everything. 

Caligiuri: Paysandu will always have a special place in my heart. I think it has to do with beating Argentina. Also, through the basic interaction. They got to see American people are friendly, are open. We're kind.

Lalas: If it were not for Copa America 1995, I'm pretty sure I would not have been to Paysandu, Uruguay, let alone heard of Paysandu, Uruguay. It was amazing to see the reaction of the people of Paysandu. They were a huge part of our success.