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 Two of this three-part series reprises the USA's monumental triumph against World Power Argentina in the teams' final group match as well as the defeat of archrival Mexico in the first knock-out round that formed on the cornerstones for that generation's struggle for the CONCACAF crown.
SAMPSON DOES SOME HEAVY LIFTING
Sampson, a USA assistant coach at the 1994 World Cup, was the interim coach of the team at the U.S. Cup and Copa America. While trying to coax the U.S. to go as far as it could, he also was trying to impress his bosses to hire him as the full-time head coach. Prior to leaving for Uruguay, Sampson asked U.S. secretary general Hank Steinbrecher what he had to do to keep his job as coach. "I told him to win six," Steinbrecher said. The USA did not win six games, but did well enough to secure Sampson the permanent heading coaching position after the competition. He went on to direct the team through the 1998 World Cup.
Sampson: I tried not to think about my own personal issue. I just tried to enjoy the moment. I knew upon my return I was going to have an interview with the Columbus Crew and there were a couple of other MLS teams that were interested in me at the time. But I know we'd never had an American-born coach lead the U.S. National Team in its history. I told myself what a privilege it would be to be the first.”
Klopas: He was someone who we knew very well, someone we were comfortable with because he was one of the assistants leading up to the 1994 World Cup with Bora. The players respected him. He did a very good job communicating the game plan and what to expect with the players. There was a comfort level because we knew him for years.
Ramos: Bora was one of the best coaches I have ever had – on and off the field. I would have to say sometimes why coaching changes are made because it gets to the point sometimes it can get stale. I think it was time. Steve was a fresh face. All of a sudden the team was happy and the team just played its best because it couldn't wait to get on the field. At the same time, Steve was an American coach and was a lot easier to understand. The team responded really well and that certainly was a high for us.
Lalas: He knew what was not working with this group and he was smart enough to fix that quickly. It resonated with all of us and we performed accordingly. And he got the job.
Friedel: When he was asked to take over as the interim coach, he had an experienced coach alongside him in Clive Charles, who helped him a lot.
Wynalda: The opportunity that he had he took full advantage of because that was a tough team to coach. Clive Charles, God rest his soul, was the glue there. It's so hard to do what Steve was being asked to do anyway. But whether it was keeping the boys laughing, bringing us back in, I think Clive was the biggest catalyst allowing Steve not to get carried away with certain things.
Sampson: You know even after the Copa America tournament, I had no idea where I stood with Alan (Rothenberg, U.S. Soccer president) or Hank. It wasn't until we played at the Parmalat Cup in New York that they offered me the job. I was very honored and privileged to have that experience and was appreciative of that opportunity.
A REMATCH WITH BRAZIL
After moving past Mexico, the team had to pack up and leave Paysandu and traveled to Maldonado for a semifinal confrontation with Brazil at Campus Municipal on July 20. A year prior, the Americans lost to Brazil in the second round at the World Cup, 1-0, playing a cautious game despite enjoying a man advantage after Leonardo fractured Ramos' skull. The Brazilians went onto capture their first world championship in 24 years and fourth overall; the USA was eliminated.
Lalas: We finally went on the road. To a certain extent, we left Brigadoon. It was a different environment and everything kind of changed. We were still confident. We were certainly a better team in the previous tournament when we faced Brazil in the '94 World Cup. So we felt confidence from that, a progression if you will. But it's still Brazil, anyway you slice it.
Wynalda: I knew we were in the middle of something special when we're watching Brazil playing against Argentina and we're rooting for Brazil to win (laughs). Think about that. Yeah, let's play Brazil. Part of us were like, we've already poked the bear with Argentina. They would love another shot at us. So that's not going to be a good idea.
Ramos: That Brazil team was like Spain was three, four years ago. They were undoubtedly the best team in the world and the team that had just won the World Cup, a combination of flair and yet they had hard players like Dunga and Mauro Silva.
Jones: We're feeling that we had a shot. We're feeling more experienced. That awe factor, "Oh it's Brazil," it was another team that we were playing. We've got a shot. So we're going to go out there and get after it.
Ramos: For me it was a little bit more than a special game because it was the first time I was going to play against Leonardo again. He had knocked me out for five months from the World Cup injury. I wanted to make sure we could prove we could beat you this time. We played a pretty good game. I remember the result being much better than we were in that game in deserving to win the game.
Sampson: When we played them against 11 men against their 10, all of us agreed we played too conservatively on the day at Stanford Stadium. So the players really wanted to go out against Brazil and make a statement. And I think they did, even though we lost 1-0. It took a great run by Roberto Carlos on the left side of the pitch. Cobi Jones barely touches him on the shoulder. He takes a dive to draw the foul. He services on the free kick a magnificent cross to Aldair, who heads the ball home for their lone goal.
Caligiuri: It was a bitter way to lose to Brazil because that's the one big hurdle we have not overcome. Some speak of us beating Brazil this one time (at the 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cup). It wasn't a full squad.
Jones: The team played well. We responded well to everything out there. We gave it our all. A lot of games in a short amount of time and at that time it’s a war of attrition, who could survive and have the healthier bodies and have people ready to play.
Wynalda: I got hurt in the first part of the second half. I pulled my groin pretty bad and I had to go back to Germany (to his club team VfL Bochum) with that injury, which was terrible. We kind of ran out of gas. We didn't have the luxury of resting guys like some of the other opponents did, so they were able to give some guys a game off. We played every game. We were starting to feel the effects of it.
Klopas: It was a close game. They had a lot of quality. There was nothing for us to be ashamed of. We left it all on the field.
Sampson: On that day the United States, one, proved they could play with the best in the world and two, they can play to win. They did not play not to lose. I could not be more proud of that moment and how we expressed ourselves.
Only two days later on July 22 at Campus Municipal in Maldonado, the Americans played Colombia in the third-place match. The USA was a battered team, emotionally and physically, having played six matches in 16 days. Sampson made several changes in the Starting XI, giving players such as Mike Lapper, Mike Sorber, Jovan Kirovski and John Kerr a chance to play. The Colombians, who were upset by the Americans, 2-1, at USA '94, recorded a 4-1 win. Luis Manuel Quiñónez gave the South American side the lead in the 30th minute and the legendary Carlos Valderrama doubled the advantage eight minutes later. After the mercurial Faustino Asprilla tallied in the 50th minute, Moore converted a penalty kick two minutes later to slice the deficit to 3-1. The inimitable Freddy Rincon closed out the scoring in the 76th minute.
Friedel: [Colombia] had some wonderful players. They were a strong, strong team back then. I think most people agree that they underperformed at the 1994 World Cup. Playing in Copa America was their next opportunity to try to put that performance right. Losing to us in the World Cup, no matter whether we played them in a friendly, a consolation game, a third/fourth place game, they were going to try to not lose to us.
Sampson: Unfortunately, we had to play a third-place game that none of us wanted to play. As much as we would have loved to have come away with a bronze medal, the players were exhausted.
Keller: By this stage, we were pretty beat up. We were pretty sick of one another by this stage as well. There was the hangover of not making it to the final.
Lalas: The air had gone out of the balloon.
Jones: It’s unfortunate because it was one of those situations where third place does mean something, I guess. We had players thinking about beyond the third-place match, thinking about when they're getting home rather than the game.
Wynalda: A lot of guys who didn't get a chance to play, got a chance to play. They were a little out of rhythm. I couldn't have played. A couple of other guys were licking their wounds, too. We were shot.
Ramos: I was nursing an ankle injury. We had so many games I couldn't get my ankle ready to play. A bunch of guys were going through things. No one says that but there was a certain feeling that it's the last game and then we're going home. The result was a reflection of exactly that.
Lalas: I'll never forget talking to Bora after the tournament and him specifically mentioning that third-place game. He was no longer our coach and him saying that he was disappointed on the way we played that game and how we let an opportunity pass us by. In a sense, he was right. He made a point by saying, "You realize you were playing to finish third in Copa America?" He just felt that it didn't show in the way we were performing. And he's right. I don't think we recognized the importance of that moment and it reflected in our play. I think if any of us had to do anything over, we would have approached that game differently. There is a difference between third and fourth.
Klopas: Finishing fourth in the tournament to everyone's surprise, no one expected us to do that. There was definitely a belief in our group to do well. We had nothing to hang our heads down for.
Sampson: It didn't take the luster off of what was an incredible summer for the United States National Team.
A HEROES WELCOME IN ARGENTINA
There were a few more plane rides to take, which included a journey on a 54-seat prop jet to Buenos Aires and a hero’s welcome at the Hard Rock Café in the Argentine capital before departing for the U.S.
Friedel on the bus ride from Paysandu to Maldonado: We had a couple of players who were nervous fliers and we were told that the airplane was going to be a prop plane. If memory serves correctly, Earnie Stewart and Paul Caligiuri were two that didn't want to get on the plane. It was one of those scenarios where the team stuck together and we all got on a bus. So we took seven hours, something like that, through mountains and hills and all sorts (laughs) to get to Maldonado.
Klopas on the flight to Buenos Aires: I remember sitting in the back, in the last row. We had so many bags. We ran out of space to put these bags, so they started pushing bags in the charter flight. The only thing I remember, I'm sitting with Paul Caligiuri, and he's really nervous at flying. He was holding my hand and squeezing it. I said, "Paul, relax." We were covered with bags. We couldn't get out of our seats. He's holding my hand as tight as a pole. Don't injure me now!
Keller: We were given leather varsity jackets from the Hard Rock. I think I still have mine somewhere floating around. I saw it when I was unpacking a few years ago. That was kind of the way the Argentinians responded to us beating Argentina and doing what we did. It was one of those respect levels around the world that the U.S. gained for the success in Uruguay.
Klopas: I can't find my jacket. I don't know what I did with it. I'm sure someone's wearing it. Every time I see old friends: "Do you have the Hard Rock jacket that I brought home from Copa?” I'm always looking to see if someone's wearing it.
Sampson: I thought it was interesting having beaten Argentina that we're going through Buenos Aires. The players were so happy with the results that we could have taken a boat back home and I don't think they would have cared.