Eric Wynalda scored off a vital free kick for the USMNT in 1994. (www.YCJPhoto.com)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

At the 1994 World Cup, the U.S. men’s national team had a great responsibility.

The Americans needed to find a way to reach the second round or become the first host side to fail to reach the knockout round.

Now that would be quite embarrassing.

The USA was to take on Switzerland, Colombia and Romania in the group stage. Those three countries encompassed the a difficult opening round for the U.S.

Romania, playing so many years behind the iron curtain, had developed a dangerous and entertaining side led by the marvelously talented Gheorghe Hagi. Colombia, picked by many experts and observers to win the World Cup because of its attacking style, had more talent than it knew what to do with. Switzerland wasn’t in the other two nations’ class but was a solid European side.

Despite these obstacles, the U.S. managed to tie the Swiss, 1–1, at the Pontiac Silverdome on July 18 on the second day of the World Cup, the first indoor match in World Cup history (the game was played on movable modules of grass, instead of artificial turf) on a marvelous 30-yard free kick that was turned into a goal by Eric Wynalda in the final seconds of the opening half that equalized a goal by Georges Bregy only six minutes prior, dipping free kick that caught Meola flat-footed.

Wynalda got no sleep the night before, battling the stomach virus and a rash.

“I was almost in disbelief,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do after I scored.”

Added head coach Bora Milutinovic: “We are still alive. We have a chance to qualify for the second round. I am happy some of the young players raised their level of play.”

Four days later at the Rose Bowl, the U.S. pulled off one of the great upsets in cup history, upending heavily favored Colombia, 2-1, after taking a two-goal lead. Colombia had trouble penetrating the U.S. defensive zone, particularly the final third with Marcelo Balboa and Alexi Lalas putting up a stone wall in front of goalkeeper Meola.

“He was possessed,” U.S. defender Paul Caligiuri said of Balboa. “He was doing anything with any part of his body to get the job done. That inspires you to play harder.”

The Americans, looking for holes in the Colombian defense, finally found one in the 35th minute when midfielder John Harkes crossed the ball from the left wing to Earnie Stewart. But the ball never got to Stewart as defender Andres Escobar redirected into his own net for a 1-0 U.S. advantage.

The American players wound up playing the game of their lives that night at the Rose Bowl, denying the Colombians serious penetration in their defensive zone.

Stewart gave the U.S. some breathing room at 2-0, turning a lead pass by Tab Ramos into a goal in the 52nd minute before Adolfo Valencia cut the lead in half in the 90th minute. Balboa, who cleared a shot off the line by Colombian forward Antony De Avila (who played with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in 1996 and 1997) that bounced off American midfielder Mike Sorber, almost scored on a spectacular bicycle kick with minutes remaining in the match.

“I never got as much publicity for a missed shot,” Balboa said.

When referee Fabio Baldas – he caused the game to be delayed for several minutes early on after he changed from a silver-grayish shirt to a purple one so he wouldn’t be confused with the denim blue and white worn by the U.S. – signaled the game was over, many of the American players grabbed flags and ran around the stadium in patriotic fervor at its best.

“It was one of the most incredible feelings I’ve ever had,” Meola said.

The game set the tone of the entire tournament for the U.S., which grew in confidence.

“At the highest level, the United States can now play with the very best,” assistant coach Steve Sampson said after the Brazil loss. “We haven’t proven consistently that we can beat the very best in top-level events like this, but we’re no longer being blown away. We got into every match with a realistic hope of winning.

“We fear no opponent, whereas years before we’d go into a match with almost too much respect for the opponent. Although we respected the Brazilian team, we didn’t fear the Brazilian team. That is a tremendous jump for us.”

The humiliated Colombians were eliminated after three games and went home in disgrace. Escobar’s fate turned out to be a tragic one. On July 2, he was gunned down outside a nightclub in Medellin, Colombia. Witnesses said one of the gunmen shouted, “Goal! Goal!” each time he fired.

Incredibly, the U.S. had an opportunity to finish first instead of third and getting a wildcard berth in its group with a tie with Romania. It was the difference of playing Argentina in Stanford on July 3  or Brazil at Stanford on July 4. The U.S. wound up with Brazil with a 1–0 loss to Romania as Dan Petrescu scored off a free kick to the near post in which Meola was not lined up properly for.

Dooley and Stewart had the best American chances in the waning minutes, but they missed headers.

An incident that did not affect the game occurred when Harkes was yellow carded for arguing with referee Mario Van Der Ende. It was his second yellow card of the first round, which meant he would have to sit out the next match.

“I’ve spent a lot of nights trying not to think about it,” Harkes said several days after the incident. “I’m still very angry and very upset. I feel as if the referee took my dream away from me.”

Romania, even though it dropped a 4-1 decision to the Swiss (Stephane Chapuisat, Adrian Knup and Bregy scored), won the group with the Swiss finishing ahead of the U.S. on goal differential.

“No one needs to be sad,” Milutinovic said. “Maybe we didn’t finish in the order that we would have liked, but I am optimistic that we are going forward. And it doesn’t matter who we play against.”

With the U.S. finishing the first round at 1-1-1, there was a collective sigh of relief in the USSF and FIFA that the host team reached the second round, keeping that streak going for each of the 15 World Cups.

Advancing to the quarterfinals, however, was to be entirely different manner as the Americans took on the favored Brazilians at Stanford Stadium on July 4. It would be 6 years to the day that the U.S. had defeated Brazil in another arena – when FIFA awarded the 1994 World Cup to the Americans in Zurich, Switzerland.

“It’s a very difficult thing that is ahead of us,” Milutinovic said. “We have everything to gain and nothing to lose. That’s a situation we should take full advantage of.”

Unfortunately, Milutinovic’s actions and strategies did not back his words.

The U.S. players, however, talked a tough game before the match, even looking ahead to the next round. “We’re not just here to sample the World Cup,” said Lalas, who had helped his previous opponents – Switzerland’s Stephane Chapuisat, Colombia’s Faustino Asprilla and Romania’s Florin Raducioiu to no goals and only five shots.

“We want to win.

“We play Brazil this game and it doesn’t get any easier if they win, we play the winner of Ireland-Netherlands.”

The U.S. was confident it could pull off an upset for the ages.

“We’re better off playing a Brazil than a Germany,” midfielder Tab Ramos said. “We can steal a game against a great South American team because they aren’t as consistent.”

Added Caligiuri: “Sure, we realize Brazil is a great team. But American don’t go down without a fight,especially on Independence Day.

“This is an opponent you dream about – to play Brazil in the World Cup in your own country.”

Having the match played on the 218th anniversary of the birth of the country helped to hype the match to non-soccer fans. The TV rating turned out to be a healthy 9.3.

People were hoping for an upset.

Will Lunn, a consultant for the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, N.U., had talked about getting the game ball after an American win.

“If you watch, you’ll see me run out there on the field and fight them for it,” he jokingly said.

But what transpired before a crowd of 84,147 at Stanford University that hot afternoon was not a laughing matter. Team Brigadoon would slowly fall apart. The U.S. had to play without Harkes (yellow card suspension) did not live up to its hype. Wynalda, who was still having problems, did not start.

And Milutinovic decided to play a defensive match, even after the U.S. enjoyed a one-man advantage.

“They will put everybody in front of their goal, including President Clinton,” Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira said prophetically before the match.

And then came the elbow incident.

With two minutes remaining in the first half, Ramos took a vicious elbow to his head from defender Leonardo that fractured his skull. Leonardo was given a red card by French referee Joel Quiniou and eventually was suspended from the cup.

Ramos, who lost consciousness for several seconds, suffered a small fracture of the parietal bone behind his left ear and a second–stage concussion. He remained at Stanford University Medical Center for overnight observation. Not that it mattered to him, but an hour after the match, it was revealed that Ramos was given a yellow card for pulling Leonardo’s shirt.

Wynalda replaced Ramos in the second half. For Brazil, it was a good trade – Leonardo, just another defender from the great Brazilian player factory for the U.S.’s best attacking midfielder. Coupled with no Harkes, what was left of the U.S. attack went limp.

So, despite enjoying a man-advantage over the final 45 minutes, the U.S. was content with playing its same defensive game, trying to survive to a penalty-kick tie-breaker.

Against Brazil, however, that was a longshot.

The Americans finished with but four shots – by Thomas Dooley, Lalas, Ramos and Sorber – and none in the second half. Brazilian goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel was not tested, which was nowhere near the right formula to upend such a classy side as Brazil.

In the first half, Brazil’s offense consisted of several frustrating near-misses – Romario hit the post with 9 seconds left in the half — and shots and crosses were blocked and intercepted by the center of the U.S. backline, Lalas and Balboa.

In the 74th minute, Brazil finally solved Meola. Romario, who was blanked by Lalas after entering the match with a goal in each of his three opening-round games, did most of the work. He raced down the left side untouched past Dooley and Balboa before shuffling off a pass to Bebeto on the right side. Bebeto then went around Lalas and placed an eight-yard shot into the lower left corner.

“Having one man up against a team is not the same as being 1 man up against Brazil,” Meola said. “Brazil is Brazil. I wouldn’t be surprised if they wound up as world champions.”

Meola was correct.

Milutinovic praised his team in defeat. “I just couldn’t be more proud of the team,” he said. “I’m sad that we haven’t been able to go forward. . . . We were able to say goodbye in a great atmosphere.”

But, as we all know, history sometimes can get revised.

Several months later, Brazilian assistant coach Mario Zagallo, who will guide his country in France, criticized Milutinovic at a U.S. coaches convention for playing so conservatively after the red card.

“They should have attacked,” the feisty Zagallo said. “They could have put a player between our two central defenders and that would have ripped our defense apart.”