Eric Wynalda scored a key goal for the USMNT  at 1995 Copa America. (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)

If the USMNT participates in the 2024 Copa America, it certainly won’t be the first time in the competition. The Americans made their debut in the South American tourney in 1993 and finished a surprising fourth in 1995. Here is a recap of the latter tournament.

By Michael Lewis Editor

The second time the USA played in Copa America — in 1995 — the United States was enjoying incredible prosperity under President Clinton. The price of gasoline was around $1.25 a gallon and Kasey Keller was manning the nets in a stunning triumph over Argentina.

OK, some things never change.

But back then, a year after a mediocre effort at the 1994 World Cup, not much was expected of the U.S., which had endured a disappointing effort and performance at Copa America in 1993.

The U.S., in a word, was abysmal, finished with a 0-2-1 record, which told only part of the story.

As an invited side at the 1993 competition, the Americans lost a 3-1 advantage in what turned out to be a distressing 3-3 draw with lowly Venezuela. The U.S. also lost to Uruguay, 1- and Ecuador, 2-0.

So in 1995 — remember this was a year before Major League Soccer kicked off, so the entire national team was available — the U.S. had a lot to prove.

The U.S. was entering Copa on a high after capturing the U.S. Cup at home, defeating Nigeria in Foxboro, Mass., 3-2, surprising Mexico, 4-0, in Washington, D.C., 4-0 (a game that was considered USMNT captain Claudio Reyna’s coming out party as an international) and holding off Colombia and Carlos Valderrama, 0-0, to secure a the title in Piscataway, N.J.

The Americans wasted little time as it began turning heads and opening eyes from the outset in Uruguay, defeating Chile in its opening match, 2-1, on two goals by Eric Wynalda and the stellar goalkeeping by Keller on July 8.

The U.S. initially fell behind Bolivia, 1-0, as goalkeeper Brad Friedel played in net under interim coach Steve Sampson’s rotation system — although it dominated the second half, outshooting the South Americans, 11-1. At the time, Sampson was trying to convince the U.S. Soccer powers that be he deserved to be permanent coach.

Next up was Argentina. The U.S. needed a tie or victory to reach the quarterfinals. The Americans got even more. Badly underestimating his foes, Argentine coach Daniel Passarella, who captained his country to the 1978 World Cup championship, decided to start many reserves.

It backfired. The U.S. rolled to a 3-0 victory, outscoring the Argentines, 1-0, in the second half. Wynalda, Alexi Lalas and Frank Klopas collected the goals while Keller stood out in the net.

“This has to be one of the best in U.S. soccer history,” Sampson said. “In the World Cup you have to rate the Colombia as the No. 1 result, but this is right behind it. We played one of the most complete games in U.S. soccer history.”

Added midfielder John Harkes: “People can come back and say, well, they [Argentina] did not play their full side. It doesn’t matter. It’s a major tournament. They are more or less the home team. . . . It’s a brilliant victory for us.”

Sampson continued alternating goalkeepers and called on Friedel, who rose to the occasion, making two big saves in regulation and stopping the Mexicans twice in the tie-breaker in the quarterfinals. Keeper Jorge Campos did not fare as well, failing to stop any of the U.S. attempts. Klopas put in the game-winner and the U.S. had a date with destiny — a rematch of the July 4, 1994 second-round encounter from the World Cup against Brazil.

In that match, U.S. midfielder Tab Ramos was forced out of the game late in the opening half after Brazilian Leonardo fractured the U.S. player’s skull with his elbow. Leonardo was red-carded. Despite enjoying a man advantage, then USMNT coach Bora Milutinovic decided to play a conservative match. The U.S. rarely attacked, and the Brazilians managed to pull out a 1-0 triumph en route to their fourth world championship.

This time around, however, Sampson had his team play attacking soccer. The Americans had a number of near misses, including a pair of headers by Lalas that sailed wide of its intended destination. But they could not equalize Aldair’s goal in the 13th minute, as the Brazilian broke past his man to put home a free kick by Juninho for a 1-0 win.

Even Brazilian coach Mario Zagallo, who had criticized Milutinovic for not attacking more at USA ’94, was impressed with the fourth-place Americans.

“The U.S. are competitive and have shown that they are not just any side,” he said.

Zagallo’s team went on to lose to Uruguay in the final, while a tired U.S. dropped a 4-1 decision to Colombia in the third-place match.

If there was a downside to Copa, it was the fact that it was difficult to catch on television in the United States. For English-speaking audiences, it was available only on a pay-for-view basis for the exorbitant price of $19.95 per match, and even that wasn’t well publicized. As it turned out, Copa was a perfect vehicle to promote the U.S. team, in particular, and soccer, in general, in this country.

Lalas tried to put things in perspective.

“We still have a way to go,” he said. “A year ago, we had a long way to go. It says something that we are measuring ourselves against the best team in the world.”

By finishing fourth, the USA forged newfound respect not only in South America and in the U.S., but in the rest of the world, securing its best finish since reaching the semifinals at the very first World Cup in 1930, also in Uruguay. The Copa performance capped a summer run never realized in American soccer history — 5-3-1.

“We have demonstrated over a six-to-seven week period that the U.S. can compete at the highest level and win,” Sampson said. “This should only be motivation for other players in the U.S. It has been fantastic experience. I’m extremely proud of the guys and how they have handled themselves.”

Even if then U.S. Soccer president Alan Rothenberg didn’t want to hire Sampson, he had no choice now. Sampson was darling of both the fans and players.

“Steve’s done a great job,” said Harkes, who would soon become fulltime captain of the team. “He’s been under a lot of pressure. . . He’s got a good thing going with the players. He said to come in and play as hard as we can. We’ve given 100 percent.”

With the public and player opinion going in only one direction, Rothenberg finally relented and hired Sampson on Aug. 2, only two days before the third and final tournament of the summer – the Parmalat Cup at Giants Stadium.

The U.S. won that tournament, although the Americans did it the hard way. They dropped the first game, 2-1, to Parma, but rebounded with a fine 2-1 winning effort over Benfica to put an exclamation point on one memorable summer.