Nearly two decades ago, the US national team played one of the most important soccer games on American soil in the sport’s history. The match was played fittingly on July 4.
In honor of this year’s Independence Day, MLSsoccer.com Editor-in-Chief Greg Lalas looks back at his unique memories from that historic day at Stanford Stadium and how fate brought him together with his brother Alexi and some unexpected US soccer fans in the most unlikely of meeting places after the match.
Let me tell you about the time I met Metallica and Robin Williams in a bathroom.
Palo Alto. July 4, 1994.
The USA had snuck into the round of 16 of the World Cup, and my brother, Alexi, was one of the stars of the team.
But now they were facing Brazil. Good luck with that, the world thought.
Of course, we Americans didn’t care what the world thought. We have long thrived on the naïve belief that anyone can beat anyone on any given day.
But this was not just any given day. It was July 4. Our day. And so, dutifully, we believed that the USA could actually beat Brazil. After all, we had beaten Colombia and tied Switzerland. And this particular Brazil team was nothing special. Romario and Bebeto were good, but there was no Pele or Socrates on the roster, and the 17-year-old Ronaldo was only there for the experience.
So we streamed into Stanford Stadium buoyant, even confident, and for a while we felt the US was destined to pull off the upset. Especially when the match reached halftime. It was still 0-0, and after Leonardo’s elbow cracked Tab Ramos’s skull, the US were up a man.
But the truth is, Brazil were better, even with 10 men. Bebeto’s 72nd-minute goal was all Brazil needed, and they knew it. The record books may show that the US came close, but if you were there at the stadium on that day, you know that history, talent, and maybe a little fate were always going to see the Brazilians past the Yanks.
Still, it had been an inspiring performance for the US. Sure, they lost to Brazil, but there’s no shame in that. Besides, just by reaching the round of 16, the Americans had defied conventional wisdom - a very American trait.
After the game, the US federation hosted a meet-and-greet for family, friends, and VIPs. Rather than the wake that would’ve taken place in most countries after being bounced from the World Cup, the US get-together was a celebration.
While waiting for the team to arrive, I chatted with a childhood idol of mine: Ian Astbury, former lead singer of The Cult, who was crisscrossing the country watching the World Cup. He spent 20 minutes warning me about the dangers of fame my brother would face. Everything Ian said turned out to be true, but that’s a story for another day. At that moment, all I wanted to do was congratulate Alexi on a good game and an excellent tournament. I also wanted to console him because I knew he'd be seething: Bebeto’s winner had gone under his leg.
Once the team arrived, they were mobbed, of course. No chance I was going to get a few private moments with Alexi. Then I saw him sliding toward the bathroom. Perfect, I thought.
While we waited for the facilities to free up, I told him how proud I was of him and that the goal wasn't his fault. He didn't really hear me. Defenders never forgive themselves for giving up goals.
It was then that we noticed the two guys from the urinals were now standing in front of us. The tall one was wearing the USA’s red-and-white striped jersey and tattered jeans, the short one a black t-shirt and cut-off shorts.
I was speechless. James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich from Metallica were reaching out their hands to congratulate my brother. They even knew his name.
“Great game, Alexi,” Hetfield said.
“Yeah, yeah, great game,” Ulrich added. “Great, great, great.”
Then, as Hetfield proceeded to curse the Brazilians and their mothers, a short man and his son pushed through the door. The man looked up at Alexi and offered his own congratulations.
My speechlessness was extended: It was Robin Williams.
Finally, I started chuckling to myself. How the hell did I end up here, in a bathroom in Palo Alto with two guys from Metallica and Mork from Ork? I recalled what Astbury had just told me about fame. Everything was going to be different for Alexi from then on, he had said, presaging his future professional career in Italy’s Serie A and MLS.
But I don’t think anyone really understood at that point that everything was actually going to be different for everyone. Soccer was no longer on the verge. It had arrived. All anyone had to do was ask the rock stars and actors, who suddenly knew a soccer player’s name.