On All-Star Saturday, Tony Meola and many other members of the 1994 U.S. World Cup team will take part in the MLS Celebration Game to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the event that served as the genesis for Major League Soccer.
"I think we were certainly the catalyst. We used those funds, first of all, to start the league," Meola stated. "The majority of the people that came out of the World Cup as far as familiar faces were in the league. That helped people identify with the players."
In the initial group mix with Switzerland, heavily-favored Colombia, and Romania, the U.S. team was not favored to make it past the first round. But buoyed by large crowds, the boys, dressed in denim-colored jerseys spread with white stars, became heroes by defeating Columbia 2-1 and qualifying for the second round as a wild card team.
Marcelo Balboa, who electrified the crowd with a bicycle kick that nearly connected versus Columbia; Eric Wynalda, who scored a game-tying free-kick versus Switzerland; Tab Ramos, who brilliantly assisted on Ernie Stewart's goal versus Columbia; and Meola himself, especially after his flag-draped victory celebration after the Columbia match, became household names and played in Major League Soccer in its inaugural 1996 season and beyond.
Recalled Meola, "I just remember the atmosphere around the country. Everywhere you went, people were tuned in, and we converted a lot of maybe non-believers, just regular sports fans into soccer fans."
It was only fitting that Meola and company played the United States first second-round game (since the inception of the current World Cup format) versus eventual champion Brazil on Independence Day, July 4, surrounded by 84,177 fans in Stanford Stadium. The team and the tournament had proven that soccer could stand alone and shine in the crowded American sports scene.
"I think we did a lot of good things in that World Cup, and that's important in our game. It's not like the NFL, it's not like Major League Baseball. Every time we stepped on the field it was a big time arena," Meola said. "And we're still growing. Here we're growing in Kansas City every year. And that's important."
Just as important is the fact the Major League Soccer has become a source of world-class players who can perform on the World Cup stage and who have the desire to go farther.
"I think that [1994 World Cup] team set the standard for getting to the second round," Meola said. "That's got to be the goal. After that you don't know what's going to happen. We didn't follow up in '98 with a good performance. And we took care of business and set a new standard in 2002, so it has to be the goal all the time to get out of that first phase, get out of the first round and go from there."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.