On the night of Saturday, June 17, 1994, just about everyone I knew and cared about was at a bar in Birmingham, Mich., called the Old Woodward Grill. The OWG wasn't anything special, but they made a good burger, carried Labatts Blue on tap, and could hold the horde of Lalas family and friends that had gathered in Detroit for the US national team's World Cup opener against Switzerland the next morning.
Of course, despite the fact that one of our own would suit up for the USMNT the following day, none of us had soccer on our minds that night. Like everyone else in America, we were glued to the TVs in the bar, watching O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco crawling down a highway in Los Angeles.
"Can you believe this?" everyone asked. "It's so surreal."
Inside the Pontiac Silverdome, the air was suffocating. The organizers had installed natural grass on top of the artificial surface, and in order to maintain the grass — a tough hybrid designed by the agriculturalists at Michigan State University — long enough to last through ten days and three games, they had to keep the humidity very high.
To make matters worse, a heatwave hit Michigan that week. The temperature on gameday was in the mid-90s. We knew we were going to sweat for the full 90 minutes.
What would those 90 minutes bring? To be honest, we were pretty hopeful. The US squad was a motley crew of indoor-soccer stars, b-level European-based pros, and a few former college standouts, but we still felt like we could compete with anyone. Any given day, right?
We were naïve, sure, but beautifully so. And, honestly, Switzerland? How good could they be? The whole country was one-sixth the size of Michigan. And they were all bankers and clockmakers.
We were American. Damn it! And this is the Motor City. Home of the Ford Motor Company, Motown Records, Ty Cobb, Joe Louis, Marvin Gaye, Rosa Parks. Some of the toughest, baddest, coolest people ever. Our spirit, our competitiveness, and our voices would see us through.
Or at least make sure we weren’t embarrassed.
That was our biggest fear, actually.
I’m not a religious man at all, but as we tailgated in the Silverdome parking lot that morning, I looked around at all the families, the friends, the little boys and girls in their youth soccer jerseys, the aging expats, even the Swiss fans in their red-and-white cross facepaint, and I did a little prayer: Whatever happens, o great and wondrous soccer gods, please don’t let the US team be embarrassed. They’ve been working their asses off for years for this moment. And I know they’re out of their depth.
But there is more riding on this than points in the Group A standings. This game against Switzerland — the first World Cup match played by the US on home soil, the first World Cup match to be played indoors, the first World Cup match in my hometown — heaved under the weight of all the criticisms that shrieked about how the United States was not a soccer nation and didn’t deserve to host the World Cup. They didn't have to win. Or even draw. But just don't let them be embarrassed.
Immediately after the game kicked off, we saw that our prayers were wasted. We were screwed. Obviously.
The Swiss were impressive right from the start. They were decked out in these classy all-white uniforms that made the US team’s denim-inspired jerseys look truly clownish. They were coached by Roy Hodgson — yes, the same Roy Hodgson now in charge of England’s team — and he had put together an experienced and disciplined side that was capable of some truly sublime attacking play through the likes of Alain Sutter, Stephane Chapuisat, and Georges Bregy.
Early on, the US was under tremendous pressure. The Swiss came in waves, with Bregy, in particular, causing havoc. They launched shot after shot after shot and the US team looked like the inexperienced group that it was.
They did their best to withstand the onslaught. Goalkeeper Tony Meola made a couple of clutch saves. Cle Kooiman made an important clearance on a looping ball into the box. Alexi Lalas — the local kid from Birmingham who had somehow made it to the world’s stage — headed the ball away on a cross.
All of us, the families and friends, were at the opposite end of the field from where the action was in those early minutes (pictured right). That probably made it more frustrating. The action never came down to our end of the field, the US attacking end, and nervousness, maybe even the first wisps of embarrassment, crept in.
But with every clearance, we roared. We had to latch onto something. Anything. Inside the Silverdome, the sound was as loud as a rock concert and it moved in strange ways like when a jetfighter flies over. I have no idea how the players communicated amid that din.
In the 39th minute, the Swiss scored. Bregy curled a freekick over the US wall and into the upper corner. Some people think that Meola should’ve done better, that he was caught cheating to the near post. But truth is, he never saw the shot. And besides, it was pinpoint accurate. As the British announcer said, “Any South American would’ve been proud of that one.”
Now what? we thought. It’s over. Everything. Done in 39 minutes.
That was the mindset back then. An overpowering sense of inferiority, regardless of the aforementioned crap about American spirit and the Motor City and all that.
So just before halftime, when John Harkes was fouled about 30 yards out — some of the only action that took place at our end of the field in the first half — no one expected anything. We cheered the possibility, but we knew nothing would come of it. You can even see in the replay that most of the fans in the front row stayed in their seats.
What we didn’t know, though, was that the US players never felt that sense of inferiority. They had spent years preparing for this, and they weren’t daunted by a one-goal deficit. To Switzerland.
This was particularly true of Eric Wynalda. The best American goalscorer of his generation, he never lacked for confidence, that’s for sure. And you need supreme confidence to pull off what he did.
When the ball left his foot, it came straight at us. It didn’t look good. It was rising. Too much.
Come on… Get down! Dip! Dip!
And then, to everyone’s surprise, it dipped. It actually dipped.
“Oh! A goal!” the TV announcer said, his voice dripping with surprise.
The crowd erupted. If we were loud at kick off, we were thunderous now.
Twenty years later, I still have no idea what made the ball do what it didn’t look capable of doing in that moment. Maybe it was the noise inside the stadium, the soundwaves ricocheting off the big silver dome and pushing the ball down a little bit. Maybe it was the thick, humid air that shoved the shot out of its normal trajectory. Maybe it was a prayer to the soccer gods.
Or maybe, just maybe, it was simply skill. Because if Waldo and his goal — a free kick any South American would be proud of, if you will — proved anything in that moment, it proved we belonged. We weren’t going to win the World Cup anytime soon. We knew that. But we weren’t going to embarrass ourselves, either. And back then, that was a win.
Greg Lalas is the editor-in-chief of MLSsoccer.com.