It’s hard to explain now, but 20 years ago, as 90,000-plus fans made their way slowly toward the Rose Bowl on June 22, 1994, there was a strange sense of belief among the Americans. It was evidenced by the flag in the back window of a Pontiac Firebird, by the face paint on a little girl in a denim kit replica, by the confident recollections of the US’s earlier draw with Switzerland and Colombia’s shocking loss to Romania.
For me, it was evidenced most importantly by a phone call I had with my brother, Alexi, a day or two before the game.
“Man, they don’t look very good,” he said. “I think we’ve got a chance.”
Actually, maybe “belief” isn’t the right word for what we felt heading into the Colombia game, the US national team's second match at the 1994 World Cup. “Unafraid” is probably better. For some reason, despite Colombia’s contender status and despite the big names on the back of their jerseys -- Valderrama, Asprilla, Rincon -- everyone arrived at that massive stadium assured that, even if the boys in the fake denim jerseys weren’t going to get three points, they were at least going to make a game of it.
And they did. The Colombia game remains, to this day, the most enthralling match I’ve ever attended in person. Not just because of the outcome, but because of the game itself. It was an open, chaotic, back-and-forth clash that saw both sides go for it in their own unique ways.
Given the result, I’d argue, it was American soccer played to perfection.
Under Jurgen Klinsmann, “American soccer” has been the subject of countless ruminations. Upon being hired in 2011, Klinsmann himself mused on the subject.
"Soccer in a certain way transmits the culture of a country,” he said in 2011. "I think the US is a nation that wants to always be No. 1 in the world. It's the leader in so many areas, and in a certain way you're almost forced to be proactive in your approach to how you do things. They're not waiting always until the other countries do something. They just do it."
What the US did on that day in Pasadena was to sit back, defend with abandon, slide, dive, scratch and claw to keep the Colombians at bay, and then race off on counterattacks when possible. An early indication of what was afoot came when Earnie Stewart got in behind the defense and forced a save from Oscar Cordoba at the near post. Even though he missed, the stadium was electrified by the play and the Colombians looked dazed.
In Stewart and Eric Wynalda, the US had two weapons up top that could do some real damage if given the chance, and in Tab Ramos and John Harkes, they had midfield playmakers who could get down the flanks and deliver the right ball.
And if the counterattack didn’t work, there were always the set pieces. Set pieces are to the US arsenal what catapults were to armies of the Middle Ages.
Was any of it all that beautiful? Depends on your outlook. If you are a disciple of the slow buildup and intricate midfield play and tactical tika-taka, then, no, what the US played on that day — or, even, in that entire tournament — was an affront of some kind. But if you admire dynamic, fast-paced, heart-on-your-sleeve counterattacking soccer, then, yes, it was beautiful. And effective, which made it all the more beautiful.
With each near-miss in the early going, the crowd’s energy jumped a few notches, sometimes from nerves, sometimes from enthusiasm. Defender Marcelo Balboa cleared a shot off the line that had all of us sucking in our breath. Antony De Avila fired a few blasts that made us gasp until US goalkeeper Tony Meola had caught or parried the ball.
At the other end, Balboa put a header just over the bar. Wynalda nicked the right post with a low angled shot.
Then there were the two most memorable near-misses of the match: Balboa’s legendary bicycle kick that flew inches wide and Alexi’s long-range rocket into the upper corner that was wrongly called off for offside.
So close. Again and again. We all knew a goal was coming. We didn’t think it would come the way it did.
Harkes was given some space on the left side and curled a low cross in behind the Colombian backline. Just before it reached Stewart, center back Andres Escobar slid to intercept the ball and instead redirected it into his own net.
And we exploded. This was a moment of pure joy. It wasn’t the beautiful game, but the United States was pulling off the impossible.
If we knew what was going to happen later, would we have cheered?
If we knew that Escobar would be murdered in Colombia a few weeks later by a killer who reportedly shouted “own goal” with each bullet he fired into him outside a club in Medellin, would we have hugged each other and chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!”?
If he could do it again, would the English announcer say, “And the American public goes wild”?
It’s impossible to answer those questions. Because that’s not how fandom works, is it? Goals are goals and they demand to be celebrated. When the second goal came, scored by Stewart after a lovely through ball from Ramos, we were in pure heaven.
Sometimes, today, I forget that Colombia scored a consolation goal at the end. It wasn’t enough. The loss all but eliminated them and set the stage for what came to pass when they got home.
It also set the stage for the US to advance to the knockout stage, something most people didn’t expect to happen going into the tournament. We knew that, and when the final whistle blew, we all celebrated as if we had just won the championship.
If the draw against Switzerland proved that the US at least belonged here, this result proved it wasn't satisfied with that. For those of us at the stadium and tuned in on TV, it was like watching American soccer arrive.
USA GREATEST WORLD CUP MOMENTS