Eric Wynalda has moved a few times over the years, and whenever he does, the first thing he packs -- and unpacks -- is always the same: a framed picture of the US men's national team starting lineup before their 1994 FIFA World Cup game against Colombia.
It’s easy to see why such a piece of memorabilia would be so sentimental.
Even 22 years later, as the US brace to face Colombia in another major tournament Friday in the Copa America Centenario (9:30pm ET, FS1, Univision, UDN), that World Cup game remains permanently etched in United States soccer lore.
“I think it may have been the turning point,” Wynalda said in a phone interview Thursday. “I think the starting point for all of this was when [Paul] Caligiuri scored in Trinidad [to get the US into the 1990 World Cup]. And the turning point for Americans accepting the sport was the Colombia game. It was just real. The US was not just participating; we were enjoying some success for the first time.”
The success was also surprising, of course, as Colombia charged into that World Cup contest as heavy favorites, even though the Americans were playing in front of a home crowd at the Rose Bowl. But after Wynalda’s goal helped the US tie Switzerland in their Group A opener, the US shocked Colombia 2-1 for their first World Cup victory in 44 years, setting the stage for them to move into the knockout round and ignite the kind of excitement previously unseen for soccer in this country.
“For us American players, it was a dream come true to be able to play an opponent like that,” said Earnie Stewart, now the Philadelphia Union’s sporting director. “To get a major upset like that in the manner that we did was great. And for the rest of the world at the time, it showed that America is a team that had to be reckoned with.”
No one on the US played a bigger role in that game as Stewart, who put the Americans ahead 2-0 in the 52nd minute following a terrific buildup that included Wynalda spraying it out wide to Tab Ramos, whose perfect chip set Stewart up for the goal.
“On that particular play, my thought process was simple -- as simple as you can get,” Wynalda said. “As soon as I got the ball, it was to get it to Tab. It wasn’t really any different than the way I usually thought, especially if he was wide and especially if he had space -- because he’s the best soccer player this country’s ever had.”
Today, Stewart insists he doesn’t remember much from the game because he was “so focused on the task at hand.” But he does remember his goal and how he struggled for air as his teammates piled onto him afterwards.
Wynalda has more vivid memories from that very hot June day, especially the emotions in that dog-pile, ranging from disbelief to ecstasy to exhaustion.
“Watch Earnie’s celebration,” Wynalda said. “He turns into an 8-year-old kid. It’s just pure joy. Some of us were like, ‘Stay here, stay here, take the yellow card, I can’t breathe.’ I honestly felt like we weren’t going to be able to play just because we exerted more energy in the celebration than we did playing.”
But the USMNT managed to hold on despite a 90th-minute Adolfo Valencia goal -- and then exerted even more energy as they ran around the Rose Bowl with American flags to celebrate the historic accomplishment. Because of the heat, Wynalda had taken off his socks and shoes when he exited the game in the 61st minute, and he left them off during the postgame celebration, leading to a funny exchange between the striker and head coach Bora Milutinović.
“It was the happiest moment of my life, and I’m running toward the bench, and there’s Bora staring at me with this really weird look on his face,” Wynalda recalled. “I go, ‘What?’ He says, ‘You have no shoes. So unprofessional.’ And then he laughed. Under normal circumstances, I think he would have been pissed off. But under these circumstances, he didn’t get on me.”
Wynalda can remember another, more chilling, exchange after the game that involved Andres Escobar, the Colombian defender charged with the own goal that put the USMNT ahead, who was tragically murdered in his home country following the World Cup.
The American striker said he slapped the defender’s hand “as if to say, ‘Bad luck,’” and Escobar responded, “You have no [bleeping] idea” in English. Wynalda is still haunted by that to this day.
“One thing no one wants to say is the fact that it’s such a tainted win with the Escobar situation,” Wynalda said. “It was such a horrible thing that happened -- a guy losing his life for an own goal. As a team, we were very hesitant to talk about that game for that reason. We didn’t want to dishonor him.
“But we are very proud of the game. We really played well, and on the day, we really deserved to win.”
Neither Wynalda or Stewart felt comfortable calling it the biggest win on US soil, but both acknowledged it has to rank right up there. With the Americans now gunning for another tournament upset of Colombia -- currently ranked third in the world -- the ’94 USMNT alumni hope inspiration can be drawn from them and that the sport will continue to grow.
“This is not the biggest tournament, but it is a major tournament in FIFA, and to have it in this country is fantastic,” Stewart said. “If you see how the facilities are bigger and better this year and how football has evolved over the last 22 years, it’s great we can host. But we have to make sure we host in the right manner -- and make sure the rest of the world looks upon us that we’re here to stay.”