Imagine a team making the World Cup without a top-flight league in their country. That was the situation for the United States ahead of the 1994 World Cup.
Only the stakes were a bit higher than the situation might suggest. See the 1994 World Cup was on home soil for the Americans and there was a national league being formed in the coming years. This team needed to perform.
Soccer had long been talked about in American sporting circles as the “sport of the future.” The future took a long time to get here, but in 1996, Major League Soccer was set to kick off. If this league was supposed to have any more long-term success than its failed predecessors this United States team would need to capture the imaginations of the American sports fan.
Not only was the fate of professional soccer in the country at risk with this tournament, the state of the United States international reputation at stake as well. The United States had been selected to host the tournament over actual football-mad countries like Chile, Morocco, and Brazil.
The tournament had to prove that not only was the United States an up and coming player on the world stage but that the country respected and appreciated the game.
The United States’ inclusion in the tournament marked just their second trip to a World Cup since 1950. At this point in their history, they were still working for respect and recognition regionally, but this tournament was a chance to get it globally.
The United States qualified for the 1990 tournament at the last possible moment. In November of 1989, midfielder Paul Caligiuri scored a goal that became dubbed as “the shot heard round the world” to send the United States to the World Cup for the first time in 40 years.
The Americans had a rude awakening at Italia ’90 and were promptly dumped out of the tournament in the group stages without a single point. This time things had to be better.
Without a professional league at home, most of the American players were contracted to the United States Soccer Federation. The players would train daily with the national team and be paid a $15 per day per diem.
The federation would find matches to play against other international squads whenever they could. This is why some players were earning 20-30 caps a year in the early 1990s. Those numbers are unheard of nowadays, but international soccer was all there was for some Americans.
It was a completely backward way to a professional career. As United States legend Alexi Lalas put it, “Normally you have some success at club level, people notice you, you get called on to the national team…I stepped onto the field that summer having never been on the books or played in a professional club environment – all my experience was international.”
This went on for the two years leading up to the World Cup. After two years of training, it was time. The team was as ready as it would ever be. And then came the draw.
The United States was drawn into Group A with Romania, Switzerland, and Colombia. The phrase “group of death” had not yet been used to describe a World Cup group selection, but if it had, this could have been it.
According to the official FIFA Rankings Romania was ranked 7th, Switzerland 12th, and Colombia 17th, despite being one of the pre-tournament favorites. The United States was ranked 23rd. This was not a favorable draw for the Americans who hadn’t made it out of the group stage since the 1930 tournament. But as they say, games are played on the field, not on paper.
Tony Meola, and his ponytail, was one of the most recognizable players in this team. He was the first-choice goalkeeper for the 1990 and 1994 World Cups and would go on to play in MLS for 10 years. Meola even tried his hand at American football after the World Cup in 1994.
Brad Friedel would go on to be one of the best American goalkeepers of all-time, but it wasn’t his time to shine yet. He would go on to play nearly 500 games in the English Premier League, with Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers, Aston Villa, and Tottenham.
Mike Lapper failed to see the field for any of the United States 4 games, but he earned 44 caps with the national team. His inclusion in the U.S. squad earned him a move to Europe with VfL Wolfsburg in Germany. He also played for Southend United in England and Columbus Crew in MLS.
Mike Burns did not see the field in the 1994 World Cup but played in the 1998 World Cup. He played 7 seasons in Major League Soccer before retiring and taking a front-office job with the New England Revolution.
Despite looking more like an American football player than a soccer player, Kooiman had spent 2 seasons with Mexican giants Cruz Azul before the 1994 World Cup. He played the full 90 minutes in the U.S.’s opening game against Switzerland. He would retire in 1998 after having played in Mexico and Major League Soccer.
Dooley was one of the most accomplished players in the squad, having played over 100 times for FC Kaiserslautern, winning the Bundesliga with the club. He played every minute of the 1994 World Cup. Dooley would play for Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke 04, Columbus Crew and NY/NJ MetroStars before retiring in 2001.
Balboa was the anchor of the American defense at the 1994 World Cup. He later became the first American to break the 100-cap mark. Balboa played with Leon in Mexico and Colorado Rapids and NY/NJ MetroStars before retiring in 2002.
Clavijo was the elder-statesman of the United States team at the age of 38. Despite this, he played in 3 of their 4 matches. He retired after the tournament and would go on to a long coaching career in the United States and Haiti before his death in 2019.
Alexi Lalas made an impression from the minute he stepped onto the field; first with his appearance and second with his play. His play earned him a historic move for his country when he became the first American to play in Serie A. Lalas would return to spend the bulk of his career in Major League Soccer after the league was formed.
Already the first American to play in the English Premier League, John Harkes was an important figure in the United States team until his dismissal from the team in 1998. Harkes played for Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County, West Ham United, Nottingham Forest, D.C. United, New England Revolution, and Columbus Crew before retiring.
Perez played in the second-round game against Brazil but had 72 caps for the national team before that appearance. After the tournament, Perez retired from international duty. He would retire as a professional in 1996 after 2 seasons in his native El Salvador.
Earnie Stewart had a bona fide European career before the 1994 World Cup, having been a mainstay at Willem II in the Netherlands. He would play 9 more seasons in the Netherlands and one in Major League Soccer before retiring in 2005. Stewart is now the sporting director for U.S. Soccer.
Ramos was a starter in all of the United States matches. He played in Spain and Mexico before being the first player to sign with Major League Soccer. In retirement, Ramos would coach in the United States youth setup and is now manager of the Houston Dynamo.
Cobi Jones would go on to earn more caps than any other player in the United States men’s team history. His play in the 1994 World Cup earned him a contract with Premier League side Coventry City. Jones also played with Vasco da Gama in Brazil before playing out the rest of his career in Major League Soccer with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Sorber was nominated by his coach, Bora Milutinovic, as the U.S.’s MVP after the ’94 tournament. His play earned him a move to UNAM in Mexico before he returned to the United States with the formation of Major League Soccer. Sorber would play 5 seasons in MLS before retiring and beginning his coaching career.
Claudio Reyna did not feature in this World Cup due to injury but would play an important role in the next 3 World Cup tournaments. He would become just the 3rd American ever to be named in the World Cup All-Tournament team after the 2002 tournament. Reyna is currently the sporting director for Austin FC.
Caligiuri, the hero of the 1990 qualifying campaign, started every match in the 1994 World Cup. He would play professionally in Germany and the United States and earned a total of 110 caps for the national team before retiring from international soccer in 1997.
Wegerle recovered from knee surgery earlier in the year to be ready for the World Cup. He was a key player for the team at the tournament. Wegerle played for six teams in England and three teams in Major League Soccer before retiring in 1998 after consistent injury issues.
Eric Wynalda was the United States’ most prolific goal scorer in history until 2008 when Landon Donovan broke his record. He was voted U.S. Player of the Decade for the 1990s and played in MLS and Mexico after the 1994 World Cup. Wynalda is the current manager of Las Vegas Lights in the American lower leagues.
Klopas was one of just a handful of players playing in Europe at the time and was playing for AEK Athens in his native Greece. Despite this, Klopas did not feature in the tournament. He would finish his playing career in Major League Soccer after moving from Greece when the league began.
Moore would not appear in a match for the United States in this tournament, but he would go on to score the sixth-most goals in USMNT history and reach 100 caps. Moore would play in Germany, England, and the United States before retiring in 2004.
The United States was undaunted heading into the 1994 World Cup. The draw hadn’t gone their way, but they were playing on home soil, in front of their own fans.
To cap it all off, they were playing in some of the most incredible kits the World Cup has ever seen. The uniforms have divided the opinion of neutrals, but most American fans remember them fondly. The faux-denim polyester kit with cascading stripes set the tone for the United States this tournament. They were loud and proud. They were American. As midfielder Tab Ramos put it, “We were like the cowboys of the world. Here we were wearing jeans.”
The American cowboys went on to string together some of the best results an American team has ever put together at a World Cup.
United States vs Switzerland (1-1)
Date: June 18, 1994
Venue: Pontiac Silverdome, Pontiac
The opening match of the United States’ tournament run was as cagey as you’d imagine. The underdog Americans had few chances as the highly favored Swiss battered them. The dam finally broke for the Americans in the 39th minute when Georges Bregy curled a free kick in the top corner to give the Swiss the lead.
Just before half-time, the Americans drew level. Forward Eric Wynalda scored what he has called the goal of his life. He struck a free-kick from about 30 yards off the crossbar and into the top corner past the Swiss goalkeeper. It was a stunning strike that reinvigorated the hopes of American fans. The second half produced a handful of chances for both teams but the game finished tied. The United States had earned a valuable point.
United States vs Colombia (2-1)
Date: June 22, 1994
Venue: Rose Bowl, Pasadena
The second group match for the United States became one of the most important matches of the entire tournament, but not for a positive reason. The scoring was opened in the 35th minute when Colombian defender Andrés Escobar deflected a John Harkes cross into his own net. The United States would get a second goal in the 52nd minute when Earnie Stewart chipped the Colombian keeper from just inside the 18-yard box. Colombia pulled a goal back in the 90th minute, but the United States earned an incredible victory.
It was an incredible performance that put the United States in an excellent position to get out of the group stage. After two matches, the United States had 4 points and were at the top of the group with Switzerland.
In the aftermath of Colombia’s shock exit in the group stages of this tournament, Andrés Escobar was shot and killed by fans angry about his performance and his own goal against the United States.
United States vs Romania (0-1)
Date: June 26, 1994
Venue: Rose Bowl, Pasadena
After Wynalda put an early chance wide for the United States, the Romanian’s responded nearly immediately with a precision that the Americans lacked. Defender Dan Petrescu made an overlapping run and found himself with the ball on the left side of the American 18-yard box. His first-time shot seemed to catch Meola off-guard as it snuck under his arm at the keepers near post.
The Romanians, led by superstar Gheorghe Hagi, dominated the match from that point forcing Meola and the defense into save after save. Late in the second half, the United States had their best chance of the match with a corner kick that was headed just wide of the goal.
The final whistle blew and the Americans were handed their first loss of the tournament. They finished the group stage with four points, tied with Switzerland but finishing behind them in 3rd on goal difference. However, they would make the knockout rounds as one of the highest finishing 3rd place teams. That earned them a matchup with Brazil.
Round of 16
Brazil vs United States (1-0)
Date: July 4, 1994
Venue: Stanford Stadium, Stanford
As well as the United States had played thus far in the tournament, they were up against something entirely different in the knockout rounds. We’re talking about Brazil here, not an upstart Colombia or a quality Switzerland.
The Americans played hard and went toe-to-toe with the then 3-time champions. The United States was being battered early and often. “They were just running at us, wave after wave after wave,” said Lalas afterwards.
The game took a dark turn just before half-time when Brazil’s Leonardo landed a vicious elbow to the head of Tab Ramos. Leonardo was sent off, but Ramos suffered a cracked skull and spent weeks in the hospital recovering. Would the game turn in the second half now that the United States had a man advantage?
It would not, and in the 72nd minute, Bebeto broke the deadlock for the Brazilians with a well-placed shot into the bottom corner of Meola’s net. That was the end of it for the Americans. The game finished 1-0 and the Brazilians went on to win the tournament.
The United States’ performance at the 1994 World Cup played a huge role in where the United States is as a footballing nation. They had one shot in ’94 to jumpstart American’s interest in the game, and they nailed it.
When Major League Soccer kicked off nearly two years later, 20 of the 22 players on the World Cup roster were playing in the league. It’s entirely possible that Major League Soccer would have failed if the team had crashed out after three dismal matches like they had the tournament before. Instead, they pushed the country to new heights. Even in defeat, the team inspired dreams.
They had taken on the eventually World Cup champions, and icons of the sport and made them work for a tight 1-0 result. Approximately 11 million Americans tuned in to watch them play against Brazil in the Round of 16. That was an all-time high for soccer in the United States.
“I think 1994 was a huge turning point for everybody in soccer. The way people looked at it in the U.S., and the way it was looked at around the rest of the world,” said Marcelo Balboa.
The tournament itself was a massive success, and immediately shrugged off concerns that the United States would be unable to host a “proper” World Cup. The cumulative attendance broke all previous attendance records by over 1 million and the average attendance for each game was a record of 68,991. Both records still stand today.
This incredible tournament left U.S. Soccer with a surplus of $50 million which contributed to improving stadiums and training facilities across the country. This, in turn, led to better coaching and better players for the United States.
It’s impossible to speculate what the state of American soccer would be like today if the United States team had played poorly. But it is clear that the team’s successes led to the growth of the game in the U.S.
Before failing to qualify for the World Cup in 2018, the United States had qualified for every World Cup since 1990 and had advanced beyond the group stage in three of the last five tournaments.
Former United States star Landon Donovan was just 12 years old when the tournament kicked off, but he is confident the 1994 team led to subsequent successes for the national team. “Since then it’s only gotten better. [France] 98 didn’t go so well, but it’s something we showed again in 2002, beating Portugal and Mexico, and we were unlucky against Germany in the quarter-finals. This started in ’94.”