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Seth Vertelney | March 4, 2014

That Wonderful Summer

The 1994 World Cup changed soccer in America forever. The men from the U.S. team remember how it all happened.

On July 4, 1988, FIFA awarded the 1994 World Cup to the United States. At the time, there was no top-flight professional league in the U.S., and it had been 38 years since the country had participated in a World Cup. As a condition for awarding the tournament, FIFA required the United States to create a new professional league.

A year and a half later, Paul Caligiuri scored one of the most important goals in American soccer history. His strike against Trinidad and Tobago qualified the U.S. for the 1990 World Cup — the team's first since 1950. Although under manager Bob Gansler the Americans lost all three World Cup games in Italy that summer, falling to Czechoslovakia, the Italians and Austria, the modern era of American soccer had begun.

The modern era of American soccer had begun.

Two months after the 1990 World Cup, United States Soccer Federation president Werner Fricker was up for reelection. Although Fricker had helped the U.S. secure the 1994 World Cup, he was ousted and replaced by Alan Rothenberg, a former investor in the North American Soccer League and overseer of the wildly successful 1984 Olympic soccer tournament in Los Angeles.

One of Rothenberg's first moves as president was to name Bora Milutinovic head coach of the national team. The Serbian coached Mexico to the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal and, even more impressively, led Costa Rica to the 1990 World Cup round of 16 after being hired as head coach just 90 days before the tournament.

As the host country, the U.S. did not have to qualify for the tournament. Because most American players had few professional options, Milutinovic had most of his players in a permanent national team camp in Mission Viejo, Calif., for two years leading up to the World Cup.

ALAN ROTHENBERG, USSF president: The U.S. in 1990, it was almost a surprise that they qualified. It was really a bunch of college kids and a coach from a college program, and they were kind of overwhelmed with the step up. We were then handicapped as we prepared for 1994, because the world didn't have any respect for any of our players and virtually none of them could get jobs overseas.

ALEXI LALAS, defender: It was such a unique experience and unlike anything that has been done since or is done today. The majority of the team was in camp for basically two years leading up to the World Cup. Guys like myself and Cobi Jones, when we stepped on the field that summer, we had never even been on the books of any professional club team. We had only played international soccer so it was a very backwards way of doing things, but a necessity at the time.

BORA MILUTINOVIC, head coach: I think it was very important to have everyone on the same page, the coaching staff, people who worked in Mission Viejo, we decided to be there at this time. We didn't have a league, we didn't have anything.

1790718_mediumBora Milutinovic coaches the USMNT in Mission Viejo. (Getty Images)

LALAS: If you ask any national team coach today, the biggest frustration is that they don't get enough time with the players. I think Bora saw a unique opportunity to have the core of this team basically function as a club team — living and working together on a daily basis. And so all we did was tour around and play international games and just train in Mission Viejo.

PAUL CALIGIURI, defender: U.S. Soccer and Bora did a good job of bringing in a lot of players into the process, but at the same time keeping the core players together to create the continuity that was needed.

MARCELO BALBOA, defender: For most of us, that's all we had. A lot of us were not playing professional soccer in Europe at the time, so this was basically our professional team.

We trained twice a day, morning and afternoon, and then the federation would try to get as many friendlies as possible.

LALAS: We were on monthly contracts, so you could get fired at any time, and they paid for your apartment and you got some stipend or whatever it was. We weren't making that much money, but that was fine by me.

MIKE SORBER, midfielder: We trained twice a day, morning and afternoon, and then the federation would try to get as many friendlies as possible. It was all geared toward getting us prepared for competing against the best teams in the world.

TONY MEOLA, goalkeeper: I don't know the number of teams we played in that year-and-a-half, but it sure was a lot, it sure was a lot of traveling. I think that year, 1993, we were on the road over 250 days that year with Bora.

In 1993, the USA played 29 official international matches, which took place in the United States as well as Japan, El Salvador, Honduras, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, Mexico, Iceland and Norway. The team would play an additional 15 friendlies in the first five months of 1994 leading into the World Cup.

Three weeks before the tournament, the U.S. brought in seven foreign-based players to add to the group in Mission Viejo: John Harkes (Derby County), Tab Ramos (Real Betis), Cle Kooiman (Cruz Azul), Earnie Stewart (Willem II), Roy Wegerle (Coventry City), Jürgen Sommer (Luton Town), and Eric Wynalda (FC Saarbrücken).

TAB RAMOS, midfielder: The guys that came in right at the end in the last three weeks, we weren't used to the trainings, we weren't used to the daily routine that all the other guys were used to, because basically the guys were all living there as if they were playing for a professional club, and then all of a sudden we come in.

ERIC WYNALDA, forward: That was a hard time because Bora had to make the final cuts, and Jeff Agoos and Chris Henderson and Dominic Kinnear were the last three, and that was rough because we were coming in and they were saying their goodbyes. They had worked so hard and they just didn't make the team and that was a rough couple of days.

Wc94team_mediumThe final 22-man USMNT roster for the '94 World Cup. (Getty Images)

As Milutinovic and his team prepared on the field, the USSF, led by Rothenberg, was working to ensure the tournament would be the cultural and financial success that the nascent American soccer landscape desperately needed.

We came up with a mission statement and it was pretty bold, because we said we want to put on the greatest World Cup in history.

ROTHENBERG: Early on, we had a small group of executives at a retreat and we came up with a mission statement and it was pretty bold, because we said we want to put on the greatest World Cup in history. We added to the mission statement that we would leave a legacy for soccer in the United States and so at all times, we were trying to put on a phenomenal event that would be well received, but also use that to really create a lasting interest in soccer and to grow the sport.

JOHN HARKES, midfielder: As we know from history, the U.S. fans love events, and this was one that was going to be well attended. As it went through the tournament it built up momentum, and the energy was there and certainly the sponsors and the business side of things started to pick up.

ROTHENBERG: Any time we had an announcement of any kind, we made a big press conference out of it. Instead of just quietly having one announcement that said we're oversold, we did one after each day: New York just sold out, D.C. just sold out, Boston just sold out, and so there was a big story every day. The whole idea was to create in the public's mind that this was a hot ticket. Any time a new sponsor was added, we didn't just send out a press release, we made a big hoopla, we'd have a press conference.

MEOLA: All the sponsors were doing things in Mission Viejo because that's where the team was. A few of us filmed a MasterCard video that took a whole bunch of days after training.

CALIGIURI: One of the benefits of having the World Cup Committee based in Century City and having us in Mission Viejo was for the organization to have access to players to do either appearances or television interviews. That was key. The American public was beginning to buy what the World Cup was about and to identify with players.

WYNALDA: All of Alan Rothenberg's hard work went into it, because it really was his baby.

ROTHENBERG: We used every opportunity we could to create that hype. I remember at the final — it was Jim Gray at ESPN — he said to me, "Alan, let me ask you this, do you think all the hype was necessary? Did you know it would be a great event?" I said I was sure it would be a great event. I didn't know whether the hype was necessary, but I didn't want to take any chances.

Despite being a seeded team as the host, the USA was drawn into a very difficult Group A.

ROTHENBERG: Going into the tournament, Colombia was considered to be a really good dark horse to win it all. So the one team that we didn't want to get thrown into our group was Colombia, and lo and behold, our group turns out to be Colombia, Romania, and Switzerland. So we said, "We can beat Switzerland, we can sneak a tie from Romania and then we'll lose to Colombia and we'll sneak through and play past the group stage."

The U.S. was set to face Switzerland in both teams' World Cup opener on June 18. The game, played at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., outside Detroit, would be the first-ever indoor World Cup match.

Wc94silvrdome_mediumThe Silverdome set-up for indoor soccer. (Getty Images)

BALBOA: The night before Bora took us to the stadium with the lights off, and played a video for us in the stadium. We all kind of held hands and watched from one goal line to the halfway line.

MILUTINOVC: Normally the night before, you talk about the game tomorrow, but we had a great motivational movie about how we performed before. It was an 11-minute movie and we speak nothing about the game.

WYNALDA: I remember the video, I remember the song: "Right Now" by Van Halen. I didn't get it at first and then it was very cool. He had spent a lot of time editing just good thoughts to take into that game. I think we all were still trying to figure out a way to get a copy of that damn thing for the longest time.

HARKES: It was a little surreal. I think he kind of tried to grasp what was the best way to get us to be excited, and have this pumped up type of enthusiasm and positive feelings about ourselves, so it was great that he had put that together. The music choice? Well, we can always question that, but it was fun.

SIGI SCHMID, assistant coach: Bora was really insistent when he did those videos of making sure everybody's name appeared in the video at some point. It was like a subliminal type of thing. Then everybody's picture and them playing in action was in the video. He wanted everything to be hit three times, between your picture, you playing in action and your name.

CALIGIURI: The benefit I saw was we were able to go on the field. For me it was trying to visualize the atmosphere, what the stadium looked like, the sidelines, the width of the field, the dimensions, the texture, the grass.

WYNALDA: I found out we were going to the stadium, and it wasn't to practice, but I asked one of the kids that was with us, like kind of our ball boy ... I said, "Hey bring my shoes and a bag of balls because I want to practice free kicks." And so I actually stayed that night and hit a few, totally and completely against Bora's wishes. I only hit like 10 or 11, but I figured out that the ball would carry a little bit more than it would maybe in an outdoor facility.

June 18, 1994: USA vs. Switzerland, Silverdome, Pontiac, Mich.

LALAS: Somebody recently told me that Dr. Henry Kissinger was in the locker room before the game and I had completely blanked that out. I never remembered that, and once I was reminded of it I said, "Oh, my gosh, it's true." I only say that to illustrate that it was surreal.

MEOLA: I still have that picture hanging up. He had been such an advocate for the World Cup. He was one of those guys who really stuck his neck out for the World Cup. He was a real ambassador, as was President Clinton, as was Al Gore.

It was the worst place I have ever played.

CALIGIURI: It was a very hot summer and Detroit was extremely humid. The Silverdome was built for turf, they brought grass in these big octagons and they had to water it. It added to the humidity and the texture of the grass, it was too soft. That was by far one of the most difficult conditions to play in in my life. The combination of hot weather — 90 degrees with 90-percent humidity in an unventilated dome with grass that shouldn't be there that was watered, it made for severe conditions.

THOMAS DOOLEY, midfielder: It was the worst place I have ever played. I can't say the hottest, but for sure the most humid.

RAMOS: It was probably the hottest game that I have been involved in. I know what it's like to play in Dallas at 4 p.m. in an MLS game, and that does not compare to how hot that game was inside the Silverdome. The field felt like we were running in sand, it was very heavy, it was just a very, very difficult match environment to play in.

LALAS: We knew that if we had a chance to come out of the group, we needed to get points against Switzerland.

Wc94lockerroom_mediumThe USMNT in the locker room, which features a "4 points then the Cup!" sign, prior to playing Switzerland. (Getty Images)

SORBER: Switzerland was a good, solid opponent, just like they are today. From an American perspective or from the media perspective, they don't necessarily have a ton of flavor or flair, but they had really good players.

WYNALDA: Switzerland was a very good team. Just because not everybody knew who (Ciriaco) Sforza and (Alain) Sutter and all those guys were, we did. I knew their whole team, (Stéphane) Chapuisat was a fantastic player. They were very hard to break down, they were very difficult defensively and we really struggled with that.

BALBOA: It was one of those games, back and forth, back and forth. I have to say, it was not pretty soccer if you remember looking at that game, it was some pretty negative soccer.

In the 39th minute, Switzerland won a free kick just outside of the U.S. 18-yard box. Georges Bregy stepped up and curled a shot inside the far post to give his side a 1-0 lead. Five minutes later, just before the halftime whistle, the Americans got a free kick opportunity of their own from 30 yards away.

WYNALDA: I knew there was going to be a fight for it, because everybody wants to hit free kicks. I just blocked everybody out, I put the ball down and I went into a zone. I wasn't even going to listen to anybody that tried to talk me out of taking that, and they all laugh about it, but I literally was just unresponsive to anything. They were saying, "I'll take it" or "Tap it to me and I'll hit it" and Marcelo had an idea. I just didn't listen to any of them. I just was really pushing everybody out of the way. I really wanted to take advantage of what I had learned from the night before. I knew I had to take a golf swing and not hit it too hard. I think that was the first time I ever hit a free kick that went exactly where it was supposed to, so good timing.

MILUTINOVIC: Wynalda scored a beautiful goal. It's very simple I think, when you have players with confidence and the right mentality, the right team spirit, everything is much easier.

BALBOA: You never want to go into a second half chasing a game, you never want to go into the last 20 minutes chasing a game, so getting a goal that got us back into the game is what we wanted.

WYNALDA: We did have a couple of chances in the second half. We were the better team in the second half.

MILUTINOVIC: This one point was very important. Switzerland was a very good team and for us, the way that we played was good, and it was very important to give hope to people for the future.

EARNIE STEWART, forward: Once you go 1-0 behind and you have to chase the game in the heat and humidity, it made it very difficult. We were satisfied after the game with the 1-1 result because Eric put in a fantastic free kick.

HARKES: We were a bit unlucky at times I think not to win that game but more importantly, getting a tie against Switzerland kind of set us up for the next game, which really then instilled a bigger belief in ourselves of what we were capable of at this level.

BALBOA: We knew we had to get a result against Switzerland, because we knew we had Colombia next and nobody gave us a chance against Colombia.

Final: USA 1, Switzerland 1

June 22, 1994: USA vs. Colombia, Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.

BALBOA: We played Colombia probably six or seven times in the two to three years leading up to that World Cup and we never beat them. Everybody thought that Colombia had a bad game against Romania and was going to come back and take it out on the United States. (Romania defeated Colombia, 3-1)

RAMOS: They had lost their first game, so we knew they were under a lot of pressure because they needed to win the game against us. I don't think a tie even helped them much, they just needed the three points.

I told them, "Now is the moment."

MILUTINOVIC: We played many friendly games against Colombia, and we would lose 1-0, 2-1, but in every game we have a chance to win. I told them, "Now is the moment." It was important that we played with confidence.

SCHMID: I think Colombia was the game we were most prepared for. Bora knew Colombia inside and out. Colombia was the game he was focused on because he felt that their playing style was very unique, that we could play a little bit different and we could push our outside backs inside because they really didn't play with a lot of width. So his game plan was very clear in his mind and was very predetermined. Of all the games in the World Cup, that was the game that was the game that Bora was most confident in from the standpoint of the game plan.

CALIGIURI: Our tactic was to channel them inside. We practiced so much on that day in and day out. The one thing we wanted to eliminate was them exposing us on the outside and channeling their play into our numbers. We prepared ourselves well for that and we kept the ball in front of us.

Wc94columbia2_medium Eric Wynalda tries to maintain possession against Colombia. (Getty Images)

SORBER: Colombia was limited because they just had a short passing game, which played into our hands. We were smart enough to figure that out.

The U.S. started the match on the back foot, and just six minutes into the match, Colombia had a gilt-edged chance to score.

BALBOA: Let's be honest, if Sorber and Clavijo don't save the ball off the line and they go up 1-0 on us in the first five minutes of the game, it probably would have been a different outcome. That play changed the momentum of that game.

SORBER: It was a restart that came in. The cross just kind of handcuffed me right at my hips, so all I could do rather than knock it in the goal was try to get a piece of it with my legs. Still, I couldn't get it wide and it hit the post, and then when I turned it was coming right to a Colombian, so I went to the ground to block it and got a piece of that. Then Clavijo came flying back in across the line and cleared it out.

WYNALDA: It was Mike Sorber and Fernando Clavijo that saved us in the opening minutes, but once that chance didn't go in for them and the own goal happened, the game just changed.

HARKES: They gave the ball away at midfield and Mike Sorber hooked one out for me. I just took a touch down into space on the outside and ended up cutting in a bit and cracked one as hard as I could. I saw Earnie Stewart making a sprint run into the box on the backside and with Earnie's pace I thought, ‘If I nail this as hard as I can, he might just get a touch on the end of it.'

STEWART: You just make your run to the far post, and it was a good cross where somebody has to reach for the ball, otherwise it would have come to my feet.

HARKES: It ended up just coming off of Andres Escobar as he tried to reach for it and clear it out of the 18. Their goalkeeper was wrong-footed and it ended up being an own goal.

STEWART: It was an unlucky goal for Escobar, but at that time you're just happy that a ball goes into the back of the net and you're leading that game.

The U.S. went into halftime with a surprising 1-0 lead. As the second half began, Milutinovic's side pressed for a second goal. Seven minutes into the half, it arrived.

RAMOS: I remember receiving the ball and hitting a through pass to Earnie Stewart on a run between a couple of defenders.

STEWART: As a center forward you try to make your runs in between narrow spots and try to receive the ball and be available for your teammates. You need somebody behind the ball that can play the ball and Tab is one of those players that can always do that at the right time.

That's a world-class goal. That's Spain or Brazil written all over it.

RAMOS: As I was hitting the ball I wasn't sure whether to put it between the defenders or to hit Earnie hard to feet. I ended up going into space behind the last defender and it just happened to end up almost in a perfect place so that Earnie could run onto it and get a toe on it as the goalkeeper was coming out.

STEWART: It was a fantastic through pass for me and in the end I was fortunate enough where it hit the goalie, it hit the post and it went into the back of the net. It was an unbelievable and indescribable moment.

SORBER: The build up to that second goal is phenomenal, because it starts in the other end pretty much at our corner flag. That's a world-class goal. That's Spain or Brazil written all over it. People only look at the goal, but go back and look at the whole build up. And that speaks about the quality of our team.

BALBOA: When we weathered the storm, and the storm blew by and the clouds opened up and we saw the sun, you realized that it was our day. Let's be honest, we were not that kind of confident, there's no way in hell I would have tried a bicycle kick.

LALAS: Marcelo Balboa has the ultimate "what if" with that bike.

BALBOA: I am 46 years old and I still have people come up to me and tell me that they were behind that goal when I missed that bicycle kick. So it's kind of cool, I don't get the best goal ever, but I get the best miss ever, so that's kind of an honor to have, right?

WYNALDA: There were some amazing performances that day. Caligiuri, Alexi and Marcelo and Tom Dooley and Clavijo, they were just unbelievable. The back five if you will, if you count Dooley and how many times he would get a slide tackle or just a toe in. And then in the second half, Mike Sorber played out of his mind.

MILUTINOVIC: For us, it was a perfect game.

DOOLEY: I was not surprised. We believed in ourselves and we were a real team. Everybody helped everybody, we played for each other, and with each other. It was a perfect fit.

LALAS: We all had that moment that kids dream about that you see with the flags and holding it up and screaming and yelling. When it finally happens, it's very surreal because there's no soundtrack. I just remember thinking "There's no music right now. It feels wonderful but there's no music."

MEOLA: One of the pictures that's always in my mind is John Harkes and I with the American flag and Thomas Dooley jumping on our back. None of that stuff is rehearsed, running around the field, waving the American flag, you don't really rehearse that stuff.

SCHMID: The euphoria of the Colombia game was fantastic because that was the crowning achievement in group play. It was winning a game in the World Cup, knocking off a team that Pele had thought would be one of the favorites to get to the final, all of those things were ever present in that situation. You can't truly measure the impact that win had on those players, but also on the sport of soccer in this country. It was like the final proving ground of "Yes, we can do it."

Final: USA 2, Colombia 1

June 26, 1994: USA vs. Romania, Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.

When you're expected to do something, then it's a little different.

RAMOS: It was a very tough game for us, because now it was almost like we had arrived. Here we are, we have four points and leading our group going into that game. As Americans, you get to the point, especially in the soccer world, where you're used to being the underdog all the time, and it's easy to compete as the underdog. No one expects anything from you and you just go and do the best you can and at the end everyone pats you on the back and you go home win or lose. And now, when you're expected to do something, then it's a little different.

LALAS: We hadn't planned on getting three points against Colombia and therefore our performance against Romania was reflective of the fact that we kind of got it before, we thought we were going to get it. We thought it was going to take those three games to get the four points.

BALBOA: It was a letdown performance. Let's just be straight up and honest. Once we beat Colombia and we had the four points, we knew we were in the second round.

DOOLEY: Romania was a good technical team with experienced players. It is not easy to beat those European teams. They're technically good, tactically very organized, and individually great players.

CALIGIURI: Romania was the country we least prepared for and for me, it was the best team in terms of their ability, their individuality with (Gheorghe) Hagi, and players that were dynamic coming out of the back, and we weren't prepared for them at all.

ROTHENBERG: I still see that near post goal against Tony that broke our hearts against Romania.

MEOLA: I gave up a goal where I was cheating out for the cross and he went near post on me. I look at it and we went down 1-0.

LALAS: People ask me about that all the time and I don't like to stand up for goalkeepers a lot, but on this one I will, because I tell people all the time, they say "Tony was cheating the cross," and I say, "Yeah, but you know what? The amount of times that Tony Meola saved our ass because he did that ..." I have no problem with that goal.

MEOLA: I did it before that, I did it after that. I continued to do it. A couple times along the way I got burned, but I'm sure there were hundreds of times where I cut balls off across the box that maybe would have gotten to somebody in a more dangerous position. It was just the way I played.

WYNALDA: You'd have to ask the goal scorer what he was thinking, but you have to calculate in there that usually they lie, because as a goal scorer I will tell you sometimes when I get lucky that I meant it.

BALBOA: And then Harkes gets a second yellow card and he's out for the next game.

HARKES: The phantom encroachment. There was no encroachment from us at all. It was kind of a strange call because Hagi, who was taking the free kick at the time, was complaining feverishly and the referee thought he was complaining about us stepping forward in the wall, which we weren't. He was complaining that none of his players were in the box. It was a tough one, but at the end of the day, I felt a little bit burned because Mike Sorber at the time was standing in the wall with me — he didn't get booked and I did, I think because I was the closest to the referee. So the referee was feeling whatever pressure he felt and did it. It was unfortunate.

MEOLA: The referee could have given it to two or three guys. He picked John and for that, John was out of the next game. Just kind of bad luck on our part.

MILUTINOVIC: Our team always played to win and we gave up one goal early. But what is important is that our team showed great personality. We played good, we created chances, we didn't score and they scored. But this didn't change my impression of what my team could do.

Final: USA 0, Romania 1

Following the loss to Romania, the USA faced a nervous two-day wait to find out if it had advanced to the round of 16. Eventually, Milutinovic's men learned they had qualified by virtue of being one of the top four third-place finishers, joining the top two from each of the six groups. The team's reward was a Fourth of July showdown with Brazil — the tournament favorite.

BALBOA: The truth was "Ah shit, Brazil!?"

RAMOS: It was obviously unfortunate for us that we drew Brazil, because if we could have gotten a better result against Romania, we could've drawn another team.

CALIGIURI: Had we drawn against Romania, we would have been playing Argentina at the Rose Bowl on July 3rd, not Brazil at Stanford on July 4th. And the difference between that was huge. Brazil was by far the strongest team.

We had the belief that somehow we could pull this out.

MEOLA: We had played Brazil the year earlier and we had lost 2-0 in Connecticut, and they had a full squad there. We came out of that game thinking, ‘We can have a run at these guys.'

STEWART: As an athlete and certainly as an American athlete you always believe you can win games, so even when the draw came against Brazil, we had the belief that somehow we could pull this out.

As the team was preparing for Brazil, horrific news emerged from Colombia. On July 2 — just six days after Colombia had exited the tournament at the group stage — Andres Escobar was murdered in Medellin. The details around his killing are vague, but the gunmen allegedly made references to the own goal Escobar scored against the USA before, during, and after the murder. It would also later emerge that members of the Colombia team and coaching staff, and their families, were subject to death threats from cartel members during the tournament.

MEOLA: Bora made the announcement to us in the morning meeting what had happened and then it was like complete shock. When I think about it, I still get a sick feeling in my stomach and I always wonder how difficult it was for Colombia to go through that period.

WYNALDA: All that stuff that they were going through, we didn't know about, but it came out later that, obviously, that was a big part of their psyche.

BALBOA: I think most of us really found out the truth when that "30 for 30" special came out on ESPN ("The Two Escobars.") I think that's when the whole world realized the pressure the Colombians were under. I think we knew there were some things, we heard some rumors of guys' houses being burned down, but the magnitude of what that "30 for 30" special showed, I would say none of us had a clue of what was going on and the pressure those guys had in Colombia.

LALAS: I get asked about it constantly. And I always tell people that it's OK for myself and for others that were involved in that game to be proud and to be happy about the performance and still recognize that, if by not playing that game or by losing that game, that Escobar would still be alive. We would do that in a second.

July 4, 1994: USA vs. Brazil, Stanford Stadium, Stanford, Calif.

ROTHENBERG: The atmosphere going into that game was incomparable: July 4th up in San Francisco, a gorgeous sunny day. I've never seen American soccer fans before — almost any kind of fans — get into it the way they did. The streets were just mobbed with everybody with painted red, white and blue faces, singing, and the Brazilians, as colorful as they are, were singing. I remember I was being driven to the game and I made the driver stop about a mile out and I said, "I've got to be a part of this, I want to march with them all, it's just too exciting."

The atmosphere was tremendous, number one, those are the moments you live for.

HARKES: The atmosphere was tremendous, number one, those are the moments you live for whether you're on the field playing or you're in the stadium experiencing that. It was absolutely fantastic and that's the number one thing that I remember. The fans, the support that came out, it was a lot of red, white and blue.

RAMOS: We go into the game and it was the Fourth of July, everything just felt right going into the game for an upset for us. I just felt like it was just going to be the day.

WYNALDA: I think, collectively, we just said, "Look, one of two things are going to happen. Either we're going to beat the team that is supposed to win this whole thing or we're going to get beaten by the team that will probably win it, so let's just go out there and enjoy it." I didn't start that game and still to this day I have no problem saying it was the biggest disappointment of my career to not be selected for that game.

LALAS: Our approach was that we wanted to try and get guys that could hold the ball at some point, because we knew we were going to be under immense pressure, and so when we broke pressure, we wanted to have at least some guys that could handle the quick pouncing that Brazil would do to get the ball back.

MEOLA: In the midfield, we had one really creative guy that we were depending on that game and that was obviously Tab Ramos.

RAMOS: I know that for me personally, it was probably where I felt my best, really, ever in my career. I think it was my best moment in terms of feeling like mentally and physically I was in a great place. I was having a very good first half on that right side, I created some chances, I was getting fouled on that side by creating danger.

MILUTINOVIC: In the Brazil game everything was perfect, our only problem was when Leonardo made the foul against Tab Ramos. Tab Ramos was very, very important for us.

RAMOS: At the moment I was playing with a lot of confidence and I tried to do a backheel between Leonardo's legs to get out of a tough situation in the corner, and when the ball didn't go through and got stuck between his legs, I kind of reached and tugged on his shirt a little bit, and then came the elbow.

LALAS: We knew at that moment that Tab was in trouble.

Leonardo viciously swung his right elbow backwards, and caught Ramos flush in the side of the head. He dropped to the ground immediately and laid on the field for several minutes. In the meantime, referee Joël Quiniou showed Leonardo a red card. With just a minute to go before halftime and the score tied 0-0, the U.S. was up 11 men to 10.

"No chance, he's got to go to the hospital."

RAMOS: I went into the locker room and it was only a couple minutes before halftime. Bora wanted to see if I could go back in. He didn't want to sub me out yet, so obviously he went in the locker room and he asked me. I barely even knew where I was at the time, so the doctor said, "No chance, he's got to go to the hospital."

MEOLA: I can remember at halftime, we talked nothing about the game, we went right into the locker room and we saw Tab's eyes were literally rolled up into the back of his head. He didn't know where he was.

WYNALDA: I was just trying to grab his hand to basically just say, "Hey, you're going to be OK," or just say something and when he moved you could actually see where he got hit, almost the separation of where his skull was cracked, you could see the blood pooling up and it just scared the hell out of me.

I'll never forget that.

SCHMID: Halftime became a little bit chaotic in the sense that "OK, is Tab going to be able to play? What's his injury situation?" Players were concerned about Tab, players were pissed off about what happened. And so it was a very emotional halftime and it was difficult to get the players focused on what we wanted the tactics to be.

WYNALDA: In the moment, I think the emotions got the most of us — we thought he was going to die. I think some of us, myself included, weren't able to figure out a way to just compartmentalize that and just play. I just couldn't.

MEOLA: We lost our most creative guy. Not to say that anyone else wasn't equally important, but that one element of the game we lost that we really needed. If they were going to go down a man, we needed that one guy in the midfield that could really get at people and break them down.

BALBOA: What hurt us was one, John Harkes being out and the second thing that hurt us was Leonardo takes out Tab. We were missing two of the best holders of the ball that we had on that team. Once we lost Tab, we lost control of the midfield. We got a few opportunities here and there, but if you go back to that game, they played with 10 guys and they attacked us, and we defended and defended and defended. We never really got into an attack. So it never really felt like they had a guy thrown out. It seemed like they were still playing with 11.

DOOLEY: (The red card) did not affect the game. Even with 10 men, Brazil was the better team and did not let us play. With luck, we might have got a tie, but realistically there was no chance.

LALAS: From a tactical perspective, we were overwhelmed. Even when Brazil went down a man, their ability to keep the ball was just so superior and eventually we broke down.

With just over 15 minutes left in the game, Brazil finally scored. Romario — who would go on to win the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player — broke through the U.S. midfield and laid a pass off to Bebeto, who applied the finish.

LALAS: I'll forever think about that little millimeter that separated the ball hitting me as opposed to going through my legs and then in the corner on the slide tackle. Bebeto hits it and it goes right through my legs and past Tony on the other side. It's one thing if I didn't get there, but I got there and even got past the ball, but one of those things where if you look at the way that I slid, it went right through my legs.

Wc94brazilgoal_medium Alexi Lalas watches as Bebeto's game-winning goal goes in. (Getty Images)

MILUTINOVIC: The best satisfaction that I had was how the people appreciated our effort when the game was finished. This was the game that people will remember for a long time, playing against a team that would be the champions of the world. Our team without experience, without so many things, we showed great character, great personality.

MEOLA: The minute we got in the locker room, I don't know how much we really talked about the game to be honest. Everybody was concerned about Tab.

WYNALDA: Tony is exactly right. I think every single one of us walked into that locker room and the first question was "How's Tab?"

RAMOS: I never did watch the second half of that game ever, I haven't seen it. I found out a couple hours later that we lost the game.

Ramos would be diagnosed with a skull fracture, and wouldn't play again for several months. Leonardo was banned for the rest of the tournament.

RAMOS: He came and saw me at the hospital that night. He was crying, he really felt — even though now he's going to get suspended and not play the rest of the World Cup — he was concerned about what he had done so he came to see me.

Final: USA 0, Brazil 1

Even without Leonardo, Brazil would go on to defeat the Netherlands in the quarterfinal, then Sweden in the semifinal. After a 0-0 draw over 120 minutes in the final against Italy, Brazil would prevail in a shootout when Roberto Baggio missed his last PK, becoming the first country to win four World Cup titles. Switzerland lost to Spain in the round of 16, while Romania defeated Argentina before falling to Sweden in penalty kicks in the quarterfinal.

BALBOA: To lose to the eventual World Cup champions, you can't complain, but at that time you were disappointed and sad.

LALAS: There was no shame or embarrassment. If there was any regret it came much later and that's just fueled by age and wisdom. Our goal from the start was to get out of our group. Not just from a soccer perspective but what it meant for the country. We were under pressure to not embarrass ourselves and obviously to help grow soccer and in order to do that, it was made very clear to us that we had to get out of the group.

WYNALDA: We were a story, we were relevant. Regardless of the fact that we lost — and we did lose to the eventual champion — there was hope.

HARKES: It was mixed emotions because as a whole, in the big picture we had represented well. It's not as if we went to the second round and got blown away by the world champions. We lost 1-0 and it was very close, so overall it was probably a success, and at the same time, we were hungry for more.

CALIGIURI: From the competitor side, I would say that will live with us forever. You had a great opportunity then to do something bigger and greater. We did great things but that opportunity only happened that one time. It was on July 4th, the world was watching, you're playing against the best team, you get up a man and you lost. The facts are the facts.

Off the field, the tournament had been a huge success. The cumulative attendance of 3,587,538 broke the previous record by more than 1 million, and the average attendance of 68,991 was also a new record. Both marks still stand today.

The result was a surplus of approximately $50 million — more than double original projections. The money went to the newly established U.S. Soccer Foundation, the U.S. Soccer organization created to administer the World Cup surplus.

ROTHENBERG: (Without the surplus) Major League Soccer couldn't have existed financially. The World Cup organizing committee through the foundation actually put up the seed money to launch Major League Soccer. We also put up the seed money for the 1999 Women's World Cup and for the 2003 Women's World Cup. Although it was unsuccessful, we contributed a significant amount of money to the 2022 World Cup bid.

WYNALDA: It was widely regarded as probably the most successful World Cup ever at the time. One of the biggest concerns was people wouldn't even come, people wouldn't care, and that obviously wasn't the case.

HARKES: You can see all the benefits of what we were able to do, from the business side and Alan and the federation itself tremendously working and hosting the games in a great way. Having a league like Major League Soccer start in 1996 for all of us was very exciting.

ROTHENBERG: Even as we were finishing putting on the World Cup, we began to lay the ground for Major League Soccer and in fact, midway through 1993 we created a group within the World Cup Organizing Committee to create the business plan for Major League Soccer. We used the matches of the World Cup to bring in potential sponsors, potential investors and obviously the TV networks.

On April 6, 1996, Major League Soccer played its inaugural game. The San Jose Clash defeated D.C. United 1-0 thanks to a goal by Eric Wynalda.

BALBOA: The thing for all of us that was huge is that it introduced soccer to the whole United States, especially when the league was planning on starting within a year-and-a-half of the World Cup. It kind of opened up the door for everybody: sponsors, fans. If it wasn't for having the 1994 World Cup, I'm not sure we'd be here today with MLS.

SCHMID: There were a lot of connections that got established for U.S. soccer and recognition that came to U.S. soccer, doors that were opened for U.S. soccer that weren't opened before. You could also use those doors to get some of those foreign players like a (Carlos) Valderrama into MLS at the beginning of it or Jorge Campos. That all sort of evolved out of that World Cup.

CALIGIURI: Who would have come out and supported MLS if you didn't have American players that you knew of? You knew Harkes and Lalas, and Balboa and Cobi Jones who had just played in a World Cup before that. You could brand it, it was great timing.

Of the 22-man World Cup roster, 20 would go on to play in MLS at some point in their career. Eleven would work for MLS teams as a coach or front office member.

STEWART: The World Cup in the U.S. is something that helped develop the game of soccer in the United States and then obviously MLS coming after that. Things started to progress from there to where now we're a regular in the World Cup, we have soccer specific stadiums, we have our own fan base, so things really started to grow from the '94 World Cup.

What happened in 1994 changed the history of soccer in this country forever.

CALIGIURI: The World Cup in 1994 is the single biggest event ever to happen for soccer in this country. It exposed the sport to American sports fans and beyond.

RAMOS: What happened in 1994 changed the history of soccer in this country forever. For me, obviously soccer being my life, I'm very happy to have lived that particular World Cup and that moment because it means and will always mean so much to soccer in this country.

BALBOA: I think the world saw and respected the American player a little more. It opened up doors for me, it opened up a door for Tab and Mike Sorber to go to Mexico, it opened up a huge door for Alexi to go to Italy, it opened up doors for guys to go Germany, so I think it opened up the world for people to say that we can play soccer.

WYNALDA: When I went back to Europe to resume playing for my club team, there definitely was a different attitude toward me personally, toward American players in general. I think that it might have been the turning point.

MILUTINOVIC: We need to remember how it was before and how it is now. In this moment, I am so proud when I see what the American team can do.

MEOLA: I still say all the time, if I had a nickel for every time somebody said, "The World Cup in 1994 made me a fan of soccer," I'd be a rich man today.

LALAS: I lived the power of what a World Cup can do to an individual. My life completely changed. Leno was calling me and Letterman and all these different things. I remember doing Jägermeister and tequila shots with the guys from Metallica right after we got let out of the tournament. I milked it for all it was worth and burned it at both ends for a long time and had a blast doing it.

It's been a wonderful and privileged type of life, and I owe it all to that summer in the World Cup.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler
Special Thanks: Ramla Mahmood, Josh Laincz

About the Author

Seth Vertelney is an editor of USA, and is the co-host of the Open Wide For Some Soccer podcast. He lives in Washington D.C. He can be followed on Twitter at @svertgoalcom