U.S. Soccer

1998 FIFA World Cup Qualifying Final Round


Twenty Years Later, Ramos Remembers Iconic 1997 Winner vs. Costa Rica

  • Tab Ramos marked his return from a torn ACL with a stunning game-winner in a 1997 WCQ vs. Costa Rica
  • RAMOS: “When the ball hit the back of the net, it was like, ‘OK, I’m back.’”
  • Legendary midfielder says he envisioned himself scoring that morning

A World Cup Qualifying campaign’s success is unlikely to be defined by one specific moment. A grueling two or three-year schedule of home and away travel usually encompasses hard work and contributions from many. Along the way, injuries, opponents and matchups play a big role in dictating who may become a hero on any given day.

In the case of the USA’s crucial qualifier against Costa Rica on Sept. 7, 1997, the man destined for legendary status was Tab Ramos. A familiar figure and focal point of two previous World Cup rosters, the crafty midfielder had missed many of the qualifiers for the 1998 World Cup after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament the previous November.

Ramos’ return to the U.S. side came in front of a boisterous home crowd gathered at Portland’s Civic Stadium (now Providence Park). On the warm, late-summer day at the future home of Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers, a sell-out crowd of 27,369 provided the MNT a home atmosphere like it had never experienced in previous World Cup qualifying matches. 

“It was a crowd that was very vocal from beginning to end in that game,” Ramos recalled of the atmosphere. “It was possibly the first time we had played in front of a crowd that was 100 percent pro-U.S. that was totally in the game from the first play until the last. It was very easy to play there. It was very easy to get inspired by that crowd, and I think we took advantage of that.”

The inspirational environment greatly aided a U.S. side who had taken six points from its first five Final Round qualifiers. Not bad, not great, but certainly not yet headed to France ’98.

His timing proved impeccable for head coach Steve Sampson, who had to field a starting XI missing captain John Harkes due to yellow card accumulation as well as then all-time leading scorer Eric Wynalda, scratched moments before kickoff due to a lingering leg injury.

Despite missing two sure starters, the U.S. carried much of the play in the match, with first-half chances from Roy Wegerle and Jeff Agoos turned away by Costa Rica goalkeeper Erick Lonnis. In the second half, Ramos created early danger when a low cross from the right found Eddie Pope, whose redirected effort at the near post trickled just wide of Lonnis’ goal.

Call it worry, call it doubt, but as the chances came and went, Ramos admitted to thinking the U.S. may not find the needed goal.

“There are certain parts in the game where you think, ‘Man, in the next few minutes if we don’t get one, we’re going to be in big trouble,’” he recalled.

And perhaps at that point, he might’ve thought back to the way he started the day that morning.

“…when I woke up this morning, I was lying back on my pillow, and I had this vision that I would score a goal, and we'd go on to beat Costa Rica 1-0,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1997. “Then I snapped out of it, and I was smacking myself in the face saying, 'What are you thinking? You never score.'"

Long the playmaker in the U.S. attack, Ramos had his facts correct. Until that day, he’d registered just five goals in 71 previous MNT appearances. But as time ticked away, things lined up just right for Ramos to register one of the biggest goals in U.S. MNT World Cup qualifying history.

A corner kick from Preki on the right swung all the way across the field where Earnie Stewart collected, only to have the veteran midfielder swing it right back to Preki, resetting the play.

With a second chance at jumpstarting an attack, Preki made a patented cut back to gain space before whipping a low ball towards the penalty spot. There to meet it was center back Marcelo Balboa, who recognized the positioning of his long-time teammate Ramos and teed up the perfect pass into the stride of the talented midfielder at the top of the area.

“We had obviously been playing on the National Team for 10 years, and he dropped off the perfect ball to my right foot that I just hit first time to the near post,” Ramos said. 

What if Balboa had pushed that pass just a little to the left? Ramos candidly admits they probably wouldn’t have won that game. "It was good that Marcelo knew enough to put the ball on my right foot at the right time.”

“When I hit that ball, so many frustrations over the last six-to-eight months came into play, from rehab, from my knee,” Ramos told reporters after the game. “When the ball hit the back of the net, it was like, ‘OK, I’m back.’”

And when the final whistle blew, a huge relief came over the entire U.S. team, who moved up to nine points from six matches and took a serious step towards qualifying for France '98. 

"It was a great strike," said Preki of the goal. "We really needed it. I just said, 'Thank God.' This feels great. We have one leg in France ... now we have to get the other one there." 

While the goal was historic, the photo taken of Ramos’ jubilant celebration as he glided around the field has become iconic in American soccer lore. A copy of it hangs in the lobby of the facility that Ramos owns and operates in New Jersey.

“I think there’s so much joy and feeling in that picture. I scored goals before – not many by the way – but rarely did I get as excited as this particular goal. I think it had to do with how much I drew from the crowd, how much I drew from the situation we were in and how much we needed to win that game. I think it all came together, and obviously, as they say, the rest is history, but it’s a goal I’ll never forget.”

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MNT Aug 24, 2017

GALLERY: U.S. MNT's Historic 0-0 WCQ Draw at Estadio Azteca in 1997

No opposing team has fared too well at Estadio Azteca. The altitude, smog and often times heat have all played factors in creating an overwhelming home-field advantage for Mexico, with El Trí going 39-2-7 in 48 World Cup Qualifiers.

While the U.S. is 1-8-2 all-time at Azteca, the MNT began to break down some of the mystique of the venue during its trip to Mexico City in 1997. Facing El Trí on Matchday 8 of the Final Round qualifying for the 1998 FIFA World Cup, the U.S. squad played most the match with just 10 men when defender Jeff Agoos was sent off in the 32nd minute for an altercation with Mexico midfielder Pavel Pardo.

Despite playing down a man for the final 58 minutes, the U.S. frustrated El Trí and gained support from the home crowd who were showing their displeasure with their own side’s play.

The USA managed to slow the Mexican attack and earn a historic 0-0 draw – just the second tie by an opposing team in a World Cup Qualifier at Azteca and first since Haiti played to a 1-1 draw on Nov. 11, 1981. With a point in hand, the U.S. secured qualification for the 1998 FIFA World Cup with a 3-0 win against Canada in Vancouver one week later.

Take a trip 20 years back with the original game story, as well as photos of the game and match report below:

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MNT Jun 10, 2017

100 Moments: Depleted U.S. Men’s National Team Records Historic Point at Azteca

Playing archrival Mexico in a vital World Cup qualifier in Mexico City was a difficult enough challenge for the United States on Nov. 2, 1997.

After all, the U.S. National Team had never recorded a point south of the Rio Grande.

Add the fact the team was missing four key starters – midfielders Tab Ramos (knee injury), Earnie Stewart (calf injury) and Claudio Reyna (yellow-card suspension) and goalkeeper Kasey Keller (thumb injury) and it looked like it was downright impossible for the Americans to walk out of the cauldron called Azteca Stadium with any sort of result.

About a half hour into the match, the degree of difficulty got much more difficult, when defender Jeff Agoos was red carded, forcing the Americans to play a man down.

Despite these obstacles, the Americans persevered and pulled off what was considered the impossible – a scoreless draw while earning a precious qualifying point and feeling like they actually had won.

"Let's be honest: I don't think anybody gave us a chance going into that game," U.S. defender Marcelo Balboa said. "Everyone thought we were going to walk into Azteca and lose 3-0. Everything kind of fell our way."

Added defender Alexi Lalas: "I don't think any of us were running to Vegas before the game to say this was happening."

The Americans entered the match with a 0-17-0 record in Mexico City. Combined with the smog, altitude and an intimidating crowd and a very good home side, Azteca is a difficult place for any opposition.

The U.S. did its best to prepare for the confrontation. Head coach Steve Sampson had the team train at altitude for 16 days at Big Bear Lake, a ski resort 6,800 feet above sea level, which lies northeast of Los Angeles. A typical day consisted of a 7 a.m. wake-up all, cross-training (bicycling or running) at 8 a.m, lunch at noon, field training at 2 p.m. and dinner at 6 p.m.

"We were looking at it to do everything we possibly can to give ourselves a chance to come up with some kind of result," Lalas said. "It was a good time to get away. It was a different type of camp than we were normally used to. We were hiking and out in the wilderness. So it gave us a different type of feel."

The players were able to get closer to one another, and that type of camaraderie was needed in Azteca.

Azteca is all about intimidation, even before the players enter the field.

"We walked down this long tunnel and you break off to the right," Balboa said. "You go up this ramp to go into the stadium. As you walk up this ramp, all you see is fans because it's so high. All of a sudden you see this white uniform, a U.S. uniform on a mannequin being thrown from the top tier and you see it hanging from a rope as we walk out into the stadium. You're like, 'Oh, my God!' That's the intimidation factor."

Lalas compared it to the Mad Max movies: "It's like Thunderdome," he said. "You walk in and the sky is distant because of the effect of it being straight up. That was amazing because you walk out and the noise and all of that was crazy – but this is an outdoor stadium that it takes time to realize that there is an outdoor element to it. The sky is so far. All you see is people."

That is only stage one. Next comes the altitude, smog and again those fans all dressed in green. On this November day, some 110,000 jammed into the stadium.

"It's everything. It's not just one thing," Balboa said. "You walk out there in Mexico and it's hot. The field is huge, the grass is long, the smog starts kicking in and you're coughing all the time. Intimidation of playing in such a huge stadium with so many people and the whole stadium is in green. Everything comes together with Azteca. And 12 o'clock on a Saturday or a Sunday, it is very intimidating."

After the first qualifier in Foxborough, Mass. Ended in a wild 2-2 draw in April, a no-nonsense referee without any CONCACAF affiliation – Javier “The Sheriff” Castrilli of Argentina - was brought in to officiate this encounter.

The complexion of the game changed in the 33rd minute, when Agoos was red carded by Castrilli for elbowing Pavel Pardo.

The Americans did not have the luxury of talking about their new playing strategy.

"We just knew what we had to do," Balboa said. "You don't have time to get together. You were in Azteca. It was sold out and it was packed. You can't hear. They're screaming and yelling. Before the game, the game plan was to defend and we knew how to defend. We had hit them quickly on counterattacks before and we knew they were going to send numbers. On the counterattacks, we were unfortunate on [Thomas] Dooley hitting the post."

The red card forced Sampson to shuffle his lineup. He moved captain John Harkes to Agoos' spot on the left side. Forwards Joe-Max Moore and Roy Wegerle were brought back closer to the midfield and Eric Wynalda, who started the game on the wing instead of his central forward spot, was called on to play much more defense than he had originally anticipated.

As the game wore on, the U.S.'s performance started to sway the heavily partisan crowd. It began with boos and whistles at halftime for the Mexicans and it continued midway through the second half as the crowd sarcastically chanted "Ole!" every time the Americans knocked the ball around to take some time off the clock. It got worse. The spectators chanted, "Fuera Bora!" as in “fire their coach,” former U.S. National Team head coach Bora Milutinovic.

"It was as much a respect for how well we were playing as it was an indictment on how poorly they felt Mexico was playing," Lalas said. "That doesn't happen often."

"I think it was the first time in our history that the Mexican fans turned on their own team and started yelling, 'Ole! Ole!,' kind of like the scenario when Mexico and Jamaica played [another scoreless draw on Feb. 6, 2013],” Balboa said. “The crowd was getting behind Jamaica because they were so disappointed with the way Mexico played. That's the way it was that day. You can just feel as the game went on, that we kept growing in confidence."

Chris Henderson came on for Cobi Jones in the 56th minute, his speed giving the Americans an opportunity to take advantage of some open midfield space on their counterattacks.

"Now, the way we got that point, I wouldn't say it was pretty soccer," Balboa said with a laugh. "But it was effective. We slowed the game down. We knocked it around. We did everything possible to take Mexico out of their game. And, when they got rattled, they started to launch balls. They started attacking quicker and that was perfect because those were our strengths. Everything kept on going our way. You need a little bit of luck and we got it that day. They could have walked out of there with a 1-0 loss, the way we were playing."

Except for a late flurry in the final five minutes – Luis Garcia's six-yard header whizzed right past the right post in the 86th minute – Mexico's quality chances were few and far between. The defense, led by Balboa, Lalas and Eddie Pope, stifled the big men up front, including Zague, Carlos Hermosillo and Alberto Garcia Aspe, respectively. Goalkeeper Brad Friedel handled everything sent his way.

When Castrilli whistled the end of the game, the teams had varying reactions.

"Oh my God! That was a win," Lalas said. "That was a point in Azteca. For what it meant not just for the qualifying process, but just against Mexico at that time it was huge. When we got back into the locker room, we knew we had done something historic. It didn't mean that we would win the World Cup, but it would be something that we would be talking about for many years to come. There was a recognition that something important had been done."

The U.S. needed a victory at Canada the next week to clinch a spot at France '98.

"We walked out of that place like we just qualified for the World Cup. We didn't yet," Balboa said. "Mexico qualified and they walked out of that stadium like they lost. It shows you the intensity and the rivalry of how it used to be. They qualified and they didn't even celebrate. It was a huge point for us."

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MNT Mar 25, 2013



Date Matchup Result Venue Attendance Goal Scorers
4-2 W Foxboro Stadium; Foxborough, Mass. 53,193 McBride (2), Radosavljevic, Henderson
3-0 W Vancouver 8,420 Wegerle (2), Reyna
0-0 D Estadio Azteca; Mexico City, Mexico 114,600
MNT vs Jamaica 1-1 D RFK Stadium; Washington, D.C. 51,528 Wynalda
1-0 W Portland Civic Stadium; Portland, Ore. 27,369 Ramos
MNT vs El Salvador 1-1 D Estadio Cuzcatlan; San Salvador 29,000 Lassiter
2-2 D Foxboro Stadium; Foxborough, Mass. 57,407 Pope, OG
2-3 L Estadio Ricardo Saprissa; San Jose, Costa Rica 22,000 Lassiter, Wynalda
3-0 W Stanford Stadium; Palo Alto, Calif. 28,896 Pope, Stewart, Wynalda
0-0 D Kingston 35,246