Twenty-one years ago, a hungry and ambitious United States Men's National Team journeyed to Uruguay to prove it could play with the world's best.
The Americans did, making some history along the way.
A year older and wiser after reaching the second round of the 1994 World Cup, the USA proved to the rest of the world it was for real.
Not only did the U.S. MNT finish fourth at the 1995 Copa America, they turned some heads and surprised many soccer observers and experts along the way. Their victories included a triumph against Chile, the team's first win over a South American team on that continent in 65 years, a stunning 3-0 victory over highly-rated Argentina and a penalty-kick shootout win against archrival Mexico at a neutral venue.
To many soccer fans back in the States, the tournament might as well have been a well-kept secret because access to matches was greatly limited. Games were available only through closed-circuit TV at bars and restaurants or if you were willing to pay $19.95 per match to watch it on cable. Since the competition was held in the early days of the internet and social media was years away, acquiring information about the MNT's success proved to be a monumental task at the biennial competition, the oldest international soccer tournament in the world.
To truly appreciate the quality of the team that U.S. Soccer sent to Uruguay, it must be noted that a dozen from that squad have been elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame. The impressive list includes goalkeeper Kasey Keller; defenders Marcelo Balboa, Alexi Lalas, Paul Caliguiri and Thomas Dooley; midfielders John Harkes, Tab Ramos, Cobi Jones, Earnie Stewart, Joe-Max Moore and Claudio Reyna; and forward Eric Wynalda. Another teammate, goalkeeper Brad Friedel, who retired from professional soccer in 2015, is considered to be a strong candidate when he becomes eligible.
Part Two of this three-part series reprises the USA's monumental triumph against World Power Argentina in the teams' final group match as well as the defeat of archrival Mexico in the first knock-out round that formed on the cornerstones for that generation's struggle for the CONCACAF crown.
PRACTICE WASN’T PERFECT ON THIS FIELD
Many of the team practices were held at a municipal park in Paysandu, and it was not in the best shape or in the best part of town. The players and coaches could have squawked publicly, but felt it was in its best interests not to rattle the goodwill they had made with the fans and citizens of Paysandu.
Sampson: They put us on a field that literally had mud down the middle of the field. We felt that we were disrespected by being placed on that field. The organizing committee put us on this horrendous field. Interesting enough, as we progressed in the tournament, we got better and better fields provided to us. We could have made a huge issue of that, but we didn't.
Ramos: The fields were awful. Uruguay was one of those countries where it's a small country and 90 percent of the country lives in the capital or outside the capital, and we were way outside the capital. I think five or six hours away.
Jones: It wasn't in the best area. People forget soccer is a blue collar sport, so our training facility, it was really in an under-privileged area. The field was not a good field. It got muddy because it was raining a lot. Muddy in the middle and bumpy on the outside.
Wynalda: We played with a ball which was a rock. I think Harkes came in and talked to Steve and said, "I don't think we need to practice. It's not worth it. It's just too dangerous to go out and even risk getting hurt." We all pretty much assumed that it was going to be cold and were going to have to wear our studs. The reality was you couldn't wear studs on that ground in the daytime. You would have to wait until it got dark and the dew set and the field got loosened up. We were making jokes about Alexi when we were practicing. I was like, "You sound like a damn Clydesdale coming down a cobblestone street. Here he comes!" We were laughing about that. It was very difficult to train there.
Lalas: The discussion occurred about the possibility of changing our training facility to a different place. A different town or city came up. I'll never forget saying, "Hey look, we have something good here in terms of our support. While that might benefit us to a certain extent from a soccer perspective, we also may lose something by doing that. And it may even be viewed as disrespectful and that's the last thing in the world we wanted to do."
Jones: I remember to this day, we were putting our shoes on, getting ready for training, hearing the rain come. You can actually see it as a sheet of water coming down. It started hitting the little shacks that were around the field. You could just hear the rain getting louder and louder hitting the tin rooftops of the homes. How are they living like that? That was something that stuck with me, the living conditions there. I would be wide awake. I wouldn't be able to sleep, it was so loud.
The USA's task was well defined entering its third and final group match at Estadio General Artigas in Paysandu on July 14: the Americans needed a win or a high-scoring draw against one of the world's top sides, which was playing just across the border from its homeland. Argentina head coach Daniel Passarella rested nine players from his previous match, a 4-0 victory over Chile, although he left forward Gabriel Batistuta and center back Roberto Ayala in the Starting XI. That strategy backfired big time.
Sampson: What impressed me the most about that National Team was their confidence going into the game.
Keller: We felt a little bit disrespected; not to the point where we were all mad or anything. It was kind of like, OK, they were already through. Let's be honest. It was an Argentinean team regardless who they put on the field. Where we were located in Paysandu was relatively close to the Argentinean border, so it wasn't Uruguayans who were at the game. It was all Argentinians. So they're thinking they have a relative home game. They're already through. They're playing the U.S. They can make some changes, and even losing they don't expect to lose three-nil.
Jones: OK, they're insulting us because they don't have to worry about us. But we still have to play to our utmost ability because their second teamers are starting on top teams around the world. It didn't matter. It's like saying you have to play Real Madrid's six, seven starters and four who aren't usually starting. Really? Does it matter? It's still such a quality team. We had to come out and perform and put it on the line, man up a bit.
Lalas: I didn't care (about the apparent snub) because my focus and concentration was on Batistuta. One, because he was a good player, and two we were all coming off of new, very important experiences from a club perspective and I was coming off playing my first season in Italy (with Padova) and I knew him from there. I wanted to shut him down any way I possibly could. I was coming off my first Serie A season and Batistuta was a scoring machine. I remember having played him earlier that year or in the second part of the previous year. He was playing for Fiorentina and he went on a scoring tear. I remember being incredibly disappointed because I had the opportunity to mark him and stop him from consecutive games scoring and he ended up getting a penalty. I didn't foul the guy. I remember thinking that's a cheap way to continue your streak. So there was this game within a game. I knew what type of player he was. He was a great goalscorer, and his physical ability and his willingness to put his body in peril and to score was legendary. So I knew I had a fight on my hands.
Caligiuri: I was presented my 100th cap. It was amazing going into the game. The players were really geared up and focused. We were an unstoppable team. In the first half, these guys were in line with one another. It was an amazing half. I had a great game, great experience. That was among my greatest memories.
Jones: Paul Caligiuri probably had the most spectacular game of his life.
Klopas on scoring in the 20th minute: It was a play developing on the right side and I was following up the action. There was a cross in the box that rebounded out. The ball just happened to come out as I was following the play. I just left-footed a shot to the back post. The goalie was coming from his left to the right across the goal and I just hit it back post.
Sampson: I remember Tab Ramos saying (at halftime), 'You guys realize that if we beat Argentina 3-0, we'll be group leaders." (laughs) I'm thinking to myself, "Wow, what a bold statement, beating Argentina 3-0." And you know what? I think Tab was 100 percent serious when he said that. That just carried over to the rest of the team that they wanted to make a statement that night.
Wynalda: I think once that was said out loud -- we had proven everybody wrong -- we said, “Let's see if we can take it to the next step.” We weathered the storm without a doubt in the second half.
Sampson: Going into halftime up 2-0 my biggest fear was, "Let's not get overemotional here, let's calm down and really prepare for what is going to be a very, very difficult second half.” We ended up scoring a third goal in the second.
Keller: At two-nil, they still win the group. At three-nil, they start making subs and start trying to get that goal. How many times do you see it? You go into a game with a particular mindset and it’s really hard to change it once the game starts.
Wynalda: Joe-Max Moore and I were able to put together a counter and we got a goal and we just locked it down and made sure we got out of there with a victory.
Sampson: Diego Maradona, I remember turning around from the bench and looking up into the stands into the VIP area and literally after the third goal, Maradona was standing up applauding the goal.
Although it was near impossible to find coverage of the U.S. MNT's achievements at the 1995 Copa America back in the United States, the team was front page news in South America.
Wynalda: It was really a remarkable performance. A couple of big saves on Batistuta and (Diego) Simeone couldn't get it past Mike Burns on the post. Mike Burns gets a lot of crap for not being there in '98 (World Cup) when the ball slipped past him to score. There was a reason why he was on the post.
Klopas: We had unbelievable difference makers, like Eric Wynalda, Alexi in the back, John Harkes in the middle. [Ernie] Stewart.
Wynalda: Four or five years prior we would have folded our tents and gone home. "We gave it a good shot. There's no way we're going to beat Argentina." On that quick turnaround, after that Bolivia game, we finally asked the question: why not, why can't we beat these guys? Why not? If we can go out there and put together a collective effort and just fight and make it so hard on them to play, maybe we can make something special happen. And that's exactly what happened.
Lalas: It was just one of those nights where everything went right for us and very little went right for Argentina. It was thoroughly deserved in the way that we played, both in the way we finished our chances and in the way that we defended. It was a classic, traditional American type of performance. We had a good goalkeeper who made the saves when we needed to. We counterattacked. Even my goal was a re-circulation of a free kick. It was one perfect night.
Jones: We were ecstatic. People were just riding high, feeling excited, exuberant. We didn't know what was going to happen next. To beat Argentina was something special that ... we would remember forever.
Lalas: My lasting memory from Copa America '95 was following the win against Argentina. The stadium had a little lounge upstairs. We went up and we were all having a drink and this celebration. I was sitting against the bar and it was packed. It was a big moment. We were the toast of the town. The door was on the other side of the room and all of a sudden it was the parting of the seas. I couldn't see what was happening, but everyone started moving to the side. Out of this parting of the seas emerges Diego Maradona. He had played in Italy, so I spoke Italian to him and it was an incredible moment. He had come to meet these people who had just beaten his team to pay respect, and that was the ultimate form of respect.
Sampson: He said in his own words that we were the better team on the night and we played the better football.
Wynalda: He says: "I'm not crying because Argentina lost. I'm crying because it was so beautiful to see the Americans play such beautiful soccer."
Sampson: We had very few members of the media from the United States in Paysandu. It wasn't on national television, except for Prime Ticket in Spanish back in the United States. But now all of a sudden we are seeing articles in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Boston Globe. These guys are now saying, this is a big deal.
Keller: One of those moments in U.S. Soccer history that really kind of changed the landscape a little bit for the U.S. Yeah, you can get a friendly result in America, but this is a FIFA tournament against a world power, albeit an overconfident world power that already won their first two games. But you showed on the day that if somebody takes you for granted, you can hit them and you can hit them hard. It was cool.
Klopas: I always keep a tape of that game because when I run into my old Argentine friends, I always make some copies. I give it to them. "Hey guys, do you remember this moment?" They all want to forget. I have enough hard copies that I've made of the game that I pass it around.
Wynalda: If you're going to take all of the results in U.S. Soccer history and just on that magnitude, that's one that gets overlooked a lot. Maybe it was the time. It was 1995. Maybe because it happened in Paysandu, Uruguay. Maybe it didn't get the headlines. If the U.S. National Team did something like that tomorrow, they would be calling it the greatest game the U.S. National Team played. We were very proud to be American soccer players at that time.
THE AMAZING GOALKEEPING TAG-TEAM
One of the more intriguing aspects of the Americans' Copa journey was the fact Sampson, for the most part, alternated goalkeepers Keller and Friedel. He had two exceptional keepers and wanted to give both of them playing time. Keller started the opener against Chile, while Friedel took on the duties against Bolivia. Keller was back in the net for Argentina, while Friedel took over for Mexico and Brazil before Keller returned for the third-place match against Colombia.
Keller: It's not foreign to national teams. Also, I think in an interim manager role you are still trying to figure things out as well. What is the goal of these tournaments? It's really preparing you for World Cup qualifying so you have a team that you can trust. The tricky part about it is if you alternate, are you keeping two people happy or are you making two people mad?
Sampson: I had explained to them that because of continuity, I would keep the goalkeeper starting in the second round forward. During group play I would alternate them.
Friedel: I don't think Kasey or I enjoyed it at all, sharing the duties. I think we both felt we were No. 1. I think looking back on it, and I think Kasey would probably agree, we probably would have wished the coach would have chosen one and let one guy go on with his career.
Sampson: The main reason why I alternated them was because they were both exceptional goalkeepers and I felt they both deserved an opportunity to show what they could do under those conditions. I wanted to give them that international experience.
Keller: If you're up front and you stick with it, there are no surprises. With both of us knowing that going in, it was pretty easy getting the job done.
Friedel: It made Kasey and myself better because we always wanted to better one another. We've spoken about it since. It definitely was a catalyst for both of us to improve. It is never ideal for a goalkeeper because only one guy can play. It was what it was.
Jones: That was more of an issue for the ‘keepers than for us. It didn't matter for us who was in goal because we knew either way we were going to have one of the top keepers in the world and that was important.
Ramos: Steve managed that tournament really well. Definitely it wasn't an easy one. For the last 30 years we've had the best goalkeepers in the world. That's one thing we haven't had to worry about.
Lalas: I'm not a fan of it, and I know that Kasey and Brad are not fans of it. However, from a Steve Sampson perspective, he felt that it was not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. He was to a certain extent proven right, given the results. But it was not ideal. It does not lend itself to establishing a consistency and connection between a goalkeeper and a back four. I don't think that's something that should be done within a tournament but if you're going to do it, you better have two goalkeepers that are on an equal footing.
MEXICO, ROUND TWO
Following Sampson's pattern, Friedel started against Mexico at Estadio General Artigas on July 17, the second time the two CONCACAF rivals met in a competition within a month. In their previous meeting on June 18 in Washington, D.C., the U.S. hammered and embarrassed Mexico, 4-0. After 90 minutes and stoppage time in Paysandu, they went straight to penalties. Because the tournament was being playing in a short amount of time with little rest between games, officials felt extra time would put additional strain on the players.
Sampson: We knew they were going to take a different approach against us because we had beaten them so soundly a month ago.
Lalas: It's almost like a different type of game in a tournament if you're playing Mexico because of our familiarity, because of our rivalry. It almost takes on a different character because of all of those things. It's almost not part of the tournament.
Friedel: Mexico always claimed that we couldn't beat them in a big event, in a neutral venue. The Mexican team back then really took it on the chin back home if they ever lost to us. That was even more magnified because that was in Copa America.
Lalas: It was a typical U.S.-Mexico match. It was a street fight. We kicked them, they kicked us. There were cards. There was obviously not a lot of scoring. It was a very equal type of affair. It was not surprising that it went down to penalties because both teams felt that they were not just on par with the opponent, both teams felt that they were better.
The 6-foot-2 Friedel was exceptional in the shootout, making two saves while every American player converted his attempt for a 4-1 victory.
Friedel: I dealt with penalties the same way I did my whole career. I was fortunate to have a decent record on penalties. Not in just shootouts, but in general. It is different shooter to shooter. There would be some that I'd never gotten any data on and I would most definitely try to detect their run-up. Some strikers you can definitely tell where their tendencies are going to go based on the way they angle their approach to the run up to the ball. You try to see where their planting foot is, see where their hips are. It's all very quick stuff. I think when your eye is really in-tune, that's when you have the most capabilities of saving the penalties.
Jones: It's amazing. Brad Friedel has always been excellent since my days playing with him at UCLA where he had the nickname "Great Ape," where he had those long arms. He's always come up big on those. I don't know if you remember the cartoon from way back in the day, the big ape (Great Grape Ape) who had those long arms. Friedel has those long arms. He can literally stand there, reach up and have his hands reach the crossbar. That's just a part of it. His quickness and his ability to get down is what really helps him there. That's why he’s one of the top goalkeepers in the world.
Wynalda: That was the most extraordinary performance. When he went into goal, he reached up and grabbed the crossbar and pulled it down. You can imagine that the crossbar is now vibrating. All of a sudden he spreads his arms out. I think I looked at Caligiuri and said, "He's covering the damn goal!" It was unbelievable.
Lalas: It was all fine and well to do that, but you also have to save the ball. Every little advantage helps. When the shooter saw this happen, I think at times it's intimidating. It was no surprise to me doing what he needs to do in that situation, ultimately winning the game for us.
Friedel: Keep in mind all the advantage is for the player to score. All of the pressure is on the player. There's no pressure on the goalkeeper. So I never found penalty shootouts daunting at all as a goalkeeper because the outfield player is supposed to score the goal. That's one instance of the keeper that you can possibly be the hero because if you don't save it, you're not thought of as a failure.
Dedicated soccer news outlets in the U.S. as well as some major publications publicized the USA's remarkable success at the 1995 Copa America once the team made the knockout rounds.
Wynalda led off against the 5-7 Jorge Campos, placing his attempt to the right side while the goalkeeper dove the other way. Luis Garcia, who tied Batistuta for the Copa Golden Boot as scoring champion (four goals apiece), fired his try toward the middle of the net while Friedel went to his right side for a 1-1 deadlock.
In the second round, Moore drilled his shot into the lower right corner as Campos sprawled in the other direction for a 2-1 lead as Friedel dove to his right and punched away Carlos Hermosillo's kick as the keeper lifted his arm in triumph.
Caligiuri placed his attempt to the right side while Campos dove in the other direction before Friedel barely got his right hand on Alberto Coyote's try for a save for a 3-1 USA advantage.
Up stepped Klopas – TV graphics had misspelled his name as Clopas – to attempt the game-winner. He took a couple of stutter steps and as Campos committed himself to the right. Klopas slotted his shot into the lower left corner for a 4-1 win.
Klopas: In any situation, you have to have the confidence as a player, but knowing that this can win the game. If the goalie saves it or miss, whatever it’s not the end of the world for you. All those little things did play in my mind at time. I was saying, “OK, I'm scoring, we're celebrating, we're through with the team.” The pressure would have been different if I don't make it and we're out. I went up and slowed my run a little bit a couple of times and I saw that Campos was already moving one way. He committed early. It was pretty easy for me. I just wanted to make sure I didn't miss the goal. Just put it in the left corner, my left to his right. After that, I ran to the bench and celebrated with my teammates.
Ramos: I think we arrived at the world stage. We had to let Mexico know that we had arrived here in CONCACAF. We've arrived to be competitive and to stay. It was just the beginning of the U.S.-Mexico rivalry.
Jones: It was sending another significant message not only to the world but to CONCACAF. It was a battle for 90 minutes and penalty kicks. It says more that the U.S., without a doubt – even though I'm sure some of the Mexican people will argue – but that the U.S. was surpassing and pushing beyond Mexico in the region as being the No. 1 player. That was extremely important to put out there.
Today we look forward.
With the march towards 2022 underway and the 2026 FIFA World Cup in North America as our guidepost, the U.S. Men’s National Team has embarked on a new journey. The hallmarks of the culture remain, with perseverance, grit and dogged determination fueled by the pride to represent the United States and each and every one of you.
We take nothing for granted. The path ahead will be paved with successes and informed by setbacks. We will build strength through commitment and character, accepting challenges and rising every time we fall. We will be aggressive and play without fear, for history demonstrates that fortune favors the bold.
Like any grand project, ours is a work in progress. We cannot do it alone. Pioneering a new path forward takes the will of a generation full of optimism and hope, bound by the belief that there is nothing we cannot achieve if we are united in the cause. This is the American spirit, from which is born the American dream. It is time to take our destiny in our own hands and turn that dream into a reality. And do it together.
The future is US.