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.
SAMPSON DOES SOME HEAVY LIFTING
Sampson, a USA assistant coach at the 1994 World Cup, was the interim coach of the team at the U.S. Cup and Copa America. While trying to coax the U.S. to go as far as it could, he also was trying to impress his bosses to hire him as the full-time head coach. Prior to leaving for Uruguay, Sampson asked U.S. secretary general Hank Steinbrecher what he had to do to keep his job as coach. "I told him to win six," Steinbrecher said. The USA did not win six games, but did well enough to secure Sampson the permanent heading coaching position after the competition. He went on to direct the team through the 1998 World Cup.
Sampson: I tried not to think about my own personal issue. I just tried to enjoy the moment. I knew upon my return I was going to have an interview with the Columbus Crew and there were a couple of other MLS teams that were interested in me at the time. But I know we'd never had an American-born coach lead the U.S. National Team in its history. I told myself what a privilege it would be to be the first.”
Klopas: He was someone who we knew very well, someone we were comfortable with because he was one of the assistants leading up to the 1994 World Cup with Bora. The players respected him. He did a very good job communicating the game plan and what to expect with the players. There was a comfort level because we knew him for years.
Ramos: Bora was one of the best coaches I have ever had – on and off the field. I would have to say sometimes why coaching changes are made because it gets to the point sometimes it can get stale. I think it was time. Steve was a fresh face. All of a sudden the team was happy and the team just played its best because it couldn't wait to get on the field. At the same time, Steve was an American coach and was a lot easier to understand. The team responded really well and that certainly was a high for us.
Lalas: He knew what was not working with this group and he was smart enough to fix that quickly. It resonated with all of us and we performed accordingly. And he got the job.
Friedel: When he was asked to take over as the interim coach, he had an experienced coach alongside him in Clive Charles, who helped him a lot.
Wynalda: The opportunity that he had he took full advantage of because that was a tough team to coach. Clive Charles, God rest his soul, was the glue there. It's so hard to do what Steve was being asked to do anyway. But whether it was keeping the boys laughing, bringing us back in, I think Clive was the biggest catalyst allowing Steve not to get carried away with certain things.
Sampson: You know even after the Copa America tournament, I had no idea where I stood with Alan (Rothenberg, U.S. Soccer president) or Hank. It wasn't until we played at the Parmalat Cup in New York that they offered me the job. I was very honored and privileged to have that experience and was appreciative of that opportunity.
A REMATCH WITH BRAZIL
After moving past Mexico, the team had to pack up and leave Paysandu and traveled to Maldonado for a semifinal confrontation with Brazil at Campus Municipal on July 20. A year prior, the Americans lost to Brazil in the second round at the World Cup, 1-0, playing a cautious game despite enjoying a man advantage after Leonardo fractured Ramos' skull. The Brazilians went onto capture their first world championship in 24 years and fourth overall; the USA was eliminated.
Lalas: We finally went on the road. To a certain extent, we left Brigadoon. It was a different environment and everything kind of changed. We were still confident. We were certainly a better team in the previous tournament when we faced Brazil in the '94 World Cup. So we felt confidence from that, a progression if you will. But it's still Brazil, anyway you slice it.
Wynalda: I knew we were in the middle of something special when we're watching Brazil playing against Argentina and we're rooting for Brazil to win (laughs). Think about that. Yeah, let's play Brazil. Part of us were like, we've already poked the bear with Argentina. They would love another shot at us. So that's not going to be a good idea.
Ramos: That Brazil team was like Spain was three, four years ago. They were undoubtedly the best team in the world and the team that had just won the World Cup, a combination of flair and yet they had hard players like Dunga and Mauro Silva.
Jones: We're feeling that we had a shot. We're feeling more experienced. That awe factor, "Oh it's Brazil," it was another team that we were playing. We've got a shot. So we're going to go out there and get after it.
Ramos: For me it was a little bit more than a special game because it was the first time I was going to play against Leonardo again. He had knocked me out for five months from the World Cup injury. I wanted to make sure we could prove we could beat you this time. We played a pretty good game. I remember the result being much better than we were in that game in deserving to win the game.
Sampson: When we played them against 11 men against their 10, all of us agreed we played too conservatively on the day at Stanford Stadium. So the players really wanted to go out against Brazil and make a statement. And I think they did, even though we lost 1-0. It took a great run by Roberto Carlos on the left side of the pitch. Cobi Jones barely touches him on the shoulder. He takes a dive to draw the foul. He services on the free kick a magnificent cross to Aldair, who heads the ball home for their lone goal.
Caligiuri: It was a bitter way to lose to Brazil because that's the one big hurdle we have not overcome. Some speak of us beating Brazil this one time (at the 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cup). It wasn't a full squad.
Jones: The team played well. We responded well to everything out there. We gave it our all. A lot of games in a short amount of time and at that time it’s a war of attrition, who could survive and have the healthier bodies and have people ready to play.
Wynalda: I got hurt in the first part of the second half. I pulled my groin pretty bad and I had to go back to Germany (to his club team VfL Bochum) with that injury, which was terrible. We kind of ran out of gas. We didn't have the luxury of resting guys like some of the other opponents did, so they were able to give some guys a game off. We played every game. We were starting to feel the effects of it.
Klopas: It was a close game. They had a lot of quality. There was nothing for us to be ashamed of. We left it all on the field.
Sampson: On that day the United States, one, proved they could play with the best in the world and two, they can play to win. They did not play not to lose. I could not be more proud of that moment and how we expressed ourselves.
Only two days later on July 22 at Campus Municipal in Maldonado, the Americans played Colombia in the third-place match. The USA was a battered team, emotionally and physically, having played six matches in 16 days. Sampson made several changes in the Starting XI, giving players such as Mike Lapper, Mike Sorber, Jovan Kirovski and John Kerr a chance to play. The Colombians, who were upset by the Americans, 2-1, at USA '94, recorded a 4-1 win. Luis Manuel Quiñónez gave the South American side the lead in the 30th minute and the legendary Carlos Valderrama doubled the advantage eight minutes later. After the mercurial Faustino Asprilla tallied in the 50th minute, Moore converted a penalty kick two minutes later to slice the deficit to 3-1. The inimitable Freddy Rincon closed out the scoring in the 76th minute.
Friedel: [Colombia] had some wonderful players. They were a strong, strong team back then. I think most people agree that they underperformed at the 1994 World Cup. Playing in Copa America was their next opportunity to try to put that performance right. Losing to us in the World Cup, no matter whether we played them in a friendly, a consolation game, a third/fourth place game, they were going to try to not lose to us.
Sampson: Unfortunately, we had to play a third-place game that none of us wanted to play. As much as we would have loved to have come away with a bronze medal, the players were exhausted.
Keller: By this stage, we were pretty beat up. We were pretty sick of one another by this stage as well. There was the hangover of not making it to the final.
Lalas: The air had gone out of the balloon.
Jones: It’s unfortunate because it was one of those situations where third place does mean something, I guess. We had players thinking about beyond the third-place match, thinking about when they're getting home rather than the game.
Wynalda: A lot of guys who didn't get a chance to play, got a chance to play. They were a little out of rhythm. I couldn't have played. A couple of other guys were licking their wounds, too. We were shot.
Ramos: I was nursing an ankle injury. We had so many games I couldn't get my ankle ready to play. A bunch of guys were going through things. No one says that but there was a certain feeling that it's the last game and then we're going home. The result was a reflection of exactly that.
Lalas: I'll never forget talking to Bora after the tournament and him specifically mentioning that third-place game. He was no longer our coach and him saying that he was disappointed on the way we played that game and how we let an opportunity pass us by. In a sense, he was right. He made a point by saying, "You realize you were playing to finish third in Copa America?" He just felt that it didn't show in the way we were performing. And he's right. I don't think we recognized the importance of that moment and it reflected in our play. I think if any of us had to do anything over, we would have approached that game differently. There is a difference between third and fourth.
Klopas: Finishing fourth in the tournament to everyone's surprise, no one expected us to do that. There was definitely a belief in our group to do well. We had nothing to hang our heads down for.
Sampson: It didn't take the luster off of what was an incredible summer for the United States National Team.
A HEROES WELCOME IN ARGENTINA
There were a few more plane rides to take, which included a journey on a 54-seat prop jet to Buenos Aires and a hero’s welcome at the Hard Rock Café in the Argentine capital before departing for the U.S.
Friedel on the bus ride from Paysandu to Maldonado: We had a couple of players who were nervous fliers and we were told that the airplane was going to be a prop plane. If memory serves correctly, Earnie Stewart and Paul Caligiuri were two that didn't want to get on the plane. It was one of those scenarios where the team stuck together and we all got on a bus. So we took seven hours, something like that, through mountains and hills and all sorts (laughs) to get to Maldonado.
Klopas on the flight to Buenos Aires: I remember sitting in the back, in the last row. We had so many bags. We ran out of space to put these bags, so they started pushing bags in the charter flight. The only thing I remember, I'm sitting with Paul Caligiuri, and he's really nervous at flying. He was holding my hand and squeezing it. I said, "Paul, relax." We were covered with bags. We couldn't get out of our seats. He's holding my hand as tight as a pole. Don't injure me now!
Keller: We were given leather varsity jackets from the Hard Rock. I think I still have mine somewhere floating around. I saw it when I was unpacking a few years ago. That was kind of the way the Argentinians responded to us beating Argentina and doing what we did. It was one of those respect levels around the world that the U.S. gained for the success in Uruguay.
Klopas: I can't find my jacket. I don't know what I did with it. I'm sure someone's wearing it. Every time I see old friends: "Do you have the Hard Rock jacket that I brought home from Copa?” I'm always looking to see if someone's wearing it.
Sampson: I thought it was interesting having beaten Argentina that we're going through Buenos Aires. The players were so happy with the results that we could have taken a boat back home and I don't think they would have cared.
Touching tributes poured in on social media from all corners of the soccer community as news spread that Hall of Fame coach Sigi Schmid had passed away on Christmas Day 2018. And amid the sadness shared by so many who knew him, the messages also provided the rest of us a glimpse into the kind of man that Sigi was, and reminded everyone of the influence Sigi had on the American soccer landscape.
For newer fans of the game, Sigi will be remembered as one of the greatest of MLS coaches, leading the Columbus Crew, Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy to multiple trophies each. Older fans may recall the soccer factory he created while coaching UCLA to numerous NCAA Championships in the 1980 and ‘90s, churning out future U.S. Soccer legends like Cobi Jones, Brad Friedel, Paul Caligiuri, Joe Max-Moore, Frankie Hejduk, Eddie Lewis and Chris Henderson, among others.
It’s also important to highlight the impact he had with two teams he coached for shorter time frames: the U.S. U-20 MNTs that participated in the 1999 and 2005 FIFA U-20 World Youth Championships, each time advancing to the knockout stage while facing the likes of Argentina, England, Germany, Spain and Italy.
Seven players from those U-20 teams would go on to represent the MNT at senior FIFA World Cups, while many others also had solid pro careers. And if not for Schmid, we may never have known some of those players. We caught up with a few from each team:
1999 FIFA U-20 World Cup Championship:
While at UCLA, Sigi also assisted the MNT at 1994 FIFA World Cup and coached the following year’s Pan-American Games. In 1997, he was also coaching the U-18 MNT when he went to scout a player who had just played in the U-17 FIFA World Youth Championship and was playing for his high school in Southern California. However, as Carlos Bocanegra tells it, there was a mistake on the published schedule and the team that Sigi went to see was not playing. Sigi stuck around anyway, and watched the promising football wide receiver, Bocanegra, play soccer for his Alta Loma High School.
“I think about that all the time,” the two-time World Cup veteran Bocanegra told ussoccer.com this week. “That was my break. That was my chance. He gave me the opportunity and I was able to take that opportunity. That’s how I was able to kick-start my soccer career – pure coincidence that he was watching my game that got mixed up and he saw me play.”
Schmid invited Bocanegra, a junior at the time, to a U-18 camp. The next year he continued his pursuit of the talented defender and recruited Bocanegra to join him at UCLA. Their bond strengthened when Schmid took over the U-20 MNT and made Bocanegra a key member of the USA’s 1999 FIFA World Youth Championship side in Nigeria.
That team also included fellow future senior World Cup players Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Nick Rimando and Chris Albright, as well as long-time pros Danny Califf, Nick Garcia, Cory Gibbs, John Thorrington and Taylor Twellman, who became one of the most prolific American goalscorers in the pro ranks.
“That World Cup, playing with Sigi, had a massive impact on me and ultimately convinced me that I needed to go pro,” said Twellman, who at the time was also contemplating if his future would be in baseball, where he also excelled.
At the tournament, the USA defeated an England side that featured Ashley Cole and Peter Crouch, fell to Shinji Ono’s Japan, and defeated Cameroon in group play before falling by a score of 3-2 in the Round of 16 to eventual champions Spain that included Iker Casillas and Xavi.
In the lead up to that tournament, Sigi broke from the past and brought the team overseas for training, including to Morocco for two games and on a two-week fitness camp in Germany, where the team stayed at a bed-and-breakfast.
Bocanegra in action vs. Argentina in 2003, a few short years after graduating from Schmid's tutelage.
“He really tried to give us good experiences that he thought would help us later in our career,” said Bocanegra. “He always tried to set trips up around where we could watch games at a higher level and get experiences to challenge ourselves in different ways than was maybe common practice. He always wanted the best for the group and to give us the best experiences to try to better ourselves, not only on the field but in life and to become well-rounded in the game.”
As a reward for the hard work in Germany, Sigi brought the U20s to France to attend the 1998 World Cup match between the USA and Germany.
“Sigi had such a feel for the game of soccer, domestically and globally,” said Chris Albright. “He always communicated that we were putting on our nations colors and flag, representing the country. He drilled that in us that this was not to take it for granted, that it was not to be taken lightly.”
Like Bocanegra, Sigi introduced Albright to the National Team scene. Later he helped pick him up when things were not going well at D.C., trading for him in LA. At the suggestion of then MNT coach Bruce Arena, Sigi helped convert Albright from a forward into a defender, a move that later landed Chris on the 2006 World Cup team.
“He had an excellent ability to teach multiple positions; he could make me a better forward, wide midfielder, defender,” Albright said. “He could teach principles of different positions to help each player grow, and that teaching element in developing us at that time was unique.”
Twellman scored four goals in the tournament, good for third overall, thus becoming the first American to capture a scoring award (Bronze Boot) in a FIFA World Youth Championship.
Twellman accepts the Bronze Boot alongside then U.S. Soccer president Dr. Robert S. Contiguglia.
“When people talk about Sigi, they talk about his love of the game,” Twellman said, who a few months later would leave Maryland to sign with 1860 Munich in Germany. “But he was also a gentleman and was kind off the field. Every single one of us on that team, if we saw Sigi 3-4-5-10 years down the road…he always watched our games, even when he was not our coach. He was always willing to talk to us, showed interested in us, asked us about our lives.”
Now the Technical Director of MLS Cup champion Atlanta United, Bocanegra draws from those early experiences under Schmid.
“Even though we were young, he really tried to instill the professionalism in us,” Bocanegra said. “The detail, structure, organization – challenging us. He always made time to make people feel important. He never stopped, through college, through pros, was always available. He was pretty special.”
2005 Under-20 World Youth Championship
A week after that 1999 U-20 tournament came to an end for the USA, Sigi also began his pro career, taking the helm of his hometown LA Galaxy for the next five seasons.
He returned to coach the U-20 MNT in October 2014, having only a couple months to scout and prep players for January’s U-20 Concacaf Championship.
Two years earlier, Schmid’s Galaxy had eliminated Kansas City and veteran National Team player Peter Vermes from the MLS Cup Playoffs. After the game, Vermes recalled this week, Schmid approached him and told him he’d like to have him on his staff one day.
Fast-forward to fall 2014, a since-retired Vermes called Sigi and reminded him of that conversation. Schmid held true and invited Vermes to a three-week U-20 camp. After a week of evaluating, Schmid told Vermes he had earned one of the assistant coach positions.
“It was a great opportunity for me just to be around somebody like him with as much knowledge and experience that he had,” Vermes said, who enters the 2019 season as the longest tenured MLS coach, having taken the reigns of Sporting KC in 2009. “I already knew I wanted to coach for a long time, but what those experiences give you is like anything – when you first want to do something, you’re excited, you’re ambitious, you’re motivated, you’re all those things. But sometimes you lack the confidence. For me, Sigi gave me a direction that I felt comfortable with because I had gotten a chance to see a lot of different things that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t get that chance to be with him and spend all that time, and the preparation, and everything. It was a great experience.”
Schmid’s first friendly was in November in Ft. Lauderdale. Due to College Cup, some would-be regulars were not available, so Schmid called in four new players, including UCLA speedster Marvell Wynne, who had never been called to any YNT camp before.
“I think I should have been more in the moment with everything that happened,” Wynne admits. “When I got called in I remember thinking ‘these guys are way better than me.’ But Sigi kept calling me back. When he said I made the team, I was definitely shocked.”
For a mid-December camp Schmid called in 30 players, including UCLA walk-on midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who also had never been on any Youth National Team. Like Wynne, Feilhaber also made a formidable impression.
Wynne and Feilhaber were instrumental in helping the USA qualify for the
2005 FIFA U-20 World Youth Championship three weeks later.
Let’s back up for a second. Sigi’s sons also played college soccer in the LA area around that era. And, family man that he was, he would always attend their games, first Kurt’s at UCLA, and later Kyle’s at UC-Irvine.
“It’s what jump-started my entire career,” said newly retired 12-year pro Brad Evans. “The only reason I made that U-20 team is because Kyle Schmid transferred to UC Irvine. Without Kyle transferring there was absolutely no reason for Sigi to come watch UCI play.”
Schmid had spotted Evans that fall at UCI, but it wasn’t until after the U-20s had qualified for the World Cup that he called in the versatile player to his first National Team camp at any level.
Vermes explained how Sigi gave the preliminary roster to rest of the coaching staff and told them that they could each make a case for one player to either be replaced or be added.
“A lot of guys in that position would never consult the rest of staff,” Vermes said. “I thought that showed a lot of security and confidence on his part, to know what his decisions were but also want to know what his staff’s decisions were, and ultimately to make the best decision. There’s no doubt that that has helped me, and I would say that a lot of the players that were identified are players that are still playing or who had great careers because they were identified correctly.”
Wynne, Feilhaber and Evans were on the final 21-player roster, along with Jonathan Spector, Sacha Kljestan, Lee Nguyen, Freddy Adu, Chad Barret and Eddie Gaven, among others who also had solid pro careers.
The team shocked the world in the tournament opener, defeating Argentina 1-0 thanks to a Barrett goal assisted by Wynne. It would be the only loss and shutout suffered by the South Americans, who won their next six matches en route the lifting the championship trophy with future international stars Sergio Aguero, Lucas Biglia, Pablo Zabaleta, Fernando Gago and Golden Ball and Golden Boot winner, Lionel Messi.
Chad Barrett, who would go on to play professionally under Schmid in MLS, scored the game-winner vs. Argentina at the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship.
The 20s then played Germany to a scoreless draw and defeated Egypt 1-0 before losing 3-1 to Italy in the Round of 16. The experience and exposure provided opportunities to a number of players.
Feilhaber would soon sign with Hamburg, and later would score one of the best goals of the USA’s rivalry against Mexico, helping the MNT win the 2007 Gold Cup. And despite interest from international clubs, Wynne and Evans returned to school. Wynne became the top pick in the next MLS SuperDraft and Evans was selected 15th overall the following year by Columbus’s new coach, Sigi Schmid.
“He means more than I can really describe,” Feilhaber said, who along with Spector also made the 2010 FIFA World Cup roster. “Getting that opportunity with the 20s led to everything else in my life. I have no idea if I would have become a pro. I know I would not have been as successful financially, [and] going to Europe that early helped me immensely as a player. I don’t know if I would have ever played on the National Team let alone in a World Cup. I’m really grateful for Sigi having that keen eye and for giving me that opportunity.”
Sigi not only gave Evans his international debut and professional debut but would also bring him to Seattle on their way to spending 10 pro seasons together.
“He was the pivot for me in my entire career,” Evans said. “You have youth coaches, parents, but if you want to talk about the person who I’m able to talk about 12 years later and say I played professionally because of them…yes, it comes from within, but you have to have someone who pushes you and really believed in you, and Sigi was the guy for me.”
Sigi’s memorial took place on Friday, Jan. 18 in Los Angeles.
In March 2017, after more than 300 MLS games and having also represented the USA in the 2008 Olympics and 2009 Confederations Cup, Wynne’s career came to an end after undergoing a heart procedure.
When he came to from the operation, one of the first voicemails he listened to was from Sigi Schmid.
“Sigi was the reason I became a pro,” Wynne said. “He got me on to the scene, kept me there, had confidence in me and he kept me going. In terms of coaching, it was more, ‘get the basics right and perfect them.’ He was the first one to hammer that home, and if you ever saw my career, it was basic.”
A reflective Wynne made a special trip to an LA Galaxy game last year to meet up with his former coach.
“We talked about my heart situation, and caught up about everything,” Wynne said. “And I told him, ‘you’re the reason I went pro.’ I was able to tell him face to face, but I hoped he knew.”
“Yea, the opportunity, experience and all those other things were great, but the best thing for me, to be honest, was that he and I became friends after that 2005 Youth Championship,” Vermes said. “We always, always talked and kept in touch and spent time with each other. We had a very good relationship.”
“I sense that he knew what he meant to me,” Feilhaber said. “The way that we spoke was not in a way that most coaches to ex-players do. We were friends - he understood how much of an influence he had on me. We had respect for each other, and I’m going to miss him a lot, but it’s so important to have these memories about him.”
“We talk about a coaching tree a lot, but Sigi’s got the player tree, the coaching tree, the soccer tree really,” Bocanegra said. “So many people spiraled off the opportunities he gave them. Through soccer he gave so many people their start. But the biggest part that everybody remembers is that he cared about each and every person. He wanted to get the best out of them, and did not give up. He would give second chances, third chances - if you were his guys, and you worked for him he was going to his damndest to get the best out of you and make you a better player or person in general.”
“When I think back on it, especially the last couple of weeks, we always talked about getting the ‘Sigi shirt-tug,’” Evans reminisced. “Once he got a hold of your shirt and put his arm around you, there was no getting away from it. But I remember him being very honest with me in everything. He never blew smoke up my tail or thought that I was better or worse than I was. He always believed in me. We really trusted each other when it came to soccer and had an unspoken relationship that just worked. It’s something that I’ll cherish and remember forever.”Read more