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

In advance of the U.S. MNT's critical World Cup Qualifier vs. Costa Rica, presented by Volpi Foods, on Sept. 1 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. (6:30 p.m. ET; ESPN, Univision, UDN), looks back Through the Years at an iconic moment in U.S. MNT history that also came against Los Ticos half a world away and in another lifetime.

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.”