Legacy of USA 94

How the world's greatest game came to the United States - and what it meant for the future of the sport

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It started with a penalty missed by Diana Ross and ended with one missed by Roberto Baggio. It has been over 20 years since the 1994 World Cup in the USA – 20 years in which the global game has expanded beyond recognition, club ownerships have shifted from car dealers to carbon billionaires, and digital technology has transformed how football is broadcast and consumed.

In the USA itself, a new league, Major League Soccer, was founded in the wake 
of the tournament. It now boasts 20 teams and the door is open to grow to 28 in the future. The U.S. national team competed in Brazil for the seventh consecutive World Cup – a streak putting them in the top 10 
in the world for consistency.

Broadcast titan NBC outbid several rivals for the Premier League rights and now shows every single game as part of its deal while the likes of BeIN, Fox and ESPN carve up Serie A, La Liga, the Bundesliga, Liga MX and dozens of other competitions. Among 12-to-20-year-olds, football is now the second most-watched sport in the country, and big European teams, savvy to the potential of the US market, have become perennial visitors on blockbuster summer tours. 

But when Diana Ross ran the length of Chicago’s Soldier Field on June 17, 1994, all that was in the future. As her hit, "I’m Coming Out" rang out, the Motown legend enacted an elaborate stutter step in front of a pre-rigged goal (and, indeed, pre-rigged goalkeeper), firing a ‘penalty’ from all of six yards. And firing it wide.

‘Miss Ross’ didn’t miss a beat, the goal burst open as if she’d scored and the pageant continued. Yet right there, in the opening moments of the opening ceremony, was the image critics needed to damn USA 94 before it had even begun.

Detractors of the decision to host the World Cup in the U.S. over competition from football-loving nations Morocco, Chile and sentimental favorite Brazil saw a moment that typified every cliché about Americans and football. Americans, they said, were more about showbiz than sport, and had no right to be hosting the preeminent tournament of the world game. For those critics, it wasn’t just Ross who had missed the target.

It’s perhaps hard to remember now just how broad and patronising the pre-tournament negativity had been. In the UK in particular, mocking the perceived gaucheness of the Americans was a welcome distraction from the national team’s own self-inflicted absence from the tournament. Not that the English were strangers to the idea of football as narrative entertainment. 

Probably best you stick to singing, Di

The high opera of Gazza’s tears at Italia 90 had been followed by the base comedy of Graham Taylor’s well-documented “Do I not like that” failure to qualify in 1994. But behind it all was the persistent idea that sport, like music, was somehow a branch of culture apart – a source of identity rather than a lifestyle option. No such friction existed in the USA. 

Accordingly, even the poet laureate of the new writing about the sport, Nick Hornby, was not above making digs at the Americans, writing a pre-tournament guide instructing them how to watch the game. If Germany’s master diver Jurgen Klinsmann should somehow end up on the turf, Hornby suggested, Americans should pray for him, as he was sure to be seriously injured.

This was also the first of what might be called the ‘empire-building’ World Cups for FIFA – a tournament meeting the sweet spot of money and an expanding footprint for the sport (a model that has subsequently seen Japan/South Korea, South Africa and Qatar win bids to host). The USA, with its existing sports, transport and broadcast infrastructure, and huge potential audience, was actually a fairly safe choice for FIFA from many standpoints, but its lack of a top-flight league and its perceived lack of football heritage went badly against it. FIFA was under pressure from the minute the vote to award the tournament to the USA took place, on July 4, 1988. 

Jack Charlton feels the heat

The idea that six years later to the day, a 10-man USA would be playing a second-round game against Brazil, and pushing them all the way in a 1-0 defeat, seemed impossibly remote at that moment. For one thing, the USA hadn’t even competed at a World Cup since 1950, when they achieved their infamous 1-0 victory over England. After a burst of interest in the 1970s around the NASL and New York Cosmos, that league had collapsed in 1984, and the football landscape in the U.S. became impossibly fragmented for the so-called ‘lost generation’ of American players in the 1980s. 

“When we received the World Cup, we were a laughing stock – people were asking, ‘Why give it to a country that doesn’t play soccer?’”

“In 1990 I bummed around Europe with my buddies and went to the World Cup and sat around and watched the team, painted my face, drank a lot of beer – not even fathoming that four years later I’d be on the field playing for the national team.”

Peter Vermes is the head coach of Sporting Kansas City, having also won titles with the club (then Kansas City Wizards) as a player and now as a manager in 2013. In 1988, he was a new college graduate contemplating his dream of life as a professional player.

“At that time, being a professional soccer player in the United States wasn’t a reality, to be honest with you,” Vermes said. “Although the ASPL had started in 1989, it wasn’t really a first-division league, so if you really wanted to forge ahead and try a professional career in soccer, it had to be overseas.”

Vermes eventually got a foothold with Hungarian side Gyori ETO, moved to Volendam in the Dutch Eredivisie and would later play in the Spanish second- and third-tier with Figueres for four years, before returning to the States, joining the fledgling MLS in the wake of USA 94. His trajectory was not atypical of his generation – those who didn’t fall through the many cracks, that is. 

Qualifying for Italia 90 was crucial for the US

And yet Vermes’ generation of players did achieve something that may have saved the 1994 World Cup, when a Paul Caligiuri shot (sometimes referred to now by US fans as the “shot heard ’round the world”) looped over the Trinidad & Tobago goalkeeper to send the United States to Italia 90.

Vermes has no doubt about the importance of the goal. “If you look at it today, it was imperative that we qualify in 1990,” he explains. “Because having already received the World Cup in 1994 we were viewed at that time as a laughing stock, because everybody was asking the question: ‘Why? There’s no professional league in the country – why would you give it to a country that doesn’t even play soccer?’ That type of thing. So it was imperative for us to qualify on merit to give some credibility to FIFA making that decision to give us the World Cup in 1994. I think it was huge.”

As it was, the USA lost all three of their games at Italia 90, but they’d got there 
on their own merits and earned the 1994 organizing committee some time and credibility in doing so. Not that Alexi Lalas, one of the faces in the crowd during that tournament, and a future icon in 1994, was looking ahead to his destiny: “In 1990 I bummed around Europe with my buddies and went to the World Cup and sat around and watched the team, painted my face, drank a lot of beer – not even fathoming that four years later I’d be on the field playing for the national team.”

And they said this kind of thing would never catch on

Back in the USA, American World Cup organizers were charged not just with running a tournament, but enacting a FIFA mandate to build a sustainable structure for the sport and a first-division league in the country. Given the fragmented state of football in the U.S., running the tournament was possibly the less daunting aspect of the task, even with the eyes of the world on them. There was at least, for example, some existing evidence of an audience: tournament director Alan Rothenberg had run the 1984 Olympic football tournament that had seen repeated sellouts for the 100,000-capacity Rose Bowl in Los Angeles, the venue for the USA 94 final. 

In 1990, Rothenberg won the presidency of the U.S. Soccer Federation. The day after his election he called Hank Steinbrecher, a former player and coach who had run the Harvard football venue at the 1984 Olympics, and invited him on board. Steinbrecher became general secretary of U.S. Soccer and helped start the task of professionalizing the game. 

As Steinbrecher remembers it, a turning point came in late summer 1992, when a three-day weekend brought together 250 leaders within the sport. “The unique thing about this was that we didn’t just ask people from the football association: we had sponsors come; we had the press come; we had people who absolutely hated the FA; we had private promoters; we had players; we had people from all different constituencies; and basically said, ‘Leave your weapons at the door – we’re only going to talk about how to grow the game of soccer in America.’ And amazingly enough, we were able to develop a consensus.”

Rothenberg (left) and Steinbrecher (right) feel the love

Among the decisions U.S. Soccer made around this time was to put the top American players on a contract and run the national team more or less as a club side in 
the build-up to the 1994 World Cup. Before that point, players were on “$15 a day as per diems – woeful,” as Steinbrecher puts it. Lalas remembers that period: “I did it completely backwards to the way that you’re supposed to do it. Normally you have some success at club level, people notice you, you get called on to the national team and then you go on and play at a World Cup. I stepped onto the field in that summer having never been on the books or played in a professional club environment – all my experience was international. The federation, basically two years before the World Cup, established a training center in Southern California, in Mission Viejo, where we trained twice a day and then played internationals. Which is why, when you look at players of my generation, we have so many caps – because that’s all that we did.”

“It was a spectacle, it was a show, and nobody does that better than the US”

Some 3.4m watched the 52 games in person – more than any World Cup before or since. The momentum ensured the domestic league had a credible mandate for its launch in 1996, and despite ups and downs since, the appetite for the game in all its forms has never been higher in the US.

Still, when the tournament rolled round, nobody gave the United States much chance. Even the organizers were sceptical. Steinbrecher remembers sitting with Rothenberg and executive vice president Sunil Gulati a few months before the tournament and rating its likelihood of success:

“One was that the World Cup had to be an artistic success, so that people would enjoy it and the American public would be captured by it. Two was that our team needed to do well – get through to the second round. And three was that the World Cup had to be a financial success, which could help stimulate the inauguration of a league. Now, what were the possibilities of us succeeding in all three of those? They weren’t great – I think we looked at it somewhere in the 20 percent range…”

The draw hadn’t helped. The U.S. was supposed to be kept apart from strongly fancied Colombia, via the arcane rules of the draw. Instead they 
were paired, to Steinbrecher’s frustration. “Oh, we had very harsh words with Sepp Blatter after the draw!” he laughs. “Something like, ‘You expletive, deleted idiot – do you have any idea what you’re doing?’ Colombia! And then we beat them…”

The hosts reach round two: mission accomplished

It hass become one of the most infamous games in sport – chiefly for the Andres Escobar own goal that opened the scoring in a 2-1 USA win. Ten days later, Escobar was dead – supposedly confronted about his error by a gunman in Medellin. Ultimately it would color all the participants’ memories of the day, but at the time, Lalas saw only the most unlikely of vindications. “After that game, to have that iconic type of moment… if you’ve grown up as an American, with the American flag and everybody screaming ‘USA! USA!’ and you know for all intents and purposes you’re going to go through from your group – you’ve accomplished that goal. You’ve sent that important message that we’d talked about, not just domestically but internationally – that it’s not just about hosting a World Cup, but you actually deserve to be there and you can do some stuff on the field. That was the day.”

Elsewhere, the tournament was progressing relatively smoothly, with its usual share of storylines. There was controversy when Diego Maradona was sent home in disgrace for taking ephedrine, and repeated grumblings about kick-off times adjusted for TV networks (still a rare phenomenon then) forcing players to play in scorching conditions. But there were also moments of brilliance and romance, such as Hristo Stoichkov announcing himself to the world with an exciting Bulgaria team who, in an irony Nick Hornby might have appreciated, eventually did for Klinsmann’s Germany thanks to Yordan Letchkov’s diving header. Or there was the packed house at New York’s Giants Stadium to see underdog Republic of Ireland shock Italy.

Brazil, though, were hardly setting the tournament on fire, despite the attacking potency of Romario and Bebeto. During the semifinals, when they and an equally pragmatic Italy snuffed out Sweden and Bulgaria, the tournament lost a little of its luster, an impression confirmed by a dour, goalless final, something of an anti-spectacle for the 94,000 at the Rose Bowl.

Romario and Bebeto celebrating against the US, despite being uninspiring during the tournament

Yet they were there, as were others, in their thousands throughout the tournament. As Steinbrecher puts it, “There’s no book that tells you how to run a World Cup, but we knew we couldn’t run a World Cup in a vacuum. We needed the base of U.S. soccer. And that base had to be strong, co-ordinated and organized, because they’re the ones that buy the tickets and will actually do most of the management.” 

Those who had kept the spirit of the game alive through U.S. soccer’s ‘dark ages’ in the ’80s were among those rallying to show up in force during the tournament, so the tournament was in part a celebration of the keeping of the flame. Yet if it was to leave a legacy, another generation would have to be inspired.

Graham Zusi was eight years old when the World Cup happened, and was on the field when Diana Ross took her kick – one of thousands of children taking part in the opening ceremony. He may not have fully appreciated the magnitude of the event at the time (“I wouldn’t exactly say it made me visualize a career in the game – it was just a cool thing to do with my friends. Hey, I was eight”). But the current U.S. midfielder is aware that he benefits from opportunities that only arose because of USA 94.

An ecstatic Alexi Lalas after the USA beat Columbia to reach the competitions second round

Landon Donovan, who was part of some of the U.S. teams that built on 1994, is fully aware of the legacy left by a home World Cup.

“In 1994 it was important for us to have it here and to do well. I think after that other countries finally looked at us differently. It wasn’t just luck, or that we only worked hard and ran a lot. We actually had quality and we’ve shown it. We were definitely more than what U.S. teams have been in the past. We were a real team with real soccer players who knew how to play. Since then it’s only gotten better. [France] 98 didn’t go so well but it’s something we showed again in 2002, beating Portugal and Mexico, and we were unlucky against Germany in the quarterfinals. This started in ’94.”

Donovan's generation benefited from the 94 legacy

Yet that attendance alone points to one of the tournament’s successes. Some 3.4 million people watched the 52 games in person – more than any World Cup before or since. The momentum ensured the domestic league had a credible mandate for its launch in 1996, and despite ups and downs since, the appetite for the game in all its forms has never been higher in the United States.

Yet arguably, the image of Diana Ross points to the greatest legacy of the 1994 World Cup being international as much as domestic – a sign of the sport’s imminent folding into the global entertainment industry. By some measures you could maybe claim that while Roberto Baggio definitely missed, Ross didn’t. 

Lalas is in no doubt: “It was a spectacle, it was a show, and nobody does that better than the U.S. At the time it was something that was looked at sceptically, or at least quizzically, by the rest of the world, but in terms of how the sport is put on, everybody since then has started doing that. You need look no further than what the EPL has done. They’ve recognized that this is about entertainment and that how you present it goes a long way in terms of establishing credibility – the lights and the glitz and the glamor and the stars and the star-making and the narratives – all are part of giving the fan and the viewer an entertaining experience. Doing that and saying that doesn’t mean that you can’t take it seriously, that you don’t want to win, that there isn’t passion or a competitive nature to it all. But when you look what they took from America, whether it’s Monday Night Football, or the way the broadcast plays out, the camera angles, the microphone positions, all of that different stuff… it’s a show.”

Challenges remain. Lalas calls the relative lack of top-flight talent to emerge from the U.S. in the intervening years “an irritant.” Vermes bemoans fixture congestion as his Kansas City side tries to navigate league and cup play, the CONCACAF Champions League and losing players to friendlies and internationals, but he is aware of the irony of that complaint, given his own travels just to find a game in his youth. 

For Steinbrecher, the World Cup was “a moment of intensification” on a much longer journey (“overnight successes take 25 years”). As he and Rothenberg left the Rose Bowl the day after the final, they were asked for a photo by a young family in the car park. They duly posed, thumbs aloft, only for the puzzled wife to say she wanted one of them to take the family’s picture. “It’s fleeting,” 
grins Steinbrecher, of that lesson in humility. “Welcome to the long haul…” 

Matt Besler: ”We know we’re in the top 15 sides in the world – but how do we now get into the top five?”

Matt Besler is a central defender for Sporting Kansas City. He made his debut for the USA in a friendly in January 2013 and surprised many observers by swiftly staking a claim as one half of the United States’ young, all-MLS central defensive partnership alongside then-Los Angeles Galaxy’s Omar Gonzalez. Unflappable and dependable, the defender was given something of a baptism by fire in competitive games, being thrown into a World Cup qualifier against the USA’s arch-enemies Mexico at the Azteca Stadium, where he played his part in keeping a clean sheet in a 0-0 draw. So what did that vote of confidence from coach Jurgen Klinsmann do for him? 

Level-headed as ever, Besler puts the emphasis straight back onto his coach: “It showed that he had a lot of confidence. He never once questioned what he was going to do in that situation. He just told me that he believed in me and just to go out and play my game and not to worry about anything else.”

Level-headed Besler vs Belgium during the 2014 World Cup

Having viewed the team from the outside looking in, what is Besler’s take on the Klinsmann project? “I think Jurgen’s approach is basically trying to get the United States over the last hurdle. We’ve proven over the last 10, 15, 20 years that we can compete with the rest of the world and deserve to be respected, but we are Americans, and we want to win, and we want to be the best. But it’s a very difficult hurdle to get over. You know, we’re in the top 15, the top 20 in the world, but how can we get into the top five? That’s kind of been Jurgen’s motivating factor.”

How does the coach go about this? “I think first you have to establish how you want to play. Everybody has to be on the same page with the style you want to play and the different movements that you want to have on the field. So I think Jurgen was introducing some new philosophies and new styles, and it took time for everybody to get used to that. But once introduced, it basically just takes experience. We try to improve every single day that we have together.”

Graham Zusi: “I felt for Panama after the goal I scored meant they wouldn’t be at the World Cup”

Graham Zusi is a saint. With Mexico trailing in their final World Cup qualification game and Team USA likewise trailing in Panama, Zusi headed in an injury-time goal that sent Panama out and Mexico through. The Mexican phenomenon of San Zusi was born. Religious icons of the player were painted; Mexican reporters thanked him “from their father” for saving “365,000 jobs.” Adidas, makers of the Mexican kit, sent him thanks for saving their World Cup business plan. Even the U.S. fans made a cheeky ‘De Nada’ (‘You’re Welcome’) banner of Zusi to taunt their Mexican counterparts in an ensuing friendly. How does Zusi himself feel about it? Like a true saint, he feels more for Panama…

After his goal against Panama, Zusi became a icon for Mexicans

“To be honest, I’m a little bit over it – the whole hype of it. The way I’ve answered this before is that when I scored that goal I wasn’t thinking of anything other than trying to help my team. We wanted to finish the qualifying campaign on a strong note, and to be honest with you, I was fighting for a spot and I was trying to make the team. After the goal went in, though, and you see the reaction of the Panama fans in the stadium, that place was deathly silent. It was unbelievable. I’ve never seen a stadium be as deathly quiet with so many people in it. And I felt for them. It’s a devastating way to go out of a World Cup when they were celebrating moments before. Brutal. But that’s the game.”

When Landon Donovan took an extended hiatus from both club and international football, Zusi was drafted into the U.S. squad and promptly made a name for himself out of the shadow of one of the USA’s all-time best players, and even had many suggesting he’d supplanted the 156-cap LA Galaxy and sometime Everton player. “Yeah, there has been so much hype about the competition between myself and Landon,” he said at the time. “Actually, if you look at how many games we’ve been in together, really it’s a small handful where we’ve even been on the same roster together. You know he went on his little hiatus and I came in and I did all right. I did some good things and I think that’s where the hype came in, because of his absence. But as far as I’m concerned, I’d love to be on the same field as Landon.”

Kyle Beckerman: “World cult status because of my hair? Man, I don’t know about that!”

Kyle Beckerman is a defensive midfielder for Real Salt Lake who is destined to keep photo editors the world over busy cropping pictures to accommodate his trademark mass of dreadlocks. First question: is he ready for Alexi Lalas-style world cult status with that hair?

“Haha! Oh man. I don’t know. I guess…”

In the most recent friendly ahead of the World Cup, Beckerman played in midfield alongside team talisman Michael Bradley, with Bradley pushed further forward than he normally plays to the attacking tip of a midfield diamond and Beckerman sat as the holding midfielder. It was perhaps the first time in the occasional and periodically ongoing auditions that Beckerman, who has just turned 32, has lined up for the national team in the position and formation that he occupies at club level in Utah. Did he find it a liberating experience?

“I’m not sure I’d say that. The thing that’s expected of us is to be able to adapt, so mainly it was just a lot of fun to be playing alongside Michael. But you know, and we saw, that the game can change (USA stormed into a 2-0 half-time lead, but by the final whistle were holding on a little at 2-2) and you have to be ready to respond to that. I was just glad of the chance. Every time, you’re just glad to get another call-up. And then it’s just a case of hoping that final call comes in the summer…”

Schweinsteiger feels the wrath of Beckerman's hair

One of the key conditions of MLS is the amount of long-haul travel players do and the way that they must structure regeneration into intense schedules. Does Beckerman see any possible advantages over European teams in his side’s ability to cope with the logistical challenges of a World Cup in Brazil?

“I’m hoping it might be one area where we could actually have a big potential advantage. We’ll be flying for a few hours for each game out of Sao Paolo and that sort of travel is something a lot of us are used to every week. And then when you talk about the conditions, in MLS we play games in the desert heat in Dallas and Houston and in the humidity of the summer at the East Coast teams. It’s not like we’re taking a short bus ride in Europe and playing in 50 degrees and a light mist. It could definitely be an advantage for us.”

This feature originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe!

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