It always helps a major international tournament if the host nation does well. When the World Cup came to the United States in 1994, not many would have bet on the home team’s chances of doing so. In their opening group game came a moment which turned a generation of Americans on to the beautiful game. Step forward, Eric Wynalda.
The American forward was playing in his second World Cup finals in 1994 and he was looking for redemption. Four years earlier at Italia 90 his tournament ended prematurely as he was red-carded for pushing a Yugoslav opponent. The States went down to a humiliating 5-1 defeat to Yugoslavia that day and Wynalda had to wait four years to make amends.
By the time Diana Ross’s disastrous penalty opened the USA ‘94 competition, Wynalda had established himself in German football. Initially playing with FC Saarbrucken in the second tier, the Californian signed up to ply his trade with VFL Bochum in the summer of his second World Cup. In doing so, he would later become the first American to play in Germany’s top league.
Despite having a few players in the squad playing at a reasonably high level in club terms, expectations were not high for the host nation ahead of their opening fixture. Despite repeated attempts, ‘soccer’ had never really taken off in North America to an extent where it achieved sustained success. Pele, the New York Cosmos and the NASL may have briefly piqued the national interest, but in a country obsessed by sports it had quickly fallen back behind the established pastimes.
In the lead up to the 1994 World Cup kicking off, Americans could be forgiven for being a little distracted by events elsewhere in the news. Game five of the NBA Finals between the Houston Rockets and the New York Knicks competed for sporting headlines with Arnold Palmer, as the golf legend played his last ever round at the US Open.
Away from sport, there was a live news event which was capturing the attention of the nation. O.J. Simpson, the Hall Of Fame running-back, was involved in a Police chase along the highways of Los Angeles. Simpson’s wife had been one of the victims of a double murder days earlier and as Simpson’s white Ford Bronco was being pursued through the streets by cop cars, the world tuned in open-mouthed to the footage broadcast from the news helicopters.
The USA were due to get their campaign underway the following morning and, despite a feast of distractions, the home fans came out in numbers to support their side. The Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit, Michigan was the venue for the USA’s opening fixture against Switzerland. The game would be the first World Cup finals match to be held under a roof, but the indoor stadium did nothing to protect the players and spectators from the elements.
Michigan had found itself in the grip of a heatwave in the week of the game, temperatures were due to soar towards 100 degrees by the time of the 11:30 am kick-off. To make matters worse, a natural grass playing surface had been installed for the tournament, in place of the usual synthetic field used for gridiron games. Not a problem you would think. But, in order to maintain the newly installed grass, the humidity in the stadium had to be kept very high at all times. The stadium had effectively become a giant greenhouse and the addition of over seventy-three-thousand spectators meant the conditions at kick-off were almost unbearable.
Switzerland were, on paper at least, tough opponents for the USA to begin their campaign against. Roy Hodgson’s Swiss side were led in attack by the ever-dangerous Stephane Chapuisat of Borussia Dortmund. Hodgson’s captain was the mercurial Ciriaco Sforza of Kaiserslautern. Both players were playing regularly in the league above Wynalda’s Saarbrucken and his soon-to-be new side Bochum.
The conditions undoubtedly played a part as the game got underway at a relatively pedestrian pace. Such is the nature of opening group games, the focus seemed very much to be on not losing. The pressure was on both nations, one as the pre-match favourites, the other as tournament hosts.
It was the European side that scored the first goal of the game after 39 minutes. Midfielder Georges Bregy fired a free-kick over the wall and beyond US goalkeeper Tony Meola. It was a moment of disappointment for the home fans but, to their credit, it didn’t dim their enthusiasm. That faith was rewarded on the stroke of half-time as Sforza was adjudged to have impeded Derby County’s John Harkes, some thirty-yards from goal. As Wynalda placed the ball at the spot of the foul the Swiss defenders arranged themselves into a five-man wall.
The five Swiss defenders, in all-white kit, faced up to Wynalda who was in what couldn’t have been a more contrasting strip. The USA kit makers had clearly been given the brief of ‘make it look American’. Short of dressing the side up like Apollo Creed in Rocky IV or just wrapping the players in the flag itself, the manufacturers couldn’t really have done any better.
Denim coloured shirts emblazoned with large white stars were teamed up with red shorts and navy-blue socks. It was pretty much the Stars and Stripes wearing a pair of Levi’s. Other than being embossed with a hamburger and a packet of Marlboro, it couldn’t possibly have been any more American.
Eric Wynalda stepped up to take the kick, as well as his place in US soccer history. His right foot strike was equal parts power and accuracy as it flew over the white-wall and bent into the top corner of the Swiss net. As accurate a free-kick as you will ever wish to see, it left ‘keeper Marco Pascolo with no hope whatsoever.
The majority of the 73,425 in attendance erupted. Cops in uniform punched the air behind the goal, tiny flags fluttered in the sweltering heat, and the scorer was swamped beneath his jubilant team-mates. America had its ‘World Cup moment’ and Wynalda had his redemption.
Also published on Medium.