The Most Important Win?

A great player whose life was tragically cut short


A couple of months ago, I watched “The Two Escobars,”  ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary on the lives of Colombian soccer player Andres Escobar and drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar. It was recommend to me by a non-soccer fan as one of the best documentaries he has ever seen. It is excellent.

The film follows the rise and fall of both Colombian soccer (national and domestic teams), the Medellin Cartel, and the subsequent deaths of the two Escobars.

One tends to forget how good the national Colombian team was. They dominated their 1994 CONMEBOL qualification group winning four games and drawing two, including a 5-0 thrashing in Buenos Aires of favorites Argentina. It was an incredible collection of very exciting players including Carlos Valderrama, Faustino Asprilla, Freddy Rincon, Adolfo Valencia and of course, Andres Escobar.

Obviously with such an emphatic win over Argentina and brimming with confidence, Colombia were certainly 1994 pre-Cup favorites. Sadly they went three and out, beating Switzerland in a meaningless third game, to finish last in the group.

The game that knocked them out was their second against the hosts, USA. After losing their opening game to Romania, Colombia had planned on righting their ship by destroying a well supported, but inferior U.S. side. The U.S. played brilliantly and with Colombia’s attacks rendered moot, some defensive luck, and the fatal own goal, were eventual 2-1 winners.

All this, as well as the subsequent murder of Andres Escobar (a few days later in Medellin), was talked about and discussed as part of pre-match commentary for Tuesday’s USA versus Colombia game. Both Harkes and Lalas were interviewed and asked to give their accounts of the emotions they went through back then. Sidenote: I honestly thought it was the best commentary either one of them has ever done.

So the question that came to my mind: Was this the USMNT’s greatest ever win?

A great last second goal, but this game should have been a lot easier.

Obviously in 1950 they beat England 1-0, but aside from being a phenomenal upset, U.S. Soccer did nothing of note for almost 40 years following.

Another notable game could possibly include their recent thrilling win over Algeria, to propel the USMNT to winning the group in the past World Cup. Really? Group C was certainly one of the weakest groups in South Africa and whereas they did win, that game should have been a cakewalk, and the USMNT were 90 seconds from going home early. They also failed to beat Ghana, and have not been that impressive in the three subsequent matches since the summer.

One could also point to the U.S.’s excellent win over Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup. That win would certainly have been their second greatest had they held on to beat Brazil in the final, but in the end it was a very good win that told the rest of the world, “Watch out: the USMNT cannot be underestimated.” Sadly, since that win in Bloemfontein, the USMNT haven’t taken their game to the next level.

Donovan scores the second in an epic win against traditional rivals in South Korea

My close second would be U.S.’s win over Mexico in the second round of the 2002 World Cup that took them into the quarterfinals (which they controversially lost to Germany). Their run in this cup, and victory over traditional rivals, gripped the nation and got the USA excited about their prospects for the 2006 World Cup.

The won their 2006 qualification group and headed to Germany in high spirits brimming with confidence. Maybe too much, as they underestimated the Czech Republic and Ghana and went home early.

No – I believe the 1994 USMNT’s win against pre-Cup favorites Colombia on home soil at the Rose Bowl was the biggest win in U.S. Soccer’s history.

It came about after an opening game draw against Switzerland, and though they lost in their final group match to Romania, they progressed for the first time to the knockout stages. They lost to Brazil in a close 1-0 game, but a previously skeptical nation embraced their soccer team, and with the MLS playing its first game two years later, the stage was now set for the U.S. to be a dominant force in CONCACAF.

Lalas takes on Valenciano sporting a hall of fame ugly kit!

It was also the starting point for foreign clubs to wake up and notice that cheap, but good talent could be found in the northern lands across the pond. Claudio Reyna, Alexi Lalas, Joe Max-Moore and Brad Friedel all moved to European clubs after the 1994 World Cup. Some current overseas players moved to bigger clubs and some got bigger contracts to come back and play in the inaugural MLS season in 1996.

I remember that it was at this point that the media also began to notice that soccer was indeed a popular sport outside the U.S. borders, and that the U.S. could compete against the world’s best (after all, they did lose to the eventual winners). Sadly, some of it had to do with Escobar’s death, but the word “soccer” was often on non-fans’ lips. Newspapers started printing European league tables, sports magazines started doing soccer related features, and people started to pay attention to the qualification process as the U.S. qualified for France ’98. Sadly they crashed and burned and finished last, but four years later they were a different team.

This was a special victory. The USMNT realized that they were for real as they had beaten one of the world’s best (whilst wearing the ugliest uniforms ever created to boot). Everyone began to take notice, and though it would be many years until they created another such upset, it was this win that made it all possible.

DISCLAIMER: I came up with this list before I did any research. In perusing old games, the 1989 final qualification game against Trinidad and Tobago, in which the USMNT won 1-0 to book their place at the 1990 World Cup certainly could be the USMNT’s finest victory. Not only was it their first away victory in 2 years, and it qualified them for their first World Cup in 40 years, but it justified to the world that they deserved to host the 1994 World Cup.

FIFA had previously come up against a lot of scrutiny for awarding the prestigious event  to a nation with no professional league, and at the time were slim hopes to legitimately qualify for the world tournament. This win changed that and was the birth of the 1994 team that beat Colombia.

I think this list that is entirely open to interpretation. This is just my opinion and I would love to hear your opinions. One thing I’m sure we can all agree on…that the USMNT’s biggest win is sure to come…hopefully soon!

11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Ryan R. on 2010/10/14 at 5:21 AM

    I think that the Colombia win, ’02 win over Mexico and win over T&T are undoubtedly the three most important wins in US history. What order would I put them in depends on the day, but those three are head and shoulders above the rest, in my opinion. That said, another massively important win is in another category from the other three because it avoided embarrassment, but is nearly as important now that I think about it and that’s the 1-0 win over Guatemala in 2002 World Cup Qualifying. That win, courtesy of Brian McBride’s 71st “the building is shaking” winner is what put the US into the final round of qualifying and the 2002 World Cup. Without the McBride winner and three points vs. Guatemala, we would have likely missed out on the 2002 World Cup all together, which would have been crippling for the national team’s development.


  2. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/10/14 at 6:50 AM

    It was important for the National team and important for US soccer. One could also say that the win vs. Colombia gave the team respect and opened the door for Americans overseas. I can only think of Keller and Wegerle playing overseas at a time where the US did not have a professional league.


    • Posted by Mingjai on 2010/10/14 at 8:36 AM

      Earnie Stewart, who scored against Columbia, played for Willem II in the Netherlands, but he was a much Dutch as he was American (do Harkes and Healey call him Holland Stewert?). Tab Ramos was at Real Betis, Harkes was at Derby County, and Wynalda was at Saarbrucken. Of those clubs (Willem II, Real Betis, Derby, Saarbrucken), I think only Willem II was a top flight club in 1994, though I think Real Betis had just earned promotion for the next season.

      I might be wrong, but that makes Stewart, Wegerle (Coventry City), and Dooley (in between gigs at Kaiserlautern and Bayer Leverkusen) as the only three players on the 1994 squad playing on top flight European teams.


      • Posted by sfshwebb on 2010/10/14 at 8:44 AM

        Derby at the time were in the English First Division (at the time the top flight of English soccer before it was renamed the premiership) and they finished 6th that year. I would argue that Harkes was the most “prestigious” of US players at the time. He also had just come off some good years with Sheffield Wednesday and helped them earn promotion to the top flight.


        • Posted by Mingjai on 2010/10/14 at 10:04 AM

          I thought the Premier League was founded earlier, like 1992. At any rate, I do remember that Sheffield Wednesday was an initial Premiership team, so Harkes definitely got top flight experience there. It’s a moot point, but I’ll have to look to see if Derby were in the premiership in 1994.

          As for Harkes, he was a great soccer player, but as a color guy he has to be a producer’s nightmare. I’ve worked in live sports broadcasting, so I can picture the producer in the truck rolling his eyes when the Harkes berates Altidore starting a set piece in the offsides position as unforgivable, when the play was clearly designed for Jozy to move back onside at the strike of the ball in order to catch the defense sleeping. It was pretty obvious.


        • Posted by sfshwebb on 2010/10/14 at 10:12 AM

          Mingjai – My bad. Premiership did indeed start in 1992. Got mixed up with years.


        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/10/14 at 10:30 AM

          How could I forget about John Harkes at Wednesday?!


  3. Posted by Alex on 2010/10/14 at 8:03 AM

    USA beating Spain in 2009 confederations cup. It solidified our position as a second-tier team (not among the best, but in that next group of teams). The team proved it to themselves, but most importantly we proved it to the rest of the world.

    I only started watching the USMNT 4 years ago though. So I can´t put the other games into perspective. But, to me, it seems like everything before was a very long, drawn out, buildup that ultimately culminated in our confederations cup run in 2009.

    ps given my inexperience to most of you guys, I´m not standing too firm on this.


    • Posted by sfshwebb on 2010/10/14 at 8:58 AM

      Alex – I don’t think this is necessarily a concrete argument type of piece. I think you have a very good case for arguing that this game was the most important as it got people so excited about this past World Cup. The atmosphere in the States and especially in the USMNT games in bars and streets was amazing. They had over 30k of people in Pac Bell park watching the US/England game on the jumbotron!

      If the US hadn’t done as well against Spain, does everyone get so pumped up for South Africa? My reasoning for it not being the most important, is that from a playing POV, the USMNT didn’t subsequently progress higher up in the second tier and have been fairly disappointing since. All it did was have other teams, take the USMNT more seriously ( a good thing), but now they lost their “true underdog” status.

      Since then teams are now playing the US with real respect and the US have not really risen to that occasion from a dominating POV against lower tiered teams nor challenged any teams within their tier or higher.

      The games against Slovenia and Algeria were exciting and showed the US spirit, but never should have been that close if they were truly a top 15 team or top 10 team.They deserved the draw against England (though a fluke goal), but England have become useless so no real honor there.

      That all said, if this game is the most i,portant win for you, then that’s awesome. I don’t thing there is a real true answer…just opinion.


  4. Posted by Russ on 2010/10/14 at 8:02 PM

    Love the topic. So much better than the dull reality of fretting over left backs.

    A few thoughts:

    1.) Each big win has its own merits and had a big impact on its own period in USMNT history but I don’t think anyone can debate that Donovan in Pretoria is the first true nation rocking game we’ve ever had. The evidence is plastered all over youtube. From Seattle to Miami and everywhere in between – have we ever seen a national celebration of that magnitude over a sporting event? Certainly not in real time – The Miracle on Ice was on tape delay IIRC. Those of us in the Great Lakes region experienced a rare earthquake that day. We were only half kidding when we said it was from all the jumping across the land.

    It annoys me to no end to hear the “it should’ve been easier/not as dramatic against a team like Algeria”. People act as if we didn’t dominate that game – we did; we just had absolutely putrid luck.

    And besides – would you really go back and trade a comfortable 2-0 win for the madness of that June afternoon?

    2.) USA 3 Portugal 2 deserves more than an honorable mention. I think it kind of gets lost in the shuffle of the past 8 years with USA 2 Mexico 0 (World Cup), USA 2 Spain 0 and USA 1 Algeria taking prominence. In fact, I’d go as far to call it my favorite all time USMNT game (for selfish reasons obviously, it was my first World Cup). But really – the ghosts of 1998 were still haunting us; MLS was contracting; there was a LOT on the line for that US team.

    When we drew Mexico in the Round of 16, all of us hardcore types knew we could handle those clowns. Dropping 3 on Portugal before the 40th minute came completely out of nowhere. I was just hoping we could keep a respectable scoreline that morning – never in my wildest dreams prior to June 5th did I imagine myself literally kicking up my heels on the way to school (I was 15, sue me).

    3.) Our unexpected qualification against Jamaica on the second to last match day of the 2001 Hex also holds a place in my heart.

    First American national team to play after 9/11, a rocking crowd of 40k plus in Foxboro, bombs falling on Afghanistan, scrambling to find a link to Jamaican radio for the game when ABC pre-empted with war coverage, JMM slotting it home (suck it, Tyrone Marshall!), the final whistle and cell phone call down to field level that T&T put one over on Honduras, the team partying with the supporters groups etc….



    • Posted by Lee on 2012/03/01 at 9:31 PM

      Well said! We share a similar mentality when it comes to rating these games. i was in Pretoria for the game and sat in the US section in the stadium. I am a Canadian, but when it comes to soccer I jump on the band wagon of my neighbours to the south. The feelings I had when US beat Portugal and Algeria are similar. I just wish we were talking about a 1/4 final win over Germany as well… Damn bad luck and Oliver Kahn goal keeping…


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