By Ken Pendleton - USSoccerPlayers (October 6, 2006) — There can be no question that the USMNT clearly deserved its 2-1 victory over Colombia in the 1994 World Cup. The U.S. worked harder, passed the ball more slickly, was better organized, and created more clear-cut chances. The hard part is distinguishing between the credit and the blame.
Did the result have more to do with the suddenly improved quality of USMNT play or Colombia’s self-destruction?
Manager Francisco Maturana thought that the expectations created after his side’s 5-0 thrashing of Argentina in Buenos Aires the previous summer were just too high: “We’re screwed. Now we’ve got to be champions of the world.”
No one doubted that Colombia had bags of talent, but Pelé’s prediction that they would win the whole tournament looked dodgy by the time they took the field against the U.S. on June 22, 1994 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Their weaknesses had been exposed in their first match, a 3-1 loss to Romania. They had moved the ball around beautifully, patiently weaving their way to goal by stringing together dozens of passes, but they had proven susceptible to counter-attacks, and their goalkeeper Ivan Cordoba was a disaster waiting to happen. Regular keeper Rene Heguita was not available for selection because he was implicated as an accessory in a kidnapping. In addition, midfielder Gabriel Gomez withdrew from the starting lineup because an unnamed terrorist organization had threatened to blow up his family’s house if he played.
After the tournament, reports surfaced claiming that striker Adolfo Valencia had sneaked to his room to gorge himself, that his strike-partner Faustino Asprilla was drinking heavily, that Anthony De Avila and Ivan Valenciano had left camp a few hours before the match, and that languid midfielder Fredy Rincon did not give his all because a witch doctor had told him that he was in danger of suffering a career-ending injury.
Be all that as it may, what we do know is that Colombia played very poorly.
Carlos Valderrama, who was involved in virtually every would-be attack, struggled to weight his passes, and played perhaps the worst game of his career. Asprilla and Rincon virtually disappeared, and there was a conspicuous lack of width. Valderrama all but ignored his two dynamic fullbacks — Luis Fernando Herrera and Wilson Perez — and overshot the mark the few times he deigned to use the flanks. De Avila is by nature a wide player, but he kept wandering inside, and Asprilla, who surely had the pace to expose either of the U.S. team’s aging fullbacks — 37-year-old Fernando Clavijo and 30-year-old Paul Caligiuri — usually restricted himself to staying in the center channels.
Maturana replaced both Asprilla and De Avila at halftime, but argued that they should not be singled out because he would have preferred to substitute the entire team.
The U.S. side’s performance in the first half was characterized by organization and hard work. Alexi Lalas and Marcelo Balboa repelled virtually everything that came into the area, Clavijo and Caligiuri constantly supported them, and the midfielders consistently broke up the rhythm of the Colombian movements. The focus was clearly on defense, but the U.S. created three great chances after it weathered the first 20 minutes.
Balboa headed the ball over the bar after he was left unmarked during a free kick. Eric Wynalda hit the far post after Rincon carelessly gave away possession in midfield. And Andres Escobar conceded what proved to be a tragic own goal after the industrious John Harkes drove in a cross from the left. Escobar could have shaped up for the ball better, but he had no choice but to try to clear it because Earnie Stewart was racing in on the back post. Cordoba was out of position because he assumed the cross would reach Stewart, and the ball rolled past him inside the near post.
The U.S. largely limited itself to counter-attacks in the first half, but its play in the second half was expansive, and exhilarating. Tab Ramos and the other midfielders constantly threatened to pull the Colombians apart and created the second goal in the 52nd minute. Wynalda, who had dropped into the midfield, laid the ball out to Ramos on the right. Ramos had oodles of space and adroitly picked out Stewart, who was making a diagonal run into the inside right channel. Cordoba, who was prone to atrocious decision-making, raced out, and Stewart instinctively chipped the ball over him inside the near post. John Helm, who was broadcasting the match for ITV in England, correctly pointed out that his goal would be replayed over and over, if it would have been scored by the Brazilians. The quality was that high.
The U.S. could have easily scored twice more in the match. Lalas did score with a shot that any forward would be proud of in the 48th minute, but he was incorrectly called offside. And, of course, Balboa’s famous bicycle kick just missed the near post later in the match.
U.S. goalkeeper Tony Meola made 14 saves, which sounds spectacular, but the Colombians did not create many clear chances. Meola later claimed that, “The toughest part of the day was watching the Knicks lose (to the Houston Rockets in the NBA finals).”
The South Americans persisted in trying to play through the center of the defense (on ITV, Denis Law said, “I cannot believe they keep doing that.”) and they became visibly frustrated.
“There was a lot of talking amongst the Colombians,” substitute Roy Wegerle observed at the time. “I don’t know what they were saying, but, from their facial expressions, you could tell they were not happy with each other.”
Wynalda thought the contrast between the cohesive side that Bora Milutinovic had molded and the South Americans was obvious.
“We’re a bunch of guys rooting for each other, no matter what,” he said back then. “We’re not bickering — that was the Colombians. I’ve never heard so many swear words.”
Valencia scored a late goal for Colombia, after the side finally prized open the center of the U.S. defense. But the Americans calmly saw out the last couple of minutes. Colombia was all but out of the World Cup, and Helm prophetically worried about how they would be received back home.
“You fear what will happen in Colombia,” he told viewers.
Sadly, Escobar was murdered by a man shouting “Autogol!” Colombian soccer has never fully recovered.
For far happier reasons, soccer in the United States was never the same again either.
Critics doubted whether the U.S. could successfully host a World Cup and claimed that it would be the first host to fail to advance past the first round. But the overwhelming support the tournament generated and the win over Colombia gave the Americans worldwide credibility for the first time.