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History in the making: How the USMNT could “ignite a passion” with a big summer on home soil

Gregg Berhalter’s team has an opportunity to make a statement at the Copa America with the whole country watching, a chance they haven’t had in 30 years.

11 min read
Design: Peyton Gallaher

“I got lucky enough, I did an appearance for Gatorade with [former Brazilian star] Bebeto and Bebeto was telling me, he was giggling the whole time, he said, ‘The game we were most worried about was the United States game on July 4th, because we didn’t really know you guys. We’ve seen all the other teams we played, but we’ve never played this group, we’re playing them at home on their special day,’” former U.S. men’s national team defender Marcelo Balboa recalled. 

July 4th, 1994. 

That was the first and last time the USMNT was alive during the knockout stage of a major tournament at that patriotic peak. Balboa’s center back partner in 1994, Alexi Lalas, remembered the unique energy surrounding the Round of 16 showdown against Brazil in the first World Cup on home soil.

“We got a call from the President before the game. We were up in Palo Alto and it was like a real festival type of situation. The Black Crowes, I think, were staying in our hotel, it was just complete mayhem everywhere.”

“[The] '94 World Cup was amazing, just watching it unfold. I was at the first [U.S.] game in Detroit, and to follow the team and see how well they did was really exciting,” Gregg Berhalter told Backheeled

Thirty years later, Berhalter, another former national team defender, is now its head coach. And expectations for the program and the calendars of a couple of huge tournaments hosted by the U.S. are aligning for a special opportunity. 

This summer, if the USMNT gets out of the Copa America’s group stage, it will likely face Colombia or Brazil in the quarterfinals on July 4th weekend – Saturday July 6th, to be precise. And if the U.S. advances to the 2026 World Cup’s Round of 16, which is very possible given the status as a seeded team who will face a beatable opponent in the Round of 32, it will be in the spotlight right around the nation’s 250th birthday. 

Berhalter’s mission in his second cycle is to change soccer in America forever with a deep run at the World Cup. First, though, the Copa America will serve as a checkpoint to determine if he should keep his job.

The performance against a top tier opponent like Colombia or Brazil when the stakes are high, and on the heels of the Fourth of July, will answer that question, and could preview a potentially seismic moment for the sport in 2026.

Backheeled is going all-in on covering the USMNT at the Copa America. Here’s what to expect
We’re following the U.S. men’s national team during their entire Copa America run. Won’t you join us?

The original signature win

The first win in a major tournament during the modern history of the USMNT – and one of its most memorable – also came in 1994, against none other than Colombia. 

“We knew Colombia very well, we had actually played against them a number of times in the preceding year,” Lalas said. “And so we understood the quality that they had, and then their reputation had only been enhanced with a really stellar qualification process for the World Cup. And the famous anointing by Pele in terms of being the favorite. So we knew we were up against it.”

Entering the tournament, results in the group opener against Switzerland and the finale against Romania seemed possible. A point or three from the Colombia match did not, at least until the pressure placed on the Colombian team became noticeable. 

“We started going down the tunnel, and it was just a different Colombian team. You could see it in their faces, it just wasn’t the same team that we played before. Very relaxed, very confident in itself. When we walked out of the locker rooms into the tunnel to go out to the field, it just felt different,” Balboa said. “Not saying that we knew we were going to win, we knew that we had to give everything we had to try to get a result out of that game, and when things go your way, they go your way.” 

The U.S. stunned Colombia 2-1, taking the lead on an own goal by center back Andres Escobar in the 34th minute. Escobar’s misfortune on the pitch turned unfathomably tragic when he was murdered ten days later in Colombia, indelibly associating the match against the U.S. with his death. 

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