The 1995 U.S. Copa America team tells its story: from pay disputes to glory

If the U.S. men's national team reaches the semifinals of this summer's Copa America Centenario, it will rightly be hailed as an impressive achievement. But it wouldn't be the first time the U.S. has gone deep into the tournament. That occurred back in 1995 and on South American soil no less, in Uruguay.

It is an accomplishment that has largely flown under the radar. We're talking about a time before social media, and the team did it with an interim coach in Steve Sampson as well as a host of other obstacles in its path. Here are some recollections from those who were there:

A pay dispute nearly derailed the entire effort

World Cup '94 put the U.S. Soccer Federation in the best financial position of its entire history. As such, the players thought the time was right for them to get a bigger piece of the financial pie, and they threatened to not play in the tournament unless their demands were met.

Marcelo Balboa, DF, 1988-2000: We were at a good point where we needed to stand up for ourselves. If I remember back in the old days, a $5 per diem wasn't enough. We knew the value after the '94 World Cup and to leave our club teams, we knew we had to stand up. It's almost similar to what is going on with the women's national team now. We knew the money that was being made and for a big tournament like that, it needed to be distributed a little better.

Eric Wynalda, FW, 1990-2000: We got on the airplane, on our way down to Uruguay, and we were flying to Buenos Aires. The federation gave us an offer. They had a meeting and decided they were going to alter the contract. The contract would pay the players incrementally on how many times they had played for their country. If you were between zero and 10, you would be paid nothing. Kasey Keller fell into that category.

This is one of the reasons why we felt this was unfair. If you were between 10 and 25 you would get paid $500, 26 to 50 you got $1,000. The number went up to $5,000 if you were higher than 50. There were several of us that fell into that category but we felt that would divide the team. So John Harkes called a captain's meeting in the back of the airplane and when we hit the ground, we informed our coach that we wouldn't practice or play until this was resolved.

Steve Sampson, interim manager 1995, full-time manager 1995-98: Here I am, an interim coach and one day later, I'm told that the players are going on strike [laughs]. We're not training. I get a call from [USSF Secretary General] Hank Steinbrecher informing me that they are sending the Olympic team to replace the national team. I said, "Hank, c'mon. Are you serious?" He said, "We're absolutely serious. If this thing goes south with the players, we're sending the Olympic team."

So here I am, an interim coach, and I'm thinking, "Well, there's no chance I'm going to get to keep this job because I'm going to have the Olympic team going against Chile, Bolivia and Argentina."

Gregg Berhalter, DF, 1994-2006: I remember everyone sticking together and being there for the same cause. And I think that's the most important thing when you're dealing with anything like that. Guys were unified. It wasn't an easy situation to be in but thankfully it was worked out and we were able to focus on on-field stuff.

Jovan Kirovski, FW, 1994-2004: We didn't train for two days before the tournament. Tab [Ramos], the older guys, were a big influence. I was a young kid, so I just followed the older guys. For me and Gregg it was eye-opening. I think it really brought the group together. I think that played a part in our success.

Hank Steinbrecher, USSF Secretary General, 1990-2000: I get hives just thinking about it. We seriously contemplated sending the Olympic team. [USSF president] Alan [Rothenberg] thought that was the way to go. It was just labor/management negotiations. It was positioning. You never like it when the team says, "We're going to strike on the eve of playing the big game." That's a lot of leverage. But we resolved the issues.

You've got to believe the guys you have on the ground. I was in Chicago at the time. Alan was in Los Angeles. We have Tom King, who is Mr. Reliability on the ground there. I asked him, "What do you think we ought to do?" When Tom says, "We need to solve the problem and we need to send some money down so we can solve the problem," at that point you listen to him. And they got paid. In the end they played and they played extremely well and got Steve Sampson his job. In both parties, cooler heads prevailed.

Alexi Lalas, DF, 1991-98: It was almost like a weight lifted off of our shoulders. Steve said, "All right, I respected what you did, and I stayed out of the way, and I've been patient. But now, you have to do live up to the value that you just negotiated."

The U.S. benefited from past experience

The U.S. was not only coming off a successful '94 World Cup, but it had just won the 1995 U.S. Cup as well. The team had also been at the last Copa America in 1993, so the players knew what the tournament was all about.

Sampson: I think the experience in Ecuador helped. We were up 3-0 in our last match [against Venezuela] and ended up tying 3-3. I'll never forget Bora [Milutinovic]; I've never seen him so angry in my life. Bora rarely showed over-the-top emotion. On that day, to be three goals up and then tie 3-3 prevented us from moving on in the tournament. I think he used that experience to teach the players the importance of attention to detail and not to be naive at the international level.

Kirovski: Me and [Gregg] Berhalter were the two young ones in the camp, along with Claudio [Reyna]. I was 19. It was a fantastic experience for me because I was such a student of the game. I followed the Copa America. I always watched it as a kid. So to be in a tournament with such massive teams -- Brazil, Argentina, Colombia -- just to be part of that was amazing.

Lalas: Unlike '93 and '94, a lot of us had gained valuable experience. I was coming back from Italy, and for myself and others it was our first real professional environment that we were in, from a club perspective.

Some people don't realize that when I stepped on the field at the World Cup in '94, I had never been on the books at a club. It was a backwards-ass way to go about it. Then I'd gotten that experience after the '94 World Cup, and so we were coming back, we were feeling our oats. We felt that we had progressed, evolved individually, and it was an opportunity to show in a tournament that we had gotten even better, and that '94 was just the starting point and certainly wasn't a fluke.

Tab Ramos, MF, 1988-2000: I'd played the Copa America previous to that one, in 1993. In '93, we didn't go with our full team because some guys needed time off. We didn't win a game. We learned our lesson that you can't take Copa America lightly. In 1995, I think it was the best team we could put together.

The Americans won over the host country

The U.S. team set up camp in Paysandu, Uruguay, and with rivals Argentina in the U.S. team's group, it set about winning over the locals.

Lalas: They embraced us and we embraced them and when we started playing, that was reflected in the crowd. They supported us, and so much so that when we finally started training, the facility we were training at was not very good in terms of quality. I vividly remember getting together with the coaching staff and the players, and discussions being had on whether we should look to find a better place. The consensus was, "Look, while we can certainly find a better field to train on, we will lose a little bit of that support."

We never wanted to be looked at as less than gracious guests, and certainly not as ugly Americans. We recognized that we had this support in the palm of our hand and we didn't want to do anything to jeopardize that, where it would be disrespectful or they would look at it in that way and we would blow that opportunity with them. We continued to train in less than ideal circumstances, but it didn't matter because we gained much more by doing that.

Earnie Stewart, MF, 1990-2004: Most of us had never been to Uruguay. It was actually very humbling in the way we were received in Paysandu. The people [there] were happy, first of all, that the tournament was there in their town and their stadium. Because we were there a long time, I remember we would have all kinds of kids outside our hotel windows, waiting for autographs or shirts or whatever we could give them. I'd say pretty much every day the kids got something.

I guess the rest of the city heard about that and got behind us. When we left Paysandu, I just remembered kids running behind the bus for a while, sad that we were leaving.

U.S. vs. Chile

With just two practices under its belt, the second of which took place the day of the game, the U.S. squared off against Chile in its opener. The U.S. prevailed 2-1 thanks to two goals from Wynalda. It was the first time the U.S. had beaten South American opposition on South American soil. Perhaps more importantly, the U.S. was ready to show just how much it had grown and that it could take the game to opponents.

Sampson: I think the way that Bora managed the team leading up to the World Cup and through the World Cup in '94 was absolutely the appropriate approach given the way we were internationally as a country. There was an emphasis on defending; an emphasis on being conservative, not getting stretched, not taking undue risk. I believe that up until we were a man up against Brazil [in the round of 16], that was really the right approach. I felt we made a mistake by not taking more risks against Brazil in the second round of the World Cup.

Be that as it may, immediately following that, and when I took over the national team, I really sensed that the players wanted to play to win as opposed to playing not to lose. And if there was a watershed moment for the federation and the U.S. men's national team, it was that moment, that summer when the U.S. played to win as opposed to playing not to lose.

Lalas: The first game came along and we were off to the races. And Wynalda, he had shaved his head. He had that whole skinhead thing going on and played like a man possessed.

Ramos: It was very important to win the first game after we didn't win one (we had two losses and a tie) two years earlier.

Balboa: Chile came and they attacked us, but we defended as a group and as a block and hit them quickly on the counter. We were also patient with the ball. We didn't just kick it up front and try to run after it. We took our time with it. It surprised people that we could play that way. But what got us through was we defended as a block of 11 and that's hard to break down over 90 minutes.

Sampson: We played in a 3-5-2, but what was really cool was the team was incredibly unified, and the chemistry was so great that it reflected in the way we played against Chile and we won that game 2-1. It was really incredible.

Kasey Keller, GK, 1990-2007: Considering everything we'd gone through the first three days before the tournament, it was exactly what the team needed. They needed to justify what we were doing both to the federation and ourselves. To say that, "This all makes sense. We do belong here. We do belong with a better pay structure." It meant '94 wasn't a fluke. We're starting to feel a little bit of an emergence coming on.

Berhalter: [Fans in Paysandu] started cheering for us and just getting behind us. And I think that continued throughout the tournament.

U.S. vs. Bolivia

Prior to the tournament, Bolivia was probably the one team against whom the U.S. expected to get a result. Instead, La Verde won 1-0 on a remarkable finish by Marco Etcheverry.

Sampson: We knew going into that match that Etcheverry was, at the time, one of the best players in the world. He went on this run where he literally picked the ball up and must have beaten three or four players before he put it away. And it was one of the most remarkable runs I've seen ever, and to this day it's still one of the most remarkable runs that led to a goal. And so that's how we lost, on that individual show of brilliance.

Wynalda: We may have played our best game against Bolivia and lost. I had a good chance, Earnie [Stewart] had a good chance. They were a strong team; I give them a lot of credit. They battled. In those types of games when you know it's going to be difficult and not easy, chances are few and far between. We might have put our best effort into that game and didn't get much out of it.

Keller: If you really look at the way the U.S. has gotten through so many tournaments, they never make it easy. It's always the case from Korea needing to score a last-minute goal in 2002, to South Africa, to even in Brazil. So for us to actually get a draw in the second game and seal our fate before the third, god, who would want to do that? Why make it easy? We might as well set that trend early.

Stewart: It would have been an opportunity to seal the deal right away and go to the next round but it didn't happen. Yes, it was a letdown. But on the other hand, it's a big tournament and you're playing good teams.

U.S. vs. Argentina

With the two best third-place teams still making the knockout round, the U.S. wasn't dead yet, but the group finale saw it play giants Argentina. The Albiceleste had already qualified for the quarterfinals and manager Daniel Passarella opted to rest players like Ariel Ortega, Abel Balbo and Diego Simeone. It proved to be fatal as the U.S. ran out 3-0 winners behind goals from Frank Klopas, Lalas and Wynalda.

Balboa: When we saw -- and this is what fueled the fire for a lot of us -- a few key players not in the lineup, you kind of thought to yourself that these guys think they're going to win easy anyway. If you watch that game, the first 15 to 20 minutes we come out pretty fast and pretty aggressive. We had something to prove because they thought they could play some of their backup players and get a result from us.

Berhalter: I know that going into the last game, we still believed. The tone was set by the first game and after that there was still belief in the group that it could be done.

Sampson: The guys came out and they defended so very well. Everyone sees the 3-0 result and unless you saw the game on TV, you didn't realize how well we defended. And I would say that Argentina didn't really take us seriously going into the match. But I would say they started 75 percent of their team and left key players like Simeone out. They actually brought them on in the second half. Batistuta was on the field at the time, obviously an incredible threat and one of the most dangerous strikers in the world at the time. Lalas did an outstanding job on him.

Lalas: We go in 2-0 up at half and we're looking around. A lot of us had been in that game against Colombia in the World Cup and a lot of us said, "This is the same kind of feeling, where something special can happen." And with the knowledge that we could also blow it very easily because of their talent and that they were going to come out on fire. But it never materialized in that I don't ever recall being worried once the second half started. Everything fell into place for us. We had just beaten Argentina in a tournament that meant something. But very few people knew about it back home.

Wynalda: Everybody loves to say Cobi Jones wasn't a lot of things, but one thing he was, was fast. We did a really good job of recognizing his talent and his weapon and we used it in that game. We had sniffed out that the matchup was Cobi versus their left-back, even on the goal. I hit a left-footed, 50-yard ball with the sole intention of getting it to him as quickly as I could knowing that if I got him one-on-one, something good might happen. He beats his guy, he crosses it and Alexi scores the goal of his life.

Stewart: The Argentina game was different, because all the Argentineans came walking over the border. It was pretty hostile. All the other games had been played so we knew we needed to win 3-0 to win the group. Actually we were kind of pissed off that they left out three of their star players. The respect from their side wasn't really there and that pissed us off. We started in fantastic fashion with an early goal. The second half was wives and children first, trying to bring this 3-0 lead over the hump. And it happened. Nobody even thought it was possible. But we got off to a good start and hung on the rest of the game.

Meeting Maradona

Sampson: One special moment after the game was Diego Maradona, who was watching the game in the VIP box in the stadium, came down and met the team and told them how great they played, that they were the better team on the day and how sophisticated they had played. Players, even on the U.S. national team, have egos and not much impresses them. That impressed them.

Wynalda: Maradona had tears in his eyes and we were told he said, "I'm not crying because Argentina lost, I'm crying because it was so beautiful to see the Americans play so well."

I stood up and he shook my hand and put his hand on my cheek and winked at me. I was like, "This is cool." You've got to remember this was '95 and he was one year removed from essentially his retirement. At the World Cup he had the doping issues, but he was still Maradona and to see him in our locker room congratulating us, it was a very surreal moment.

Ramos: I've only heard this story about Maradona coming into our locker room to congratulate us from journalists asking me. I don't remember any of that. I don't remember Maradona walking in the locker room. I don't know if you ever did but the story keeps getting bigger about Maradona. I never saw him. Maybe I was tying my shoe when he came in.

Mike Sorber, MF, 1992-98: [Maradona] didn't come in the locker room. He was in the area outside the locker rooms, down in the tunnel. There was a whole entourage with him. Different guys -- mostly the guys who could speak Spanish -- went up and said hello.

U.S. vs. Mexico

Having qualified for the quarterfinals, the U.S. faced a familiar foe in Mexico. The U.S. had hammered El Tri in the U.S. Cup just weeks before and it was eager to face its southern neighbors again. The game finished 0-0, but goalkeeper Brad Friedel provided the heroics in the penalty shootout, saving two spot kicks while the U.S. converted all of its.

Sampson: We had beaten them a month earlier 4-0 and really embarrassed them, quite frankly. Miguel Mejia Baron, who at the time was a good friend of mine and still is, I was following all the articles and all the newscasts and how his job was in jeopardy and he was going to come at us with everything. But one of the things that you don't need to do with an American team is motivate them when they play Mexico. They wanted to go out and make a statement, and they did.

Ramos: We were definitely on a high going into the Mexico game. Not that you ever need motivation to play Mexico, because that's our main rival, but I think we came in with a lot of confidence. I know we were the better team, but it could've gone either way, like it always can. We came out on top and I think that set the tone going forward. To eliminate them at a major tournament like that was big.

Wynalda: I did have a really good chance to score in that game. I did well to get myself separated from Claudio [Suarez] and [Jorge] Campos did his typical fall-down/get-back-up thing. I don't think I could hit a shot any better, but he just made an unbelievable save because he read it. I can remember looking back at him, and I remember he had already thrown the ball out and he wasn't looking at me but waving his finger at me. No, no, no. God, that really got to me.

Lalas: We knew these guys backwards and forwards, and they knew us. There were no surprises. Now this was on neutral territory, and so this wasn't us having to deal with Azteca or them having to deal with Columbus or any place else that we played. But it was neutral, and there was a feeling that this was almost separate and apart from the actual tournament, if that make sense. It was a battle. It was back and forth, kicking everybody, and the usual U.S./Mexico fanfare that goes on. Then you've got a goalkeeper who stands up and does his thing touching the crossbar, as we've all seen Brad Friedel do over his career. It was a good day.

Wynalda: Friedel took the opportunity to intimidate. He reached up and pulled the crossbar and it was wobbling over his head. He was standing small and keeping his arms in tucked. Then when the shooter would put the ball down and back up and look at the goal, Brad just spread out his arms. I remember one of us saying, "He's covering the whole damn goal." It was almost like an optical illusion. He was small and then he was massive. I think it was Joe-Max Moore who said, "It's a bad day to be a Mexican player." Once that shootout started, Friedel was unreal.

U.S. vs. Brazil

Now the U.S. was facing mighty Brazil, and just one year removed from the World Cup last-16 match when Brazil prevailed 1-0 playing just over half the match with 10 men. This game would prove to be different but not on the scoreboard. A 13th-minute goal by Aldair off of a set piece condemned the U.S. to another 1-0 defeat.

Keller: After the Mexico game, we were supposed to have a flight to Maldonado. We had two or three guys that were paranoid about flying in Uruguay. So they talked to another group of guys and somehow convinced them that it was a good idea to drive eight or nine hours as opposed to taking an hour-long flight. I was like, "They can drive and we'll fly because the plane has to go there anyway." Then we go on this ridiculous drive. That didn't bode well.

Sampson: In the '94 World Cup, we're playing Brazil in the second round and Tab Ramos gets elbowed in the head. He gets taken off and Brazil ends up playing with one less player, and I really felt we played overly conservative that game. Here's the next opportunity for us to make a statement against arguably the best team in the world. And if we did nothing more than to demonstrate that we are going to play this game today against Brazil, we were going to play to win. Even if we lose and we play to win, that's the statement that we wanted to make.

Keller: I'd say for 60 minutes, and especially the first 15 minutes, it was like, "Wow, this could get pretty ugly." Then Brazil took their foot off the gas and we made some adjustments as well and then they decided at the end of the game they were going to just defend their one-goal lead. You've got nothing to lose. We were a big team at the time and could play a little more direct, and we had some pace and weren't really afraid of conceding the second.

A lot of times what happens is if you scare Brazil a little bit, then they drop in. They've never been the most tactically aware team, so it throws them off a little bit when they don't have possession, when they're not dictating the play to you for whatever reason. We had our opportunities at the end of the game.

Lalas: We rolled head first into reality that this wasn't a team that was going to take us likely, this wasn't a team that we thought we were on par with, as opposed to a Mexico or something like that. And the result reflected that. I think that if you look at the game, yes we had our opportunities and I think we played them better than we had in the past. But there was still an ultimate gap between the two. We were done with having moral victories. "There is no shame ..." No. We were disappointed that this run had come to an end.

Kirovski: The performance was good, if I remember correctly. It's been a long time. We had some chances. We went for it. Obviously guys were disappointed but to lose 1-0 to Brazil wasn't the end of the world.

Stewart: It was a night game, and they had all their big guns playing. It was 1-0 Brazil but in the game itself, we actually had the upper hand a lot of the time. We came up short in the end, but the result doesn't always say everything about the way you played.

Ramos: Brazil certainly deserved to beat us. They were the better team throughout the game. We give it a shot and kept ourselves in the game most of the time. We had a couple of opportunities. But we didn't have many, that's for sure.

The third-place game against Colombia

The U.S. still had one more game to play, the third-place match against a motivated Colombia team that remembered what happened at the 1994 World Cup. Los Cafeteros cruised to a 4-1 victory.

Sampson: We were just spent and it showed. And also Colombia wanted to make a statement about the previous two matches where they hadn't beaten us. It would have been icing on the cake if we could have walked away with at least a bronze medal. Even without the bronze medal, the players were very proud of what they accomplished and so was I.

Keller: I remember [Colombia goalkeeper Rene] Higuita comes up, takes a free kick, smashes it off the crossbar, it comes back down, falls to Faustino Asprilla, I dive to block Asprilla's shot. He goes to volley it, I'm two feet off the ground. He mishits it and undercuts it so much that it goes over me but doesn't hit the back of the net and stops just over the line from six yards. It was the biggest shank of all time. I was like, "Really? This is the s--- that's going to happen to us in this tournament?" I guess every little bit of luck was used up to get us to that point. Eventually some things were going to go against you.

Lalas: Milutinovic was no longer the coach, but I was talking to him after we had lost the third-place game against Colombia. And I remember him dressing me down, and the disappointment that he had in the way we approached the third-place game, because his point was, "Look, this is always a rehearsal for a possible World Cup, and there is a difference between finishing third and finishing fourth. While it might be disappointing and difficult to get up for a third-place game, you [and the team] had an opportunity to do something special by finishing third instead of fourth."

And we didn't. He's right, but at that point the gas had run out. We were done and we did not play well in that third-place game.

Kirovski: Steve gave some of the younger guys a chance to play in the game but it was a very good Colombian team. It was a little bit of a let down on our part, but they had Asprilla, [Carlos] Valderrama, [Rene] Higuita in goal, Freddy Rincon. This was the team that was so disappointing in the '94 World Cup. They were one of the best teams in the world and this was a revenge game on their part.

Sorber: We had a totally changed lineup, and they were better on the day.

The aftermath

It would be easy to think that the performance at the 1995 Copa America was a catalyst for bigger and better things, and while the U.S. did secure some memorable results after that -- like getting a road tie against Mexico in World Cup qualifying -- what everyone remembers is the implosion at the 1998 World Cup, in which it lost all three group games against Germany, Yugoslavia and Iran.

Sampson: I don't think there was overconfidence on the part of our players [for the 1998 World Cup]. I think there was a raised expectation on the part of the media and the fans given our results in the Copa America, given our good run during the qualification phase. And then maybe the kiss of death from a perspective standpoint was when we beat Brazil in the Gold Cup in '98. And so I think there was a sense of unrealistic expectations but I don't think it changed our players. Our players understood where they belonged, but were just playing with an enormous amount of confidence. I would never classify it as overconfidence.

Lalas: This was a team that was heading in the right direction and improving on what they had seen in '94. In '98, that six months before [the tournament], ultimately when Sampson did start changing -- formation, personnel, approach and even his personality -- for me at least, he betrayed what I felt was the best part of Steve and what I felt was going to come to fruition and take us through '98. But that '95 experience absolutely helped shape us, whether it was the performance then, or beating Brazil in Gold Cup, or cruising through qualifying. To get the first point at Azteca. All of the experience we gained in '95 helped us in that evolution.

Wynalda: This was a guy who was fighting for his job and wanted to say and do the right things. If you take the Sampson of the 1995 Copa America and have him coaching the 1998 team, I think it's a very different outcome. I don't think we lose to Iran. We probably lose to Germany but then we have it all to play for against a very good Yugoslavia side and we might have gotten the tie to get through. At least we would have had a chance. I would say the same thing going into the '95 competition where we've got a chance. That's all you really want to be able to say.

Ramos: I think it was one of the best results ever for U.S. soccer. It felt good just to build up to being competitive on the world stage.

Sorber: The performances weren't flukes. We were good soccer players who played well together. We had good chemistry and we knew how to play. It didn't matter who we played. Argentina, Brazil, Colombia: those are real teams in a real tournament, and everybody wanted to win.

Kirovski: Back in those days, Copa America didn't get a lot of coverage in the United States. It didn't get a lot of TV time. So even today, not a lot of people talk about that '95 team. It was an impressive performance and accomplishment. It was then and still is. If you look at the teams that we played and how far we got, it's pretty impressive. We played some of the best teams in the world and nobody talks about it.

Keller: I think it was a good stepping stone. I think all the way until the '98 World Cup, it was a team that could find a way to get results and get surprising results against big teams. It was a good team. There were some huge personalities that seemed to be really meshing well, or at least in a dysfunctional/well kind of way, if that makes sense. But it was an interesting group that worked until it didn't. And when it didn't, it failed spectacularly. I think you hear that a lot. When there is that much personality, and it's focused in the right direction, it can make something special and that's what it was able to do.

It was a time when there was very little expectation on U.S. soccer. We really started to grab some interest. But then when it goes wrong, it can go greatly wrong and it did that, too.