What everyone remembers now, about the 1994 World Cup in the United States, is two misplaced kicks. The first came from Motown legend Diana Ross, whose penalty kick during her performance for the opening ceremonies rolled wide of the goal, despite being taken from the impossible-to-miss distance of 5 yards. The other was by Colombia defender Andres Escobar, who turned a United States cross into his own net — and was murdered weeks later, ostensibly for that mistake.
But for American soccer, the most important kick of all came from U.S. striker Eric Wynalda, during the tournament’s opening game — a free kick that was perhaps the most important shot in U.S. soccer history.
It’s impossible to forget how widespread the expectation of failure was for the United States at the 1994 World Cup. The team qualified for the 1990 edition almost by accident, thanks to Mexico being banned for fielding an ineligible player in a youth tournament. Things didn’t go well for the Americans, who were on the receiving end of three hammerings, including an ugly 5-1 loss to Czechoslovakia.
When 1994 rolled around, the soccer world expected more of the same from Team USA, sneering at the home team’s chances. Attendance was expected to be uneven, if not minuscule, and the idea of playing the World Cup in a country with little soccer history was widely held to be a mistake. More than 73,000 people were in the stands at the Pontiac Silverdome for the first match, pitting the underdog Americans against Switzerland. As the first half rolled on, the Swiss dominated the game, and when Georges Bregy looped a free kick over the American defensive wall and into the top corner in the 39th minute, most American fans feared a repeat of the Czechoslovakia debacle.
That it didn’t happen is a testament to Wynalda.
In the final minute of the first half, the U.S. won a free kick more than 30 yards out from goal. The striker, who’d been sent off in the 5-1 loss four years earlier, launched a laser-beam free kick that could not have been more perfectly placed into the top corner of the goal, cannoning off the crossbar and into the back of the net. It surprised everyone, even Wynalda — he later called it “the goal of his life” — and it rescued the United States, just as it appeared that the team would be laughed off the field. The game ended 1-1.
Four days later, the draw gave the U.S. enough confidence to stand tall against Colombia, riding Escobar’s own goal and a second-half counterattack goal on to get the team’s first World Cup win in 44 years. And everything that’s happened since in American soccer — Major League Soccer, the rise and fall of the men’s national team, rival leagues such as the NASL — all can be traced back to the successes of the 1994 World Cup. And it all started with one free kick, from a distance the Swiss never feared, from a team that everyone expected to fail.
• The 3-3 draw Friday between Spain and Portugal was one of the greatest first-round World Cup games I’ve seen. Spain came from behind twice, then actually took the lead, before a sublime Cristiano Ronaldo free kick in the dying minutes not only tied the score but completed Ronaldo’s hat trick. The two teams are favored to top Group B, and by the looks of it, nobody will want to play either one in the knockout stages.
• Saudi Arabia may go down as the worst team in World Cup history. The Saudis lost 5-0 to Russia, the lowest-ranked squad in the field, and still have to play Uruguay and Egypt. And just so we’re clear about what the 48-team World Cup means, when it comes to the United States in 2026: It means that there will be a dozen or more teams that are actually worse than Saudi Arabia.
• Egypt winger Mo Salah, his team’s best player, didn’t play in the country’s 1-0 loss to Uruguay on Friday, and now Egypt already stands on the brink of elimination. If it loses to Russia on Tuesday, it’s likely that its tournament — the first time Egypt has qualified since 1990 — will be all but over. As injured as Salah is, I would think he would play Tuesday, with the World Cup on the line.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
World Cup: Argentina vs Iceland, 8 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 9. Iceland has one of the most cohesive teams in this tournament, but you probably can’t name a single player on it (unless you’re a huge Gylfi Sigurdsson fan). Argentina isn’t as good as in past tournaments but still has Lionel Messi, and that’s probably enough to beat Iceland.
World Cup: Croatia vs. Nigeria, 2 p.m. Saturday, FS1. This genuinely could be one of the most interesting games of the first round. Nigeria might be the best of the African teams, while Croatia doesn’t have a big international reputation but does have a star-studded squad. This game could decide one of the qualifying teams from Group D.
World Cup: Costa Rica vs. Serbia, 7 a.m. Sunday, Ch. 9. If Costa Rica is going to get out of Group E, it very much needs a win against Serbia — especially with games against Brazil and Switzerland coming up. Serbia, meanwhile, will feel the same. A loss in this game, and either team will feel almost as if its World Cup is over.
World Cup: Germany vs. Mexico, 10 a.m. Sunday, FS1. Everyone expects Germany to cruise, because that’s what Germany does. Mexico, though, has the talent and attack to give Germany problems and take control of crowded Group F.