Progress in Paysandu

The U.S. men’s national team has had good runs into the knockout rounds of several international tournaments in recent decades. Certainly the most famous is the 2002 World Cup. Before 2002, the high-water mark for American success in international soccer was the 1995 Copa America in Uruguay. Some may think it still is. At the time, to have reached the semifinals of such a prestigious tournament, and to have routed Argentina along the way, was a towering achievement.

This achievement almost didn’t happen, because of stalemated negotiations between the U.S. Soccer Federation and the players over payments for playing in this tournament. Negotiations extended well into the team’s trip to Uruguay before a resolution was reached in time for the start of play.

The Americans opened on July 8, 1995 with a 2-1 victory over Chile in the small city of Paysandu, Uruguay. Eric Wynalda got both of the United States goals. A 1-0 defeat to Bolivia three days later, however, left the United States in a very difficult position. In order to advance to the quarterfinals, it virtually had to get a victory in its final first-round game against the defending champion, Argentina. On paper, this was a neutral-site game, but Argentina was just across the river from Paysandu.

No one expected the United States to score a 3-0 victory over Argentina, least of all Argentine coach Daniel Passarella, who vastly underestimated his rival and decided he could rest nine of the 11 starters he had used in beating Chile three days before.

The Americans were in control from the start, and by halftime, Passarella had realized his error. The United States led, 2-0, on goals from Frank Klopas and Alexi Lalas. In an effort to avoid an even wider defeat, Passarella brought in three more of his regulars as halftime substitutes, but Wynalda scored a third American goal in the 59th minute.

As a result of this victory, the United States avoided Brazil in the quarterfinals and faced Mexico. Kasey Keller had shut out Argentina, but U.S. coach Steve Sampson, for whom this tournament was the high point of his tenure, was alternating between his two outstanding goalkeepers. The quarterfinals were Brad Friedel’s turn to shine, and he was particularly spectacular in the penalty shootout, following a 0-0 tie, that boosted the United States into the semifinals.

The United States’ first four games had all been in Paysandu. In the semifinals, against Brazil in Maldonado on July 20, the Americans’ run finally ended. The only goal came in the 13th minute, when Aldair headed home a free kick by Juninho. The Americans won much of the control of the ball for the rest of the game, and came forward in numbers continuously, but they never forced a save from Brazilian goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel.

Two days later, the disappointed Americans and the disappointed Colombians, who had lost to Uruguay in their semifinal, played the third-place game, which Colombia won, 4-1. The tournament ended with individual honors as well as team ones for the United States. John Harkes was named co-MVP of the tournament, along with Uruguay’s Enzo Francescoli. Four American players, Harkes, Wynalda, Keller and Lalas, were named to the all-tournament team.

And Paysandu took its place alongside Belo Horizonte in American soccer lore.

A version of this article first appeared on Roger’s Big Soccer blog on on March 5, 2012

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