By Mike Woitalla
While they were preparing for this summer's World Cup we asked the USA's Brazil-bound players to recall their earliest memories of the world’s greatest sporting event. It was no surprise the 1994 World Cup hosted by the USA inspired many American stars of this generation.
"I was part of the opening ceremonies of the 1994 World Cup,” says Graham Zusi, who was 7 at the time. “I don't remember it that clearly. I think I ran around the field with hundreds of other kids throwing around a blow-up soccer ball."
Maryland product Kyle Beckerman, like Zusi, headed to his first World Cup was lucky enough to be in the stadium to see one of the greatest World Cup goals ever -- Saudi Arabia’s Saeed Al-Owairan dribbling from his own half to strike against Belgium.
“I was really lucky to have games in my backyard. Games played at RFK in Washington, D.C.,” says Beckerman, who was 12 in 1994. “I was lucky enough see a really cool goal. And obviously I remember cheering on the USA beating Colombia and going to the second round. Them having a go was really neat to see.”
Texan Omar Gonzalez was only 5 when World Cup 1994 came to Dallas, where his mom volunteered during the tournament.
“I got to go to some games,” he says. “I don’t remember much, but my mom tells me I used to mimic Bebeto’s [baby-rocking] celebration when I was a kid.”
At the 1994 World Cup, the USA reached the second round for the first time since 1930 thanks to a 2-1 win over Colombia in the Rose Bowl. Then 7 years old, Matt Besler remembers Colombia:
“I don’t remember much, but Carlos Valderrama’s hair stands out to me and obviously the U.S. played Colombia. I remember his image on TV -- and his crazy afro. I remember the final on TV and the penalty kick shootout between Brazil and Italy. That was the first shootout I witnessed and I learned what a shootout was all about -- and it was exciting.”
At 12 years old, Brad Davis says the entire atmosphere of the USA hosting a World Cup increased his soccer passion.
“Watching those games in your home country as a young kid it makes you definitely want to dream about playing in one, that’s for sure,” says the Missouri product.
Michael Bradley, whose father Bob at the time was Princeton head coach, even went to practice sessions in 1994, when he was 7.
“I was lucky because Italy trained at a school not far from where I lived and I got to see some of my favorite players up close," Michael Bradley says. "I liked Italy, the entire team. I liked Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi. I also liked Hristo Stoichkov’s left foot. … I went to the games at Giants Stadium and got to see him score with a left-footed rocket against Mexico.”
The World Cup in 1998 made on impression on DaMarcus Beasley, when he was 16.
“I know it was in the United States in 1994,” he says, “But it was the 1998 World Cup that I really watched closely. The U.S. didn’t do well but it was great seeing those guys compete. I remember Jurgen Klinsmann scoring against the U.S.”
Klinsmann, of course, is taking Beasley to Brazil, making him the only holdover from the 2002 World Cup where as a 20-year-old Beasley helped the USA reach the quarterfinals.
Fabian Johnson, who was born and raised in Germany, also recalls the 1998 World Cup in France, when he was 10: “Zinedine Zidane’s headers in the final against Brazil is what I remember best.”
At 20, DeAndre Yedlin is the second youngest member of the 2014 World Cup squad.
“I watched the 2002 World Cup but I think I was too young to really know what’s going on,’" says the Washington state product. “The first World Cup I really remember was 2006 -- and Zidane’s head butt … I remember growing up just hoping to get to a point where I had a chance to play in a World Cup.”
The team’s oldest player is 35-year-old goalkeeper Tim Howard, who recalls the USA’s return to the World Cup for the first time in 40 years when it reached Italy ’90.
“The opening game against Czechoslovakia,” Howard says. “We lost 5-1. But it was brilliant that we were on the world stage. I was passionate about the sport so to see my heroes on TV was great.”
Says Michael Bradley, “Soccer in this country has gotten to the point that we remember these games, we were grew up with these games, so now when it's your chance to step on the field and represent the United States you don’t take it lightly.”
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com. Woitalla refs youth soccer in Northern California and coaches at East Bay United/Bay Oaks.)