Episode 3: We'll Always Have Paysandu

1994 World Cup? America nailed it. Regional rival Mexico? Crushed 'em in D.C.! Now it was time for the United States national team to prove it could be successful outside the U.S. In July 1995, the team traveled to Uruguay for the Copa America, a battle royal among South American nations. The U.S. was an invited guest that would face some of the toughest teams in the world. Little did the players know they would also have to scrap with their bosses at the U.S. Soccer Federation. It all started on the flight to the tournament. There hadn't been time to finish negotiating players' contracts before the flight took off. Six hours into the flight, a piece of paper with the Federation's terms began circulating among the players. They gathered in the back of the plane to discuss a major sticking point in the proposal: Players would not be compensated equally. Instead, a sliding scale based on experience with the national team would dictate compensation. "It was divide and conquer," explains star forward Eric Wynalda, noting that younger players with few games under their belts were being asked to play for glory - and nothing else. "It was, let's get the veteran players to comply and screw everybody else." Even those who would benefit knew it would go against the very thing that had made them successful: being a team. That team, as a whole, made the decision that they would not play, much less practice, until the issue was resolved. Upon their arrival in Paysandu, Uruguay, the players' bus was met with a crowd of soccer-obsessed locals bearing signs and warm regards. This unexpected celebrity treatment was due, in part, to the high visibility of American stars like Alexi Lalas during the previous summer's World Cup.   But also, the Americans were slated to play Uruguay's archrival, Argentina, in the Copa. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the old saying goes. The people of Paysandu began to follow the team around town. The hotel where the U.S. was staying had windows across the front and adoring locals would press their noses to the glass to watch the players hang out as long-distance negotiations took place via fax. "We played a lot of backgammon and we drank a lot of cappuccinos in that lobby," says Wynalda. Adds Lalas: "It was almost like a museum exhibition. 'Come see the Americans!'" Back home, Federation secretary general Hank Steinbrecher saw the negotiations differently. From his perspective, U.S. Soccer had invested a lot in these players and now thought they were an "ungrateful lot." Many faxes later, Steinbrecher had had enough:  "You're going to put a noose over our neck and a bullet to our head? Screw you. You're finding your own way home and I'm bringing down the Olympic team." Faced with the threat of scabs, the players reacted with, "Great. Go for it." They felt confident that if crowds of Uruguayans came to the hotel just to watch Marcelo Balboa, Alexi Lalas and Eric Wynalda sip coffee, Steinbrecher wouldn't actually replace them in the biggest tournament in South America. Some believe Steinbrecher blinked first. Steinbrecher says they "came to a compromised position." In either case, the players got their money. There was time for just one practice before the first game of the Copa and Coach Steve Sampson warned his players, "You better go out and prove that you deserve that money." And prove it they did. They won their first game 2-1, against Chile. It was the first time the U.S. had beaten a South American team on South American soil since the inaugural World Cup in 1930. After a brief 1-0 setback against Bolivia, all thoughts were on their next opponent, Argentina. The Argentine playing style is singular - as brutal as it is beautiful. No player personified both sides of this style more than the legendary Diego Maradona. His playing days were over and he was watching from the stands. But the team on the field was no less fearsome. One of their most talented and ruthless players was another Diego: Diego Simeone. Warming up in the tight confines of the hallway outside the locker room, Simeone started talking trash to Wynalda. A few stretches later, Wynalda warned Simeone, "I'm going to rip your face off." Then Wynalda grabbed Simeone by the throat. All of this was before the game even started. The truth is, the U.S. team would have been happy with a tie. The players had grown up watching the Diego Maradona era of Argentine soccer. When Alexi Lalas was 16, he watched Argentina play in the World Cup in person. Nine years later, he would score a goal against them. The U.S. struck twice in the first half, then Wynalda tacked one on, making the final score 3-0. The Americans had never dominated an opponent this powerful in quite this way. What happened on the field was impressive, but what came next is soccer lore. The guys were boisterously celebrating with cold beers, when the room suddenly went quiet. The crowd parted to make way for none other than Diego Maradona, who emotionally shook each player's hand. "I'm not crying because Argentina has lost," he explained. "I'm crying because the Americans played such beautiful football." The U.S. ended up placing fourth at the Copa, which was an astonishing feat. They beat a team no one had thought was touchable. And they coaxed tears from a legitimate soccer god. They were starting to believe in themselves and work as a team, on and off the field.  

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