Throughout its long, albeit not quite contiguous, history, the United States Men’s National Team has racked up some famous victories. The 1-0 win over England in 1950, the 2-0 victory over Mexico in 2002, and the 2-1 win over Ghana last summer; all these and more stick out in the hearts and minds of American fans. Perhaps one of the team’s most beloved victories happened 20 years ago this week, in a tournament they’re not technically eligible for, against some of the strongest opposition imaginable.
This week, we observe the 20th anniversary of one of the most famous games in USMNT history: the 3-0 victory over Argentina in the 1995 Copa América.
CONMEBOL only has 10 member associations, which makes organizing a tournament a little tricky. To fill out the bracket, the confederation typically invites two countries from a different region to participate: the “filler” countries are usually from CONCACAF (owing to both geographic proximity and cultural ties), although Japan did accept an invitation to compete in the 1999 edition of the tournament. The 1995 Copa was the second time the United States had entered the competition, following on the heels of the team’s Group Stage exit two years prior. Riding a wave of enthusiasm and momentum after a surprisingly strong performance as the host team in the World Cup the previous summer, the Stars and Stripes were looking to make a splash on another big international stage and prove that 1994 wasn’t a fluke; that in a sport the country had all but ignored for half a century, the United States had finally arrived.
And boy did they ever.
Both teams went into their match-up, the last fixture in Group C, with something to prove. Argentina, playing in their first major tournament in the post-Maradona era, were eager to turn the page after a disappointing Round Of 16 defeat to Romania in the World Cup the previous summer. As 14-time winners of the Copa América, and the defending champions, lots of eyes were on Argentina to see if they could get their groove back. Meanwhile, the USA were determined to show that they weren’t awkward dinner guests, and were capable of holding their own in one of the toughest challenges in international football.
Argentina were in a stronger position heading into the game, having already qualified for the knockout rounds on the strength of a 2-1 win over Bolivia and a 4-0 demolition of Chile. The US was sitting on three points, just one point behind Bolivia for the second guaranteed knockout round place. While the Yanks could have squeezed through with a draw, they lined up in the tunnel gunning for a win.
The Americans got off to a great start in the 20th minute when Chicago Fire legend and current Montreal Impact head coach Frank Klopas hit a daisy-cutter into the lower right corner from just inside the box. Eleven minutes later, the Americans grabbed the match by the scruff of the neck when fearsome Viking warrior central defender Alexi Lalas snuck a tap-in underneath the Argentine keeper. Nursing a two-goal advantage at halftime, Steve Sampson’s crew realized that if they got one more goal (and kept a clean sheet) they would not only advance but would win the group. That was apparently exactly what Eric Wynalda needed to hear, as he finished off a low cross into an empty net in the 58th minute, delivering a knockout punch to one of the strongest teams in the world. The US held on to their lead, securing the 3-0 win and finishing top of Group C. It remains one of the biggest wins in US Soccer history.
The USMNT would ultimately finish fourth in the tournament, after beating Mexico on penalties in the quarterfinals, losing a close 1-0 semifinal match-up against Brazil, and then running out of gas in a 4-1 defeat to Colombia in the third place match. For their part, Argentina were bounced out of the quarterfinals after losing to Brazil on penalties, squandering their chance to make a bold statement on the heels of a disappointing World Cup. Although Argentina has obviously recovered from that 3-0 lashing and now boasts some of the greatest attacking talent in the world, the team still has not won a major tournament since the 1993 Copa América.
Meanwhile, the USA went on to prove their point: in the biggest international competitions, against the toughest opponents, the Americans can not be written off.