The Copa América Centenario starts this Friday, kicking off what might be the biggest non-World Cup summers for soccer fans in recent memory. There’s been a lot of talk about how the United States will fare in the tournament and what it will and will not say about the state of the national team— and, invariably, whether Jürgen Klinsmann deserves to keep his job.
Amidst all that, there’s also been a fair amount of reminiscing about the USA’s best performance in this tournament to date, when they took the 1995 edition in Uruguay by storm. We’ve talked about one game in particular from that campaign, but that wasn’t the USMNT’s only moment of glory.
This week, we look at the USA’s other high-profile victory in the 1995 Copa América— their quarterfinal tie against Mexico.
It’s worth remembering that the USA’s campaign in the tournament almost looked very different. A dispute over pay, not unlike the battle that the WNT are currently fighting, led the squad to threaten not to play. Interim (at the time) manager Steve Sampson was unable to convince his side to hold off until after the tournament and US Soccer decided to play hardball, threatening to send the Olympic team down to Uruguay unless the senior team fell in line. The USSF ultimately blinked first and the players got their payday. Later, Sampson told his squad that it was up to them to prove they were worth their newly-won salaries.
The USA got off to a great start in the Copa, winning two of their three group stage games (including that 3-0 over Argentina) to top the group. That set up a tantalizing quarterfinal tie against their all-too-familiar rivals Mexico. They met El Tri earlier in the summer in the U.S. Cup, when they cruised to a fist-pumping 4-0 win. Not that either team needs much in the way of motivation when they play each other, but that result and the pressure of a major tournament ensured this tie would be unforgettable however it shook out.
There was no blowout this time. Both teams had plenty of chances and close calls; the US’ best chance came courtesy of Eric Wynalda, who broke clean through on goal in the first half but had his shot saved at close range. Mexico, meanwhile, couldn’t find a way to break past then-24-year-old Brad Friedel, who was quite possibly the USA’s best player on the day. Neither side found a breakthrough and the whistle blew with the score at 0-0. This fiercely contentious tie would have to be settled on penalties.
It was then that Friedel once again demonstrated how important he was to the USA. After conceding the first penalty from Luis García Postigo, he went on to save spot kicks from Carlos Hermosillo and Alberto Coyote, knocking Mexico on their back. Meanwhile, the Americans all converted their shots, with Wynalda, Joe-Max Moore, and Paul Caligiuri putting the USA on the brink of advancing. The final nail in Mexico’s coffin was hammered by Chicago Fire legend Frank Klopas, giving the US a 4-1 win in the penalty shootout and sending them into the semifinals. It helped cement the Americans as perhaps the unlikeliest Copa darlings in recent history.
That game ended up being as good as it got for the USA. They lost their semifinal match against Brazil 1-0 and were then thrashed 4-1 by Colombia in the third place match. Since then they have only competed in the Copa once, finishing bottom of their group in the 2007 tournament. For all the latent controversy surrounding the Centenario and the extent to which this off-year edition “counts,” it at least offers a chance for the US to earn some redemption. Whether or not they’ll take it is an open question.
Their quest for that redemption begins tomorrow night as the USMNT take on Colombia. Kickoff is at 9:30pm EST on Fox Sports 1.