Today is the 33rd anniversary of what was surely the most memorable moment in United States sports history. Ever. It was the Miracle on Ice, a place where an enormous upset in athletic competition metastasized due to the global geopolitical (i.e., Cold War) implications.
For a lot of years, U.S. Soccer was in a place to manufacture something close.
Anyone around the 1994 World Cup wondered, if only in their private moments, whether the United States national team could possibly create something similar? In terms of stacked odds, the circumstances were roughly similar to the U.S. hockey team that so implausibly took down the mighty Soviets en route to that storied 1980 Olympic Gold in hockey.
The United States, remember, didn’t even have a proper top tier league at the time. Then-coach Bora Milutinovic had to scare up a whole rack of friendlies just to get games for guys whose World Cup prep would be mostly done on the practice field otherwise.
As it turned out, playing close to Brazil in an elimination match (in a 1-0 loss on July 4) was as close as we got to a 1994 Miracle on Grass moment.
World Cup ’98 in France had some promise. By then, the majority of U.S. starters had spent time in Europe, acclimating further to the high-level stuff it would take to manufacture a series of upsets. But a shocker of a run is mostly about chemistry and belief, and the United States failed miserably there. Long story short, they finished 32nd of 32 teams. We’re talking anti-miracle here.
We got close in 2002, although characterization as a “miracle” was getting tougher to come by. Winning the whole banana probably would qualify, but anything shorter and we were only talking about varying degrees of “terrific World Cup run.”
From that point on … well let’s face it, we may be past any Miracle Moment in global soccer. (For the United States, that is.) There are simply too many capable U.S. players getting the business done in esteemed leagues abroad.
Plus, the United States has now been in every World Cup since 1986 (the last one the country missed). The World Cup experience now matches the country’s resources and athletic pool.
If the United States somehow wins in Brazil, it will be a hallmark achievement and certainly a victory for the ages. But a miracle? Given so many talented figures earning paychecks as starters in the power leagues of England, Germany, Italy, Mexico – and, yes, even those making hay in gradually improving Major League Soccer – that might be a stretch.
Oh, well … enjoy the final few seconds of the amazing 1980 moment: