Eric Wynalda

Iconic Moment

As the U.S. Men’s National Team takes to Detroit’s Ford Field Tuesday night for their opening match of the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup vs. Canada, they’ll return to an area that’s missed their presence for 17 years. It was just due north of Tuesday night’s venue at the Pontiac Silverdome where the U.S. opened the 1994 FIFA World Cup with a 1-1 draw against Switzerland, earning the nation’s first point in the tournament since the shocking 1-0 win during the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.

“It was a big deal,” remembers retired U.S. international and former Chicago Fire striker Eric Wynalda. “That game’s national anthem is really the only I still remember. I’ve been through a lot of those but I think having a World Cup on U.S. soil, even though I’ve been in big games, I’ve played in Europe, already played in a World Cup and been through the nerves that go along with that, I remember just saying to myself ‘this is your national anthem, enjoy this,’ because it was pretty intense.”

It was intense, it was loud and pretty awesome... That’s what I remember as an eight-year-old from my sideline vantage point in the third tier of the massive dome. The game was my first introduction to soccer as anything but a participation sport. I guess I figured that somewhere, someone was getting paid as much money as Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov (my hockey  heroes at the time) to kick a ball around, but I’d never seen a professional soccer game that wasn’t played on a hockey rink anyway. Seeing as that’s all I knew, I guess I didn’t think twice when someone told me it was the first World Cup match to ever be played indoors.

Then Switzerland took the lead through Georges Bregy’s 39th minute free kick and I remember a myriad of thoughts racing through my mind…again eight-year-old thoughts that come with a limited knowledge of the game. The two I remember though: “Why didn’t Tony Meola move?” and “Why are there so many Swiss fans in the United States? Surely these people know the other team on the field is the U.S.?”

No worries though, because five minutes later Mr. Wynalda hooked me on the game for the rest of my life with a free kick from 30 yards that made that Swiss guy’s look sort of average. Having now experience four more World Cups in much greater detail, I still believe Wynalda’s goal just before halftime is perhaps the greatest U.S. World Cup goal in the modern era, save of course for Landon Donovan’s strike last summer against Algeria.

But where does it rank in the career of someone who made his living off hitting the back of the net?

“It’s has be number one or two. To be fair I think the goal I scored in the last couple minutes of the MLS opener for San Jose in 1996 was a big deal because we just couldn’t finish that game scoreless. The irony is all I can remember from it now is I wish that I had actually thought of some sort of celebration. Everybody likes to do something special after a big goal. I just remember not knowing what to do. The place was so loud, I’d never experienced anything like how loud that place got. Maybe because it was indoors, but the roar that you felt when the ball went in – to think about it still gives me chills.”

“I remember, I don’t know who she is. There was a little girl sitting in the front row and I just pointed at her and winked. That’s pretty much all I remember about that. She’s out there somewhere, I don’t know if she even remembers but I looked right at her because I didn’t know what else to do.”

Remember that scene in Rudy…?

You know the one where Sean Astin has finally convinced Charles S. Dutton to let him work for minimum wage on the Notre Dame football grounds crew but instead of working, Astin decides to reenact a play from the past weekend’s game, finding the specific spot on the field where the Irish broke through to score?

Twelve years on, Wynalda had a similar experience with himself when he returned to the Silverdome during the week of Super Bowl XL in 2006, which was hosted at Tuesday night’s venue, Ford Field.

“Both the teams practiced at the Silverdome during the week and my girlfriend was working with ABC Sports for the coverage of the game so we had passes to go places and I knew some people at ESPN. We went to go watch one of the practices and I just walked out there to try and figure out where that spot would have been. That was pretty cool. The stadium looked just about the same and it brought back a great memory for me.”

Gold Cup from 1991 to now…

The CONCACAF Gold Cup has come a long way since its humble beginnings with two groups of four teams in 1991.

Many of the tournaments allowed for invited teams to participate, specifically Brazil which often sent a U23 side and still wiped the floor with most of the region’s senior national sides.

With the tournament fully expanded to 12 teams, there was the idea to have four groups of three teams each, making it more likely for tiebreakers to come into play. Never was there a worse case for a team advancing then in 2000 when eventual champions Canada made it out of their three team group through a coin flip after all other tie breakers left them even with guests South Korea.

Either way, the tournament format (three groups of four teams each), now completely devoid of guest nations, is perfect for the region’s size. Wynalda, who played and scored for the U.S. in each of the first five editions of the competition (1991, ’93, ’96, ’98, ’00) likes what the tournament means for all fans in CONCACAF.

 “It’s always difficult to play against teams from your region. Part of you doesn’t want to show all of your cards because you have to play them in qualifiers and the other half wants to just show that we are the best team in this region. I think it’s a great tournament, a great competition for the fans of our region.”

Though in recent years we’ve seen Costa Rica, Honduras and even Panama make runs deep in the tournament from time-to-time, most still expect to see the U.S. and Mexico advance to face each other in the final. A veteran of many a Mexico clash, Wynalda hopes fans focus their energy on the respect for the game and the opponent, leaving hatred out of any potential encounter between the two rivals.

“I hope this doesn’t come off wrong but too many times we get to this competition in particular and all we talk about is the hatred between Mexico and the United States…It’s never hatred, it never was hatred and it never will be in my opinion. Not to skip everyone else out of this thing but the rivalry that exists now between the U.S. and Mexico is pretty fantastic and it’s about patriotism, there’s no hate involved. We have a tremendous amount of respect for them as a nation – the bottom line is we want to beat them. We want to beat them because they are good and because we want to be the best in our region. I hope people enjoy it, I hope they don’t get carried away in all the other components of it and the competition can just be about the games on the field.”

Either way, its Gold Cup time once again. The Confederations Cup is on the line and tonight the U.S. Men’s National Team is back in a place that hosted one of its greatest moments. Grab a Coney Dog, drink a Stroh’s and rev up a Mustang engine (they are playing at Ford Field of course).

The quest for perhaps the clunkiest trophy in all the world begins again tonight!

Jeff Crandall is the Team Writer for the Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter @JefeCrandall.