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Still looking for U.S. Soccer’s miracle moment

Feb 22, 2013, 10:42 AM EDT

Remember these beauties from 1994? Should Nike bring back huge stars on gray shirts... Remember these beauties from 1994? Should Nike bring back huge stars on gray shirts...

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:

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  1. couchtoast - Feb 22, 2013 at 11:36 AM

    I think winning Brazil 2014 would absolutely count as a miracle, regardless of the fact that we have some players in the top leagues in Europe and our own domestic league. If you look at any previous World Cup champ in the modern era, the roster, from top to bottom, is comprised of players playing at the best teams around the globe, bar none. I mean, Spain is basically a combined version of Barca and Madrid, with a few players from the EPL’s top 4 teams sprinkled in for good measure. Winning a World Cup with MLS players and some Europe based players who are on mid-table teams would be astonishing and totally on par with the Miracle on Ice.

  2. mkbryant3 - Feb 22, 2013 at 11:56 AM

    The toast may be on the couch, but I agree with the man. Winning the WC in Brazil would, indeed, be a huge miracle. I think bigger than the Miracle on Ice.

    That 94 victory over Colombia got very close. That game was miraculous, in my opinion, as well. What memories.

    Speaking of 94. Man, do I miss me some Hagi. Just starting to watch international soccer back then, I had yet to see such magic from a #10. The guy had an amazing tournament.

  3. buckyball77 - Feb 22, 2013 at 12:24 PM

    Yes, a crazy miracle to win Brazil 2014, knowing how long it took high level soccer powers like France and Spain to triumph.

    But, without the geopolitical factor it couldn’t match 1980. The world’s soccer powers aren’t also our fearsome political rivals.

  4. berlintexas - Feb 22, 2013 at 12:34 PM

    In fairness, the US had medaled at the Olympics many times before Miracle on Ice, including gold. It was before my time, but I imagine the context (vs. Russia during the cold war, at home = more media coverage, in the Olympics) played into it far more than the quality of teams. It would be like the USMNT losing the World Cup final 7 times, winning once, and THEN upsetting a higher ranked rival in the Semis before going on to win it again. Wouldn’t have the same impact with out the context. I agree we can’t have that moment because the USA doesn’t have that rival. Winning the World Cup would be it’s own kind of miracle. The women had their moment in Chastain against China.

    • randomhookup - Feb 22, 2013 at 3:14 PM

      One of the reasons the hockey win was such a big deal was that the Soviets were _the_ power in the hockey world (all their best players were “amateurs”) and the US team was a bunch of college kids. The USMNT may be beyond that point. It would be like the “Camp Cupcake” team or the U23s beating the full Brazilian team in a competition.

  5. kevindlindstrom - Feb 22, 2013 at 1:06 PM

    You have to admit that the ’10 Algeria game was pretty exciting, but you are right, a massive part of the “Miracle on Ice” was knocking off the big, bad Soviets on the huge stage of the Olympics on the way to Olympic Gold.

    I do think a similar situation could happen in the Olympics to capture much of the non-traditional soccer fans in the US, but for the ultimate magic, yeah, it would have to be beating Brazil/Spain/etc. on the way to winning the World Cup.

    • randomhookup - Feb 22, 2013 at 2:17 PM

      And doing it with a team of amateurs (none of whom ever amounted to much in the NHL). The Soviets were essentially pros and had beaten an NHL all-star team the year earlier 6-0 and beaten this team by 7 goals in an earlier friendly.

      • wesbadia - Feb 22, 2013 at 3:46 PM

        Very good point about the Soviet team. Remember that those players were technically apart of the Red Army, having the job of representing their country by playing hockey. Soldier-athletes playing against college students. It’s like the Spartans falling to the Athenians in battle.

  6. tylerbetts - Feb 22, 2013 at 10:37 PM

    Isn’t it much more likely we see a “miracle” moment that we’re on the wrong side of? Some tiny CONCACAF Nation winning a Gold Cup or securing World Cup passage at our extent? A ragged band of low level players who shock our team full of those playing in Europe?

    This is especially true when you look at the political landscape that went into the Miracle on Ice. We don’t have a Russia that gives us a soccer rival. China? Not a big enough challenge on the soccer pitch – they’d get the miracle on grass from beating us. Brazil? Spain? Germany? Not the political tension.

    But within CONCACAF? Where we’re viewed as the “big bad boys” on the pitch and in politics? A team could pull off a true miracle.

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