An American soccer crowd finally had something to cheer for Saturday.
Playing before vociferous fans in the Pontiac Silverdome, the United States showed how far it has progressed in four years, tying Switzerland 1-1 in the first World Cup game indoors."For me it was a little bit emotional," U.S. goalkeeper Tony Meola said. "A lot of people didn't expect me to be here."
Most of international soccer never expected to be playing a World Cup game under a roof, and didn't didn't expect to be playing in the United States. Four years ago, Czechoslovakia routed the Americans 5-1 in the opener, and U.S. players wanted to show both the soccer community and U.S. fans that they won't be first-round losers.
"We couldn't afford to lose today and get knocked out of the tournament already," said U.S. midfielder Tab Ramos, one of the six players from 1990 still on the team.
For a few minutes, it looked like 1990 all over again. Georges Bregy, a 36-year-old midfielder who specializes on free kicks, beat a misplaced defensive wall and Meola in the 39th minute.
But in the final minute of the half, with just about 25 seconds left before the whistle, Eric Wynalda smacked a 25-yard free kick perfectly into the upper left-hand corner of the net.
"When Wynalda scored, the crowd exploded," Meola said. "We needed something to get the fans going."
Four years ago, Wynalda was so pumped up he wasn't around at the end of the game. He was ejected seven minutes into the second half for pushing a Czechoslovak player in front of a linesmen while the ball was dead.
"I don't even think about that," said Wynalda, a 25-year-old from Westlake Village, Calif., who spent the past two seasons in the German league. "Last time a lot of us went out there thinking it was war."
They weren't quite thinking about peace against Switzerland, but they concentrated on playing their game. It wasn't easy to keep their cool: it was 80 degrees with 71 percent humidity on the field of the unairconditioned Silverdome, and play got ragged at times as sweat flew off the drenched players.
"The last 10, 15 minutes we ran out of gas - it was like a sauna out there," Ramos said. "That crowd kept us in there."
The three sections of Swiss fans in the upper deck made plenty of noise - ringing cowbells and chanting to the Triumphal March of "Aida." But for once a U.S. crowd cheered for the Americans instead of the team of their heritage.
An overwhelming majority of the 73,425 at the game waved small American flags, and some even draped themselves in them.
"That was putting a big lump in my throat," said defender Alexi Lalas, a Detroit native who drew the biggest cheers.
While Switzerland had the better play, outshooting the Americans 24-15, Thomas Dooley, Ramos and Harkes had good scoring chances in the second half.
"If any team deserved to win, I thought it was us," Switzerland coach Roy Hodgson said, "but we didn't take advantage of all of our chances."
Despite the tie - the first non-loss for the Americans in the World Cup since their shocking 1-0 victory over England in 1950 - U.S. players thought they made many mistakes. They ran all over the field trying to get the ball, then had little energy left when they carried it into the offensive zone.
"I think all of the boys are disappointed," U.S. forward Roy Wegerle said. "Now we have to step it up. We have to play so much better than we did today."
Meola, who survived a challenge from Brad Friedel to keep the starting goalkeeper's job, didn't have a problem, except for Bregy's free kick from just outside the penalty area.
"We set up a wall about six yards away," Meola said. "After the referee pushed us back, our wall was way out of line."
The crowd was too loud for Meola to alert the defenders.
"I couldn't communicate with Alexi," he said. "I didn't see it until it was about four yards in front of me, and by then it was too late."
But Wynalda saved the Americans with his 15th goal in 54 international games. He worried Saturday morning about whether he'd play. He broke out in hives Friday night and didn't get any sleep. He was so tired that Wegerle replaced him 10 minutes into the second half.
"I actually threw up before the game," Wynalda said.
As Dooley stood in the middle of the Swiss defensive wall and ducked, Wynalda stepped up and beat goalkeeper Marco Pascolo, who dived to his right but had no chance. The ball was perfectly placed, just glancing off the bottom of the crossbar.
"I remember looking at John and Tab," Wynalda remembered. "I didn't know what to do after I scored."
Celebrate, like the American fans were doing?
Not quite. The U.S. team has Colombia on Wednesday and Romania next Sunday, and needs two or three more points for a chance to advance to the second round.
"I am certain the next game will be easier for us," U.S. coach Bora Milutinovic said. "Our heads are up even though we are playing a very hard opponent."