Today, Earnie Stewart admits the 1994 World Cup passed in a blur. At 25 and in his first major tournament, he was focused solely on getting good results. He remembers looking ahead to the next training session, the next task of preparation, the next 90 minutes on the field in front of tens of thousands, but the 5-foot-9 forward with blazing speed and a cultured touch simply didn’t have time to stop and soak up the moment with things moving so quickly.
But he does remember his hotel room, where things would slow down.
“I do remember that the view was really beautiful,” Stewart says. “It was a really, really fantastic room.”
Perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the luxurious Dana Point Resort hotel housed the United States national team before and during the 1994 World Cup. In it, Stewart and roommate Paul Caligiuri had drawn what was likely the best digs of anyone on the squad: a corner suite, with sliding doors leading to a balcony that seemed to soared over the expanse of shore line. The roommates opened those sliding doors, and kept them open.
“The ocean breeze was just perfect,” says, Caligiuri, a native of Southern California. “At first I wondered, ‘How did we get the best room?’”
“I don’t know if Paul set it up himself or what,” Stewart wonders, hinting that Caligiuri’s senior role on the team and 'Shot Heard Round The World' goal against Trinidad and Tobago in a 1989 World Cup qualifier had afforded him certain perks.
Caligiuri has a different theory.
”I was roommates with Earnie Stewart,” he says. “That’s how we got it.”
Easygoing and personable off the field, a competitive firecracker on it, Stewart found ways to endear himself to a close-knit U.S. national team ahead of the 1994 World Cup. However, even among that era’s U.S. soccer fanatics, Stewart was far from a household name. That would change in the heat of the tournament, before tragedy overshadowed everything.
When the sun rose on June 22, 1994, the thermometer on the Rose Bowl turf read 90. More than 90,000 packed the stands in a complete sellout. A national audience watched on ESPN. Eleven players representing a nascent soccer nation would take the field against a Colombian team that many picked to win the whole thing. But few could imagine the pressure those players were under.
While Colombians buzzed about drug cartels’ involvement in team affairs, death threats public and private swirled around the team’s coaches and players. Talismanic goalkeeper Rene Higuita was suspended for the tournament after becoming entangled in a kidnapping scheme. These off-field, real-life distractions were compounded by a shocking start to the tournament itself, as the team dropped it’s opening match 3-1 to Romania.
The U.S. was feeling its own pressures, albeit ones that were far more benign. The team hadn’t won a World Cup game in 44 years. Failure to make the second round would put the team on the wrong side of history—the first host nation to go out in the group stage. No American player wanted that distinction.
Combined with a boisterous crowd evenly split between Colombian and American support, the game had the feel of a giant event.
“It was a huge bag of emotions, really,” recalls John Harkes, who started at left midfield. “There was a lot pressure building up—not just to that game, but to that tournament. Everybody was really looking at our bag of tricks to see what we were going to do when we were hosting.”
Put simply by fellow midfielder Tab Ramos, it was “the kind of game you always hoped you can play in.”
The men’s national team was in a different place back then, two years before Major League Soccer would play its inaugural season. With players spread out all over the world and many playing in small American leagues, the U.S. Soccer Federation assigned the majority of its squad to the national team, full-time, for the 1993-1994 season.
Beginning after the U.S.’ winless finish at Italia ’90, the federation also began scouting abroad for foreign players with the ability to gain a U.S. passport who could add something special to the group. First the U.S. snagged Thomas Dooley, an accomplished midfielder playing for Bayer Leverkusen in Germany. Then they tapped Stewart, who had lived his whole life in Holland but was born to an American serviceman.
The imports created a noticeable dichotomy within the U.S. team. While a close-knit group of domestic Americans stayed, trained, and played with each other, Stewart and Dooley would periodically join the group, arriving on a plane from far-away leagues in Europe that were the holy grail for many of their national teammates.
“Having players like Earnie and Dooley with us was huge,” says Ramos. “Some of us had played in Europe for a few years, but we didn’t grow up there, and they had far more experience at that level.”
The introduction of such “others” into a close-knit group always has the potential to backfire. The slightest hint of arrogance can poison relationships. Cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts, both on and off the field. The addition of Dooley and Stewart certainly added talent, but how would they fit in with the group?
“Earnie blended in like a brother,” Caligiuri says. “[The rest of the team] would play together for months, then he would join and it was like a breath of fresh air.”
The role actually came quite naturally to Stewart.
“You have to make sure you don’t come in and tell people how to do it and what to do,” he says. “That would be very misplaced, especially for guys that have been together for a long while. You sit back and try to blend in and be part of a team.”
“When you’re sitting together, having dinner or speaking about life, that’s real simple”
In an effort to keep things as normal as possible before facing Colombia, the U.S. spent the night before at their Dana Point home base—even though it was an hour’s drive from the Rose Bowl.
That evening, Caligiuri and Stewart returned to their room, looking out over the waves as the sun settled below the silhouette of Santa Catalina Island.
The two talked about life. About playing soccer abroad. They shared dreams and hopes for the future of the game in the U.S. In time, though, the conversation became more of an exercise in visualization. Say what you want to accomplish, see in your mind’s eye what you must do to accomplish it, and eventually it will come into being.
“You’re gonna score tomorrow,” Caligiuiri remembers telling Stewart the evening before the biggest match of either of their careers. “You’re gonna get the game-winner.”
Whatever the dream, the game nearly started off as a U.S. nightmare. Colombia pressured the United States from the outset, nearly grabbing a goal within 10 minutes after a chance in the six-yard box caromed off Mike Sorber and onto the post before Fernando Clavijo cleared it off the line in one astounding sequence.
“We had one or two bad moments at the beginning,” says Bora Milutinovic, the U.S. head coach on that day. “But thankfully it was only at the beginning.”
In the latter stages of the first half, Colombia began to crack. The team’s flowing, flamboyant style stiffened. Poor giveaways become the norm, and eventually the U.S. turned one of them into an opportunity for Harkes on the left wing. In the 35th minute, he raised his head and fired in a cross. Higuita’s replacement, Oscar Cordoba, charged off his line needlessly. Stewart, arms waving in the air just off defender Andres Escobar’s right shoulder, was the intended recipient of Harkes’ cross.
Instead, the ball found Escobar. The renowned defender lunged to block the cross, touching the ball into the goal left wide open by Cordoba. One nation cheered. Another gasped. The score: 1-0 USA, off Escobar’s own goal.
Stewart’s moment would arrive in the second half, on a play that included 18 touches in just 25 seconds. Looking back on the goal in 2014, as the U.S. attempts to move toward a fluid, possession-oriented style of soccer, it’s striking just how smoothly and efficiently the U.S. could play in its most critical moment two decades ago. Look no further than where the play started: On the U.S.’ own endline, when Marcelo Balboa intercepted a failed Colombian through ball.
With the ESPN game clock reading 50:30, Balboa took three touches toward his own corner flag, knocked the ball ahead to Harkes, then quickly got it back. Balboa immediately sent the ball inside to Mike Sorber, who took three touches and found Harkes again on the left wing. Harkes —again, with one touch—sent a lofted ball in to Thomas Dooley, who controlled well with his thigh and nudged the ball forward for Eric Wynalda, tracking back into the center circle. Wynalda took two short controlling touches and fired wide for Ramos on the right wing. In one fully conjoined, confident move, the U.S. had circulated the ball from the left flank, into the middle, and onto the right. “This is good possession here,” analyst Seamus Malin said expectantly on the broadcast. The reward for that possession: space and time for Ramos, the team’s most dangerous passer.
“When you’re a midfielder and you look up, you see a picture, and then you put your head down you have to predict where everything on the field is going to be,” Ramos says. “I predicted Earnie making that diagonal run, I predicted that defender getting sucked out a little bit, and I predicted where I would put the ball.”
Ramos took a controlling touch. He looked up, locked eyes with Stewart, and took one more touch into space. Stewart darted diagonally across the defense, inviting Ramos to lean back and chip a delicate, bouncing service over the top of Colombia’s back four. Defenders closed on Stewart. The goalkeeper Córdoba did, too.
“I saw the goalkeeper come out a bit... he was in no mans land,” Stewart recalls. “The opportunity I thought I had was just to pass it by him and make it go in the goal.”
The murmur of 93,000 voices in the stadium rose in a slow fade—the kind you get in any sport just before something really big happens. This was the moment.
“Is he going far post?” Harkes thought, standing back from the play near the midfield stripe. Nope. With a single touch of his right foot, Stewart sent the ball under the arm of Cordoba. The ball bounced toward the goal. But Stewart wasn’t done.
“I think in the back of my mind I had a little feeling that it might hit the post and come back,” he says. “So I followed up to see if I could do something about that.”
He wouldn’t need to. The ball rolled over the line and into the net. Stewart pumped his arms in celebration and soon disappeared under a mob of U.S. players. The crowd roared. The United States was on the way to beating Colombia at its own game, in its own style.
“If that goal had come from Colombia, that’s what you would have expected,” Sorber says today. “When you look at that goal, with the sequence of passes, that was I think a good indication of the quality of our team.”
Colombia would score a 90th-minute consolation goal, thereby fulfilling Caligiuri’s prediction that Stewart’s strike would seal the U.S.’ first World Cup win in two generations. Stewart made the cover of Sports Illustrated (albeit with his name spelled wrong... sorry Earnie). Players like Alexi Lalas made the rounds on national talk shows. For the first time in modern history, the U.S. men’s soccer team was a national talking point.
“It was nice to see soccer arrive,” Ramos says. “Even if it just for a little while at that moment.”
Ten days after the U.S. win over Colombia, Harkes was asked by reporters how he felt now that a player he shared the field with that day is dead. But to Harkes, that didn’t seem like the question they were asking. It seemed as though they were asking if he felt responsible.
Escobar, the defender who scored the own goal against the U.S., was murdered outside a nightclub in Medellín, Colombia on July 2. Rumors circulated that the assailant yelled “Goooooooool!” before firing the fatal shots. The sports media narrative practically wrote itself: Escobar was killed because he scored an own goal. And Harkes sent in the cross that led to the own goal. Thus, Harkes must feel some remorse for his “error.” That simple.
“They were really tough times and it was really awkward to talk about,” Harkes recalls. “I was really emotional…[Escobar] was such a gentleman in the game and such a great ambassador. I was just kicking the ball in the box for Earnie to get on the end of, and unfortunately Escobar got in front of it. I was just playing the game.”
Did the own goal play a factor in the shooting? Perhaps. But so did the drug cartels’ funding of national team programs, general lawlessness throughout the country, and just plain wrong place/wrong time bad luck—aspects well explored in the Zimbalist brothers’ 30 for 30 documentary The Two Escobars.
Lost in the tragedy: the fact that 22 players on the Rose Bowl turf played a scintillating game of soccer that kept a nation still learning the sport completely entranced. An affable speedster played hero, scoring the winning goal in a seminal moment of U.S. soccer.
But it was also, ultimately, just a game.
“I understand why people, when they think about the game, they think about Andres Escobar being shot. That’s normal,” says Stewart. “If I could get a life back by not scoring the goal, I wouldn’t have to think about that for one second. I’d give up the goal.”