The Copa America. It's the oldest continental tournament played between international sides in the world. Some say its the best tournament in existence, with more drama, story lines, and excitement than even the World Cup. Every four years, teams from every corner of South America meet in one place and battle for continental supremacy. They play for far more than just the silver trophy. They play for pride.
With ten teams in CONMEBOL, two squads must be invited from outside of the continent in order to make three groups of four. Mexico, United States, and Costa Rica normally receive the invitations but Japan, and this year Jamaica, have participated as well.
In 1995, the USA men's national team travelled down to Uruguay and into the heart of South America. Visitors to one of the games most prestigious events, they were quickly written off as a group filler. Drawn into the same bracket as Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, they were expected to play a few games, have a few laughs, and head home. After all, this is futbol and this is the Copa America. What ensued will forever lay at the foundation of United States and North American soccer. And the now-Montreal Impact manager, Frank Klopas, was at the forefront of the whole thing.
The Americans surprisingly dispatched Chile 2-1 in the opener, with a brace from Eric Wynalda. After raising some eyebrows with their previous result, the USA then fell 1-0 at the hands of Bolivia. Entering the final match against group leaders and undefeated Argentina, the Americans were deadlocked in second with Bolivia. With two third-placed teams making it on top of the group winners and runners up, a win would certainly see them through to the knockout phase.
In Paysandu, Uruguay, a city right on the Uruguay-Argentina border, the United States knew taking three points from La Albiceleste would be anything but easy. Knowing they would be on the back foot for the most part, and with the conditions, officials, and fans against them, scoring first would be extremely crucial to their success. Enter Frank Klopas.
Midway through the first half, the then-twenty eight year old playing his club football with Apollon in Greece smashed home a shot to give the Americans the lead. Upon celebrating with his teammates, his goal prompted the commentator to say, "Without a doubt, one of the biggest goals in US history!" Alexi Lalas and Wynaldo would add two more goals and the USA would win 3-0. They qualified for the knockout phase on Klopas' game winning goal and drew their arch rivals, Mexico. Frank wasn't done yet.
In the quarterfinal against the El Tri, the game remained scoreless through 120 minutes and had to be settled at the penalty spot. The USA shot first and both teams converted their first attempts. In the second and third round however, both Mexican shots were saved while the US scored both. That set the stage for the fourth round with the US having a chance to win it with a successful kick.
Up stepped Frank Klopas. Dipping down to touch the grass with his right hand, he made his run up, shifted his pace for just a moment, and cooly slotted the ball in the left corner. The Americans advanced and sent Mexico crashing out. It is inarguably one of the most memorable and meaningful wins in US soccer history. Klopas ran down the sideline, dodging oncoming teammates, before landing in the arms of one near midfield. The party was on.
The knockout round of the 2015 Copa America will occur Wednesday with the four quarterfinals taking place on separate and consecutive days in Chile. The United States did not participate in this one, but memories of their run to the semi finals, before bowing out to Brazil 1-0, in 1995 still linger. Twenty years after leading the Red, White, and Blue's crusade down in South America in the face of hostile environments and challenging officials, Klopas led the Montreal Impact on a similar journey in Central America. Whether it be high up in Pachuca, in the stifling heat of Alajuela, or under the buzz of Azteca, Klopas certainly drew upon his experience from that Copa America to deal with the factors that come with playing abroad.