SANTA CLARA, Calif. — U.S. midfielder Alejandro Bedoya remembers. On the night of June 22, 1994, when the U.S. played Colombia in the World Cup, the Colombian-American 7-year-old watched the game in Florida while wearing a Carlos Valderrama fright wig. The U.S. upset the heavily favored Colombians 2-1 that night in the Rose Bowl, one of the biggest wins in U.S. history, and now Bedoya will wear the Stars & Stripes on Friday when the U.S. meets Colombia in the opening game of the Copa América Centenario (9:30 p.m. ET, FS1, Univision).
“I’m really excited, man,” Bedoya said here on Thursday, not long after connecting on the phone with his mother to talk about it. “My family decided to make a group chat on my phone with all my family from Colombia on … It should be fun, but I hope we can get the win.”
U.S. captain Michael Bradley remembers, too. He was 6 on that famous night in ’94, watching the game on the family couch in Princeton, N.J., with his father, Bob, who would go on to coach his son in World Cup 2010. When the U.S. upset Colombia, the team Pelé had predicted would win the World Cup, young Michael hooted and hollered.
“I can recall a lot of the big national team games that have been played in the past when I’d be sitting on the couch watching,” Bradley said. “There was always a sense of pride, always a sense of: Man, I’d give anything for that to be me one day. Even as my career has progressed and I’m on the other side, it’s important to take a minute here and there to realize how lucky we are to be in the position that we are.”
No matter how many major summer soccer tournaments you’ve seen or played in, there’s always an extra something that you feel on the eve of a new one. A sense of possibility. An anticipation that never leaves you once you fall for this sport. This special Copa América isn’t the World Cup, but it feels like an occasion. By Thursday night, more than 64,000 tickets had been sold for the U.S.-Colombia game at Levi’s Stadium. Only 3,000 remained, and those figured to be snapped up before the opening whistle.
Friday is an opportunity for the U.S., a chance to back up some promising recent results with a victory that would start to put a brutal 2015 in the rear-view mirror. There’s excitement about young U.S. players like Bobby Wood and DeAndre Yedlin and Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic. But on a night like this, a stiff challenge against the world’s No. 3-ranked team, the guys to look toward will be veterans like Bedoya and Bradley.
Bradley, in particular, will need to be huge against the Colombians. In recent games, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has finally moved Bradley back to the No. 6 role, the defensive midfielder position that best suits Bradley’s traits and the one he plays at club level.
“I feel like I can give the team good things playing deep in that role,” Bradley said Thursday. “But ultimately Jurgen makes his decisions and does so with the best in mind for the team. I’m ready to do whatever is asked.”
Did Klinsmann ever ask Bradley what he thinks about where he should play? Bradley paused. “There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes.”
As Klinsmann put it Thursday, “Michael looked very good the last two friendly matches in that [deeper] role. Obviously it depends a lot on the opponents. If we have a team like Colombia it is challenging. It’s a very good team with very good individual players.”
If you look at the clubs where the Colombians play, you’d be impressed: Real Madrid (James Rodríguez), Arsenal (David Ospina), Juventus (Juan Cuadrado), AC Milan (Carlos Bacca, Cristián Zapata), Inter Milan (Jeison Murillo). The U.S. players don’t have that club pedigree. But the key to the U.S.’s success in big tournaments over the years—when the Americans have had it—is to be better than the sum of their parts. To be brutally hard to defeat. To have “that American thing,” as the former U.S. women’s coach Pia Sundhage, an admiring Swede, once described it.
The U.S. didn’t have that in last year’s Gold Cup. But it’s possible to recapture, and there would be no better time to start doing it than on Friday. There will be plenty of 7- and 8-year-olds watching, just like Bradley and Bedoya did 22 years ago, and thinking: Man, I’d give anything for that to be me one day.