“Tainted” is how Eric Wynalda now describes USA’s 2-1 win over Colombia at the 1994 FIFA World Cup™. What should have been a joyful celebration of football taking root in the States has, as the US stalwart’s description acknowledges, become synonymous instead with the fateful own goal and subsequent murder of Andres Escobar.

“As a team, we were very hesitant to talk about that game for that reason,” admitted Wynalda. “We didn’t want to dishonour him.”

However, while the Escobar tragedy put football firmly in perspective, it should still be reflected that this match was a momentous milestone on the road to America embracing the beautiful game. Wynalda could certainly understand why Alan Rothenberg, US Soccer’s then president, hailed it at the time as the “biggest game so far in our history”.

“I think it may have been the turning point,” the former forward told mlssoccer.com. “I think the starting point was when [Paul] Caligiuri scored in Trinidad [to qualify the US for the 1990 World Cup]. But the turning point for Americans accepting the sport was the Colombia game. It was just real. The US was not just participating; we were enjoying some success for the first time.”

Nor was it success against just anyone. Colombia had, after all, come into the tournament as one of the favourites, and had been tipped by Pele to take home the trophy. Justifying such hype was a qualifying campaign that included a legendary 5-0 hammering of Argentina – achieved during a 28-game unbeaten streak – and star players such as Carlos Valderrama and Faustino Asprilla at the peak of their powers.

USA’s victory, though, was not only hard-earned but thoroughly deserved, and the image captured here emphasises just how much it meant to those involved. As for the player at the bottom of this pile-up, that was Earnie Stewart - the man whose 52nd-minute goal put the hosts 2-0 up in front of a delirious 93,689 Rose Bowl crowd.

“If you watch Earnie’s celebration, he turns into an eight-year-old kid,” said Wynalda. “It’s just pure joy. Some of us were like, ‘Stay here, stay here, take the yellow card, I can’t breathe.’ I honestly felt like we weren’t going to be able to play just because we exerted more energy in the celebration than we did playing.”

Such was the emotion of the occasion, and weight of bodies piling on top of him, that Stewart himself remembers little of the goal that made him a hero. “I remember there was a pile and I couldn’t get any air on the bottom of that pile and it was so tremendously hot,” he said. “And the day after, I remember doing my laundry. That’s pretty much it.”

But while his memories may be sketchy, Stewart has a keen appreciation of the game’s significance for football in the US. “For us American players, it was a dream come true to be able to play an opponent like that,” said the former Willem II and DC United midfielder. “To get a major upset like that in the manner that we did was great. And for the rest of the world at the time, it showed that America had to be reckoned with.”

Did know you know?
Among the items in the USA 1994 exhibit at the FIFA World Football Museum in Zurich are $1 and $5 coins with the tournament logo – part of a commemorative series that has proved popular with collectors.