USMNT stars of old recall their maiden World Cup memories: 'Soak it in, because you never know'

For most players, the World Cup is the zenith of their career. The chance to represent your country on one of the biggest stages the sport has to offer is an experience that isn't easily replicated. And while the Champions League sucks up plenty of oxygen around the game and elevates players to legend status in its own way, the fact that the World Cup happens once every four years makes for a unique atmosphere and memories that linger long after an edition of the tournament is done.

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That is especially true for players from the United States, a country whose tortured relationship with the game has added to the difficulty of the journey. Here's a look back at what it was like for players to take part in their first -- and for some, only -- World Cup, and how the sense of achievement can grow over time.

Eric Wynalda | 1990

The 1990 World Cup was notable for the U.S. in that it marked its first successful qualification campaign in 40 years. And it was a wet-behind-the-ears side that ventured to Italy to take part. The team was sequestered at the Olympic training center in Pisa. For 20-year-old Eric Wynalda, that made for a shock as the team bus got closer to Florence's Stadio Comunale and its game against Czechoslovakia.

"We were just training out in the middle of nowhere, and the only time that we knew the World Cup was going on was when we saw it on TV," he said. "We didn't have a feel for it. So the overload when we got to the first game was a little bit too much for us, because it was like, 'Oh my god, this is real.'"

That was the case with Wynalda most of all. He was sent off seven minutes into the second half for pushing Czechoslovakian midfielder Jozef Chovanec after getting his foot stomped on.

Wynalda said he actually should have been sent off before that, such was the way he was going about his business. Prior to that, he made a tackle from behind that in this day of age would have been a red card.

"When we played against the Czechs, I was a mad. I went to war," he said. "I didn't know. I stopped playing soccer because I thought this was some sort of fight, and soccer really was the secondary component of it.

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"They saw that I was angry. They saw that I was acting out. They were all on alert. And I got baited. I got baited like the rookie that I was."

Wynalda was forced to watch the American's respectable 1-0 defeat to hosts Italy from the bench, before coming on as a sub in the group-stage finale against Austria, a 2-1 defeat. It meant Wynalda had to come home carrying the shame of getting red-carded, but the experience proved formative for players who ended up forming the backbone of the 1994 team.

"I think in that World Cup, two things happened," he said. "We were reminded how far we have to go. And then some guys said that was it. That was the pinnacle. But then there was John [Harkes], Tab [Ramos], Marcelo [Balboa] and myself who were like, 'We want more.' We got a taste of it. And then it became an obsession for us. At least it did for me."

Cobi Jones | 1994

There was much that was special for the U.S. in the 1994 World Cup. There was the joy of playing a World Cup in your home country. There was also the thrill of performing well enough to reach the knockout stages.

But for Jones, what stands out is what came before. While a few U.S. players like Ramos, Harkes and Wynalda were playing in Europe, manager Bora Milutinovic built the bulk of the team through a residency camp over multiple years, many of whom had never played for a professional club. Jones emerged from the college program at UCLA to make the final roster.

"The World Cup isn't just the month," Jones said. "It's the whole buildup for it. There was a lot of time and effort where everything else in your life gets put to the side. We did double days for a good year, and a few months. So imagine that every single day, for months at a time, where you get maybe one or two days off. So it was difficult. But it did culminate in an experience that can't compare to anything else."

For Jones, the fact that he made the final roster was the best kind of gift, in that it was unexpected. And he parleyed that into a super-sub role with the U.S., coming off the bench in all three group-stage games before starting the round of 16 defeat against Brazil on the Fourth of July.

"I never thought that I was going to be a soccer player. So to make the highest heights at 23, 24 was an amazing accomplishment for myself," Jones said. "And it's something that seems so surreal and you don't know a whole lot about it. What I've learned in the last few years, kind of like with myself and my family, we're just going, 'Look how amazing this is.'"

What also made an impression was the support the tournament received from fans throughout, even if the U.S. wasn't playing.

"It was definitely a joy to see the U.S. fan base come out," Jones said. "It's probably something that I appreciated much more later on, because I had the comparisons just to see how great an event that it was, that a country that wasn't considered a soccer country could support an event like this and had the most successful World Cup."

Brian Maisonneuve | 1998

World Cups come around so seldom that sometimes all a player gets is one shot. And on occasion, getting there can involve an unseen cost. So it proved for Maisonneuve.

There was plenty that was forgettable about the 1998 World Cup for the U.S. team. A side that generated increased expectations during the cycle thanks to a respectable fourth-place showing at the 1995 Copa America completely imploded during the tournament, losing all three games amid finger-pointing and backbiting.

As one of the younger players on the team, Maisonneuve did what he could to tune that out. He put himself in the frame for the World Cup in early 1998 and performed well enough, especially in a 3-0 road win over Austria, to convince coach Steve Sampson to bring him to France.

"I think that might have been my third or fourth cap," Maisonneuve recalled. "[Sampson] said, 'We're going to bring you along.' I can remember him telling me, and I was obviously on cloud nine."

But it came at a cost.

"I got injured in January, it was either take the time off and heal my ankle properly, or possibly make the World Cup team," he said. "And it kind of was the beginning of the end for my career because that injury stayed with me and then it ate away my tendons."

Maisonneuve saw plenty of the field during France '98, starting games against Germany and Yugoslavia. As for the Iran game, he said he barely paid attention to the heavy political overtones that accompanied the match, or the inter-team chaos that surrounded him. He was also a footnote during that debacle that was a 2-1 defeat, when Sampson asked him to operate as a hybrid center-back/holding midfielder.

"I've never played in the back line," he recalled.

Maisonneuve was an alternate for the 2002 World Cup, and that was as close as he came to getting a shot at another World Cup, as the ankle injury took a heavy toll. Not that he has any regrets.

"I wouldn't have done it any other way," he said. "To play in a World Cup, it probably cut my career short, but it was a dream come true to play in a World Cup."

John O'Brien | 2002

O'Brien's World Cup debut couldn't have been more impactful. With less than four minutes elapsed on the clock of the Americans' opener against Portugal, the U.S. midfielder pounced on a loose ball in the box and fired home his side's opener in what would become a memorable 3-2 win.

"It just set me onto a different planet," O'Brien said about the goal. "First World Cup game for me in there, we were playing well against Portugal. They put some heat on us at times, but we're getting some chances. And then just to have that relief, that satisfaction of the ball actually going across the goal line and into the net. It kind of really opened me up, all my chakras for playing."

The 2002 World Cup was the first to be held in Asia, as it was cohosted by Japan and South Korea. The locale did plenty to push teams out of their comfort zone, and that vibe carried through to the U.S., as it reached the quarterfinals before falling to Germany 1-0.

"It was strange,' O'Brien said about playing in Japan and Korea. "Being in Asia, the football culture, I wasn't familiar with a lot of it, so it just felt kind of like you're in this different place, and anything could happen there."

Plenty of things did for the U.S., and O'Brien. His superb passing and composure on the ball were viewed as critical to the U.S. team's quarterfinal run. As such, he recalled that the Netherlands didn't qualify for the tournament, and given that he was playing for Dutch powerhouse Ajax at the time, he returned to his club with everyone, including himself, looking at him in a different light.

"I go back to Holland and I'm in a different stratosphere compared to when I left," he said. "I go back and it's like people had been following me, definitely when I was in Korea. I had noticed that I was doing quite a few interviews in Dutch and from Dutch media. It kind of just boosted me up in a way where people saw me as a different-level player. And I think also I grew a lot as a player just from that tournament. I felt way more comfortable with tight games and pressure games. So I noticed myself really bump up in a real kind of cool way."

Oguchi Onyewu | 2006

Asked what it was like to play in his first World Cup, Onyewu deadpans, "You know, it was something on the bucket list." And then he erupts in laughter. "It was incredible."

Onyewu had been a youth international teammate of both Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, and to see them excel at the 2002 World Cup provided plenty of motivation. But he gives credit to then-U.S. manager Bruce Arena for bringing him into the team slowly, and getting him used to the environment.

"When I did have my opportunity, I wasn't caught off guard," he said.

By the end of the cycle he was a mainstay for both the U.S. and club side Standard Liege. That doesn't mean there weren't some butterflies when he took the field in the opener against the Czech Republic.

"It's the culmination of a lot of things," he said. "You're definitely nervous. You're at the biggest stage, the pinnacle of your sport."

It proved to be a difficult competition for the U.S., which couldn't match some incredibly high expectations heading into the tournament. And Onyewu found himself on the receiving end of a controversial penalty decision that proved to be the difference in a 2-1 loss to Ghana.

"If there was ever a need for VAR, this was the need for VAR," he said. "That penalty definitely deflated some of our sails. To say it was a wrong call is an understatement, but this is how it goes."

Onyewu still took away some positive memories. There was the 1-1 draw with eventual champions Italy. There was also the level of support the team received, with U.S. fans adding to the atmosphere.

"The stadiums were fantastic. The fan support was fantastic. The fan zones were amazing," he said.

What strikes Onyewu now is how much the game has evolved in the U.S. since then. In 2006, he was 24 and considered young.

"Now the average age is younger than 24," he said.

That said, Onyewu believes that what was true in 2006 is still true today, that American soccer culture has a long way to go.

"We're getting there, and if you want to be any country in terms of accelerating the process, you'd want to be America, because that's what we do well, we accelerate processes in sport," he said. "And that's what you're seeing with the MLS in terms of its global visibility in terms of the market valuation of its clubs. They definitely injected it with steroids to be able to get to where it is right now. But with all that said, I do think the global American knowledge of the sport cannot mirror the rest of the world's global knowledge of the sport simply because we don't have the history behind it yet."

Herculez Gomez | 2010

If there was ever a player playing with house money, it was Gomez. We're talking about a player who played in zero World Cup qualifiers and had been in just a smattering of camps. A stellar run of form with club side Puebla, plus a goal in a friendly against the Czech Republic right before the roster was named, was enough to get him on the plane to South Africa.

"It was just a 'happy to be there' type of thing," Gomez said. "But I don't think I appreciated it as much for what it really was."

There were moments, though, like when he started the group-stage finale against Algeria.

"The walkout in the tunnel, and then it's singing the national anthem, and as I collect myself and look around as I'm singing the national anthem, it's a packed stadium, and I think to myself like, 'Holy f---, I'm in a World Cup,'" he said. "That kind of hit me."

Gomez recalled that the U.S. was in its own bubble, staying at a lodge between Johannesburg and Pretoria.

"Back then, social media was just kicking off. It was 2010, so Twitter was barely around," he said. "You had the lodge and you can do the activities there; to the bus, to the training, to the stadium and back. So it didn't feel grand-esque. There were a few moments where it felt so big. And now that I'm on this side of the coin working for media and I've gotten to cover a World Cup, you realize how massive of an event it is. And I feel like as a player a lot, it gets lost because you don't see it."

It ended up being a successful tournament for the U.S. The epic win against Algeria still gets the goosebumps going. Not even the round of 16 loss to Ghana could erase that.

"I think every player is pretty much, 'Just get me on the field. I played a World Cup.' That's it," he said. "So you want to get on the field and once it's over, you're trying to take it game by game. But once there's no games left, it's like a strange, empty feeling at first. 'What now?' And then it's a sense of pride. You're bummed, but you're excited and emotional about what you just experienced."

Jermaine Jones | 2014

Sometimes the path to a World Cup is meandering. Jones was a youth international for Germany, the country of his birth, and even appeared in three friendlies for Die Nationalmannschaft. But when it became clear he wasn't in the plans of Germany manager Joachim Low, Jones opted for the U.S., for whom he was eligible through his father. There was hope that he would be part of the 2010 effort, but a shin injury ruled him out.

"I was like, 'OK, now you're getting older. Let's see if you can make one," he said.

Jones did, but it almost didn't happen. He was diagnosed with a double hernia early in 2014, but decided to soldier on.

"It's really painful. You play on the medicine, so you to cannot really train and you try to keep it calm," he said. "I played in 2014 because I don't miss that [World Cup], I knew that would be my last chance. And so I just went and enjoyed the whole tournament and I think you were able to see it because yeah, I just did everything I had to do."

Indeed. One would have never guessed his pain given the goal Jones scored in a 2-2 draw with Portugal, a sumptuous strike from 26 yards that gave the U.S. a massive jolt of adrenalin and reminded fans just how much he cared about playing for the U.S.

"When you look back as a kid, you treat it like, 'Oh, one day I want to play in this stadium. One day I want to play for my country. One day I want to play in the World Cup," he said. "It's kids' dreams, you know? And then, you're at the point where you're there, and you stand there in the stadium and then you score goals. It's where it's changing completely people's lives, where people are saying, 'Hey, you made my day on that. I know where I was exactly.' Everybody has a different story about it."

Jones was in New York on the day that the 2022 U.S. roster was announced. His advice was simple.

"I told all the guys, 'Congrats, and now it's time to enjoy it,'" he said. "Don't see it like, 'Oh, I have to do this or I have to do that.' Just be yourself and it can be a lifetime experience. Some people, they just have the chance to go to one. Many are lucky and can go to two or more. But the moment you're there, soak it in, because you never know."