Eric Wynalda faced the Russian national team in its various incarnations four times in the course of his 106-cap international career. "Every time we played, it seemed like their jerseys had something different emblazoned on them," he remembered. "First they were CCCP [The Soviet Union]. Then it was CIS for Commonwealth of Independent States. Finally, their shirt said nothing and just had a patch on it."
The disintegration of the Iron Curtain may have catalyzed a hasty period of Soviet rebranding, but the challenge the team posed on the field stayed the same. "The players were machines," Wynalda recalled. "Everything about the Drago character in the Rocky movies was rooted in truth. On the field, this team was so well drilled, they looked like an army playing soccer."
Since it first played the Soviets in 1979, the United States men's national team has undergone such a radical transformation, it is almost as if the name on its jerseys has been the one constant. The bedraggled bunch of no-hopers sent out by a coach whose pregame instructions were to "Go out there and don't get beat too badly!" has evolved into a regional power. The 10 games the U.S. has played against Russia in its various guises serve as both a prism to glimpse this change, and an alternative history of the last days of the Soviet Union. (The latest chapter in this rivalry will take place Wednesday in Moscow. Here's a primer; watch on ESPN2 at 10 a.m. ET.)
NO MIRACLE ON ICE
The two sides first clashed in a February 1979 doubleheader back in the days when the North American Soccer League (NASL) was flying high, and the first Major Indoor Soccer League had just begun to flourish. The twin matches, held in Seattle and San Francisco, were meant to be friendlies, but legendary U.S. captain Rick Davis remembers them as anything but. "The games took place against a backdrop of the arms race, nuclear stockpiling, and disarmament talks so we were all aware the Soviets stood for the opposite of everything the United States represented." In Davis' words, the buildup was "tense," an atmosphere which lifted only briefly when the Soviets were offered free pairs of Levi's. "To us, the game felt like a battle between communism and democracy, with both teams trying to prove which way of life was better."
But the Americans also hoped the games would offer a massive marketing opportunity. "We had seen what a huge deal it had been when [the American] Bobby Fischer had played [the Soviet] Boris Spassky at chess," Davis said. "Our greatest dream back then was to have soccer gain wider acceptance in America and no longer be dismissed as an immigrant or foreign game. We sensed these two games could engage patriotic Americans who did not understand soccer but who were all too familiar with the storyline of the U.S. against the Soviet Union. So [we] really wanted to go out and stick it to our rivals."
That did not come to pass. The U.S. was humbled, losing both games comprehensively. In Seattle, a crowd of 13,317 that included Henry Kissinger watched the Americans be outplayed. Sports Illustrated gamely attempted to put a positive spin on the result, suggesting the U.S. "held the highly favored Soviet national team to a 3-1 win," but the American players knew they had been outclassed.
Arnie Mausser, the United States' Ridgewood, Queens-bred goalkeeper, experienced a sense of wonder as the Soviets took to the field. "They were immense," he said. At 6-foot-5, Mausser was no shrinking violet, but he was forced to admit, "When this diverse group of players including Ukrainians, Georgians and Kazakhstanis lined up, it dawned on us we were about to confront an entire continent."
It took 19 minutes for the Soviets to take the lead, Lokomotiv Moscow's Valery Petrakov volleying home from distance. Mausser described the game succinctly: "They spent most of the match knocking the ball around us with comfort." Yugoslav-American midfielder Boris Bandov admitted to deriving small pleasures wherever he could find them. "Having been born in Split, I did not like the Soviets, so I spent the game running around and trying to put extra bite into my tackles."
The president of the Soviet Soccer Federation, Boris Fedosov, was diplomatic in victory, hailing his vanquished American foes as "boys who are very brave and full of heart," while predicting "America is obviously going to be a major force in this sport." But the U.S. players remained dubious. Davis still refers to the game as a "rude awakening." "I realized the Soviets had a sophistication we lacked because they were playing the game as kids in parks on school teams and in the streets," he said. "They had elite club teams. We were just a strange collection of varying styles and levels -- professionals and amateurs from the college game, outdoors professional league, and indoor soccer -- literally pieced together."
Bandov, who had mastered the game at the Hajduk Split youth academy and made his way into the NASL alongside English stars Harry Redknapp and Geoff Hurst at the Seattle Sounders, agreed the team's problems were structural. "We had a lot of very technical ethnic players who were really very good but the reality was the U.S. Soccer Federation had no money," Bandov said. "They would fly the players in on match day and have no practice. We'd just meet in the locker room and play without tactics and most of the guys not even in their best positions."
Davis was a case in point. Widely recognized as the greatest player of his generation, he became the only American-born starter on the vaunted New York Cosmos as a self-described defensive-midfield "grunter." "On the national team, we were so desperate for a goal scorer they would play me up front even though I am not a goal scorer," he said, laughing. "I need eight to 10 opportunities to get one to go in, and that one would normally come when I mishit it, but the coaches had no one else to rely on."
Mausser, who would later be scouted by Chelsea, was stark in his conclusion. "Ultimately, even our own soccer federation never expected us to win. We wanted so desperately to prove them wrong because they were such a nickel-and-dime operation they would tell us before the games, 'Just keep the loss respectable -- a 4-0 or 5-0 -- and whatever you do make sure you give us your jerseys back.'" he said. "They were obsessed with the jerseys because they only had one set. They worried about the equipment much more than the score."
Davis still mourns the games as a "missed opportunity on our part." "Chess had its Soviet moment, hockey did too. If we had won, it could have been a magical time for American soccer that could have borne a lot of opportunity." When asked if this frustrates him, David said, "I am not one of those people who feels like they did not get their due. But did our generation get acknowledged for their pioneering efforts? Probably not."
THE RUSSIANS LOVE THEIR FOOTBALL TOO
By the time the U.S. played its first game on Russian soil on Aug. 17, 1991, the Soviet empire was on the verge of collapse. Lenin Stadium, in Moscow, was just one stop on a monthlong European tour organized by new U.S. coach Bora Milutinovic. Janusz Michallik, who had launched his pro career in the indoor league with the Cleveland Force, was part of the squad. "Preparing for the 1994 World Cup was like an endless tour, but this month on the road was a real eye-opener," he said. "Bora had just taken over and he wanted us to bond as a team and learn how each of us could handle the challenge of a long trip."
Wynalda recalled the experience as being both physically and mentally arduous. "We had to spend a week in Moscow when it was really suffering the worst time economically. We were staying in an awful hotel near Red Square. We had seen everything there was to see, and been to the market to stock up on as many Gorbachev matryoshka dolls as we could carry. We ended up training hard twice a day out of boredom."
"Many of the squad members had not traveled outside the U.S. before," Michallik said. "They were taken aback by the difference between the East and the West. I had been born in Poland and Bora had been born in Yugoslavia, so we were used to the hardship. We would laugh together as the guys spent their time complaining about the food and the hotel beds."
"Soviet tanks were about to roll through Red Square in a coup attempt against Gorbachev. Everyone knew it apart from the U.S. team. They were just waiting for us to leave. We were too young and too stupid to know we were in harm’s way." – Wynalda on the U.S.'s 1991 trip to Russia.
"We were a bunch of spoiled brat American kids who could not understand how these people could get through the day without cable television or video games," Wynalda said. But he also marveled at the extent to which Milutinovic revered his opponents. "Bora's attitude to these kind of games was one of pure respect, almost to the point it seemed he did not believe we belonged there. Before the Russian game, he tried to make an analogy through a translator -- 'To be successful in Formula One you have to be both a great driver and have to have a great car.' Then he stared into space, waited a beat, and continued, 'I am a great driver, but right now I do not have a very good car.'"
Wynalda was ultimately substituted after 53 minutes and had to watch his team get overpowered 2-1 by a young Soviet team that forced Tony Meola into making 10 saves. "I remember sitting out there and looking around the stadium, seeing everyone, even the guys on the sideline smoking away. The crowd was angry," said Wynalda. "They wanted to beat us so badly. In my mind, the game is inextricably linked to a decade of watching the Soviets in the Olympics at which they had appeared invincible."
On the way back to the airport, the U.S. got a sense of the unrest that gripped the city. "I asked our liaison what was going on but he just stared straight ahead in silence," Wynalda said. "In truth, Soviet tanks were about to roll through Red Square in a coup attempt against Gorbachev. Everyone knew it apart from the U.S. team. They were just waiting for us to leave. We were too young and too stupid to know we were in harm’s way."
Wynalda did not have to wait long to create more positive memories against these opponents. In February 1992, the newly constituted Commonwealth of Independent States, a short-lived confederation representing 12 of the 15 republics that had formerly been feared as the Soviet Union, traveled to the U.S. The Americans gleaned their first and only win in a game held on the artificial turf of Detroit's Pontiac Silverdome. In this game, Wynalda's goal (it's worth watching just to hear Bob Costas struggling with the CIS's new name) came off a clinical set piece, but the American striker remembers it predominantly for the deceit which made it possible. "I was being marked by a guy who was all over me," he said. "I remember thinking I was never going to lose him. So I started a conversation with his teammate in English and he just looked at me as if I was crazy. For a second he was distracted and just as he began to tell me, 'I no speak your language,' I took off toward the near post and flicked the ball into the net."
"Beating the Russians gave us an immense source of pride," Wynalda added. "We had watched a lot of their games on tape and just hoped we could hang with them. At the end of the game I made sure to shake each of their hands and look them straight in the eye because, although they were hard as rocks and they kicked you, they always laughed at the end and patted you on the back. When we exchanged jerseys, I remember wondering why we had ever thought they were so bad."
Rick Davis knows the answer. "Soccer erases barriers," he said. "For the 90 minutes we played them, the Soviets stopped being a mortal enemy. One of the most beautiful things about soccer is that when you bring out a ball and start playing, all politics, sanctions and differences in worldview fall away."
Roger Bennett is a columnist for ESPN and, with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland's "Men In Blazers." Follow him on Twitter: @rogbennett.