Henderson recalls USMNT match with former USSR in 1991

The U.S. National Team narrowly avoided a difficult situation when its match against Ukraine on Wednesday was moved from Kiev, where a political firestorm has left the country in turmoil, to Cyprus.

The move wasn’t the first time that the U.S. team found itself in close proximity to political unrest, though.

Back in 1991, the U.S. was playing against the U.S.S.R. in Moscow on August 17. Staying at a hotel in Red Square, the team spent the days leading up to the match doing all of the sight-seeing and visiting the attractions in the area.

After a 2-1 defeat, the team prepared the next day to fly to Austria for another friendly soon after. However, in the time before leaving Moscow, Chris Henderson and some of his teammates decided to walk around Red Square again and take in the sights and sounds of the city.

This time, the streets weren’t as open and clear as they were just days earlier.

“The whole square was full of military,” said Henderson, now the Sporting Director of Sounders FC. “We had no idea what was going on, but we knew something was going on. It didn’t look like it was just an exercise.”

Henderson and his teammates had a representative from the KGB with them while they walked around, but he didn’t know what was happening either and the soldiers he asked also didn’t know why they were deployed to that area.

Later that night, the team flew to Austria and when they arrived to their hotel they were greeted with messages streaming into the hotel operator coming from friends and family back in the U.S. who were all wondering if they got out of the Soviet Union safely.

In the hours after the national team departed for Austria, a coup d’état erupted in Moscow, creating havoc in Red Square, where Henderson and his teammates had stood hours earlier.

“We turned on the tv and saw everything that was happening,” Henderson said. “It was amazing to be there and see the difference in one day what Red Square looked like.”

Unlike the current situation in Ukraine, the U.S. players were none the wiser to anything that might have disrupted their match or travel from Moscow.

“It wasn’t scary. It was a nice day and the soldiers seemed kind of relaxed,” Henderson said. “It was after we left and saw it on TV that we were thinking, ‘I was standing right there.’ It’s amazing to look back and see that we were there at such a volatile time. You try not to think of sports and politics together, but there are some times that it just happens and you’re part of a huge moment in the history of a country.”

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