Chris Henderson looked to one side and saw Franz Beckenbauer. The legendary defender had over 400 appearances for Bayern Munich and 104 caps for West Germany, with whom he won the 1974 FIFA World Cup. On the other side was Michel Platini, the French superstar who plied his trade scoring goals at will for Nancy, St. Etienne and Juventus and a European champion with France in 1984.
This was no typical trip to Las Vegas.
The year was 1993 and Henderson was with his U.S. National Team compatriots at Caesar’s Palace for the FIFA World Player Gala, at which the draw for the 1994 FIFA World Cup would take place. He had spent his life watching the world’s best play in World Cups and at that moment it dawned on him that the U.S. would face off with players of the same caliber as stars like Beckenbauer and Platini when it hosted the World Cup the following year.
“There are butterflies when you realize you’re going to play in that tournament and you’re part of something that’s the biggest thing on the planet,” Henderson said. “It’s a really exciting feeling.”
There, the 24 nations that qualified for the 1994 FIFA World Cup were put into four separate pots to determine the six groups for the Group Stage of the tournament, just as the 32 teams qualified for the 2014 FIFA World Cup will on Friday in Brazil.
Entered in a pot that included the five top teams in the world at the time of the draw, the U.S., as hosts, were assured at least of not being grouped with Germany, Argentina, Belgium, Brazil and Italy. That didn’t mean the draw would lack drama for the U.S., though.
“As they’re pulling out the balls, you have your list of the teams that you really don’t want to play, but in the World Cup, you never know,” Henderson said. “There are going to be the six or seven teams that you don’t want to meet no matter what and then after that it’s the teams who are in form and are confident.”
From Pot 2, featuring the top six remaining teams from Europe, the U.S. drew Romania. Pot 3, with the last four teams from Europe and two from Asia, brought Switzerland. And the final pot of teams from Africa, North America and South America drew Colombia.
While it wasn’t considered the dangerous “Group of Death,” the resulting draw was far from a cake walk, with Romania ranked No. 7 in the FIFA World Rankings, Switzerland at No. 12 and Colombia at No. 17.
Thus started a whirlwind few months of preparation for the biggest stage in sports.
“It’s so exciting for those guys. The research starts then,” said Henderson. “You get your opponents and you start to piece together how we’re going to break this team down and what our gameplan is. It’s really exciting.”
The U.S., ranked No. 23 prior to the World Cup, took advantage of its home field edge and still advanced to the Knockout Round in third place in the group at 1-1-1 before falling 1-0 to Brazil on July 4 in the Round of 16.
On Friday, the U.S. will be in Pot 3 along with Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, South Korea, Japan, Australia and Iran.
Pot 1 includes Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and Belgium. Pot 2 is Algeria, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Chile and Ecuador. And Pot 4 is Italy, Netherlands, England, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Russia, Portugal and France. One team from Pot 4 will be drawn into Pot 2, with safeguards to ensure that no Group includes three UEFA nations.
The draw will take place at 8:30 am PT on Friday in Brazil.