For an entire generation of American soccer fans, there are no words to truly describe what the 1994 World Cup meant.
It was a turning point that showed that soccer was finally a sport worth caring about and maybe, just maybe, a sport that can turn into a livelihood.
Oguchi Onyewu was a member of that generation, one that was captivated by what turned out to be a life-changing summer of soccer.
The American-born son of Nigerian immigrants, then-12-year-old Onyewu watched on as the world’s biggest tournament took place in the U.S., lighting a torch that he and a generation of U.S. men’s national team stars would eventually run with while lifting American soccer to new heights.
Right now, the U.S. is preparing for another one of those groundbreaking moments, and Onyewu believes that the impact this time around will make those old World Cup memories look like nothing more than a starting point.
In 2026, the World Cup will return to the U.S. as part of a three-way hosting split with neighbours Mexico and Canada.
Over 30 years after the game truly arrived on American soil, the 2026 tournament serves as a long-awaited sequel, and Onyewu believes that this one will prove an even bigger cultural phenomenon.
“Prior to that 1994 World Cup, I had no aspirations or dreams of being a professional soccer player in any way shape or form,” Onyewu tells Goal. “I didn’t even know playing professional soccer would be even possible or a lucrative career.
“Seeing the excitement around America, and seeing the excitement around the U.S. team, and me being from Nigeria seeing the excitement around different nations and their ethnicities and the pride, and the 1996 season of MLS that started and the explosion of soccer in this country up into what it is now, I think that 2026 will be a phase two of that.
“It will have even more of an impact because if you compare the interest of soccer in 1994 to the interest of soccer today in 2020, it’s night and day. So by comparison, the impact will also be night and day and it could be even more important for the development of the sport in this country.”
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Onyewu was a product of that 1994 World Cup, becoming an integral part of the USMNT for a decade. The former Newcastle, Standard Liege, AC Milan and Sporting C.P. defender earned 69 caps throughout his career, becoming a mainstay for the U.S. at the 2006 and 2010 World Cups.
And, as the U.S. prepares for the 2026 tournament, Onyewu is getting involved in a whole new way: he is now an ambassador for Baltimore’s bid to host in the 2026 tournament.
Baltimore is one of 17 cities vying to host matches during the tournament, but the only one that does not have an MLS franchise in the immediate vicinity.
Yet, Onyewu, who grew up in nearby Olney, Maryland, believes that the city, and the D.C, Maryland, Virginia area – affectionately known as the DMV – has proven to be a soccer hotbed that would embrace the beautiful chaos of a World Cup.
“I think that you have to take that, that terminology lightly: ‘soccer town’,” he insists. “If you look at Salt Lake City, Utah. would you say that’s more of a soccer town than Baltimore? Would you say that Kansas City is more of a soccer town than Baltimore? San Jose is more of a soccer town to Baltimore? I don’t think so.”
He added: “I do believe that this is gonna be awesome for [the younger] generation. It’s gonna be amazing to see the impact that it’s going to have and I’m excited to get the opportunity to tie Baltimore and my home state back into this. This will be, it could be, a legacy for the city and for the DMV for decades to come.”
While Onewyu is a former player and now an ambassador, he is also a fan. He was left disappointed by the USMNT’s failures to qualify last time around in 2019, robbing a group of players of the chance to have the experience in Russia that he did in Germany and South Africa.
As he looks on, Onyewu believes that this new generation will be unfairly asked to atone for those 2018 failures, and that they will have to prove that they’re good enough to overcome such pressures.
So far they have done just that. Americans are moving to Europe’s top teams more than ever before, with Christian Pulisic starring at Chelsea, Tyler Adams scoring Champions League-winners for RB Leipzig and Weston McKennie joining Juventus.
There are a handful of young Americans scattered throughout the world’s top leagues, and that gives Onyewu hope.
Perhaps the most inspiring part, he says, is their youth. This, in theory, will be a group that sticks together for years to come, through 2022 in Qatar and, hopefully, 2026 on home soil.
“I really believe that they have an immense amount of talent in that pool and they are young,” he says. “So one thing with talent, when you’re young you don’t have the experience yet, and I think right now they’re learning the experience.
“Hopefully they will bring back much-needed know-how to the national team program in some way, shape, or form, and then we can push this forward.
“Let’s be honest – with the national team, it’s not getting older anytime soon, right? They have years to grow into each other until they’re able to gel into what we expect them to become.”
If that happens, the current generation will get to experience moments like Onyewu, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, and DaMarcus Beasley did throughout their decorated careers.
And, just like the 1994 team-inspired Onyewu and how Onyewu’s team inspired this group, perhaps they will be the ones that usher in the new generation.
“The current generation of national team players and, realistically the current generation of all players right now, haven’t known America without an MLS, they haven’t known the United States without a professional league,” he said. “And so their interest is already there, to bring back that excitement of a World Cup.
“There’s nothing like a World Cup, I don’t even know if I can explain it to you because I was the player in two of them in Germany and South Africa and there is nothing that can emulate the excitement around a World Cup.
“I think that that’s going to just ignite that soccer love, even more so than it is now.”