CHICAGO - The Copa America may be a new thing to many American soccer fans, but it is not a new thing for the U.S. national team.

One of the great chapters in American soccer history was written at the 1995 edition of the tournament. A team that included Union sporting director Earnie Stewart and assistant coach Mike Sorber shocked the world with a run to fourth place.

Even though 21 years have gone by, both men have vivid memories of the history they made in the small Uruguay town of Paysandu, near the border with Argentina.

Stewart, Sorber, and many other players on the U.S. team also took part in the 1994 World Cup. But while the World Cup received lots of attention, the Copa America got almost none.

"People thought we were going to Mars," Sorber said. "Nobody understood how good of a team we had, or the opponents that we were playing against, or how well we played."

Although fans back home didn't get it, fans in South America did. The Americans beat Chile, 2-1; lost to Bolivia, 1-0; then stunned Argentina, 3-0, to take first place in their group.

Argentina was so confident about beating the U.S. team that coach Daniel Passarella rested stars Diego Simeone and Gabriel Batistuta to start the game. The move backfired spectacularly.

"We were kind of ticked off that they had left those players off the field," Stewart said. "We had something to prove."

After the game, Argentine legend Diego Maradona came down from the stadium's VIP section to congratulate the American players.

In the quarterfinals, the United States beat perennial rival Mexico. The contest was fierce but scoreless, with the Americans prevailing on penalty kicks.

"Mexico brings out the best and the worst in us at the same time, and I'm pretty sure that's [true] for them too," Stewart said.

The next two games were rematches of big games from the 1994 World Cup.

First up was Brazil in the semifinals. As with the 1994 contest, the game ended in a 1-0 Brazil victory. But the score didn't tell the full story. Stewart thought it was the Americans' best performance of the tournament.

"That gave us a feeling that we had progressed as individuals and as a team going forward" since the year before, Stewart said.

After losing to Brazil, the U.S. team faced Colombia in the third-place game. The Americans' 2-1 win at the Rose Bowl in '94 was still fresh, as was a scoreless draw at Rutgers a few weeks before the Copa.

This game was nothing like those. A tired and injured American squad got hammered, 4-1, by a star-studded Colombian team led by Carlos Valderrama and Faustino Asprilla.

"We weren't up for the task after that game we played [against Brazil], and they took it to us," Stewart said.

Despite the bad ending, the tournament as a whole remains a high-water mark for American soccer. And as the Copa America now plays out on U.S. shores for the first time, Stewart is thrilled to see a new generation of fans - including those in his new hometown - learn about its bright spotlight.

"You have the World Cup and then you have the [traditional] Copa America and the European Championships [as] big tournaments in the world," Stewart said. "This is not any different."

@thegoalkeeper