Monday, June 16, 2014

How Will The 2002 USMNT Go Down In History?

With the US playing their first game in the World Cup today, I have been thinking a lot about the USMNT's recent past, especially since Landon Donovan's absence in this World Cup seems to be marking a generational change.  They have been a frustrating team to root for due to their inconsistency and inability to follow up on their successes.  It is perhaps fitting then, that I never felt better about this team than I did after a loss, rather than a victory.

My expectations about the USMNT going into the 2002 World Cup were pretty low.  After all, the American side had embarrassed itself in 1998, finishing the tournament 32 out of 32 teams, including a thrashing at the hands of lowly Iran.  That immediately changed in their first game in 2002, when they blew Portugal and its "golden generation" of stars out of the water.  I watched that game in complete disbelief as America put up three goals on a top European squad in the World Cup, something I never thought I would see.  In typical USMNT fashion, they only managed to tie the tenacious South Korean squad, and then lost badly to a weak Polish team.  The USMNT thus barely qualified for the elimination round, but happened to draw traditional rival Mexico.

Beating Mexico was exciting, but since the US had done so in qualifying, it did not seem so unprecedented, even though the US squad would be advancing to the quarterfinals for the first (and so far only) time.  Waiting in the quarterfinals was traditional powerhouse Germany.  This was not as powerful an iteration of the Mannschaft as what came before or the current squad of inspiring young stars, but the old machine would still manage to make it to the finals that year.

I was expecting the US team to get creamed.  Instead, they dominated the possession and pace of the game, but just couldn't score a goal.  When Tony Sanneh, who played an insane game, missed his open header near the end, my heart broke.  The loss made me sad, but the aftermath of the game made me feel proud, perhaps for the first time, of the USMNT.  Sanneh played in the Bundesliga against many of the players on the German side, and after the game they seemed to be consoling him, acknowledging that the US had been the better team.  After the game I remember German coach Rudi Voeller pretty much admitting as much himself.

That game, even though it was a loss, meant that the USMNT had finally arrived, and could hang with the biggest soccer powers in the world on the biggest stage.  At least that's how it felt at the time.  Then 2006 happened, and the team couldn't make it past the group stage.  It took a crazy, magical rushing goal by Landon Donovan to get the Americans to the elimination round in 2010.  With Klinsmann in as coach it seems that he is already looking to 2018 and has written 2014 off.  Was that run in 2002 just a one time, lucky shot, akin to the defeat of England in 1950?  Or was it the true beginning of the United States as a force to be reckoned with among the elite teams of the world?  These days it looks like the jury is still out on that one.  I hate to admit it, but I don't see a victory happening in this World Cup to match that last defeat in 2002, even today's breath-taking game.

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