ussoccer.com: What’s the question you are most tired of answering?
Kyle Beckerman: How long have you been growing your dreads? (laughs) The answer is seven or eight years.
ussoccer.com: You’ve been a part of this qualifying campaign from start to finish. What have been your impressions overall?
KB: “First off, it’s been a lot of fun. There have been really enjoyable challenges, from going to Antigua and playing in the monsoon to coming and playing in Salt Lake in front of our home crowd. It’s been a really cool journey and one I’ll never forget.”
ussoccer.com: A new coach and new cycle brings different challenges. Now two years in, how would you say you have been impacted?
KB: “Going through this always teaches you a little bit about the competition we have in this region. This round has shown that the other countries in CONCACAF are getting stronger. For me, I just have more experience now than I did before.
ussoccer.com: Your roles with Real Salt Lake and the National Team are somewhat different. How do you deal with the transition of moving between different environments?
KB: “The biggest thing for me is the similarities that I’m going to bring to Salt Lake and here, and that’s going in every day and training or playing with the same intensity, the same energy, and really bringing it. No matter if you’re the captain, the biggest leader or a newcomer, it goes a long way. That’s what I try to do, especially coming in here. More than anything, it’s working hard and putting it in every day. When you come into the National Team, the quality of play is amazing, and that’s what makes it so much fun.
ussoccer.com: Jurgen always says that’s why you are a guy he wants to call in all the time, saying you bring it every day and are a ‘pure giver’. It’s been the case in the last two years that for as many times as you’ve played, you’ve also come in and not gotten time. How do you manage to continue to bring the same intensity, energy and attitude?
KB: “I’ve realized you can only control what you can control. For me, that means my effort and what I give every day. If I’m not playing, I’m not going to sit there and pout. I’m going to try and go to practice and make it tougher on the guys who are playing so when they get to the game it’s easier for them. If I’m playing, it’s to get ready to make the job of the guys around me easier. It’s not hard – it’s the National Team, and it’s an honor any time you get to be part of the squad. For my mindset, it’s just to be ready no matter what your role is. I want to be ready for whatever comes my way.”
ussoccer.com: That seems like an easy approach, but that also takes a mental strength not every player is able to maintain. Where does that mentality come from for you?
KB: “It comes from my parents and the way they raised me and my brother. Also, being involved in wrestling growing up and doing that and soccer side by side was huge. The discipline that came with wrestling is still something that has stayed with me.”
ussoccer.com: You’ve been known to break out a guitar or ukulele on some of these trips. What attracts you to playing music?
KB: “First off, I like music. I really enjoy listening to it. I look at it almost like a language. It’s cool the more you practice and the more you speak it, you become better and more comfortable. It’s a good hobby to have. It’s similar to golf for me where people play for a really long time and keep getting better and better.”
ussoccer.com: You’ve also been asked a lot if the World Cup is a like a carrot dangling in front of you. Doesn’t the answer seem obvious?
KB: “It does. I get asked ‘when do you think about the World Cup the most, and I say ‘when people ask me about it.’ With our sport, you always have to do the next thing. If you win one game, you have to be ready to win the next. If you get one call up, you have to try to get the next one. A lot of people who don’t follow soccer don’t understand you always have to prove yourself to get called in. You start to think that now the World Cup is getting closer since we’ve qualified, it’s right around the corner. But it’s still quite a long way away, so it’s something you stick in the back of your mind. It’s exciting when you think maybe I could be on that team, but there is so much work to be done still, and that’s what keeps me from thinking about it too much.”
ussoccer.com: Before we sat down, we were talking about World Cup preparation plans and you said ‘I have to get there first.’ Does the fact that you were in the mix last time around and didn’t make it keep you from looking too far ahead?
KB: “I guess it’s because I’ve never been this close to making it. For a while, the National Team was really done for me, and I didn’t think it was going to come back. When Jurgen came and it was a second chance, I wanted to run with it and really take advantage of the opportunity put in front of me. It’s the unknown, so I don’t want to get ahead of myself and say I’m going to be there, but at the same time I also want to have the possibility in the back of my mind. This is what we are all working so hard for.”
The U.S. Men’s National Team rode a shock opening win against fourth-ranked Portugal, a draw against the host Korea Republic and a little help from the goalposts to advance to the Round of 16 at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
Finishing second in the group meant that the MNT would have less than three full days rest to turn around and face regional rivals Mexico in the highest stakes match the two nations had ever played. With little time to prepare, in some respects the U.S. was lucky to have drawn the team with which it was most familiar.
Despite the U.S. having won four of the previous five meetings, according to U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, when the team arrived at Jeonju World Cup Stadium that June afternoon, there wasn’t much respect shown from the opposition side.
“Before the game we walked out and we were walking around the field. We had this focus and concentration as a team as you do preparing for any game,” the former team captain told ussoccer.com. “I was with Eddie Lewis, Frankie Hejduk, Gregg Berhalter and Earnie Stewart and we were ready to go – we were foaming at the mouth for this game. We looked over and the Mexicans were laughing, joking and looking at us…That was it.”
Reyna called the team over to quickly finish their pre-game pitch inspection and head back into the locker room.
“We sort of wanted the game to start, we were so ready to go,” he continued. “Back in the locker room, I remember saying, ‘These guys are laughing at us. They think they’re going to beat us easily.’”
Mexico had done efficient work to get to that point. Having finished with seven points atop a group that featured Italy, Croatia and Ecuador, El Tri’s run to the Round of 16 had the side brimming with self-assurance ahead of the match.
“They were feeling confident, but the lack of respect they showed was clear – you never do that,” said Reyna. “I would never do that in my career, even if I felt really comfortable about beating an opponent. That you’d be giggling, laughing and joking at the opponent. It was pretty clear that it was directed at us and at some of our players, and obviously we play them all the time so there’s that rivalry.”
“I remember saying, ‘We’re not losing this game guys.’ Everyone went around and you could feel it all the way through that we couldn’t wait to get out there.”
Reyna gets past Ramon Morales in the most famous "Dos a Cero" in Men's National Team history.
Injuries and suspensions limited the U.S. options, and Bruce Arena used the uncertainty to confound the Mexicans by deploying a 3-5-2 formation for the match. The switch saw Reyna move from his regular central midfield position to the right flank, with the move paying off almost immediately. Following an eighth minute foul in the Mexico half, Brian McBride quickly restarted as he saw Reyna pushing up the flank. The U.S. captain beat two defenders to the end line before centering for Josh Wolff, whose deft touch teed up McBride for a clinical finish and an equally gratifying goal celebration.
The goal set an early tone and played perfectly into Arena’s game plan, allowing the U.S. to sit in and pick its moments to counter against an increasingly frustrated Mexican side. Landon Donovan’s second- half header off an Eddie Lewis cross helped ice the game, giving the MNT its first ever World Cup knockout round win and a quarterfinal date with Germany.
“It was just a great team performance. To beat them 2-0, eliminate them and afterwards realize this was a big deal back in the States,” Reyna said.
The win raised the profile of the Men’s National Team more than any other since the 1994 FIFA World Cup, but in an age before social media, Reyna admitted the players didn’t realize how big an impact the victory had made.
“We didn’t know how huge it was at home,” he said. “We were in Korea and we knew it was sort of growing in momentum. I remember seeing some of the news clips from Mexico City where there were people in plazas and squares crying over the result – that felt good.”
U.S. supporters celebrate during the MNT's 2-0 win against Mexico at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
Though the momentum was already building towards U.S. domination of the rivalry, the World Cup win tipped the scales. Since 2000, the MNT has held a 13-6-5 advantage against El Tri.
“From that moment on, it continued to be a real domination of Mexico,” Reyna said. “We went on and beat them all the time. That was the point where we felt we were no longer playing behind them, that we were better than them.”
“It was one big coming out party on the biggest stage.”Read more