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Back to the Beginning: Going Full Circle in 500 Games

When the United States steps on the field on January 19, it will do so for the 500th time in its history. Despite the important milestone those three digits indicate, no number can quantify just how far the U.S. has come since its first game in 1916.

Now having been to five consecutive World Cup Finals, and with qualification for the potential sixth about to begin, U.S. Soccer has established itself as a progressing soccer nation. The MNT has been to five consecutive World Cups, even hosting the Finals in 1994. It has been ranked as high as fourth in the World, and has added four Gold Cup trophies to a growing list of accomplishments.

1916 – Game One

On Aug. 20, 1916, the United States Football Association’s Men’s National Team played its first-ever official match (Game #1) under the banner of FIFA after gaining full membership a little more than two years earlier. In Stockholm, the U.S. earned a 3-2 win against Sweden on goals by Charles Ellis, C.H. Spalding and Harry Cooper. All three scorers made just one more official appearance for the U.S., a 1-1 draw against Norway on Sept. 3, 1916 (2), in Oslo, with Ellis depositing the lone goal for the USA.

1924 – First Olympic Games

The team would go almost eight years before playing its next full international when it participated in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris (3-4). Of the starting XI on that August day 92 years ago in Stockholm, only one player – James Robertson – earned a cap after 1916. Robertson went on to start in the 6-1 win against Canada on Nov. 8, 1925, in Brooklyn, N.Y (7).

1930 – First World Cup

In 1930, the U.S. qualified for the first ever FIFA World Cup held in Uruguay. One of 13 teams, the U.S. won its group with consecutive 3-0 victories against Belgium (12) and Paraguay (13) before falling to Argentina in the semifinals. The third place finish still marks the highest ever for the U.S. at the World Cup.

1950 – The Upset

Fast forward 20 years, past a brief appearance at the 1934 World Cup in Italy (17), a failed qualification for the 1938 World Cup in France, and World War II, which interrupted international tournament play. In 1950, the U.S. shocked the world with a 1-0 defeat of the massively favored England team (31). Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian born forward who never actually became a U.S. citizen, scored the winning goal. In fact, Gaetjens later played for the Haiti national team.

1989 – The Modern Era Begins

Despite the monumental occasion of the victory over England, it was another 40 years before the U.S. returned to soccer’s grandest stage. Paul Caligiuri’s 1989 goal against Trinidad and Tobago (176) vaulted the U.S. into Italy 1990. Though it was a less than stellar performance from the U.S. team (181-183), it was a signal of intent: U.S. soccer was back at the World Cup.

1994 – The World Stage at Home

The majority of the 500 games took place in the last decade of the 20th century as the game grew on and off the field in the United States.

Following Italy 1990, preparations began in earnest for World Cup 1994, which was played in U.S. Soccer’s very own backyard (almost literally as games were played at Soldier Field, just blocks from the U.S. Soccer House). With the world watching, the USA’s disappointment from 1990 soon faded as the MNT would find success at home.

Games were played to sold out stadiums around the country and supporters came from around the globe. The influx of soccer fanaticism caught hold, and any soccer fan who was old enough (or came of age) around the tournament can tell you where they were when Earnie Stewart scored against tournament favorites Colombia (281), or reminisce about the resilient, courageous performance of the team against Brazil in the second round (283).

1995 – Keeping the Momentum

The next year brought a first ever trip to Copa America, South America’s regional championship, where an exciting U.S. team played to a fourth-place finish in Uruguay. Steve Sampson was the new national team coach, and the results that he engineered hammered home the fact that 1994 wasn’t a fluke. Led by Eric Wynalda, who scored three goals, and John Harkes, who was named to the all-tournament team, the U.S. team defeated Argentina in the first round (297) and Mexico in a quarterfinal shootout (298).

1998 – Bump in the Road

The World Cup in 1998 was a comparative letdown. Despite fielding many of the same faces from 1994, the U.S. came up short against traditional powerhouse Germany (349), Iran (350) and Yugoslavia (351). The three losses, including the politically charged match against Iran, saw the U.S. finish dead last in 32nd place.

Despite the poor performance in France, the year included one of the most memorable results in U.S. soccer history (340). In the U.S. Cup, the U.S. produced an outstanding performance against a Brazil team full of some of the most famous names in modern soccer. Kasey Keller put in an fantastic effort to keep the powerful Brazilian strike force at bay, while a Preki goal at the other end made for a famous U.S. victory. After the game, heralded Brazilian striker Romario would call Keller’s day “was one of the greatest performances by a goalkeeper I’ve ever seen.”

2000-02 – The New Generation

As the new millennium emerged, so too did a new generation of players under manager Bruce Arena. Names like Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Chris Armas joined an established veteran core of players such as Brad Friedel, Eddie Pope, Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride. The MNT began to turn the tables on Mexico, characterized most notably by the 2-0 victory for the stars and stripes on Feb. 28 in Columbus, Ohio (305). In wintry conditions at Crew Stadium, goals from Josh Wolff and Stewart upended the U.S.’s cross-border rivals, and set the tone for continuing domination of Mexico on U.S. turf in the 21st century. A Gold Cup title in 2002 (402) positioned the U.S. team nicely entering the World Cup in Korea, but nothing could have prepared them for what was about to come.

When John O’Brien opened the USA’s scoring four minutes in against Portugal (412) at the 2002 World Cup, he set off a run that would eventually see the team advance to the quaterfinals for its best finish since 1934. Most memorable, was the U.S. win over Mexico in the Round of 16 (415), when goals from McBride and Donovan propelled the MNT to victory in the first, and only, World Cup meeting between the bitter rivals.

There were many compelling storylines in the World Cup – a unbelievable atmosphere against host South Korea in group play (413), Brad Friedel becoming the first keeper to save two penalties from open play (413-414) in nearly 30 years, and even in the quarterfinals, there still remains a fair amount of controversy with a missed handball on the goal line (416).

2005-06 – Back at the World Cup

Three years later in 2005, the U.S. earned another Gold Cup championship (462), and saw the emergence of players like Jimmy Conrad, Oguchi Onyewu and Clint Dempsey. Later in the year, the U.S. locked up qualification for its fifth consecutive World Cup with another memorable 2-0 victory against Mexico.

The tournament in Germany 2006 proved to be the coming out party for the American soccer fan, as supporters from the U.S. turned up in droves to support the red, white and blue. Of particular note was the USA’s first round game against Italy (480), the eventual world champions. In a back and forth game, the heavily pro-American crowd spurred on the U.S.

Red, it seemed, was the most prominent color in the stadium – from the U.S. supporters in the crowd, to the blood streaming down Brian McBride’s face after he took an elbow from Italian midfielder Danielle De Rossi. Not to mention the three red cards issued in the game to De Rossi, Pablo Mastroeni and Eddie Pope. Honors were even at one apiece after ninety minutes, but the fans were in raptures nonetheless.

2007 – A New Journey Begins

Rolling on to 2007, where a rivalry with Mexico was revisited on multiple occasions. Most notable was the 2-1 victory in the Gold Cup final in Chicago (492), where Benny Feilhaber’s audacious volley handed the fourth CONCACAF championship to the MNT.

The U.S. faced premium opposition on three four different continents, traveling to Venezuela to play in Copa America (493-495), hosting Brazil (497), visiting Switzerland to take on the 2008 European Championship co-hosts (498), before finally finishing its 499th game in South Africa (499).

As the U.S. heads towards the second half of its first one thousand soccer matches, the MNT could not be in a better place. Having accomplished much since 1916, there still remains plenty to reach for on the international stage.