The stifling São Paulo traffic splits for few. Even ambulances, with their ear-splitting high-pitched squeal, struggled to find their way through the honks, beeps and rumbles of early morning traffic from Guarulho International Airport this morning. Just about the only vehicles that found their way through the chaos were motorcycles weaving in and out between the cars; those and the U.S. National Team bus.
The USA arrived in Sao Paulo on Monday after a 4,000-plus mile trip that included nine hours of total flying – one hour-long jaunt from Jacksonville to Miami, then a nearly eight-hour overnight flight from Miami to Sao Paulo. The team arrived just past the peak of the São Paulo rush hour, boarded their bus, and a police escort guided the team through standstill traffic.
Some motorists had so much idle time, they stopped and took pictures.
"My eyes were still closed trying to get off the plane," Tim Howard joked. "I think we were quite tired, but the reception was great. We're looking forward to unpacking our bags and getting used to the hotel and our surroundings."
The streets surrounding the team's São Paulo hotel turned into an exhibition of security precautions as the bus approached for the players' first entrance into their home away from home. Brazilian military stood stone-faced with rifles at the ready. A phalanx of police guarded the sidewalks.
But the scene greeting the team in the lobby was a celebratory one; a line of hotel staff surrounded the players upon their entrance, greeting the Americans with a warm round of applause.
The team received their keys and proceeded to their rooms. For some, like defender Matt Besler, it was only then that the enormity of the situation began to dawn on them.
That moment when you land in Brazil and realize you're here to play in the WORLD CUP...yea, that just happened #USA— Matt Besler (@mbesler) June 9, 2014
There would be little time for basking in the glow. Despite head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's absence – he stayed behind in Miami along with advisor Berti Vogts to scout the USA’s Group G opponents Ghana in their friendly against South Korea – the U.S. would have their first training session in Brazil just a few hours after arriving at the hotel, and only 20 hours after leaving the country they will soon represent at the world’s most popular sporting event.
Another bus, another police escort. This time to the training grounds of São Paulo FC, the same location where the team spent 12 days training on a dry run in January – preparation for this very moment.
"It's like Christmas morning," Howard said. "We're just excited to be here, and now it's gotten real."
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