MANAUS, Brazil -- DaMarcus Beasley ended his teenage years in a plane high above the Pacific Ocean, flying toward the first of what has now become four World Cups. The wiry winger was 19 when named to the 2002 U.S. Men’s National Team that few to South Korea for the World Cup that year, and crossing the international date line made his 20th birthday come a little bit sooner. Simply by being with the team, Beasley automatically grew up a little.
“I still have pictures from the plane from when we crossed,” he says today. “It was really cool.”
As it turned out, Beasley’s growth in that tournament went far beyond age. The Fort Wayne, Indiana native’s first game would come within a matter of days of arrival, as the youngster was thrust directly in to the starting lineup for the U.S.’s opening clash against Portugal.
Today, closer to the other end of a legendary career, Beasley faces Portugal in a World Cup yet again. Some things in the teams’ matchup remain eerily similar.
Back in 2002, Portugal had been picked by many for a deep run in the tournament. After all, the Iberian nation boasted a bevy of talented players all over the field. The team’s attack was led by the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, who played on the wing, wore number 7, and suited up for Real Madrid during the club season.
The U.S., meanwhile, would be without key cog in their scheme due to injury. Moreover, the team would rely on several World Cup debutants to carry them through the tournament. Placed in a tough group, few gave the Americans much chance of advancing.
Each of those things remains true in 2014; but the style of soccer has changed, as has the location of the game, as have many of the names on the rosters. That is, other than Beasley's. Of the 46 players on the U.S. and Portugal squads that day back in 2002, his is the only one that remains as the teams prepare to battle again.
"I had kind of a fearless factor back then," Beasley says. "It was my first World Cup, I didn't know what to expect, I had just turned 20 years old. I just wanted to go out there and play, have fun, and do what I did that got me on the World Cup team."
The fearlessness paid off. Behind three goals in the first half and a valiant defensive stand in the second stanza, the U.S. scored one of the shock results of the tournament with a 3-2 win over Portugal. The win would become a sign of good things to come, as the U.S. put forth their best World Cup showing in the modern era, reaching the quarterfinals before bowing out to Germany. Beasley played consistently, becoming one of the team’s standout performers.
However, that doesn’t mean he is drawing on that past result to get him through Sunday's challenge.
"I haven't even thought about 2002," he said. "Portugal had great players -- Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Conceição, Beto. It was cool to play against those guys. We respected them, but we didn't fear them."
"Now it's a whole different team, different players. I'm just thinking about how we're going to play and how we'll get a result."
The U.S. will face plenty of challenges to do so. Besides an obvious threat in Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese will go into the game with their backs against the wall, needing a result to keep hopes alive of qualifying for the next round. Added to that, the U.S. will need to cope without Jozy Altidore, who will miss the game with a hamstring injury sustained in the opening match against Ghana.
But it's here that the ever-present Beasley has no problem referring back to his first World Cup game from over a decade ago.
"Just like every American does, we have a belief that we can beat anybody on any given day," Beasley sad. "We were very well-prepared for that game [in 2002]. Everything came together in that moment. It set us up to qualify for the next round. I was definitely excited to be a part of it."
"For tomorrow, we need to keep our tournament alive. A draw will do OK, but we want to play well, we want to get 3 points, and hopefully solidify us in the next round. It starts with tomorrow night and hopefully we'll get a good result."