World Cup Rewind: U.S. Turns Heads on the World Stage in 2002
Going into the contest, the U.S. Men’s National Team was the World Cup’s Cinderella. After shocking Portugal in the group stage and advancing to the knockout round where it defeated arch rival Mexico, the U.S. had already stunned the soccer world. Not many outside the locker room believed the team could make it out of its group, let alone get to the quarterfinals.
When the match on June 21 got underway, the Americans showed, as they had throughout the tournament, that they weren’t going to back down to a traditional soccer superpower. The first half was ripe with chances for the U.S.
“We had a lot of confidence, and I think the first 15 minutes of that game demonstrated to our team that we could win that game,” former U.S. MNT head coach Bruce Arena said.
In the 17th minute, after nutmegging a German defender near the top right side of the box, Landon Donovan had a great look at goal and whipped a shot to the far post. Goalkeeper Oliver Kahn got just enough of his fingertips on the ball to push the shot wide.
Landon Donovan became house hold name in U.S. soccer after breaking through as the FIFA Young Player of the Tournament at the 2002 World Cup
Donovan had another opportunity in the 30th minute to put the United States in front. He latched onto the end of a long, searching ball played by Claudio Reyna and headed towards the left side of goal. Trying to go near post, Donovan pulled the trigger from eight yards and was again denied by Kahn.
In the 39th minute, Germany finally had a chance of its own. After winning a free kick in the United States’ third, the Germans prepared for a set piece, one that would turn out to be the difference in the match.
“The one thing we made a point of is we had to mark Michael Ballack on set pieces because he’s terrific,” Arena said.
The United States didn’t and Ballack slammed the ball into the back of the net with a thunderous header. Down 1-0 in the locker room at halftime, the U.S.MNT tried to regroup. Arena thought his team had played well and told them to keep fighting.
“Believe me when I tell you this, over these 45 minutes in the second half, you’re going to wear them down physically,” Arena said. “You’re a fitter team. You’re a quicker team. You’ll get your chances. You just need to do a rock solid job defensively and you will create chances. When we get our chances, we just have to stick them.”
Germany captain Michael Ballack's headed goal proved to be the difference maker between the USA and Germany in their quarterfinal match-up at the 2002 World Cup
When the second half began, the U.S. continued its attack. In the 50th minute, the U.S. MNT had a spectacular chance to tie the match, and what happened is still a cause of controversy today.
Off a U.S. corner kick, the ball deflected to defender Gregg Berhalter. His volley beat a diving Kahn, but the shot was blocked by German midfielder Torsten Frings, who was positioned on the goal line. While the shot appeared to have crossed the goal line and struck Frings on the left forearm, no goal or penalty shot was awarded.
“There’s a defender on the goal line that moves his hand to stop the ball,” Arena said. “It’s a hand ball.”
Despite the devastating blow, the U.S. MNT continued to pressure the Germans, searching for an equalizer. In the 64th minute, Kahn was forced into a risky clearance. After coming all of the way out of the box to clear a long Eddie Lewis pass intended for Clint Mathis, the goalkeeper had to rush back to goal as his clearance was collected by Reyna on the other side of the midfield stripe. Reyna lofted a shot from 60 yards, but it hooked wide left.
The U.S. had one last chance late in the game. In the 89th minute, Mathis sent a cross from the right flank towards the back post and Tony Sanneh was able to get his head on it. Unfortunately, the potential equalizing snap header went wide of the post by inches. The final whistle blew soon after, and the U.S. was eliminated.
Though it wasn’t the result the team wanted, the U.S. MNT pushed the Germans to the brink and was happy with its effort.
“Germany is never an easy team to play against,” Arena said. “Their physical qualities are such that it neutralizes the strength of the U.S. team. That day, we weren’t short in any area.”
“After losing to Germany, the final whistle blew, and there were some German players who collapsed to the ground, which I think that was a sign of respect and showed how difficult it was to play us,” forward John O’Brien said. “We did a real good job that game. It did soften the blow.”
U.S. and German players collapse after a hard-faught match in Jeonju, South Korea. Germany won the game 1-0.
“Even though we lost, that was the best game we played the whole tournament,” said current U.S. MNT defender DaMarcus Beasley, who was 20 at the time and playing in his first World Cup. “We definitely deserved more out of that last game that we lost against Germany. The Germans will tell you the same thing. They got outplayed. The got 100 percent outplayed. That’s how soccer goes. Not always the best team that day wins, and that’s how it goes.”
“We were that good that day,” Arena said. “The Germans knew that. We outplayed them from the start, and it potentially could have been a fabulous day for U.S. Soccer.”
The United States didn’t win the match but did win the world’s respect. Suddenly, American soccer was viewed differently.
“There was a new us,” Lewis said. “It almost happened over night. People talked to us differently. They talked about American soccer differently. The Germans treated us differently. You felt like before that tournament, Americans were outsiders. After that tournament, we were in the group. Now, we were in the conversation.”
“That World Cup changed our image and the respect we had from all the nations around the world,” Reyna said. “I think it’s what we craved and wanted for such a long time.”
“Once I got back to Holland, there were quite a bit of people who now thought the U.S. can play,” O’Brien said.“I think the biggest thing was, could we move the program forward from 1998 and be more representative at the top level,” Arena said. “I think that got accomplished. We went from being an embarrassment on and off the field in 1998 to a team that was known in World Cups that could compete. You had to bring your best that day against the U.S. team.”