Games of the Future Past

For its second group game, the U. S. Men’s National Team will battle Portugal in the Arena Amazonia, while immersed in the steamy, jungle conditions of Manaus. The matchup on Sunday, June 22, which is live on ESPN, WatchESPN and Univision, brings up memories of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, when these two combatants met in group play, with the United States knocking off Portugal 3-2. caught up with players and coaches involved in the 2002 victory to reflect on one of the most memorable days in USMNT history.

Going into the 2002 match, Portugal was the clear favorite. Portugal was ranked fourth in the world, but that didn’t intimidate the U.S. MNT’s head coach at the time, Bruce Arena.

“The more I looked at them, I thought we could beat them,” Arena said. “I thought it was a perfect matchup for our U.S. team given our strengths and their strengths and weaknesses. Going into the game, we thought we could win, even though they were ranked the No. 4 team in the world. Our team was well prepared.”

According to National Team vets John O’Brien and Brian McBride, the United States had a distinct approach to the match.

“We knew our style was being really well organized defensively and trying to use the flanks to get forward,” O’Brien said. “That’s what we wanted to do, and we had to fight. We knew that was an aspect we had to have. We had to challenge for every ball and beat them physically.”

“The important thing was to come out quick,” noted McBride. “They’re a very good team and we needed to make sure to put them on their heels, and that’s what we did.”

The USA followed the game plan to a tee. In the match’s fourth minute, the U.S. won a corner. Captain Earnie Stewart’s ball was headed towards goal by McBride. Portuguese goalkeeper Victor Baia deflected it, but not out of the reach of O’Brien.

“The ball went up right in the middle, and the guy marking me was watching the ball, so I thought I’d sneak around back post and hope something happens,” O’Brien recounted. “I remember the ball bouncing right in front of me and thinking relax and just stroke it in. You couldn’t ask for a nicer start to the World Cup.”

After quickly falling down 1-0, there was way no way Portugal wouldn’t respond, right? Wrong, and the U.S. began to pile it on.

In the 30th minute, a poor clearing attempt by the Portuguese defense went straight to Landon Donovan, who was standing just outside the right edge of the box. Donovan, playing in his first World Cup, sent a routine cross towards McBride, but on the way, it deflected off the shoulder of defender Jorge Costa and snuck inside the near post. Astonishingly, the U.S. was up 2-0.

A mere six minutes later, the U.S. increased its lead as McBride finished a Tony Sanneh cross with a text book diving header, putting an exclamation point on the team’s first half performance.

On that day, current U.S. defender DaMarcus Beasley was playing in his first World Cup game and remembers being surprised at what was happening.

“You couldn’t believe it,” Beasley said. “You were just like, ‘Wow!’ It was surreal. You can’t fathom this really happened in a World Cup against Portugal.”

O’Brien thought the USA caught Portugal off guard.

“I think they didn’t bring their A-game to start,” O’Brien said. “They were a little disheveled, and we took advantage of it.”

Arena was happy with the way the match was going but didn’t want his team to settle.

“When it’s 3-0, my thinking is to make it 4-0,” Arena said.

Much to Arena’s dismay, the opposite happened, and Portugal got on the board. In the 39th minute, after a poor U.S. clearance off a corner kick, Portugal’s Luis Figo sent in a cross from the right side, where Beto headed a shot on goal. O’Brien cleared the shot, but it fell back to Beto, who finished past U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel. The USMNT took a 3-1 lead into halftime.

“We came into the locker room really happy,” Beasley said. “Claudio Reyna tried to calm us down because we had another 45 minutes to play, but we were so excited when we got to locker room.”

“At halftime, there were a few smiles, nods and winks,” O’Brien said. “The coaches were not in that mindset. It was a different experience between the players and the coaches.”

“We’re saying it’s 3-1, but we are a little disjointed at that point,” Arena said. “When you give up a goal right before half, psychologically, it’s not good. We had to get our players focused, and keep in mind, we didn’t want to concede two and walk off the field with a point, let alone lose.”

The U.S. held strong until midway through the second half. Portugal climbed back to within one goal after the USA conceded an own goal in the 71st minute. Midfielder Rui Costa sent in a cross from the left side that fell in the middle of the box to U.S. defender Jeff Agoos. He hit an ill-advised volley angled back toward the U.S. goal and it went past a surprised Friedel.

The United States would bend but not break, holding on to defeat Portugal 3-2, earning three points and an immeasurable amount of confidence.

“Although we gave up another goal, the concentration by our team was terrific,” Arena said. “The way they closed out that game was excellent. Our guys did a great job over 90 minutes.”

“That was something I won’t forget,” Beasley said. “My first game, winning and it being against Portugal.”

“No one had given us a chance, certainly not Portugal,” Agoos said. “Everybody knows in the first game you have to get at minimum a point. We get through, and we get the three points, and now, we are really set up to advance in the group. It felt surreal.”

Defeating Portugal set the stage for the USA’s Cinderella run to the quarterfinals in 2002. This time around, the 2014 team will look for a similar result against Portugal to catalyze another deep run on the world’s greatest sporting stage.