June 21, 2002, Ulsan, South Korea: As the players, coaches and staff of the United States men’s national soccer team leave the pitch following a loss to Germany in the quarterfinals of the FIFA World Cup, a double narrative emerges. After more than two weeks in the Far East, the Americans have won unprecedented respect for a valiant, thrilling and, above all, unexpected run in the world’s most popular and prestigious sporting event. Only four years have passed since a disastrous, last-place finish at the 1998 Cup in France, and this time only the head of Michael Ballack and the arm of Torsten Frings have stopped the Yanks from pulling an unthinkable upset.
Pride, unsurprisingly, dominates the Americans’ post-match comments. The quarterfinal appearance is the team’s best showing at a World Cup since the inaugural event in 1930, and it has demonstrated U.S. soccer’s progress since missing nine consecutive Cups between 1954 and 1986. Initially unheralded, Americans are now labeled “valiant” by the BBC, and the team is rightly relishing its own success. "I think we demonstrated to the world that the United States belonged here," U.S. coach Bruce Arena says (per Sports Illustrated) after watching his team outplay Germany for most of the match. "We expected to be the best team tonight. We weren't surprised at our performance.”
Yet, as goalkeeper Brad Friedel adds (via USSoccer.com), the players realize the team “could’ve gone a little further.” As if realizing both in real time, Landon Donovan, at the time a promising 20-year-old attacking prospect, remains on the pitch afterwards, obviously unwilling the believe the memorably surreal run has ended. "I didn't want to leave," he later says (via SI).
But the run has ended, and with it, so has the U.S. team’s best performance at a modern World Cup, perhaps prematurely. In the coming years, the 2002 Cup run will be viewed as a high point in U.S. soccer history, even as there remains the knowledge that the Americans could have progressed to the semifinals or beyond. It is a two-sided theme that reappears over the next decade and into the current day as U.S. soccer continues its maturation in the world’s game. Over the next 11 years, the manager and most of the players change, but much like that Korean night in 2002, the team has experienced both dizzying highs and heartbreaking disappointment, sometimes all at once.
Building and backtracking
Bruce Arena managed the team through the next World Cup cycle. This period saw the U.S. team make progress on and off the pitch but also fail on the biggest stage.
The U.S. finished third in the 2003 CONCACAF Gold Cup, the continental championship for North and Central America. 2005, on the other hand, was a successful year for the Yanks. as the U.S. qualified for the 2006 World Cup with a 2-0 victory at home to Mexico in September. By the end of the year, Arena’s team had won the Gold Cup, finished atop the final group of World Cup qualifying and set records for wins (13) and win percentage (.750) (per USSoccer.com).
“This time when we've needed the results we've got 'em and we ended up doing it comfortably,” goalkeeper Kasey Keller said after the Mexico game. “It always means a lot to beat Mexico. To beat Mexico to qualify to finish this thing off and to beat them comfortably 2-0 is even better. It just makes it better."
In 2003, meanwhile, the U.S. Soccer Federation opened the National Training Center at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. In addition to a state-of-the-art stadium that would later host the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA, the Center included five fields to be used for training by both the men’s and women’s national teams. In 2013, the Federation announced it was considering the construction of a similar facility in Kansas City.
Speaking at the 2002 groundbreaking, then-USSF president Dr. S. Robert Contiguglia touted a “landmark moment” for the program. “The importance of having a facility that can provide a world-class environment for the continued development of our players is immeasurable,” he said. “Creating this icon for the sport will benefit every part of the U.S. Soccer family from our National Teams to our coaching and referee programs, enabling us to cast our nets wider in developing the sport in this country.”
Before that could happen, though, the U.S. experienced a setback at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Drawn into a group with the Czech Republic, Ghana and eventual champion Italy, the U.S. went out in the first round. Following a 3-0 loss to the Czechs in the opener, the Americans battled to a 1-1 draw with Italy despite playing most of the second half with nine men. Ghana then eliminated the U.S. with a 2-1 victory in both teams’ final group match.
The disappointing performance marked the end of Arena’s coaching tenure. Shortly after the tournament, the U.S. Federation announced it would not renew Arena’s contract when it expired at the end of the year. Arena had managed the team for eight years and won 71 games, more than twice as many as any other coach, but U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati hinted that the program needed a new direction. “Eight years is a long period,” he said (via NBC Sports). “I’m not saying we need to change direction; the direction Bruce set is very positive. But having a fresh approach, after eight years, which is a very long time, is the strongest factor.”
ESPN later reported that Gulati tried and failed to hire former German international Jurgen Klinsmann to lead the U.S. team. Klinsmann, a World Cup winner with West Germany in 1990, had recently led Germany to the semifinals of the 2006 Cup on home soil. After Klinsmann declined the job, the federation hired former Arena assistant Bob Bradley on an interim basis. Bradley had most recently turned around Chivas USA of MLS.
The interim title was removed in May 2007. “Bob Bradley has shown every one in the past few months just how ready he is for this job,” Gulati said (via USSoccer.com). “Every decision he has made has been about the betterment of the team, and the betterment of the program, not about ‘what might be best for the future of Bob Bradley.’ While it has only been a few months, you can already see those decisions paying dividends. I firmly believe Bob has the ability to take this program forward.”
The miracle on grass
Bradley’s tenure began successfully and ended in disappointment. Along the way, he led the U.S. to two of its most famous wins.
In 2007 the U.S. won its second straight Gold Cup and fourth overall, coming from behind to defeat Mexico 2-1 in the final. Donovan’s second-half equalizer was his 34th international goal, tying him with Eric Wynalda for the U.S. team’s all-time record. "I'm proud of it certainly,” said Donovan (per USSoccer.com). “I'm more happy we won the game, but when I sit down tonight and think about it, it will be awesome. But now I want to get the next one in."
2008 saw the U.S. move successfully through the early stages of 2010 World Cup qualifying, and in 2009 the Yanks opened the Hexagonal—the nickname for the final round of CONCACAF qualifying—with another 2-0 win at home over Mexico. In June, a comeback victory over Honduras clinched qualification for the 2010 World Cup.
In winning the Gold Cup in 2007, the U.S. had qualified for the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa. There, the U.S. was drawn into a group with Italy, Brazil and Egypt. After losing their first two matches, the Americans improbably qualified for the semifinals with a 3-0 win over Egypt.
Then, on June 24 in Bloemfontein, the U.S. faced Spain, the defending European champion, in the semifinals. That day Bradley’s team earned perhaps the most important victory in U.S. soccer history.
Jozy Altidore scored the opener in the first half and Clint Dempsey added the second after the break as the U.S. completed a stunning 2-0 upset win. The New York Times called it the “Miracle on Grass,” a reference to the “Miracle on Ice,” the U.S. hockey team’s famous victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics. In terms of U.S. soccer history, the victory took its place alongside the win over England at the 1950 World Cup and the 2002 team’s triumphs over Portugal and Mexico.
Once again, the Americans swelled with pride. Once again, they had shown they were capable of playing with the best in the world. After the Confederations Cup loss, Spain won the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. Before playing the U.S., Spain had not lost in 35 games, dating back to November 2006.
"I think it just shows that we can compete with the best. Now we need to do it on a consistent basis," said defender and captain Carlos Bocanegra. Said goalkeeper Tim Howard: “It goes to show what hard work and commitment to each other can bring. Football is a funny thing” (quotes via BBC Sport).
In the final, the U.S. scored twice in the first half against five-time World Cup champion Brazil. But with midfielder Michael Bradley suspended, the U.S. was unable to hold the lead and lost 3-2.
Afterwards, the mood in the U.S. camp was mixed. Beating Spain had brought the team respect, but losing to Brazil amounted to a missed opportunity. Much like in 2002, despite the positivity of the team’s performance overall, Donovan was unsatisfied. “We're at the point where we don't want respect,” he said (via USA Today). “We want to win. There's no guarantee we ever get back to a final game like this, so it's disappointing.”
"We continue to try and move ourselves forward, and playing these kind of games only helps," added Bob Bradley, whose team had lost 3-0 to Brazil 10 days earlier. "But it still feels pretty lousy to let this one get away."
‘Can you believe this? Goal, goal, USA!’
Later that summer, the U.S. advanced to the Gold Cup final before losing 5-0 to Mexico with a largely second-string roster.
For the 2010 FIFA World Cup, also in South Africa, the U.S. was drawn into a group with England, Slovenia and Algeria. After a freak goal helped produce a 1-1 draw with England in the opener, the U.S. rallied from a two-goal deficit to draw 2-2 with Slovenia. If not for a controversial call that ruled out Maurice Edu’s would-be winner late in the second half, the U.S. could have won the match.
Instead, after two draws in as many matches, the U.S. needed a victory over Algeria in the group finale to advance to the knockout stages. After 90 minutes the teams remained locked in a scoreless draw and the Americans appeared destined for a second consecutive World Cup group-stage elimination. But in the first minute of stoppage time, Donovan scored the 44th goal of his international career.
It turned out to be his most famous and, as some would argue, the most important.
The move began at the back with goalkeeper Tim Howard, who pushed the ball ahead to Donovan on the right. Donovan played the ball forward to Jozy Altidore in the box, and Altidore crossed for Clint Dempsey. Dempsey’s first-time shot from close range was blocked, but Donovan reached the rebound first and slotted the ball into the net at the far post for the winning goal.
Suddenly the U.S. had won the match and with it the group. American soccer fans released their angst at once in a single moment of hair-raising joy. The team drew mainstream media attention, including a feature on the Daily Show, a powerful shaper of American opinion and pop culture. English sportscaster Ian Darke, meanwhile, became famous Stateside for his impassioned call on television: “And Donovan has scored! Oh, can you believe this? Goal, goal, USA! Certainly through! Oh, it's incredible! You could not write a script like this!"
"Hands down the biggest moment in my career," Donovan said in an emotional postgame press conference (via Los Angeles Times). "I'm shocked. I'm so proud of our guys. Unbelievable."
Said Sunil Gulati, the U.S. Soccer Federation president (via New York Times): “It’s the biggest win we’ve ever had for so many reasons. One is obviously the fashion in which it happened. Second is the overcoming of adversity, not just today, but given what happened in the last game. And three, most of the country was tuned in to the game.”
In another subtle reference to the Slovenia controversy, head coach Bob Bradley added (via New York Times): “In soccer, you can’t always control a call or a bounce, but you can control what you are about as a team, how committed you are to giving everything in a game. I think that has become the special quality of this group.”
"We've had a lot of emotional games," captain Carlos Bocanegra said (via Washington Post). "Now is the fun stuff. It's a one-off game and we get to go for it.”
Bocanegra’s “fun stuff” turned out to be just one more match, a 2-1 extra-time loss to Ghana in the Round of 16. After the disappointment of 2006, the U.S. had returned to the knockout stage, only to lose in agonizing fashion. Yet the familiar sense of what-if remained. Having been placed in a favorable portion of the knockout bracket along with Ghana, Uruguay and South Korea, the U.S. had a relatively manageable path to the semifinals.
“We were a little naive tonight and at this level you can’t do that,” Donovan said after the Ghana match (via Daily Telegraph). “It is frustrating considering all the work we have put in. It just sucks, man.”
But, he added: “I'm proud of what the team has done. Soccer is a cruel game sometimes. One minute you are on top of the world; the next minute you are at the bottom of the mountain.”
Gulati gets his man
After re-signing to lead the team through the 2014 World Cup, Bob Bradley led the U.S. back to the Gold Cup final in 2011. There the Americans took a 2-0 lead on rival Mexico but eventually lost 4-2 in a match that highlighted the difference in quality between the teams.
A month later, Bradley—the former interim manager who managed to stick around for five years—was out. As the New York Times wrote at the time, Bradley had become a controversial figure:
(F)airly or unfairly, frequent criticisms of him began to resurface: he was too conservative and bland; he was too loyal to players like defender Jonathan Bornstein and his son, midfielder Michael Bradley; he coached a team that too often fell behind early and had to catch up using fitness and determination more than tactical awareness and technical skill.
As he had done in 2006 following the dismissal of Bruce Arena, U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati stressed the importance of a new direction. "During (Bradley’s) time as the head coach of our men’s national team he led the team to a number of accomplishments, but we felt now was the right time for us to make a change,” Gulati said (via ESPN).
The change was Jurgen Klinsmann, the former German international player and coach Gulati had tried to hire in 2006. Klinsmann managed his first match in August and immediately promised a new “forward-thinking” style. The results, once again, have been mixed: The U.S. lost its Hexagonal opener against Honduras early in 2013 but in 2012 recorded program-first victories in Italy and Mexico.
Looking back, moving forward
That last part should come as little surprise. Since that night in Korea in 2002, the U.S. has experienced both thrilling highs and painful lows, sometimes in quick succession or even at once. An unfamiliar twist, however, has been the absence of Landon Donovan, the team’s all-time leading scorer, best-ever player and leader for the past decade.
Donovan, now 31, recently announced his desire to rejoin the national team after an extended, self-imposed absence. Klinsmann, however, has left Donovan off the U.S. roster for two key upcoming World Cup qualifiers (via New York Daily News). Once again, then, even as positive news reaches the team, a hint of the negative also lingers. In progress, there is also pain, and in moving forward, the team must simultaneously look to the past. And once again, Donovan is playing the lead role.
Those themes have coexisted within the U.S. national team for more than a decade, and as the Americans move into the future, they remain present. Ahead of two crucial World Cup qualifiers in March, a Sporting News report about disquiet in the U.S. camp rocked the program. Then the U.S. took four points from their matches against Costa Rica and Mexico and moved into third place in the Hex.
The history of U.S. soccer since 2002 is full of both highs and lows, controversy and glory, growing pains and major gains. Through it all, after a prolonged period in the footballing wilderness, the U.S. is becoming a legitimate player in world game. The latter fact is reflected in the increased media coverage and national attention the team receives, the better results it achieves and perhaps even in the in-fighting and controversy it generates.
Much like the 2002 World Cup team, U.S. soccer continues to reach new heights while staying mindful of how much more is possible.