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Let's face it—to date, US Soccer has yet to establish itself as a true world power.
It's not a knock against the USSF or the sport in this country. But the body of work shows: America is still on the outside looking in when it comes to the best footballing nations in the world.
We're close, however. Very close. And throughout the history of the USSF and US Soccer in general, the Red, White, and Blue have won a lot of big games—most of which they had no business winning.
While 2010 sees the US on the verge of breaking through into football's elite, years past have seen the US playing spoiler, underdog, and dark horse to the world's football superpowers.
Here is a collection of the greatest wins in US Soccer history, which ranges from major upsets to clutch wins.
Meanwhile, throughout the list, it becomes clear that while the evolution of soccer in America has been a slow and steady process, the US have always had the ability to play with the best in the world.
These 10 wins trace this evolution very closely, from birth to growing pains to maturity, and as the list goes on, one cannot help but realize that in America, we are on the brink of shifting our global football status from admirable competitors to feared contenders.
Following difficult losses to a Giuseppe Rossi-inspired Italian side and to the ever-powerful Brazilians, it seemed the Americans would have very little to show from their 2009 Confederations Cup experience, and fans everywhere were questioning if the Stars and Stripes were heading in the right direction as a federation.
Entering the final game of group stages, the Americans needed a three-goal victory over the Egyptians to advance into the semifinals in addition to a three-goal defeat of Italy at the hands of Brazil.
In other words, advancing was a long shot, and American fans were full of rage and venom at the poor US showing.
How quickly things can turn around.
The impossible happened, as goals from Charlie Davies, Michael Bradley, and Clint Dempsey gave the US the 3-0 win they needed, while the Brazilians simultaneously sent Italy home with another 3-0 victory.
Without this victory, the entire scope of US Soccer as it stands now would look entirely different (more on this later), and the sheer improbability of this victory earns it a spot in the top 10.
The CONCACAF Gold Cup is traditionally for North and Central American sides, but world power Brazil earned an guest invite in 1998.
Nothing about their stay, however, felt very hospitable after their semifinal encounter with the US.
Preki did the work for the goal, which was superb, but Kasey Keller’s 10-save performance was the stuff of legends and stands as arguably the greatest goalkeeping performance by an American keeper ever.
Brazilian icon Romario considered it the best keeping he had ever seen and even shook Keller’s hand after a point-blank save.
The win was the first time the US had ever defeated Brazil, and it still stands as the lone American victory over the Seleção.
The 1991 Gold Cup was the first edition of the tournament to determine the CONCACAF champions, and the US decidedly emerged as the champions for their first ever cup victory in any competition.
The US, fresh off of their first World Cup appearance in 40 years and set to host in 1994, defeated Mexico 2-0 in the semifinals to face Honduras for the title.
The game would finish 0-0 after extra time, and the Americans missed four of their eight penalties in the shootout. However, Golden Ball winner Tony Meola would save five of Honduras’ attempts to earn the Stars and Stripes their first ever Cup.
Hosting its first ever World Cup, all eyes were on the US to see if they would indeed be the first host nation to not advance from group stages.
A 1-1 draw with the Swiss to open was a respectable result, but no one expected the US to get anything from the Colombians, who had lost only twice in their previous 42 matches and were hungry for victory after losing their opener to Romania.
Pele had even pegged them as a favorite to win, which was perhaps the coup de grace for the Colombians.
In front of a packed Rose Bowl, the US pulled off the stunner. An Andrés Escobar own goal (for which he was tragically murdered in his home country following the Cup) put the Americans ahead, and a second half goal from Earnie Stewart sealed the deal.
Colombia scored late but to no avail, and the victory propelled the US into the second round for the first time since 1930, the first ever World Cup.
The 2002 defeat of Mexico was huge for a couple of reasons. First, it put the US into the quarterfinals of the Cup, their best showing since 1930. Second—Mexico lost.
A rivalry that has recently revved up in the last two decades, USA-Mexico always provides for dramatic, physical football, and this Round of 16 match would be no different.
The Mexicans were favored, having advanced from their groups with wins over Croatia, Ecuador, a draw with Italy. A win, a draw, and a loss would be enough to put the Americans through the group stages, but few, if any, believed the Americans could get past their CONCACAF rivals.
The win was textbook American—get out to an early lead, then pack in the defense and hit on the counter.
The early lead came in the eighth minute. US Captain Claudio Reyna made a wonderful run down the right, tapping the ball beyond and cutting between the Mexican defense. At the endline, he crossed to Josh Wolff, whose run had drawn a pair of Mexican defenders, leaving Brian McBride open in front of net. Wolff’s deflection landed right at McBride’s feet, who finished clinically to put the Americans up 1-0.
The match would remain scoreless, with the Mexicans enjoying most of the possession (66 percent to USA’s 34 percent for the match) until the 65th minute, when Eddie Lewis broke free down the left wing on a counter. He served a perfect cross in for Landon Donovan, who headed in for the second goal.
At that point, it was done. An stout, cool-headed American defense and some great keeping from Brad Friedel got the job done, sending the US into the quarters against Germany, while the Mexicans’ frustrations got the better of them, as Rafa Marquez earned a red card late in the match for a head butt on US striker Cobi Jones.
In 1998, USSF coined the idea of Project 2010.
The gist of Project 2010 was to place US Soccer among the elite of the world's footballing nations, able to compete for international championships and cups with Brazil, Italy, England, Spain, et al. by the year 2010. Among the project’s more notable initiatives were Generation Adidas and the U-17 residency in Bradenton.
While many, including Bruce Arena, have bemoaned the Project and would say today that its objectives were not met, recent results would indicate otherwise.
In fact, after the 2009 Confederations Cup, some would say Project 2010 brought results a year earlier than planned.
The most recent victory on this list, the victory over Spain was perhaps as shocking—and important—as any other victory on this list. The loss was Spain’s first in 35 games, including a world record 15-game winning streak.
A 27th minute goal from Jozy Altidore put the US out ahead, and a barrage of Tim Howard saves and a Clint Dempsey clincher in the 74th minute sealed the deal.
The win put the United States in their first international championship match and restored a strong sense of optimism and anticipation that would carry over throughout the rest of the year in the World Cup build up.
In the first World Cup ever, the United States advanced to the semifinals with this drubbing of Paraguay.
Also notable in this victory was the first ever World Cup hat trick, scored by US center forward Bert Patenaude.
Led by the fortuitous Patenaude, the Americans dominated group play, earning the moniker “the shot-putters” for their bulk and brawn.
The win essentially guaranteed the Americans no worse than fourth place, and Yugoslavia’s refusal to play for third place meant the Americans would finish in third, their best finish at an international tournament until 2009 and to date their best World Cup performance.
(Photo courtesy of ifhss.de)
No victory on this list was quite as prominent worldwide on the pitch as the US opener for the 2002 World Cup in South Korea.
After 36 minutes, the Americans found themselves in an unusual position—3-0 ahead of a proven European side, with goals by John O’Brien and Brian McBride sandwiching an own goal from Portugal defender Jorge Costa.
But Portugal wouldn’t go down that easy. The Euro semifinalists were a supremely talented side—featuring the likes of Luis Figo, Rui Costa, and Fernando Couto. Beto would draw the favorites one goal closer in the 38th minute, and a scrappy US defense would hold the Portuguese scoreless until the the 71st minute, when a Jeff Agoos own goal made it 3-2.
It seemed as if Portugal would get at least a point, but it wasn’t to be, and the US pulled out one of the greatest upsets in recent World Cup memory and legitimized themselves as a threat to make a deep run for the Cup. Without this win, the US fail to advance from group stages, and the 2002 World Cup is an entirely different story.
After qualifying for the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, it would be 40 years until the United States would get back into the biggest tournament in the world. The nation would throw soccer on the back-burner as a niche sport, and it seemed it would not become nationally prominent ever again.
Then came "The Shot Heard 'Round the World."
With Mexico having been disqualified for contention, the United States had a slim window to slip into the Cup. Still, like the 1950 side, the US featured mostly semiprofessionals or college students. The only professional—Paul Caligiuri.
The United States had just been named the hosts of 1994 World Cup, and they needed a victory over T&T to qualify for the 1990 Cup.
The Soca Warriors, however, needed only a draw, and with the US having last won a road qualifier in 1969, Trinidad and Tobago appeared set for Italy 1990.
“The Shot” came just after the half-hour mark, when Caligiuri gathered a bouncing pass from Bruce Murray, tapped it past a charging T&T defender, and ripped a looping shot off the bounce into the right side of the net past a stretching Soca keeper. It was one of the greatest goals in US history and probably the most important.
The winner put the US into the Cup, broke the 40 year drought, and made soccer relevant again in America. “The Shot” stands as one of the greatest US Soccer moments of all time, and the victory is surely one of the most important for the Red, White, and Blue.
Widely considered as one of the greatest upsets of all time in international football, the US defeat of England in Brazil was a true David vs. Goliath matchup.
Actually, that's not a great comparison. If David had been blind, deaf, and paraplegic, then the Bibilical story would be a more accurate reflection of the task faced by the 1950 USMNT.
England were considered one of the best international sides in the world, led by some of the best footballers on the planet—including Tom Finney, Wilf Mannion, and Stan Mortensen.
The US, on the other hand, were 500-1 odds to win the Cup and entering the tournament had lost seven straight international matches by a combined score of 45-2.
The team lacked any sort of superstar but boasted semiprofessional players from a variety of professions (hearse driver, schoolteacher, dishwasher, mail carrier, among others) and nationalities (Scottish, Belgian, Haitian, and, oh yeah, American).
The match was dominated by the English, who dictated possession and limited the Americans to just a couple of shots on goal.
But it only took one to win it.
In the 39th minute, US midfielder Walter Bahr took a long shot on goal, which English keeper Bert Williams appeared to have covered.
However, Haitian forward Joe Gaetjens dove headlong into the shot and grazed just enough of the ball to wrong-foot Williams and slide the ball into the back of the net.
The English created many chances throughout the game, but as per usual for great American football victories, the Red, White, and Blue played rock solid defense and held on for one of the greatest upsets of all time in any sport.
It truly stands as the greatest victory in US Soccer history and will likely hold that position for a long time—that is, until June 12, when another victory over England could trump it.
(Photo courtesy of soccernet.com)