The 2002 edition of the WC was an exhilarating roller coaster ride for the US team. Beating Portugal and its superstar Figo 3-2, drawing with host South Korea 1-1, and then suffering a heart breaking loss to Group D bottom dwellers Poland 3-1 when they just needed to draw to advance to the round of 16, the first time in 72 years on foreign soil. Luckily for them, South Korea put away Poland in their last match 1-0. The US were through. Unbeaten Mexico was next!
The US found heroes at every turn in their qualifying round- Brian McBride, Landon Donovan, Claudio Reyna, and Brad Friedel. If Friedel had not saved the penalty kick in the South Korea match, it would have been curtains. But it was the match against arch-rival Mexico and their superstars Jared Borgetti and Cuauhatemoc Blanco, the US found its feet. Clever pinpoint passes by Claudio Reyna to Brian McBride and Landon Donovan ensured a 2-0 win. The first quarterfinals since the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay! The world sat up and took notice. There were names in US soccer other than Mia Hamm. BEATING THE ODDS: When the U.S. surprised most of the world with a 2-0 win over Mexico, everyone took notice of the U.S. team. Even the bookies. British bookmaker William Hill listed the U.S. at 33-1 odds to win the World Cup, down from what were once as high as 300-1. According to William Hill, the new odds are now led by Brazil at 2-1, followed by Spain at 7-2, England at 4-1 and Italy at 9-2 (prior to falling to Korea). Other odds were Germany 6-1; Senegal 20-1; Japan 28-1 (prior to losing to Turkey); the United States 33-1; Turkey 50-1 (prior to defeating Japan); and South Korea 66-1 (prior to defeating Italy).
A shaky Germany was next. But it was not to be with Michael Ballack proving to be the difference. The greatest win in US team sports was still intact- the ice hockey final against the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid. But US soccer had come of age despite being the butt of David Letterman's jokes.
And this is what a distinguished gentleman had to say about the US team
“I am proud, and I like very much the way the American team plays. They never, were afraid. They always moved forward, and the team was very well organized. We talk about the ‘beautiful game'. America was one of those teams that played the beautiful game, no doubt.” - Former Brazilian World Cup star Pele (USA Today, June 23).
Is this year to be the same? Can the US do even better? The problem is as I see it the US is now a marked team with a FIFA rated high 5th place. It is in a tough group with the Czech Republic, Italy, and Ghana. Players like Landon Donovan, Brian McBride, DaMarcus Beasley have played with a number of players in international leagues leading to greater exposure and increasing familiarity. These players may not have the space to play their game with opposing teams marking them tightly. It might be left to the players in the domestic MLS league like Taylor Twellman, Steven Cherundolo, and Pablo Mastroeni to pull through.
The Czech Republic is 2nd in FIFA ratings. With sharpshooters Milan Baros and Jan Koller, they scored 37 goals in the WC 2006 qualifiers the most along with Portugal. Italy is showing signs of coming to life humbling Germany in a recent friendly, 4-1. And the Italians have always pulled out players like Paolo Rossi, Roberto Baggio, and Salvatore Schillaci that proved to be the difference. Take their dour defense as a given. The Ghanians are an unknown quantity but have bonafide stars in midfielder Michael Essien of Chelsea and striker Matthew Amoah of Borussia Dortmund. Like the Nigerians they play fast attacking soccer but their defense is a bit suspect. They finished second to Nigeria in the World Cup qualifiers from their region.
In 2002 the US faced Portugal, a team that is a perennial favorite to do well in the World Cup with their artistry but have always flattered to deceive. Unlike the Portugese, the Czech Republic and Italy play hardnosed and physical soccer wearing opponents down with their tackling. Not pretty but very effective.
There are other X factors that might impinge on the US team as seen recently in the Winter Olympics in Italy where the spectators were very anti- US. I cannot imagine that things will be very different in Germany with its opposition to the Iraq war. Having a supportive crowd is not crucial to the game but it is a morale booster. In 2002 the US team were quite the darlings of most crowds.
The fate of recent team games has also been troubling. Both the US ice hockey and baseball teams failed to do anything noteworthy this year in the Turin Winter Olympics and the World Baseball Classic, respectively. The US basketball team did not win a medal in the 2004 Summer Olympics. The feeling is that players with committments to their league teams do not get enough time to play cohesively as a unit in the national team. Fear of injuries also inhibit players from going all out because it could mean the end of their season and potentially lucrative careers. The US team for the first time have a number of players divided into playing for the Englsh Premier League and the domestic Major League Soccer.
All in all, if the US manages to get to the World Cup QFs or does even better, the feat would be considered infinitely more significant than the 2002 World Cup. I for one would finally be a believer. And Bruce Arena a genius!