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Today’s 10-year anniversary: the most important day in U.S. Soccer history

Jun 5, 2012, 10:20 AM EDT


Journalists get themselves in trouble when they overstep on pronouncements of historical importance. Truly, it’s easy to get swept up in the cross currents of hyperbole and get pulled out to sea.

But I’ll chance it here and say this: We stand today on the 10-year anniversary of the most important day in U.S. Soccer history.

The United States national team manufactured one of its biggest moments on this date, 10 years ago. Don’t underestimate what a stunning 3-2 win over Portugal that day meant going forward.

It came in Suwon, Korea, where John O’Brien, Landon Donovan and Brian McBride scored in the first half against Portugal to open World Cup 2002. (That was surely the most shocking 45 minutes of U.S. Soccer history; that much we can all agree on, no?)

That match launched the U.S. soccer team’s breakthrough quarterfinal march. (A march that ended perhaps unfairly, blunted at least partially by one notoriously incorrect decision). That was the match that started the U.S. movement beyond also-ran status in world soccer.

Don’t forget, the United States was coming off a brutal performance at World Cup 1998, adjudged 32nd best out of 32 teams. They had escaped as hosts from the first round of World Cup 1994 and had been spanked like the young bucks they were at Italia ’90. So, honestly, who saw this coming, this rise against the established global soccer order?

Twelve days later, another grand moment would be achieved: the 2-0 win over Mexico in World Cup elimination play. More important in the big picture, because it moved the United States into the quarterfinals and helped create critical mass in the burgeoning psychological edge over regional rival Mexico? Perhaps. It was probably a better team performance in athletic terms.

But as historic moment: that match never happens if not for the shocking Portuguese ambush in Suwon. Because, if we’re honest, the remainder of the U.S. first round consisted of an underwhelming (although pulsating) draw with Korea and a full crash landing against Poland, a 3-1 loss with booboos aplenty.

So, the stunner over Portugal gets my vote.

Other “biggest moment” candidates: the day in 1988 (July 5) when FIFA awarded World Cup 1994 to the United States. Or perhaps a November day in 1989 when Paul Caligiuri carried the United States into World Cup 1990.

source:  But I’ll propose that June 5, 2002, was the most important date in U.S. Soccer – over the last 20 years, at very least.

The day was resplendent with Grade A performances from U.S. men, as Arena’s young group, confident beyond its years, dealt a devastating blow to Portugal’s ballyhooed and certainly overly confident Golden Generation.

O’Brien scored that shocking first goal after just four minutes. (He was also force in midfield ball handling that day.) Young DaMarcus Beasley, having never blinked when Arena informed him of an impending start, was a dervish, harassing Portuguese attackers and bothering the opposition with his fast feet going forward. Donovan announced himself to the world by engaging a Portuguese team that suddenly looked sluggish and slow – and perhaps irritated for being made to defend.

Tony Sanneh’s one-on-one defending at right back was flawless for most of the match, and one of his bursts forward provided the cross to McBride that situated his team with a 3-0 lead. In the 36th minute!

And about McBride: what a match that man had, undressing Portugal’s decorated center backs with a brilliant combination of skill, wits and American want-to.  Portuguese goalkeeper Vitor Baia couldn’t hold McBride’s blistering 4th-minute header off a corner kick, for instance. O’Brien was there to clean up. Later, McBride cleverly feinted toward the near post before breaking to the back, knowing exactly where Sanneh was about to drop that critical cross. And that was the 3-0 lead.

How ironic that such a momentous occasion was seen by such a precious few; that match started in pre-dawn hours. So, many sleepy U.S. fans awoke to the stunning news. Either way, the world was awake to a new player in the global game.


  1. dreadpirate82 - Jun 5, 2012 at 10:49 AM

    I’ll never forget watching the match with 1 of my 3 roommates. We were jumping around our apartment, silently screaming, and air high-fiving with each goal. My students the next day asked why I was smiling so big when I looked so tired. Just thinking about it makes this day so much better. Thanks for the happy wake up call.

  2. galpaugh - Jun 5, 2012 at 11:46 AM

    When I first saw this, I thought, “no way, The Shot Heard Round the World in ’89 is a bigger deal,” because I was thinking that was what launched the USMNT into the modern World Cup Qualifying streak. But in 1988 we were awarded the World Cup for ’94, so MLS would have been created regardless. So this win over Portugal in 2002, which began the run that eventually saved MLS from going out of business (it had contracted the two Florida teams only 18 months earlier) is arguably the much bigger deal. In addition to being the best performance by the USMNT in the modern era, it kept the domestic game alive here as well. Just think how much of an impact it would have had if it wasn’t on at 2 a.m. in the U.S.

  3. thedallasperspective - Jun 5, 2012 at 12:54 PM

    Picking between these moments is a little like picking which American war is most important – Revolution, Civil, WWII. I think it’s the most important of its kind, but what can’t there be more than one “most important”?

  4. Mateo - Jun 5, 2012 at 1:40 PM

    One of the most memorable moments of my soccer fandom. I had just driven up the Alaskan Highway from Washington State, I was stoked for the World Cup and had been rushing on the road in order to find a TV to watch this game. It was more of a late-night game than an early-morning game on AK time, and we watched it in the ratty living room of my ex-wife’s dirtbag buddy from high school. It was probably the first (and last for all I know) soccer game that dude had ever seen and I remember him finally getting excited when we went three goals up. Not as excited as I was though, holy crap that was unbelievable. I also remember a sinking feeling when the margin dropped down to one goal . . . I was terrified they were gonna pull it back.

    I also remember watching the US-Mexico match on a big screen in a bar in Seward with a ton of happy drunk people and just being overwhelmed with a feeling that, if this was happening in a hick town in Alaska then soccer was on its way, no doubt.

  5. drewvt6 - Jun 5, 2012 at 2:02 PM

    Had my 4 month old with me (now 10 and still loves to watch USA games) so momma could get another hour or 2 of sleep before heading into work. Of course the news people at the event picked up on it and he got his 1st air time!

    • Steve Davis - Jun 5, 2012 at 2:30 PM

      Great stories, all. It’s certainly one of those “Where were you when …” moments. (Love to hear more stories …)

      • dreadpirate82 - Jun 5, 2012 at 5:58 PM

        I’m with you, Steve. Love hearing these stories and don’t care to argue over what moment is the biggest. The stories are the best. It’s why I keep watching the YouTube video with reactions to Donovan’s Algeria goal. It’s also why my buddy cries every time he watches said video.

  6. section1guy - Jun 6, 2012 at 1:40 AM

    I was 19 years old. Never played or watched a soccer game really in my life. Thought it was stupid and a “gay” sport.

    For some odd reason, I decided to watch France-Senegal the first night and it was pretty cool to see an African-upstart beat the hated French.

    I convinced my little brother to stay up and watch USA-Portugal with me and I was instantly turned into a USA fan. It was like an epiphany. Now, I’m an American Outlaw. I switched cable carriers for Fox Soccer, and I subscribe to 100 soccer blogs.

    That night was the birth of USA soccer for me.

  7. jramsdale - Jun 7, 2012 at 3:18 AM

    I was at a packed George & Dragon Pub in Seattle, 2:30 in the morning. Alcohol can’t be served after 2 a.m. so everybody was drinking pop from disposable cups (used to differentiate from pint glasses–an agreement with the local liquor board just for the occasion, if I recall).

    With each goal the cheering was louder and more delirious. Many attending that night must have spread the word about the amazing experience because subsequent games as the Cup went on had more and more people until I had to find another bar–the crowd overflowed into the patio and then even the patio seemed over-full.

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