U.S. World Cup history 1930-2006 (cont.)
As memorable as 1994 had been, this one was totally forgettable. Precious little went right as the Americans were unceremoniously reminded of global soccer's class society: they were still the "help." Coach Steve Sampson's squad unraveled spectacularly in three first-round losses. A chastened United States would finish dead last among 32 teams and Sampson would be dismissed shortly upon touch down back home. In retrospect, something like this should have been more predictable from a roster that remained only marginally talented compared with most of the field. Still, growing interest back home, hope borne of the '94 second-round appearance and the contributions of fledgling Major League Soccer had offered false promise.
Plus, the trickle of U.S. talent into Europe continued. Midfielder Claudio Reyna was playing in Germany at Wolfsburg, where he had become one of the real American bright lights.
The U.S. met Germany straight away and the European heavyweight knew just how to get at Reyna. When Jens Jeremies kicked the U.S. midfielder in the back earlier in the opener at Paris' Parc des Princes, everyone in the stadium knew what kind of tight marking lay ahead for him. Meanwhile, Sampson had turned heads with his 3-6-1 gambit, a formation devised to shut down the German midfield. Tactical debates aside, it was Mike Burns' inability to protect the near post on a corner kick that put the Germans squarely in control. The second half was better, but things were sliding in the locker room after a 2-0 loss.
Sampson's choice to dump captain Harkes before the tournament -- for an alleged extra-marital affair with teammate Wynalda's then-wife, ugliness that would tumble out much later -- had affected locker room accord. Still, the quality and effort improved a few nights later in a tense night in Lyon, a security nightmare as the U.S. met political rival Iran. The U.S. made a good account as Sampson fielded an attack-minded lineup, but Iran struck on the counter in the 2-1 win. A final first-round date with Yugoslavia was moot. Sampson remained defiant in the face of it all. "I hope they remember this is an American team that played to attack," he said. "No American team has ever done that."
A minor miracle unfolded in the wee smalls of June 5. A mix of emerging stars and old U.S. hands from the 90s were expected to bunker in and limit damage in an opener against a celebrated Portuguese side. Instead, a brazen U.S. bunch ambushed the stunned Portuguese, who were down 3-0 inside 36 minutes. The European power could only rally to a point and the Americans turned a tournament on its head with a 3-2 win. John O'Brien and Brian McBride supplied the memorable strikes (along with a wickedly deflected Landon Donovan cross ruled an own goal.)
Suddenly, a formidable first-round assignment seemed less daunting. Clint Mathis' goal was enough to match the co-hosting South Koreans (1-1) before a 3-1 loss to Poland left the U.S. monitoring results.
Reprieve delivered, Bruce Arena's men set about their World Cup masterwork, a convincing 2-0 win over bitter regional rivals Mexico. Arena's 3-5-2 formation, with Reyna roaming on the right, confused the Mexicans, whose frustrations were soon evident. Toward the end, indicative of a clearly beaten team, Rafael Marquez was ejected for his mid-air, two-pronged assault on Cobi Jones. Meanwhile, the unsatisfied Americans were off to the quarterfinals (which remains its deepest foray in modern day tournaments).
Fortune may have favored the United States against Mexico, but luck was on Germany's side that day in Ulsan. Arena's team stretched the three-time World Cup winners, and Gregg Berhalter's second-half header should have produced a penalty kick. But Torsten Frings' handball on the German goal line went unseen by the man in the middle, and the U.S. effort fell short in a 1-0 loss.
Afterward, Arena was hardly embracing talk of respect gained and moral victories. "It's nice to hear all the praise that we played well, we should have won, we could have won, this call, that call," Arena said. "The bottom line is, we should have won. You have to win those games."
Back home, the nation was rapt. A U.S. audience of more than 7 million watched the quarterfinal. Upon stateside arrival, Donovan, Mathis, McBride, Reyna, Tony Sanneh, Arena and others hit the talk show circuit with appearances on everything from the network morning shows to Letterman to all points in between.
Such a deep run into World Cup 2002 inflated hopes as an older, presumably wiser team landed in Germany. But the draw had been unkind once again, and the chances of moving forward shrank almost immediately as the U.S. opened play against the Czech Republic in Gelsenkirchen. Miscommunication in the back led to a great chance early, and Jan Koller's powerful 5th-minute header punished the Americans.
Things got little better from there and the U.S. chances were immediately on the skids after a 3-0 loss. Arena's team scrambled to recover and did manage to staunch the bleeding temporarily thanks to a gritty, memorable night in Kaiserslautern.
Eventual winner Italy was the foe, but the Americans seemed unfazed. They matched an early Azzurri goal before the night devolved into a curious 10-on-9 affair. Pablo Mastroeni and Eddie Pope were ejected, joining Italy's Daniele De Rossi. With acres of space to cover, Donovan chased and harassed heroically, as did others in a tour du force of determined defending. A gripping night ended in a 1-1 draw, setting up a critical match against Ghana.
Reyna, a midfielder of so much class and quality, had a horribly bad moment. He turned an ankle while being stripped of possession near U.S. goal. Ghana took a lead and the Americans saw their best player limp away from international soccer. Clint Dempsey responded with a terrific goal but his side couldn't overcome a suspect penalty kick decision; German referee Markus Merk ruled that big defender Oguchi Onyewu had leaned too heavily on a much smaller Ghanaian forward. The 2-1 loss meant first-round elimination and, soon after, a coaching change for the United States.