U.S. World Cup history 1930-2006
The U.S.' best-ever performance was third in the 1930 World Cup held in Uruguay
The U.S.' victory over England in 1950 remains one of the greatest upsets ever
As World Cup hosts in '94, the U.S. unexpectedly advanced to the knockout stage
The United States soccer team played only a bit part as the World Cup grew through the former century into the global behemoth we know today. But the Americans have had something to say during six consecutive appearances in the finals (counting this one in South Africa) starting in 1990. Here's the quick rundown of how every U.S. World Cup appearance has unfolded:
Only 13 teams even bothered to participate in the inaugural event. Not only was the United States one of them, the Yanks were even seeded. Imagine that. They beat Belgium and Paraguay to advance into the semifinals. But Argentina crushed the Americans 6-1 before losing to Uruguay in the final. The entire tournament was played in one city, Montevideo, Uruguay.
The field grew -- and the U.S. presence shrank accordingly. In fact, the United States nabbed the very last of 16 berths, defeating Mexico in Rome in a one-game play-in just three days before the tournament. The stay was brief; host Italy made short work of the Americans in a 7-1 crusher in Rome during single-elimination play. In the big picture, the tournament was growing quickly, now involving 32 entrants (winnowed to 16 qualifiers) and hosted in eight cities. The tournament was also a signpost for terrible times ahead: Italy's dictator Benito Mussolini saw the event as a handy propaganda tool to promote fascism.
Organizational and logistical strife was the pre-tournament story of the initial tournament after WWII. But the Americans soon gave the world something else to talk about, shocking England with that famous 1-0 outcome in Belo Horizonte. Coached by Scotsman Bill Jeffrey, the American team of part-timers had actually led Spain for in the opener before conceding three goals late. Still, the English were taken by surprise a few days later. And when Haitian-born Joe Gaetjens' redirected a speculative effort in the first half, the inventors of the game were in deep trouble. The Americans held for dear life and an iconic image was born: Gaetjens being carried victoriously from the pitch for his part in what remains one of global soccer's greatest upsets. Regardless, the Americans still finished last in the four-team first-round group.
The United States had been awarded World Cup 1994 two years prior to Italia '90. So it might have been awkward if the United States were adjudged incapable of qualifying for a World Cup without the grace of host status. Qualification, therefore, was critical for the 1990 World Cup -- and yet the Americans still needed a wee little miracle on the final day of the process in Trinidad and Tobago. Paul Caligiuri supplied one with a massive goal that historic day in Port-of-Spain. His shot had been hit with only a smidge of authority but was fortuitously well-angled against a setting sun.
At the finals in Italy, coach Bob Gansler had the tough assignment of assembling a representative side of collegians and indoor soccer players. He was criticized as overly conservative; but truly, what did people expect? Players such as Eric Wynalda, John Harkes, Tab Ramos and a few others would later enjoy fine careers, but they were young and na´ve at the time. Wynalda proved as much in the opener when he was baited into a red card in a humbling 5-1 loss to Czechoslovakia.
Things improved slightly in a 2-1 loss to Austria and a closer-than-expected 1-0 loss to the host Italians. Still, the Americans had been exposed and would need to do better in four years time.
A World Cup staged in the United States would come and go with a whimper, played out anonymously inside half-empty stadiums as the nation yawned. Or so the conventional wisdom went as spoken by big media, which would soon be exposed as immeasurably out of touch.
World Cup 1994 set attendance records (that still stand) and raked in massive profits. On the field, the Americans proved surprisingly solid as well. A few exports were playing in Europe by then, although much of the roster remained attached to a small-time league here.
The heart of the side was in the defense, a back line screened by German "passport player" Thomas Dooley and anchored by bullyboy center backs Marcelo Balboa and Alexi Lalas. Many of the players had never been part of a fully professional team. But Lalas said recently they were coached to play within themselves and not attempt what they couldn't do. "Everyone knew how we were going to play," he said recently. "It might not be pretty at times, but it would be effective."
It was effective enough in an opening tie against Switzerland, a good side at the time. Wynalda's expertly hit free kick helped split the points (a 1-1 draw) in the World Cup's first indoor game; it was played inside the Detroit Silverdome, where grass had been grown outside and then assembled indoors in large trays.
The result was just an appetizer for the United States' big moment, a 2-1 win over fancied Colombia in the Rose Bowl. An infamous Colombian own goal before the break and a Ramos-Earnie Stewart effort after intermission was backed by gritty defending in the tournament's biggest shocker.
A disappointing 1-0 loss to Romania to close the first round left the Americans waiting on results to ensure a spot in elimination play. They made it, but were stuck with a July 4 date against mighty Brazil. Leonardo's vicious elbow nearly ruined Ramos' career, but it did reduce the vaunted Brazilians to 10-men for the entire second half. Relentless pressure finally paid off as Bebeto and Romario, Brazil's wondrous attacking tandem, combined for the game's only goal.
The second-round match was lost, but so much had been accomplished. Respect for the American team was growing, if grudgingly so. And the tournament's success began moving the game beyond media punchline status, as the sport sunned itself briefly in the American mainstream.
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