The top-five team performances by the U.S. in World Cup history
The '06 World Cup was a disappointment bar an epic performance against Italy
The quarterfinal run in 2002 was galvanized by a stunning win over Portugal
The defeat of Mexico in '02 marked the end of El Tri's superiority in the rivalry
Yes, the list of choices is on the short side, but there have been a scattering truly outstanding team performances for the United States in past World Cups. Here are the top five:
The overall quality and outcome was underwhelming four years ago in Germany to be sure. But there was one memorable night, at least, a nine-man stand in Kaiserslautern that was nothing less than heroic.
Images of a bloody Brian McBride became the snapshot moment for this gripping, eventful first-round encounter, which kept Bruce Arena's team relevant in the tournament for the final first-round contest. The Americans had stumbled and bumbled in the opener against Czech Republic (a 3-0 loss) and faced the tallest of orders five nights later -- to get a result against Italy, a team that would ultimately march successfully to victory in Berlin.
Things were moving in the right direction against Italy until striker Alberto Gilardino got loose from his marker to give the Azzurri a 22nd-minute lead. Minutes later, however, defender Cristian Zaccardo flubbed a free-kick clearance into his own net and the result was the only goal Italy allowed at World Cup 2006. Minutes later, referee Jorge Larrionda dismissed Daniele De Rossi for a nasty elbow against McBride and Arena's men suddenly had a real chance.
It all went wrong when Pablo Mastroeni's crunching, needless tackle on Andrea Pirlo leveled the playing field. Eddie Pope joined Mastroeni on the dismissed list early in the second half, and the match became a rare 10-versus-9 affair.
From there, the Americans' gut-busting effort became the story. DaMarcus Beasley even scored against the run of play, although McBride was clearly offside on the sequence. Landon Donovan and Steve Cherundolo were utterly indefatigable in harassing the Italians and attacking selectively. Kasey Keller was predictably superb as the United States salvaged some pride that night at the Fritz Walter Stadium, draining some of the painful soreness from the opening loss. The 1-1 draw against Italy also set the stage for a meaningful first-round finale against Ghana.
Colombia was a dark horse favorite to win it all in 1994. The Americans, meanwhile, were seen as lightweights, probably undeserving of the automatic berth they received as hosts. So imagine the shock when the kids from America, many attached to minor league sides in a day before MLS existed, punctured the world order with a stunning 2-1 upset that evening in the Rose Bowl.
How did it happen? The plan arranged by Serbian tactician Bora Milutinovic, the U.S. coach, worked to perfection. Knowing that Colombia would be determined to barrel right down the middle, aiming to go through playmaker Carlos Valderrama, Milutinovic squeezed his team defensively, willing do concede the neglected wings.
Valderrama and Co. were stuck, rebuffed repeatedly by physical center backs Alexi Lalas and Marcelo Balboa. And when Columbian defender Andres Escobar recorded a notorious own goal, the South Americans were truly in a dogfight. (That own goal would turn tragic when, upon his return to Colombia, Escobar was murdered; it is widely believed the shooting was linked to his infamous own goal.) Earnie Stewart struck for a second U.S. goal and Balboa's near-miss on a spectacular long-range bicycle kick effort added extra decoration to the big night. Combined with the opening draw with Switzerland, the headline-making upset was eventually enough to move the United States into a second-round date with Brazil.
Most of America was still asleep when midfielder John O'Brien dropped jaws around the world, his point-blank volley crashing in against a stunned, vaunted generation of Portuguese stars. That early goal didn't just launch the first-round upset, it kick-started what is easily the finest overall World Cup yet for a U.S. side. (It finished with an oh-so-close, heartbreaking quarterfinal loss to Germany.)
So little had been expected of Arena's side in Asia considering the France fiasco of 1998; the Americans lost all three matches, scored just once and placed dead last among the field of 32. But Japan-Korea 2002 began unfolding as the Tournament of the Underdog, thanks in part to the American effort against the fancied Portugal.
And this was no fluke. Up-and-comers like Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, probably too young to understand that they were supposed to be unnerved by it all, looked lively and brimmed with intent. The Portuguese, meanwhile, seemed casually over-confident. If Donovan's deflected cross needed some luck to create a 2-0 edge, the bold movement that made it 3-0 was a sublime arrangement. Tony Sanneh knew just what McBride was doing when he faded toward the near post but suddenly shed his defender with a darting dash to the back stick. He cleanly met Sanneh's perfect centering pass from the right, supplying the United States with an utterly unthinkable 3-0 lead before intermission.
Surely, Portugal would attack the second-half with a vengeance, especially after drawing one back before the break? But that never happened, as a well-organized U.S. defense acquiesced lots of possession but limited the truly dangerous chances in the eventual 3-2 victory.
A book has been written and a movie produced about this absurdly improbable moment. A team of amateurs was given no hope of matching England, the very inventors of the game and a 3-to-1 favorite to lift the trophy in the end.
But the scrappy part-timers turned the World Cup upside down that night with the 1-0 win in the Brazilian mining town of Belo Horizonte. It ranks in tournament lore right alongside North Korea's stunning 1966 win over Italy as the unlikeliest of upsets.
Immigrant Joe Gaetjens, quintessentially "American" as the son of a Haitian mother and a Belgian father, had studied at Columbia University and was presently employed part-time as a dishwasher. But he ruled the night, redirecting a 37th-minute shot to provide the U.S. lead. From there, a team of scrappers who had hoped only to limit the damage and avoid humiliation needed big effort and some good fortune to hold on desperately.
A result that shocked the world created barely a ripple here. The game did nothing to hasten soccer's slow march up the domestic sports totem poll, and the Americans wouldn't land in another World Cup for 40 years. Ironically, only decades later did Gaetjens and the events in Belo Horizonte reach a sort of iconic status; as soccer gained in popularity here, the legend grew.
Walter Bahr, who was paid $100 a week for World Cup duty in 1950, told the New York Times in 2009: "The older I get, the more famous I become."
The Americans' 2-0 win on June 17, 2002 in Jeonju looms large in reshaping the nations' bitter border rivalry. It was historic for the United States but absolutely devastating for El Tri, which could no longer claim supremacy over its formerly weaker neighbor.
The nations had met many times before but never in a match of such importance, in the elimination phase of a World Cup. President George Bush called before the match to wish the team luck; U.S. players asked, "Which president?" unaware that the President was caught up in it all, right along with so much of the country.
This was the neighbors' first World Cup meeting; a spot in the quarterfinals was at stake. Mexico bossed much of the first half, but El Tri still wasn't 100 percent in control. McBride supplied an early lead by capping a precision counter attack, one initiated on Claudio Reyna's well-timed surge up the right side.
In a tactical stunner, Reyna had lined up on the right in a 3-5-2, a move which seemed to flummox the Mexicans. After the break, it was Eddie Lewis on the left who mashed the pedal on another precision counter attack. Donovan's pace put him in position for a clinical header and the United States had a 2-0 lead in the 65th minute.
Reyna was brilliant all afternoon. Goalkeeper Brad Friedel was unwavering. Sanneh and O'Brien were having fantastic tournaments.
Mexican players stormed off the field in a maddened huff of frustration and disbelief. The Americans, meanwhile, began focusing on a quarterfinal date with Germany. "It's a great day for U.S. Soccer," Arena said afterward.