They were angry. It hardly mattered to the U.S. players that they were perhaps the biggest surprise of the World Cup last week, or that they had finally buried the ghosts of 1998, or that their stunning 3-2 win over powerhouse Portugal was the Yanks' most significant soccer triumph in more than 50 years, maybe ever. And even though the Americans' 1-1 tie against South Korea on Monday put them on the brink of the second round—their pre-tournament goal—they wanted more. "We led until the end," muttered 20-year-old midfielder Landon Donovan after the U.S. had come within 15 minutes of victory in the lion's den of Daegu World Cup Stadium. "Everyone's pretty upset."
This is the new breed of U.S. soccer player, one who isn't satisfied with moral victories and pats on the head from the international soccer community. Yet when Donovan had time to digest Monday's result, he realized that soccer's favorite whipping boys have taken a quantum leap forward. It comes down to this: If the U.S. can tie or beat Poland (0-2) on Friday in Daejeon, or if South Korea defeats Portugal in Incheon, the Americans will reach soccer's Sweet 16. "Once we hit the showers, we realized this isn't so bad," Donovan said. "If you had told us we'd have four points after games against one of the favorites [ Portugal] and the home team, we would have taken it."
To see Group D favorites Portugal and Poland on the verge of elimination at week's end could only be disconcerting to European soccer fans, who invariably complain that other continents receive too many World Cup bids. As the self-appointed arbiters of the sport, Euros essentially split into two camps when it comes to U.S. soccer. There are the Snobs, who dismiss the Yanks as artless hustle players who never win when it counts (see World Cup '98). Then there is the smaller—but growing—faction of Fatalists, who fearfully assume that the U.S. will take over world soccer just as surely as McDonald's and Hollywood have invaded European popular culture.
Both sides weighed in after the U.S. upset of Portugal on June 5 in Suwon. The Snobs laid the blame on the losers' lax defense. PITIFUL PORTUGAL LEFT TO LICK THEIR WOUNDS, read a headline in The Times of London. The Fatalists, in turn, predicted doom and gloom for the Continent. AMERICA � ARRIVATO! ( America Has Arrived!) blushed the pink pages of Italy's La Gazzetta dello Sport, while a commentator for the Italian TV network RAI soberly intoned, "Well, Italy had better win this year, because after this everyone will have to move aside for the U.S.A."
The truth lies somewhere in between, of course, but the Americans' effort against the Portuguese certainly gave the Europeans reasons for pause, from forward Brian McBride's aerial superiority (he created one goal and scored another) to John O'Brien's deft midfield work to the way the defense, marshaled by the elegant Eddie Pope, shackled reigning world player of the year Luis Figo (whose $56 million market value exceeds that of the entire U.S. team). For God's sake, the Americans beat the world's fifth-ranked team without the benefit of their most skilled midfielder, the injured Claudio Reyna, or their most explosive scorer, Clint Mathis, whom coach Bruce Arena left on the bench.
Yet what frightened (and enticed) Europe most of all was a pair of 20-year-olds, Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, who tore through the Portuguese back line as though it were crepe paper. If Portugal has its Golden Generation, the storied backbone of its national team, then Beasley and Donovan are the Yanks' young Jedi Knights, joyously oblivious to past U.S. failures. ("The Portugal game," Donovan said last Friday, "is the only history I know.") Two months ago both youngsters seemed destined only for cameos on the world's biggest stage. But after midfielder Chris Armas tore his right ACL last month, Beasley took the starting spot on the left side, where his blinding speed—of foot and thought—is unmatched among U.S. wingers. Then, in a surprise move, Arena chose Donovan over Mathis against Portugal, citing Donovan's pace against a slow back line as well as his stamina in tracking back to defend.
It all worked. Donovan stretched the Portuguese defense and caused the second U.S. strike when his innocuous cross bounced off Jorge Costa's head and into the goal. Beasley, meanwhile, whipped down the left flank again and again, drawing five fouls from flailing defenders. No wonder he already has such nicknames as Run-DMB, Jitterbug and (Arena's favorite) Gumby. "You could say that they're too young and haven't played in a World Cup," Arena says. "But I've watched them every day next to players who have played in the World Cup, and if they're outplaying those guys, it doesn't make sense to me that they shouldn't be starting."
The 5'8" Beasley is listed at 126 pounds (the lightest of any of the 736 World Cup players), but he says he actually checks in at a hefty 134. These days the 5'8�" Donovan is packing a defined 150 pounds, thanks to a lifting program that he has continued during the World Cup, often with Beasley. It's a friendship that neither would have predicted when they first met in 1997 at the U.S. under-17 residency camp in Bradenton, Fla. "We weren't too close initially," says Donovan, who upon arriving took Beasley's attacking midfield spot, forcing him out to the wing. Nor did Beasley appreciate Donovan's overly exuberant celebrations after he scored two goals in his first U-17 game. "Everybody was like, 'Calm down. It's just a regional team,' " Beasley recalls. "It wasn't like we were playing Brazil"
Only after Donovan and Beasley won the top two individual awards at the 1999 under-17 World Cup (where the U.S. finished fourth) did they become nearly inseparable. In the days after the Portugal game, smitten reps for teams in Italy's Serie A, Spain's La Liga and the English Premier League made inquiries about the Seoul mates. Who knows? If they continue turning heads, their market values—$5 million for Donovan, $1 million for Beasley entering the World Cup—could soar as high as $10 million apiece. Donovan plans on returning to the San Jose Earthquakes, who have him on loan from Germany's Bayer Leverkusen, but..."I'll listen to anything," he says. Beasley would like to win an MLS title with the Chicago Fire, but..."I'm not gonna lie," he says. "I want to go to Europe."
More pressing, however, was Monday's game against cohost South Korea and its delightful supporters, the Red Devils, whose BE THE REDS T-shirts and KOREA TEAM FIGHTING! scarves have become the World Cup equivalent of the Roots berets at the Winter Olympics. Following South Korea's 2-0 opening-game victory over Poland, the first World Cup win in the nation's history, a throng of some 500 Red Devils gathered after midnight outside the hotel where the U.S. team's families are staying, waving flags and singing patriotic ditties in anticipation of their countries' clash in Daegu. Though the Red Devils' group was unmenacing, South Koreans are still bitter about an incident at the February Olympics in which short-track speed skater Kim Dong-Sung crossed the finish line first only to be disqualified, giving the gold medal to Apolo Ohno of the U.S. Further inciting the South Korean public last week, TV promos for the soccer match shamelessly began by showing Kim hurling his nation's flag to the ice in disgust.