TYAC Vault: Ahead of Saturday’s CONCACAF Cup, an older piece by Neil W. Blackmon on the goal that changed everything for US Soccer.
Nearly a decade before there was Landon Donovan, Ian Darke and “Goal, Goal USA!”, the United States Men’s National Team took the field at the Jeonju Castle in South Korea for the Round of Sixteen at the World Cup Finals. In a host of personal reflections on that day, I’ve often wondered if the members of Bruce Arena’s 2002 United States side understood at all, or had given much thought to the notion at least, that this was a day where they were playing more than arch-rival Mexico. In many ways this question is foolish. Of course they weren’t thinking about more than Mexico. After all, this was at a point in time where Mexico were still definitively an American nemesis, a regional giant the Americans couldn’t often slay, much less defeat with any marker of consistency. Given that task, there was no need to think of anything but the formidable opponent on the other side of the pitch. What’s more, the Mexicans were coming off a thrilling 1-1 draw with perennial world power Italy, and by most accounts, had controlled the run of play in that fixture. The Americans limped in to Jeonju having been throttled by Poland 3-1. Down 2-0 after five minutes, that scoreline will always seem historically flattering. The Americans had found their way into the second round only with help—Park Ji Sung lifted the hosts to an improbable 1-0 defeat of Portugal with a goal in the seventieth minute, and as the seconds of USA-Poland winded down, a tense stoppage time a few hundred miles away ended in agony for the highly-regarded Portuguese and saw the Americans through to the second round. Given this set of fortuitous circumstances, the Americans likely greeted the simple opportunity to play another game with alacrity, and would have been ambitious indeed to look beyond the talented, confident Mexican team set to face them. Ninety minutes against El Tri were what mattered, and history would tell the tale, and the tale would create my question.
But suppose for a moment that there had been at least a moment of reflection, a thought of scale and magnitude. Inevitably, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to suggest that the members of the 2002 US World Cup team would have realized that for historical purposes, there was more than Mexico involved in this match. This type of awareness of players in the game of scale beyond the game happens from time to time in sport. Surely, for example, the 2004 Red Sox were aware that they were playing more than the 2004 incarnation of the New York Yankees when they took the field in the Bronx for Game Seven. Johnny Damon’s home run early in the ball game did more than stake the Red Sox to an early lead. It cast aside residual doubt and hopelessness that had existed for eight and a half decades. By taking the initiative in the decisive game, the Red Sox message was simple: we (the team, not its at-the-time tortured and cynical fan base) will not sit around and allow the wheels to come off. This is just one example. One could cite more, especially if you turned to individual sports where the demons of past history, the little speedbumps and failures that make for compelling biography, are always lurking and hovering close to the contemporary moment. So yes, it is distinctly possible that there were at least a few members of the US Men’s National team on that sunny Jeonju day that likely recognized there was more than the 2002 version of the Mexican National Football Team to play against. There was a history, one checkered with failure, inadequacy, and more than those two, one demanding the simple chance to be written.
Thirteen years prior to that June day in South Korea, Paul Caliguiri had lifted US Soccer out of its own version of the Dark Ages with a marvelous, shocking strike against Trinidad and Tobago in the final qualifying fixture. The “shot heard round the world”, as it would come to be known in soccer lore, was really not that at all. It was simply a brilliant goal that ended nearly forty years of futility and misery for the United States soccer federation. The US was hardly leaving the Dark Ages and entering the Renaissance: ah, contraire, the Americans would be beaten soundly at the 1990 World Cup in all facets of international football. This was (and should have been) written off, after all, the Americans had played with a bunch of college kids. There was hardly a player collecting a check to play the game among them. Their efforts were more heroic symbolism than the stuff of hopeful expectation—indeed; they weren’t supposed to win anything. A draw, had it been in the cards, would have been the stuff of dreams. Back home, results were shrugged off by a public whose interest could best be described as paradoxical, a “curious disengagement” has always seemed the proper phrase. A few heads turned and a bit of pride was felt by the die-hards following a brave 1-0 defeat to host Italy, and it was, I think, a tremendous result. Caliguiri had removed the lock from the stairwell door, and for that, he and his teammates should always be remembered fondly. The hard work was just beginning.
Paul Caligiuri was probably not on the mind of many US Men’s National Team members in the build-up to the Mexico match. After all, the Americans had hosted the Finals in 1994 to record crowds and television ratings, and had acquitted themselves quite well (albeit on home soil), losing a hard-fought, physical game against ten man Brazil 1-0 in the Round of 16. To suggest an elimination round appearance on home soil signaled the beginning of the US’ soccer renaissance is, I think, ignorant of history. One only need to look at this summer and the failure of South Africa’s Bafana-Bafana to reach the Round of Sixteen to demonstrate how rare and remarkably received a home soil side that can’t advance is treated historically. The Americans in 1994 had done what they set out to do, though: not become a historical footnote about a host nation that didn’t advance. What’s more, they had demonstrated that they were capable of producing a player or two who might qualify as world-class, or at least be capable of playing in one of the global game’s elite leagues. Central defender Alexi Lalas was certainly of this grade and quality, ditto midfielders Tab Ramos and John Harkes. All three would play competitive football in high-level European leagues.
Progress was made, but the story of 1994 is (for the most part) and ought to be about what the Cup did for the game’s development at home. The Federation and a few well-intentioned dreamers parlayed the success of the tournament into a domestic professional league, MLS. With an eye on young development and slow, nurtured growth, this was the opposite of the NASL—not a retirement showcase for all stars but a genuine effort to improve the quality of the game played in the States and to increase the popularity, and as such the depth of the player pool, of the game at home. In all of those respects, at least in the opinion of this journalist, MLS has been a tremendous success, and 1994 was too. Indeed, a simple look at the roster Bruce Arena selected in 2002 indicates the success of MLS—it had served, even at that point, as a developmental laboratory for a great deal of the side (and eleven) that would take the field that fateful day in Jeonju. But after the 94 Finals, the national team was still missing something. Strides had been made but there was very little in the way of definitive achievement, and when France 1998 turned to unmitigated disaster, one had to wonder if a breakthrough would ever occur.
It is, I think, not at all absurd to suggest the failures of 1998, and the long-search for a defining moment, were at least circling Bruce Arena’s camp in the build-up to the second round duel with rival Mexico. Certainly the press (even if it wasn’t the still-fledgling domestic soccer press) asked these questions, which suggests that even if the players wanted to avoid thinking in the macro so as to focus on the micro, the writers and analysts saw the game as something different. They too, wondered if a breakthrough was coming for a nation so dominant at nearly every other sport, for a country whose domestic youth programs were growing at a rapid rate, for a team that had shown a great deal of grit and resolve in the group play. They speculated (loudly, I’d add) that the improved group play might have been the logical next step of this tournament. This was, they added, the first time a group of Americans had found a way to win a high-level, tournament play international FIFA match on foreign soil in half-a-century. Perhaps that was progress enough. With that collective notion in mind, the press, and the gamblers, made the Americans decisive underdogs.
Five minutes in it was hard to argue. The Americans had been dominated thoroughly by the Mexicans at the Azteca in qualifying, and this was nothing new, but it appeared as if Mexico genuinely believed its tactics in that match would be equally or close to equally effective at a “neutral” stadium. Attack the American right flank was the mantra, and with Frankie Hejduk, the Americans most stabilizing force in side defense, suspended for card accumulation, the thought was eventually El Tri could break their opponents from the north down. I don’t think anyone, including Mexico, thought they would have as much space as they had in the early going, however. An early threatening run down the right resulted in a corner for El Tri, and recognizing a height disadvantage and the need to draw at least a few additional Yank defenders out of the six, the Mexicans played it short. A marvelous cross ensued, and with Greg Berhalter soundly beaten, Jared Borgetti’s header missed inches over the crossbar. A questionable foul on Borgetti made that meaningless, but it was a signal of intent from Mexico: they would dictate play, and this meant attacking the two glaring American weaknesses—the American right flank, and the American center defense, laboring without the stalwart veteran Jeff Agoos, who was on the trainer’s table.
To counter this, Bruce Arena’s plan was to sit back and knock the ball around his own half when the Americans had it, probing with longer passes and hoping his talented central midfield could play aggressively enough in defense to create chances to counter when the Mexicans became overzealous. Just past the seven minute mark, Arena’s midfield earned a free kick near the center of the midfield after an overaggressive tackle by Mexico in an effort to stop just such a counter. The Yanks played the ball quickly to Claudio Reyna, who used his pace and strength to hold off two Mexican markers and reach the byline on the Mexican right flank. He played a divine ball to Josh Wolff, whose back heel flick towards the center caught a Mexican defender on the leg and fell perfectly to a late running Brian McBride, the prolific scoring MLS forward for the Columbus Crew. Without hesitation, McBride stuffed the ball into the lower left corner of the net. In an eyelash, the dynamic of the game had changed. In an instant, everything had changed.
The Americans were leading powerful Mexico, 1-nil, and the Mexicans, clearly rattled, began to press, turning the ball over frequently and becoming hyper aggressive in their tackles. What’s more, the press began to collectively think it was possible for the Americans to win—a thought that was not uttered aloud by many media-types before kickoff. One e-mail to Scott Murray, a football writer at the Guardian, reflects the level of shock and the sheer magnitude of McBride’s right foot on a global scale:
“Are you sure you don’t have the score wrong? 1-0? The Americans are leading? This is absurd. A country that completely doesn’t appreciate soccer shouldn’t be allowed to get this far. When Tiger Woods was asked about the World Cup, his answer was: ‘Not familiar with it. I’ve never been asked to participate.’ For this alone, the US Team should start all games with a deficit of two football points.”
A pair of fine Brad Friedel saves later saw the game to halftime, the Americans ahead 1-nil. As the Mexicans ratcheted up the pressure, Arena sensed a chance to double via the counterattack, and brought on Earnie Stewart, a veteran of previous American quests for the defining footballing moment. Twenty minutes into the second half, this ploy payed off, as Stewart won possession and calmly played the ball to John O’Brien. A masterful slicing ball found Eddie Lewis streaking down the Mexican left, who makes a marvelous cross into the Mexican box. The ball finds a thrilling young player named Landon Donovan, who is simply faster than his Mexican marker, and Donovan calmly heads the ball past a desperately lunging Oscar Perez. The Americans, brimming with confidence, dominated the remainder of the affair. Cobi Jones came on for McBride in the 78th, and most of you know the rest. Frustrated, Mexican star Rafa Marquez assaulted Cobi Jones in the back and was sent off and the Mexicans were sent home a few minutes later, less victims of their own overconfidence than prey, overcome by a superior team.
The key to the game was surely the first eight minutes. I still can’t recall seeing a soccer game where the psychology of the match was more dramatically evident. The Americans, man for man, were slightly less talented but certainly not a group that should have played with doubt—yet it is hard to characterize their start as reflecting anything but that. For seven (seemingly interminable) minutes, the US was dominated and looked as if the plan had been simply to hold on for dear life. This all changed in the eight minute—partly thanks to the magnificent Claudio Reyna, and with full credit to Josh Wolff’s cheeky layoff (deflection or no deflection). But the Americans had threatened the Mexican goal mouth at the Azteca or at neutral sites before. What changed everything in the eight minute was Brian McBride, who with ice water in his veins calmly slotted the ball home and the Americans ahead.
The eighth minute gave me the Americans the confidence they would need to take the initiative the rest of the way, despite massive Mexican thrusts forward and immense pressure. It sent the message that the Americans weren’t going to cling to a penalty kicks dream—they were going to make Mexico beat them. This was our time, McBride’s goal said: come and tell us it isn’t. Eighty minutes after the eighth minute, Rafa Marquez’s frustration-soaked criminally minded assault on Cobi Jones shifted the psychology of a rivalry permanently in the other direction. The Americans had frustrated the Mexicans to the point of cheating, had beaten them into a submission that they would not acknowledge without resorting to over-physical play or borderline intentional violence.
The above may seem an outrageous contention, but think back to the e-mail from one football writer to another. The Americans simply weren’t supposed to advance, yet here they were, taking it to the power in their region without a scintilla of doubt. It was the fact that the Americans weren’t supposed to win that the Mexicans that day couldn’t overcome. Brian McBride’s goal changed everything—it rattled the realistic foundation of the Mexicans sense of entitlement. The Mexicans were entitled to defeat the United States. After all, this was soccer, and they were the United States. McBride’s goal announced calmly: Yes, we are the United States, and no, you aren’t entitled to win.
In many ways, the Mexicans still haven’t recovered from that moment in the eighth minute. Sure, they beat a US team five-nil at the Gold Cup, and they grinded out a win at the Azteca. But truth be told, they’ve never recovered from the sense of entitlement, the hubris that McBride converted into tragedy that June day in South Korea. When they lose to the United States now, it is still the same thing: we are the better team, we lost the day but we are tactically and technically superior. We should win. We are better. It matters not how many times they lose dos y cero. And to be honest, to the Americans, it matters not what the Mexicans think. It didn’t matter in the Gold Cup Final five years later. It didn’t matter to young Michael Bradley in Columbus in the last qualifying cycle. It simply doesn’t matter to the Americans. They’ve known they can win since Brian McBride scored in the eighth minute, eight years ago.
Neil W. Blackmon is co-founder and Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com or you can follow him on Twitter at @nwblackmon.