Our series on the US at the World Cup continues with the second part of our look at the 1998 World Cup. You can read more about US World Cup appearances in 1930 (part 1), 1930 (part 2), 1934, 1950, the 1950-1990 drought, 1990, 1994, 1998 (part 1), 1998 (part 2), and 2002 (part 2).
Putting 1998 in the past
The US had been humiliated at the 1998 World Cup, its poor performance on the field—one goal scored in three losses— mirrored by acrimony and dissent off the field. Four days after the last match of the group stage, a 1-0 loss to Yugoslavia, US coach Steve Sampson, by now the focus of widespread criticism from within and without the US team, resigned.
In October of 1998, Bruce Arena was named as Sampson’s replacement. Though Arena had a notably successful career as a coach at the University Virginia, including five national championships with four in a row in 1991-1994, his national team experience was limited to a 1-1-1 record at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
At the club level, Arena had enjoyed far greater success with DC United including two MLS Cup and one US Open Cup victory. Reaching the CONCACAF Champions Cup semifinals in 1997, he lead DC United to win the Champions Cup in August of 1998 and followed that by winning the Interamerican Cup in November. All in all, not a bad way to kick-start one’s national team coaching career.
Arena would enjoy the full support of the United States Soccer Federation, as well as an unprecedented $2 million salary. He and his team rewarded such confidence quickly, defeating Germany 3-0 in February of 1999. Six months later Arena’s team defeated Germany again to finish third in the Confederations Cup. In the meanwhile, the US also defeated Argentina.
Apart from the country embracing the US Women’s team after their victory in the 1999 Women’s World Cup, much was at stake for the soccer in the US. Aside from wishing to erase the memory of the team’s dismal performance in 1998, MLS continued to struggle. If the prospects for soccer were to improve, it was essential that the US team have a good showing at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. Before they would have that chance, they would have to make it through sixteen matches of semifinal and final qualifying.
The first two qualifiers were away games. If that wasn’t tough enough, they each took place in July when conditions were sure to be hot and humid in Central America. For the first match on July 16, 2000, Guatemala sought to advantage of the local conditions: only a few weeks before the kickoff, they moved the location of the match from cooler Guatemala City to the tropical provincial city of Mazatenago.
Ante Razov gave the US a 1-0 lead just before the half at Estadio Carlos Salazar thanks to a pass from Claudio Reyna. As the second half progressed, the conditions began to tell on the many European-based players on the US side, playing as they were in their off-season, and Arena was slow in making substitutions. Momentum shifted to Guatemala and Carlos Ruiz equalized in the 88th minute, despite the fact that many believed he should have been ejected from the game after two clear fouls on Kasey Keller and defender Robin Fraser. All in all, the US was satisfied with a point on the road in such conditions.
The team next faced Costa Rica on July 23 at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa in San Jose. Rolando Fonseca scored for Costa Rica in the 10th minute with a header. Earnie Stewart equalized for the US in the 66th minute when he pounced on the rebound from Razov’s shot. The game would end controversially when Gregg Berhalter was called for a disputed handball in the penalty area and Hernan Medford converted the penalty kick in the 90th minute. Both Reyna and Arena verbally abused the official after the match—Reyna went so far as to throw his captain’s armband at him. Two months later, FIFA suspended Reyna for the next two qualifiers and Arena for three.
After two away games that resulted in only one point, the team desperately needed to win their next match. When they faced Barbados at Foxboro Stadium on August 16, the US completely dominated from the opening whistle. Their efforts were helped by the fact that two Barbados players had been given red cards by the end of the first half. The final score was 7-0 for the US with goals by Eddie Pope (14′), Brian McBride (28′), Joe-Max Moore (45′, 82′), John O’Brien (46′), Tab Ramos (72′) and Earnie Stewart (74′). It was the highest goal tally for the US in a World Cup qualifier, topping the six scored against Bermuda in 1968. Now in second place over Guatemala on goal difference, the seven goals could prove to be very valuable.
On September 3 the US faced Guatemala at RFK Stadium. Despite the fact that Eddie Lewis had been sent off in the 66th minute, Guatemala seemed content to settle for an away point and the match remained scoreless through the 72nd minute when McBride scored with a left-footed volley to beat Guatemala keeper Edgar Estrada. The 1-0 victory put the US in second place in the group with seven points, just two points behind first place Costa Rica, who they would meet at Columbus Stadium on October 11.
With Reyna, Lewis and Stewart suspended from the match, and McBride, Ramos, O’Brien, Pope and Brad Friedel injured, the US fielded a side that contained only five of the players who had faced Guatemala only a month before. A win would have secured advancement to the final round of qualifiers for either team. Instead, the result was a 0-0 draw.
The last match of the semifinal round was a must-win for the US if it was to be in control of its own destiny rather than rely on the outcomes of other qualifiers. In the first half, the US had difficulty moving the ball accurately on a pitch that was as wet as it was bumpy. Clint Mathis finally put the US on the board in the 63rd minute after finishing a pass from Moore. Stewart made it 2-0 in the 73rd minute. Four minutes later, Cobi Jones added another goal. Razoz finished things off with a fourth goal in the 90th minute and the US was through to the final round of qualifiers.
The final qualification round for the 2002 World Cup
Just as Guatemala had sought to gain an advantage by hosting its match against the US in a tropical city in July, the US looked to gain advantage by locating their first match of the final qualification round, scheduled for February 28, 2001, at Columbus Crew Stadium in Ohio. Their opponent: Mexico.
With the temperature below freezing and backed by an overwhelmingly pro-US crowd, the team gained a 2-0 victory over Mexico. Other than injuries to Reyna and McBride, nothing much happened in the first half. In the 47th minute Josh Wolff scored the first US goal with what was the first US shot of the match. Mexico threatened to equalize but Stewart’s goal in the 87th minute secured the win.
The US traveled to Estadio Olimpicos in San Pedro Sula to face Honduras on March 28. Injuries were again a factor with McBride, Moore, Pope and Reyna all sidelined. Stewart put the US in the lead in the 33rd minute when his 25 yard shot deflected off the back of defender Jose Reynaldo Clavasquin to wrongfoot Honduras keeper Noel Valladares. The home team came out with a vengeance in the second half and Julio Cesar de Leon scored an equalizer in the 59th minute. The US defense remained firm against the Honduran attack and a tie seemed likely. Then, in the 86th minute, Mathis scored a beautiful goal with a sharply taken free kick from 22 yards out. Against expectation, the US had won.
The US next hosted Costa Rica at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City on April 25. As had been the case in their last meeting, a handball was to be decisive. In the 70th minute Jeff Agoos‘ corner kick was headed by Mathis to Josh Wolff who then pushed the ball across the line to score. But when Mathis headed the ball he also swiped it with his arm. The Costa Rican players did not argue the noncall as much as the US had argued the called foul in July and the US was suddenly top of the final qualification group with nine points. Costa Rica, Jamaica and Mexico were tied for second with four points each.
The US met Jamaica at Kingston’s National Stadium on June 16. Playing conservatively, the US was happy with the point gained from the 0-0 draw. Solid defensive play had frustrated the Jamaican attack and two Jamaica goals were rightly called back.
On June 20 the US hosted Trinidad & Tobago at Foxboro Stadium. As had been the case in the previous games of this round, the US offense did not look particularly strong. Still, the defense was solid and the result was the team’s eighth shutout in its last nine qualifiers. What offense there was came in the first twenty minutes with Razov scoring in the 2nd minute and Stewart in the 20th. Now at the halfway point of the final qualification round, the US had thirteen points, ahead of second-place Costa Rica by three points. Incredibly, Mexico was in fifth place with only four points.
On July 1 the US traveled to Estadio Azteca to play Mexico. Enrique Meza had been replaced by Javier Aguirre as coach and the Mexico team was determined to keep its World Cup hopes alive. With Mathis injured, Reyna suspended and O’Brien not available because his club team, Ajax, had threatened to bench him for the rest of the season if he played, the US fielded a weakened midfield. Mexico dominated play from the opening whistle. In the 16th minute Alberto Garcia Aspe’s free kick from 40 yards out found an unmarked Jared Borgetti for the only goal of the match. Once again the US had lost at the Azteca. With Costa Rica’s victory over Honduras earlier in the day, the US was now in second place on goal difference.
On September 1 the US hosted Honduras at RFK Stadium. Again the US was missing some key starters and Honduras dominated the home side. Stewart scored for the US in the 7th minute. Milton Nunez responded for Honduras in the 28th minute and the score was tied 1-1 at the half after Stewart’s weak penalty kick was saved. A questionable penalty led to Carlos Pavon converting in the 59th minute. In the 76th minute, Nunez got his second goal of the match to make it 3-1. Stewart got his second of the match in the 83rd minute but the US could do no more.
The US next faced Costa Rica on Sept 5 at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa. Costa Rica completely controlled the match and two goals by Ronlando Fonseca—one from a penalty kick in the 40th minute after a late tackle by Carlos Llamosa that resulted in a red card, the other from a breakaway in the 68th minute—gave them a 2-0 victory and clinched their place in the 2002 World Cup. The US was now tied for fourth place with Mexico with only two games remaining.
On October 7, the US hosted Jamaica at Foxboro Stadium. Despite the importance of the match, the US gave a less than impressive performance. Still they scored quickly when in the fourth minute when Moore’s diving header from Reyna’s free kick put the US up 1-0. Ten minutes later Jamie Lawrence equalized for Jamaica. The match remained tied until the 81st minute when Landon Donovan was brought down in the box. Moore converted the penalty and the US had the win.
Improbably, the victory was enough to clinch a place for the US at the World Cup. With Mexico being held to a draw by Costa Rica and Trinidad & Tobago, who had till now only managed one point, beating Honduras away, the US was assured of a third place finish even if it was to lose its final match.
That final match took place at Hasely Crawford National Stadium in Port-of-Spain against Trinidad & Tobago. With nothing at stake for either team—a sharp contrast to twelve years earlier when Paul Caligiuri’s dramatic goal had put the US in the World Cup for the first time in forty years—the game produced little excitement and no goals.
No matter, the US was going to the World Cup, tied with Mexico with seventeen points but in third place on goal difference. Whether the US would be able to erase the memory of their terrible showing at 1998 World Cup remained to be seen.