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), 2002 (part 1) and 2006.
On the road to the 2002 World Cup hosted by South Korea and Japan, US coach Bruce Arena had used 31 different players in the sixteen qualifying matches in 2000 and 2001. The large number of players used was as much related to injuries and suspensions as it was to the desire to try emerging new talent like Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley. At the World Cup, Arena would start sixteen different players, using different lineups for each of the team’s five matches.
By the time the US had won the 2002 Gold Cup on February 2 by beating Costa Rica, Arena had largely settled on his World Cup roster, one which featured eleven players from MLS, six from England and six from other European leagues. Even with the 20-year-old Donovan and 19-year old-Beasley, the average age of the squad was 29.
Arena was upfront about his team’s chances:
We’re not going to win [the World Cup] because we’re not a good enough team. I don’t think anyone is going to be damaged by us saying that. I mean, how many countries have won it? If we can get a point in the first game, it will put the whole group in chaos.
Hoping for a point against Portugal’s “golden generation” in a group that included Poland and host country South Korea seemed reasonable enough. With veterans like Claudio Reyna and Clint Mathis injured and newcomers like Pablo Mastroeni, Beasley and Donovan making up a starting eleven that had never been tried before—David Wangerin notes in Soccer in a Football World that before the match Arena joked with reporters that none of them could name his starting lineup—surely a victory would be too much to hope for?
The Group Stage
USA 3–2 Portugal
The US met Portugal on June 5 at Suwon World Cup Stadium. Four minutes into the game a Brian McBride header from a corner kick by Earnie Stewart was parried by Portugal goalie Vitor Baia directly to the feet of John O’Brien, who promptly put the ball into the net. Some 26 minutes later, a Donovan cross was deflected by defender Jorge Costa toward goal and Baia was unable to make the save. In the 36th minute, Tony Sanneh’s crossed to a diving McBride for a beautiful header to make it 3–0. Mastreoni recalled later, “After the first goal, I didn’t really celebrate, I just jogged back. The second goal, same thing. But after the third goal, it was like, ‘This is for real.’” For the first time since the 1930 when Bert Patenaude had scored the first hat trick in the history of the tournament the US had scored three goals in a World Cup match.
How “real” it was became quickly apparent when Beto Severo scored for Portugal in the 39th minute. When an own goal by Jeff Agoos made it 3–2 in the 70th minute, history buffs began to draw references to Portugal’s come-from-behind win over North Korea in 1966 when they had also been down by three goals and eventually won 5–3. While much of the final 45 minutes was played in the US half of the field, the US managed to hold on for its first World Cup victory on foreign soil in 72 years. (You can view a YouTube clip of the match below.)
USA 1–1 South Korea
South Korea had been creating some chaos of its own, winning its first match against Poland 2–0. When the US stepped onto the pitch at Taegu World Cup Stadium on June 10 they encountered a wall of noise generated by the home support that must have be reminiscent of what they regularly encountered in qualifying matches in Mexico or Costa Rica. South Korea would dominate much of the match, outshooting the US 19–6, with seven corner kicks and none for the US.
But they had yet to establish their dominance when the now starting—and Mohawk sporting—Mathis received a through ball from O’Brien and left-footed it past goalkeeper Lee Woon-jae in the 24th minute. Friedel had an outstanding match which included saving a penalty kick from Lee Eul-yong in the 41st minute and two spectacular saves of shots from Seol Ki-hyeon. Ahn Jung-hwan’s flick-on header from Eul-yong’s free kick finally gave South Korea the equalizer in the 78th minute. In the 87th minute South Korea had its last best chance to win the match when Choi Yong-soo sent a shot from ten yards out over the bar, but the US managed to hold on for a draw.
Sometimes a draw can feel something like a victory. Given the South Koreans’ dominance throughout the match and voracious home support, this was one of those times. Though they had been outplayed, the US had managed to hold on for what would become a crucial point with winless Poland up next while South Korea still had to face Portugal. (You can view a YouTube clip of the match below.)
Poland 3–1 US
With Poland already eliminated, the US needed only a tie in their match against Poland at Taejon World Cup Stadium on June 14 advance to the second round. Poland, however, had other ideas. Three minutes into the match Emmanuel Olisadebe made it 1–0 for Poland when he poked home a deflection from a corner kick. After five minutes of play Poland was up 2–0 thanks to a goal from Pawel Kryszalowicz. In between those two goals, a goal by Donovan was called back. Marcin Zewlakow made it 3—0 in the 66th minute. In the 83rd minute Donovan scored what amounted to a consolation goal. From only needing a tie to advance it now seemed that the US was finished, for surely Portugal, who had shellacked Poland 4–0 four days earlier, would beat South Korea.
But, 115 miles away, at Incheon Munhak Stadium, the improbable had happened. In the 70th minute, Park Ji-sung scored against a Portugal side that was down to nine men, thanks to two red cards, to give South Korea seven points and a first place finish in the group. The US finished in second place with four points. Portugal and Poland, each with three points, were going home. (You can view a YouTube clip of the match below.)
The Round of 16
USA 2—0 Mexico
At Jeonju Stadium on June 17, the US faced Mexico in the Round of 16. It was somehow fitting that the US would now face its bitterest rival for, if ever there was a time to prove to the world that the US deserved its place in the tournament, it was now. It helped that the US had won four out of five of their last meetings with Mexico.
For the first 36 minutes of the match, the US absorbed the pressure applied by Mexico. Then, McBride quickly took a free kick to set Reyna free on the right, who passed the ball to Josh Wolff at the near post. Wolff then pushed the ball out to a lurking McBride who scored with a blast from 12 yards out. Ten minutes into the second half, Mexico was denied a certain penalty and possible red card when O’Brien appeared to punch a shot clear of goal with his right hand. Ten minutes after that, Donovan’s header in the 65th minute made it 2–0. Increasingly frustrated, Mexico started getting chippy, and an ugly challenge on Cobi Jones resulted in Rafael Marquez being sent off in the 88th minute. But dirty play was no more effective than clean play and the US was on its way to the quarterfinals, continuing their best campaign since reaching the semifinals at the inaugural World Cup in 1930.
Once again Arena had used a different lineup, this time debuting defender Gregg Berhalter and Eddie Lewis. Donovan had again been played in a different position then his previous match. When asked if the performance of the US thus far at the World meant that the team was now in the upper echelon of the world game, Arena responded, “Not even close. We’re not pretending to be at the same level as the established teams, but the gap has closed considerably.” (You can view a YouTube clip of the match below.)
USA 0—Germany 1
While Germany had reached the quarterfinals or better in thirteen consecutive World Cups, they were not as strong as they had been in 1974 or 1990. Many wondered if this would be the match in which they would stumble. The US felt confident enough to take the attack to Germany from the start but simply couldn’t convert their chances. Late in the first half, momentum shifted to Germany and they began to threaten the US with a series of dead-ball opportunities. In the 39th minute Michael Ballack headed a free kick from Christian Ziege into the US goal.
Germany spent the second half defending their one goal lead and were eventually outshot by the US 11–6. Berhalter’s volley in the 50th minute was saved only by Torsten Frings unintentional handball and Sanneh’s header in the 80th minute was just barely wide. In the end, the US simply couldn’t finish their chances and the match ended 1–0 for Germany. (You can view a YouTube clip of the match below.)
While some suggested that the German’s had simply absorbed the US attack, others felt that the US had clearly outplayed their opponents. On any given day, Frings’ handball might have been called and Sanneh’s header gone in. In the moment, despite their disappointment, the US players could be proud of their performance for they had played well and hard and done much to quiet the ghost of 1998. Germany would go on to beat South Korea 1–0 in the semifinals and would lose to Brazil 2–0 in the final. Whether Arena and the US soccer were building an organization that could rightly claim a place among the upper echelon of the world’s game would be a topic for the next World Cup.
USA v Portugal
USA v South Korea
USA v Poland
USA v Mexico
USA v Germany