Our series on the US at the World Cup concludes with a look at the 2006 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 2002 (part 2).
While the US enjoyed its best finish at the inaugural World Cup in 1930 where it finished third, it is safe to say the team’s best World Cup performance was in 2002. Finishing third in 1930 was a major accomplishment that had surprised many observers. But, only four European teams made the trip to Uruguay and no African or Asian countries were represented. Simply put, in 1930 the tournament was a “World Cup” more in name than actual fact.
In 2002, the US again surprised many observers by making it to the quarterfinals and the team’s performance in the quarterfinal match left many observers thinking that the US had actually outplayed the winner of that game and eventual finalist Germany. After a dismal performance in 1998 where the US finished 32nd out of 32 teams, the US had shown it deserved to be on the world stage.
While the third place finish in 1930 came at a time when the American Soccer League could legitimately claim to be the second most popular professional team sport in the US, the economy of professional sports was barely developed. Professional soccer would experience years of decline before the NASL all too brief brief and entirely unstable appearance. Its reliance on aging foreign players to sell tickets meant that the league’s contribution to the development of talent for the national team was marginal at best.
With the appearance of Major League Soccer in 1996—the origin of which was tied to the US winning the bid to host the 1994 World Cup—the US now had a pool of players who either had their beginnings in, or were currently playing in, a stable professional American soccer league, even if it was one that continued to struggle to find its place in a professional sports economy that had long been staked out by American football, baseball, basketball and hockey.
The US campaign in 2002 had gone some way in helping to shore up MLS as fans of the national team both new and old looked for ways to continue to follow the game. Importantly, the US performance had raised the expectations of those fans as well as more casual observers. Simply making it to the World Cup was no longer enough. By the time of its fifth consecutive World Cup appearance in Germany in 2006 US soccer fans now expected the team to advance from the group stage.
Qualifying for the 2006 World Cup
Some 34 countries participated in the preliminary round of CONCACAF qualifiers, with ten groups of three teams and two groups of two teams. The best ranked team in each of the first ten groups of three was given a bye. At least ten teams—three of which were coached by former US national team coaches— in the first round would use players from the MLS, an indication of the league’s growing regional importance.
Placed in the first group of the preliminary round, the US faced Grenada, who had beaten Guyana by a total score of 8–1 in its first two games. The US beat Grenada in both of their meetings. DaMarcus Beasley scored a brace (45′, 71′) and Greg Vanney one (90′), in a 3-0 victory on June 13, 2004 at Columbus Crew Stadium. When the teams met at Grenada National Stadium on June 20, the match was tighter. Jason Roberts (12′) and Ricky Charles (77′) scored for Grenada but the US was never behind in the match with goals from Landon Donovan (6′), Josh Wolff (19′) and Beasley (76′).
The US was again in Group 1 in the second stage of the CONCACAF qualifiers, this time along with Panama, Jamaica and El Salvador. They began against Jamaica away at Independence Park on August 18 in front of wildly enthusiastic home support. The home team came out to attack but the US was able to stop any threats until Ian Goodison scored in the 49th minute. Brian Ching, playing in his third international, salvaged the tie when he shot home a pass from Donovan in the 88th minute.
Hosting El Salvador at Gillette Stadium on September 4, the US dominated the match, outshooting their opponents for 19–1 for a 2–0 win from goals by Ching (5′) and Donovan (68′). Playing Panama four days later at Estadio Rommel Fernandez, the US put in one of their worst performances in years, though Roberto Brown’s goal in the 69th minute was equaled by Cobi Jones in stoppage time from what appeared to be an offsides position.
The US coasted its way through the rest of the second stage of qualifiers. At Estadio Cuscatlan in El Salvador on October 9, Brian McBride scored the first goal in the 2–0 victory in the 29th minute. Eddie Johnson, playing in his international debut, scored the second in the 75th minute, just five minutes after coming on as a sub. Four days later the US demolished Panama 6–1 at RFK Stadium. Donovan’s two goals (21′, 56′) was bested by Johnson’s hat trick (69, 84′, 86′), this time after being subbed into the game in the 65th minute. Panama contributed to the tally with an own goal by Jose Anthony Torres in the 89th minute.
Having secured its advancement to the final round of qualification, the last match against Jamaica at Columbus Crew Stadium on November 17 was notable primarily for Johnson scoring his fifth goal (15′) in only 61 minutes on the pitch as an international, so becoming the first US player to score in his first three qualification games. Jamaica’s Andrew Williams scored in the 26th minute for a 1–1 draw.
In the third and final stage of qualification, the US was joined by Mexico, Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago, Guatemala and Panama. At first the US team was overshadowed by events off the field: the US players were involved in a contract dispute with the the United States Soccer Federation over player compensation, retroactivity and World Cup bonuses that resulted in the cancellation of the January 2005 training camp. Thankfully, the players agreed to put aside the dispute until after the qualifiers were completed.
The US renewed its campaign with a 2–1 victory over Trinidad & Tobago on February 9 at Queen’s Park Oval in Port-of-Spain, with Johnson (23′) scoring again. Eddie Lewis scored in the 53rd minute and Angus Eve got a consolation goal for the home team in the 87th minute.
Lewis next scored the team’s lone goal in the 58th minute in a 2–1 loss to Mexico at the Azteca on March 27. Having packed the midfield with five players, the US held off Mexico for the first 30 minutes when Jared Borgetti scored. Two minutes later, Zinha scored again for Mexico. The US rebounded three days later with a 2–0 victory over Guatemala at Legion field in Birmingham, Alabama, with goals by Johnson (11′) and Steve Ralston (69′).
The US next hosted Costa Rica on June 4 at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. Two goals by Donovan (10′, 62′) and another by McBride (87′) gave the US a 3–0 win. Four days later, the US beat Panama 3–0 with goals from Carlos Bocanegra (6′), Donovan (19′) and McBride (39′). Taking time off to win the 2005 Gold Cup over Panama on penalty kicks, the team resumed its qualification campaign with a 1–0 victory over Trinidad & Tobago on August 17 at Rentschler Field, thanks to a McBride goal in the 2nd minute.
The US now needed only one more victory to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. Fittingly, their next opponent was Mexico. After a scoreless first half at Columbus Crew Stadium on September 3, the US took the lead with a goal from Ralston in the 53rd minute. Four minutes later, Claudio Reyna delivered the ball to Beasley who finished to make it 2–0, the final scoreline of the match.
Unimaginable only a few years before, the US had qualified for the World Cup with three matches to go. A 0–0 draw against Guatemala at Estadio Mateo Flores on September 7 was followed by a disappointing 3–0 loss to Costa Rica at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa on October 8 with a single goal by Paulo Wanchope (34′) and two from Carlos Hernandez (60′, 88′). But the US rebounded with a convincing 2–0 victory over Panama four days later at Gillette Stadium thanks to goals from Kyle Martino (51′) and Taylor Twellman (57′).
At the 2006 World Cup
The performance of the US team at the 2002 World Cup, combined with its dominance in the CONCACAF qualifications for the 2006 World Cup and being ranked fifth in the world going into the tournament, meant high expectations within the US team and for its fans.
Eleven players returned from the 2002 squad. For core players Kasey Keller and Reyna, 2006 would be their fourth World Cup, the third for McBride and Eddie Pope. Young phenoms at the 2002 World Cup like Donovan, Beasley, Wolff and Pablo Mastroeni were joined by new talents like Philadelphia’s own Bobby Convey as well as Oguchi Onyewu, Johnson and Ching. But the US had been drawn into the Group of Death with the number 2 ranked Czech Republic, number 13 ranked Italy, and Ghana who, despite being ranked 48th, were a formidable force.
USA 0–3 Czech Republic
When the US played Czechoslovakia in its first World Cup match in 40 years in 1990, it took 25 minutes for the Czechs to score in what became a 5–1 rout. This time, reality came to the US five minutes into the first match off of the head of Jan Koller. By the time Tomas Rosicky was finished adding two more goals in the 36th and 76th minute the US was in a state of shock. Looking like a “bewildered World Cup newcomer again,” the US had managed only one shot on goal during the game. Its showing at the previous World Cup meant that the US was taken very seriously by the Czech team and they “swarmed” Donovan and Beasley, the surprise sensations of 2002.
Coach Bruce Arena, not one to publicly criticize his players, said ”Landon showed no aggressiveness tonight . . . We got nothing out of Beasley on the night.” Convey was singled out as one of the few US players who had ”the courage” to attack. Said Keller after the game, ”We didn’t play well. We didn’t compete. We didn’t make the plays . . . It was just a shame. We definitely gave the game away, and that’s what we’re frustrated about.” (You can watch a YouTube clip of the game below.)
With their next match against Italy only five days away, Reyna warned, ”We all have to learn quick, especially the young guys . . . We can’t wait months or years to get better. We have to get better quickly, and I think we can do that.” In actuality, the US’ chances were very slim: in the previous two World Cups, only one team, Turkey, had lost its first match and managed to advance out of the group stage.
USA 1–1 Italy
In a game that featured a lot of red in the form of blood, it was red cards that were the deciding factor in this hard fought match.
The US knew it needed a win if it was to have any control over its own destiny and the team made its intentions clear to the Italians from the start. But in the 22nd minute the team’s difficulties in defending set pieces showed when Alberto Gilardino got behind the US defense to head home Andrea Pirlo’s free kick. Five minutes later the US got lucky when Convey’s free kick was deflected into the net by Cristian Zaccardo.
And then the Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda began “flashing red cards at a pace seldom seen in World Cup play,” sending off Daniele De Rossi for a nasty challenge to McBride that required three stitches to his left cheek. Seventeen minutes later, Mastroeni was sent off for a cleats-up challenge to Pirlo. Mastroeni said afterward, ”I think that foul anywhere in the world is a yellow card.” Two minutes into the second half Pope was sent off after receiving a second yellow card for a tackle in which he first won the ball and then took down Gilardino. The rest of the match would be played nine on ten.
Still, the US continued to attack and in the 66th minute Beasley appeared to score the go ahead goal only to have it called back for offsides. The US was kept in the game largely because of an outstanding performance by Keller that included him making two terrific saves of dangerous shots by Alessandro Del Piero. Said Keller after the match, “It was a crazy game.” (You can watch a YouTube clip of the game below.)
The draw gave the US its first point in any World Cup match in Europe. While this may have been an small consolation, greater consolation was provided by the upset victory by Ghana over the Czech Republic: the point meant that the US could advance if they could beat Ghana and Italy also beat the Czechs.
USA 1–2 Ghana
The US faced Ghana in a do-or-die match on June 22 at EasyCredit-Stadion in Nuremberg. When Haminu Draman put Ghana up 1–0 in the 22nd minute the US did not wilt and in the 43rd minute Clint Dempsey equalized with a volley from a cross by Beasley. Only four minutes later, in the second minute of first half stoppage time, the game turned on a hotly disputed call by German referee Markus Merk. Jostling for a header on the edge of the penalty area, the 6-foot-4 Onyewu made contact with the 5-foot-8 Razak Pimpong. Steven Appiah converted the penalty kick to put Ghana up 2–1.
The team’s best chance to equalize in the second half was a diving header by the fearless McBride in the 66th minute that banged off of the post. But the US simply could not find the net. Despite Italy’s 2–0 victory over the Czech Republic, the US was out of the World Cup. (You can watch a YouTube clip of the game below.)
Said Donovan after the match,
The worst part is the finality of it . . . Even during the game, you don’t get the sense, ‘This is it.’ The whistle blows and it’s over.
Ghana would lose 3–0 to Brazil in the Round of 16. Italy would beat Australia 1–0 off of a controversial penalty during stoppage time. In the quarterfinals they beat Ukraine 3–0. Against Germany in the semifinals Italy won with two goals after extra time. In the final—well, we all know what happened there, don’t we.
As they had done in 1998, the US finished dead last in the tournament. The team managed only four shots on goal during group play, the lowest tally of any team at the 2006 World Cup. Three weeks after the tournament, Arena was dismissed. By the end of the year, the US had dropped to 31st in the FIFA rankings. Ghana was ranked 28th.
After the 2006 World Cup
Bob Bradley replaced Arena as coach of the national team after a period as interim coach in May of 2007. In June he led the US to win the 2007 Gold Cup and the US climbed to 16th in the FIFA rankings. After a less than impressive start in the 2009 Confederations Cup that included a 3–1 loss to Italy and a 3–0 loss to Brazil, the US beat Egypt 3–0 to advance the semifinals where it produced a shocking 2–0 upset over number one ranked Spain. Scoring two goals against Brazil in the first half of the final, the US gave up three goals in the second half and lost. But the lift of the team’s performance was a gift to US soccer fans that, along with a successful, if somewhat shaky, qualification campaign for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, once again produced expectations that it is hoped are more realistically grounded.
Soccer in the US continues to grow, just as MLS continues to add new clubs to the league. In 2006, more Americans attended the World Cup than in 16 of the seventeen tournaments put together—the exception being the 1994 World Cup hosted by the US. For the 2010 World Cup, Americans fans bought more match tickets than any other traveling nation, more than England and Germany combined. In 2006 an astonishing seventeen million viewers tuned in to watch the World Cup final, more than would watch the final game of the 2006 World Series. It is entirely possible that more will watch the US team’s first match of the World Cup against England.
US soccer fans are now among the best informed in the world. As the sport’s fan base continues to grow, the familiar news stories connecting the popularity of the sport in the US to the national team’s performance at the World Cup are less about the soccer’s survival than about how success at the World Cup might help to increase the popularity of MLS. Every fan of the game in the US expects the team to advance out of the group stage because informed fans know that the US is realistically good enough to make this happen. If they should do so even casual watchers of the game will know it was not a fluke. If the US does not advance, disappointment will be great. But that disappointment will not be the result of unrealistic expectation. Should the team not advance, soccer in the US may take some hits from the naysayers, but its popularity will continue to grow, serviced as it is by live games and extensive news coverage on cable and the Internet. However the team does, US Soccer will move on. After all, the beginning of qualification for the 2014 World Cup is only two years away.
USA v Czech Republic
USA v Italy
USA v Ghana