‘Man, this isn’t MLS’: An oral history of USA’s quarter-final run in 2002 | Football

On 7 October 2001, the US men’s national team carried the weight of a nation’s grief on their shoulders. The crucial 2002 World Cup qualifier with Jamaica was the first national sports event since the 9/11 attacks. And the galvanizing feeling of responsibility that the players shared that evening would prove a crucial ingredient in the team’s eventual run to the World Cup quarter-finals eight months later.

This is the story of an unlikely group – largely written off and ridiculed – who not only delivered an unforgettable accomplishment but exorcised some long-lasting tournament trauma, properly announced the team as a competitive force on a global stage and may have saved North America’s flailing domestic league from extinction.

Tony Sanneh (defender): The Jamaica game was a little surreal. It was almost like coming home during war time.

Landon Donovan (forward): In the locker room before the game Bruce said we’d just gone to war in Afghanistan. I didn’t follow politics. I didn’t know much about foreign policy. But that was a really sobering moment. You realized it was more than a soccer game.

Jeff Agoos (defender): It was very eerie. You were trying to give the country two hours of of peace in a time of turmoil.

Bruce Arena (head coach): We felt obligated to represent our country in the right way. We had a great win – Joe Max-Moore scored twice, the winner from a penalty. There were a bunch of unusual results elsewhere and things pieced together so that we qualified that day.

Agoos: Afterwards, the entire crowd was on the field with us and it was this symbiotic thing. And then it was just joy and incredible relief when they announced the other scores and we were through. To share that moment with those fans in that space and in that time was absolutely incredible.

With qualification secured, optimism still wasn’t particularly high. The US were drawn in Group D alongside Portugal, co-hosts South Korea and Poland. An early exit was predicted, just like at the 1998 tournament. In France, Steve Sampson’s team had lost all three group games, including a high-profile, multi-layered defeat to Iran. When the dust settled, there were inevitable recriminations and finger pointing. But for some veteran members of Bruce Arena’s squad, the scar tissue went back even further.

Agoos: In ‘98, I made the squad but didn’t play. That was very hard to take. But not making the team four years earlier was devastating. After I get the news, I go home. I look at my training gear and I’m like, ‘I never want to see this again’. I had a fireplace and I said, ‘Well, that’s one way to do it’. So I put the training gear in, put some papers under it and burned it. I needed a physical way to move on.

Pablo Mastroeni (midfielder): It was about turning the page and starting over for our group.

Bryan Chenault (communications manager, US Soccer, 1999-2005) Some personalities started to emerge. Clint Mathis came out of nowhere. People who followed MLS knew who he was but I don’t think any of us thought he’d end up on a cover of Sports Illustrated before the World Cup.

By the time Mathis’ issue hit the newsstands in late-May, the US squad were already in Korea where jetlag wasn’t the only thing they had to get used to. South Korea’s police chief declared the team a possible terror target and instigated a remarkable collection of security measures.

Donovan: There was a lot of fear, right? They shut down the airport when we came through. There were helicopters tailing us. There were some moments when you looked around and said, ‘Jesus, I can’t believe this is real’.

Josh Wolff (forward): Our bus was surrounded by soldiers. There were three SUVs in front of us, three behind us. The choppers were overhead. You had air quality testing going on at our field because there was talk of chemical warfare.

Clint Mathis (forward): There were a couple of tanks on the tarmac when we arrived in Seoul. We’d pull into stadiums and could see guys with those rocket cannons up in the hills. Security were everywhere, even in the elevators.

Sanneh: There wasn’t a lot of rules except to make smart decisions. We were very relaxed. We had the right leaders. That was the difference between our World Cup and the one that followed in 2006. That team was even younger and it was like they were on a trip to Ibiza. It went nuts. There were different people in the hotel and they weren’t mature enough to handle the freedom.

It was a Monday morning when the team were made aware of the latest edition of the New York Times Magazine. Earlier that month, seven players had posed for photographer Mattias Vriens-McGrath. The results – carried in the magazine’s Style section – were certainly unique. Vriens-McGrath wanted something high-fashion, glamorous and provocative. Some embraced the concept, like Landon Donovan, who was captured seductively drinking from a water fountain. Vriens-McGrath wanted Brian McBride to hold a fence post “as if it was a giant dick”. Meanwhile, Pablo Mastroeni straddled a low-rise beam in a pair of white linen pants and a $1,200 Roberto Cavalli ‘turquoise-studded shirt’.

Mastroeni: I enjoyed that shirt. The problem was the price tag.

Donovan: I was 20 years old and very naive. I think we were all a little taken aback. But we quickly realised there was a clear agenda by the magazine and the photographer that hadn’t been explained to us. It was more funny than anything. At that point of our soccer history, any press was good press.

Agoos: I still ask Landon if he’s thirsty.

Mathis: I was a part of that photoshoot but I wasn’t straddling anything so I kinda got brushed aside on that.

Chenault: 2002 was the best example of the men’s team grabbing peoples’ attention. At that point, people probably only knew Alexi Lalas and Cobi Jones. Now it was, ‘Who’s Clint Mathis?’ and, ‘Why have I heard of this Landon Donovan kid?’ That bled into more mainstream media, which is what US soccer has always needed to get to the next level.

For the World Cup opener against Portugal, the US were without injured captain Claudio Reyna. Arena started Mastroeni in midfield, and a pair of 20-year-olds in Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley.

Donovan: I walked out of the tunnel for the warm-up and peeked out at this full stadium. I shared this special, powerful moment with Beez. We didn’t say anything. It was just a look. It was like we couldn’t believe we’d made it to this point. There was a belief, especially with the younger players. ‘Why can’t we beat Portugal?

Agoos: They didn’t give us enough credit or respect. They felt they could just walk all over us. They didn’t like pressure, tackles, 50/50s.

Mastroeni: At one point, I go to tackle [Luis] Figo. As I’m sliding, he just lifts the ball up so I end up sliding under him. I remember thinking, ‘Man, I haven’t seen this in MLS’.

Donovan: The European teams were always coming off these long seasons. I looked at Figo and thought, “God, he just looks really tired”. We had a bunch of guys two or three months into MLS and we were fresh.

Sanneh: Sometimes with world-class players, they don’t want to play simple. If Figo wanted to whip in an easy cross every time, he could’ve. But I knew it wasn’t going to be enough for him. He needed to do something special.

On 36 minutes, Sanneh races clear on an overlap and drives in a superb cross for a diving McBride to put the US 3-0 up and send them into dreamland.

Sanneh: The first two goals were opportunistic. The third was football. It wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t all about flukes and mishaps.

Donovan: Half-time was interesting. We were looking around like, ‘Shit, what do we do now?’

Sanneh: When it went to 3-2, everything was running through your mind. We’d had so many good games. There was that lingering question: did we know how to win? Or was this who we were? The team that played well but weren’t able to see games out.

Mastroeni: When they took Rui Costa off, it was a testament of our commitment to overcome the opponent psychologically. That’s what separated us from a lot of teams in that tournament.

Arena: I think of the 2006 World Cup group and the squad I inherited to try and qualify for 2018. None had the talent and the character this one had. It’s not even close. In 2017, we said that if we managed to qualify we’d have to make a lot of changes. Because some of the players were the kind of guys you can’t depend on in tough moments. In 2002, every one of the guys was special in the way they committed to the team.

After the seismic 3-2 victory, the US faced another intense clash five days later when they took on co-hosts South Korea. Arena made two changes: Reyna was fit again and replaced Mastroeni while Clint Mathis – desperate to make a splash – was also included.

Clint Mathis went full mohawk against South Korea.

Clint Mathis went full mohawk against South Korea. Photograph: Jimin Lai/EPA

Donovan: Before the Portugal game, we had a training game – Starters v ‘Portugal’ – to go through some situations. Clint was racing around the field calling himself ‘Luis Figo’, in a sarcastic, sort-of pissed off way at Bruce. At one point, the ball came to him. He just picked it up and booted it, as far as he could, into the stands. For no reason. In the middle of training.

Arena: We were concerned about [Mathis’s] fitness but he could score goals. When you look back at 2014, you’d say that if it wasn’t for Tim Howard then the US doesn’t get a result in any game. In 2002, you couldn’t point to any individual. You could point to 15 guys as the reason the US was successful. Clint fit right into that.

Mastroeni: Clint wanted a mohawk so I told him I’d wing it and do my best. He liked it. We took a quick nap but ended up sleeping through our alarm for the pre-game meal. 

Mathis: Oh my God. To show up late with a mohawk? You can probably imagine the fury going through Bruce’s blood.

After 24 minutes, Mathis got his moment. Teed up by an exquisite pass from John O’Brien, he took one touch and then drove the ball into the bottom corner.

Mathis: I made a little run and with pinpoint accuracy Johnny played an unbelievable ball over the top. Instinct set in. It’s about timing. A split-second after I released the shot, the defender hit me. I’ll never forget that goal.

Arena: We had three players that played 90 minutes in our five games: Friedel, Sanneh and John O’Brien. John was as good as any player in that World Cup. He’s as talented as anyone who’s ever worn a US shirt. He was simply an outstanding player.

Sanneh: I think we scored too early and it let us relax. We started to believe in ourselves too much and allowed Korea back in the game.

With 12 minutes remaining, the South Koreans scored and the game ended 1-1. Still, a point from their final fixture against Poland four days later would ensure USA’s progress to the knockout round.

Sanneh: One of my team-mates [at Nurnburg] was Jacek Krzynówek. We were chatting before the game and he was saying, ‘We’ve disgraced our country. Everyone’s mad. We’re playing all our reserves because our coach is pissed off’.

Arena: Poland were already eliminated. When we got their team, we knew nothing about the players. I remember talking to our scout, a Polish-American, on the phone in the locker room asking about some of their guys. We got beat up. A couple of our players made some huge mistakes that hurt us dearly. But, in these competitions you need a bit of luck along the way. We certainly got it that day. Sometimes it’s a complete crapshoot.

Midway through the second half, the US trailed 3-0 and were heading for elimination. But then a lifeline. Two hours north in Incheon, Park Ji-sung gave South Korea a lead against Portugal they never surrendered. Despite a 3-1 loss, the US finished second in Group D and were through to face Mexico in the last-16. With the team’s profile on the rise and an intense derby ahead, a phone call with president George W Bush was arranged before the game.

Mastroeni: All of a sudden, we were important and people cared about us. We were all huddled around the phone. I remember him vividly saying, ‘I have a bet with my amigo, President Vicente Fox, so boys … let’s go get ‘em. Don’t let me down.’

Mexico were runaway favourites after impressively topping a group featuring Croatia, Italy and Ecuador. With Agoos injured and Frankie Hejduk suspended, Arena switched to a 3-5-2 for the battle in Jeonju.

Arena: I’ve coached well over a hundred games for the US and it’s by far the most talented roster the country has ever put together. We could adapt. We could adjust to things. It wasn’t an issue and nobody blinked an eye. Everyone was prepared to play a role, whether they were in the starting lineup or not.

Donovan: In 2001, we had finally flipped the script and beat Mexico at home. For so long we didn’t beat them anywhere. And miraculously, we get this opportunity at a World Cup.

Sanneh: There was no home-field advantage. It was a case of, ‘Let’s do this once and for all’.

Arena’s team selection and tactical tweaks worked superbly. After eight minutes, Reyna – pushed into a wing-back role on the right – broke down the flank. Wolff darted to the near post to pick up the cross and flicked a pass into the space behind him. McBride, left all alone, did the rest.

Brian McBride scores the opener against Mexico

Brian McBride scores the opener against Mexico. Photograph: Oleg Popov/Reuters

Wolff: There was a comfort playing alongside Brian. I stretched the line and he got on the end of things. I played in half-spaces and drew people in. And the goal was just like that. We knew it was gonna be a war, a bloodbath. But once it started, we matched their intensity.

Donovan: At one point, me and Luis Hernandez were getting into it. He told me he was gonna kill my mother. I was such a punk little kid and probably deserved some form of abuse, maybe not to that extreme.

A combination of Friedel saves and the woodwork kept Mexico at bay and then, midway through the second-half, Lewis raced clear and crossed for Donovan to head home. And just like that, the ‘Dos a Cero’ was born.

Donovan: I was playing instinctively and I never felt stronger. So when that ball was played wide to Eddie, I just took off in hope. I remember celebrating and hugging Beez, who was warming up. What a moment that was.

Mastroeni: We were all floating in the locker room. The Portugal result might have been deemed a fluke so this was like, ‘We did it again, with authority and against our greatest rivals … so who’s next?’

On 21 June, the US were in Ulsan to face Germany in the last eight. Four years earlier, they had lost to a poor German side in the group stages but the circumstances seemed a lot different this time.

Arena: We had a bunch of guys who had played in Germany and were well aware of their players. So we stepped into that game with a lot of confidence.

Mastroeni: We didn’t feel like David against Goliath. We felt like we belonged. We felt comfortable and positive.

Donovan: The only regret I have is in the first half when Claudio plays me in. I don’t get my touches right and I end up having to go to my left at a bad angle and take a shot. If I’m clean, a little more experienced and a little more savvy, I score.

With the US dominating, Donovan forced Oliver Kahn into a couple of excellent saves. But, on 39 minutes, Germany were awarded a free-kick. Christian Ziege expertly picked out Michael Ballack who sent a thumping header into the net.

Arena: We made a mistake. We knew Ballack was gonna be their target. I had Tony Sanneh on him and I had thought a lot about that match-up. But it was a brilliant ball played in and a great finish, so I guess you can’t complain about that.

Sanneh: Ballack gets away from me on the header and we had some miscommunication there. It’s the one that got away but Germany knew how to win. There’s a lot of woulda, coulda, shouldas.

Donovan: It was by far our best performance. We put everything into that game.

Within minutes Torsten Frings appears to keep a Gregg Berhalter shot out of the net with his arm. Referee Hugh Dallas ignores the USA appeals and after a some half-chances late on, including a header from Sanneh that misses by an inch, the journey is over.

Torsten Frings saves Germany on the line

Torsten Frings saves Germany on the line. Photograph: Pascal Guyot/EPA

Mathis: You can’t weigh everything on one missed call. But in a game like that, it only takes one event to turn it around. It’s crazy how the storybook could’ve been written.

Arena: I hate when teams lose and they say they dominated the game … but I thought we dominated the game.

Mathis: The German players were saying, ‘You were the better team and we don’t know how we made it through’. I do. There was one guy, Oliver Kahn, who had an absolute blinder.

Mastroeni: After the game, I was selected for doping and so was Kahn. He’s in the hallway and just smoking cigarette after cigarette after cigarette. I’m thinking to myself, “I can’t believe this guy”. Celebratory smokes, I guess. He said to me, “Man, tough game. Tough game”. And we sat there for, like, three hours – just looking at each other – because he couldn’t pee.

Mathis: I’ll never forget being on the bus back to the hotel. At first it was a little quiet, a few speeches. Then Earnie gets up and belts out Frank Sinatra’s My Way…

Wolff: That captured everything. The journey, the story.

Mastroeni: It was a really profound moment. What everyone had bought into, the belief we had in each other and how we went about it … that was “our way”.

If the US had beaten Germany, only South Korea would have stood between them and a place in the World Cup final. But even a defeat in the quarter-finals had a huge effect on soccer’s standing in the US.

Arena: I think if we failed miserably at the 2002 World Cup, the way the league was going at the time maybe it wouldn’t be here today. I think it went a long way to keeping MLS around.

Donovan: Soccer after ‘98 had taken a beating. I don’t want to go so far as to say soccer would’ve failed without it but 2002 definitely was a catalyst to help us get better. And it certainly put MLS on the map because half our roster played there.

Sanneh: We came out of this thinking, ‘We no longer have to play second fiddle’. The idea of the US team being a bunch of good athletes who just park the bus was gone.

Mathis: It gave credibility to the US soccer player.

Mastroeni: We’d been in an arena with the giants and held our own. We became a legitimate world team.

Arena: I’m so proud of each and every one of those guys. Absolutely remarkable. You look at where they are today and it’s really impressive. It’s an honor to have worked with them.

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