NOTE: This story first appeared back in March on www.redwhiteandbluearmy.com, but I wanted to get our new WEEI readership fired up for the grandest spectacle on the planet. The United States plays England at 2:30 Saturday afternoon.
A friend of mine recently requested a top 10 list of moments from the 1994 World Cup, an event that really raised soccer awareness here in the States and, let's face it, is the reason why this blog is possible today.
I figured with Saturday's first monumental World Cup match with England, I might top that request with a top 10 list of U.S. national team moments in our generation. Remember, this is a modern list, events that have taken place during the life of a 27-year-old soccer fanatic. Hopefully this list will spark some debate — throw something in the comment section if you disagree or have another moment that influenced you.
10. Like the British music invasion of the late 1960s that brought the Beatles, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and many other vastly influential bands to the states, conversely the 2000s have been the decade of American soccer invasion in Europe. More American players are gaining experience at the highest levels of club and international soccer than at any time in the U.S. team's history. A few of those player include Landon Donovan and Tim Howard (Everton), Carlos Bocanegra (Stade Rennes, France), Oguchi Onyewu (AC Milan), Michael Bradley (Borussia Monchengladbach), Jay DeMerit (Watford), Jozy Altidore (Hull City), Charlie Davies (Sochaux, France), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Maurice Edu and DeMarcus Beasley (Rangers), Brad Friedel and Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Sutart Holden (Bolton), Eddie Johnson and Freddy Adu (Aris), Steve Cherundolo (Hanover 96), Ricardo Clark (Eintracht Frankfurt), and many more.
9. In the 2000s the Americans also established themselves as the best team on the North American continent thanks to several big wins over their rival Mexicans and three Gold Cups wins — in 2002, 2005 and 2007. The biggest of those Gold Cups was the 2007 2-1 victory over Mexico in which both teams had their top squads.
Last summer after the Confederations Cup, the Mexicans got a little revenge defeating the Americans 5-0 in the latest Gold Cup final, but the United States did not bring its 'A' team to the tournament, instead calling up many young players for their first action. Regardless, the Red, White and Blue clearly were the team of the decade on this continent.
8. This is a tie between three great 1-1 ties: the 1994 draw with Switzerland, 1-1, the 2002 draw with co-host and eventual third-place finisher South Korea, 1-1, and the 2006 draw with eventual World Cup champion Italy, 1-1.
The first two ties in '94 and '02 propelled the U.S. into the knockout rounds, and although the '06 tie could not do the same, remarkably the goal the Americans scored (be it an Italy own goal) was the only one the Azzurri boys let up the entire tournament.
7. The launching of Major LeagueSoccer in 1996 was a pivotal moment for the growth and development of young American players. The league has seen more than its fare share of bumps and bruises over the years, but MLS still is relatively new in comparison to the other major professional sports leagues in America and continues to chug along.
6. Of course, our No. 7 moment would not be possible without this moment: the 1994 World Cup in the States. Filling our enormous American football stadiums across the country — including the Rose Bowl, the Pontiac Silverdome and Foxboro Stadium — the tournament drew enormous crowds and exposed the American people to the crazy passion the rest of the world has for the beautiful game. Noisemakers, songs, fireworks, flares and even hooligans, but in the end it was enough to help jumpstart MLS.
5. The 1998 Gold Cup gave American soccer one of its top three greatest victories in the history of the team. The semifinals pitted the Red, White and Blue against the heavily favored reigning World Cup champion Brazil, which had lost only one time since that victory in 1994. Although the Samba boys did not have all of their first-team players, the talent they assembled should have been more than enough to walk out with the tournament championship.
The Americans had other plans, and a second-half strike by Kansas City Wizards star Preki along with a mesmerizing performance in net by Kasey Keller led the U.S. to an incredible upset, 1-0. After the game, legendary Brazilian striker Romario (a man self-proclaimed to have scored over 1,000 professional goals), who was stoned point-blank on several occasions by Keller, would call the American keeper the best in the world.
(Unfortunately for U.S. fans, "El Matador" Luis Hernandez of Mexico spoiled the Americans' attempts to win the Gold Cup by scoring the lone goal of the final. Perhaps in a haze, the U.S. would go on to lose every match at '98 World Cup France.)
4. Last summer the U.S. pulled off its best finish in a worldwide international tournament, taking second place in the eight-team field at the World Cup prequel 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa. Each of the teams, including traditional powers like Brazil, Spain, and Italy, brought first-team squads, making the spectacle truly a first-rate tournament.
Defeating 2010 African Cup of Nations champion Egypt 3-0 in the final group match combined with Brazil's 3-0 defeat of Italy on the same day, the U.S. qualified for the semifinal match with Spain by the skin of its teeth.
But the stunner of all stunners was the Americans' victory over world No. 1 Spain, 2-0 in the semifinals. At the time, Espana was riding a record 15-match winning streak (a world record all its own) and 35-match unbeaten streak (a record tied with Brazil).
Jozy Altidore brushed aside a Spanish defender in the first half with his brute strength and then caught the off-balance, guessing Iker Casillas the wrong way and found the back of net. After an incredible performance by the defense to block shot after shot, Clint Dempsey scored a goal in the 73rd minute, catching Spanish defender Sergio Ramos napping on a clearance attempt inside the six-yard box, which was just enough to send the U.S. to its first ever world international tournament final.
The only following moments that topped that victory over Spain occurred in the grandest of stages: the World Cup.
3. Let's face it: Sports are better with rivalries — a team you just love to hate, one you despise so much your mouth curls in disgust each time you think of it. For the U.S., that team is Mexico.
Geographically and historically, you don't need me to tell you these two countries dislike each other and that passionate hatred has carried out over onto the pitch in many memorable games.
Like I said before, the U.S. was the team of the decade on the North American continent over its bitter rival and enemy Mexico largely in part to the Americans' victory over its southern neighbor in the 2002 World Cup, 2-0. That win swung the pendulum decidedly in favor of the U.S., and Mexico has never been the same since. The sleeping giant that is the U.S. continues to rise toward a true world power.
2. It was the shot heard round the world — at least the footballing world. Heading into the 2002 World Cup, Portugal was experiencing its "golden generation," led by FIFA world player of the year Luis Figo and Rui Costa, and was a heavy favorite not only to win Group D but also the World Cup.
But the Portuguese were in for a rude awakening as the U.S. erupted with three first-half goals in both teams' first game of the tournament. John O'Brien scored less than four minutes into the game on a rebound off a corner, Landon Donovan then made it two for the U.S. on a deflected cross, and Brian McBride's electrifying diving header on a brilliant cross from Tony Sanneh gave the team just enough juice to hold off a late Portugal comeback effort and win 3-2.
1. If the 1994 World Cup made Americans aware of the international phenomenon that was soccer, then the U.S. team's performance held up its end of the bargain, delivering the biggest win in American soccer history.
After earning an important draw with Switzerland in the opening game of the Cup, the U.S. pulled off the upset of the tournament facing the fourth-ranked team in the world in Columbia, captained by the big hairdo of Carlos Valderrama. Columbia, like Portugal in 2002, was the favorite to win Group A and was getting better odds in many places to win the World Cup than eventual champion Brazil.
A first-half cross by John Harkes led to Andres Escobar's* famous own goal and a 62nd strike by Ernie Stewart ensured the win over the South Americans despite giving up a late goal, 2-1.
Yes. the United States' upset of England in 1950 to reach the semifinals of the World Cup was an incredible moment, but that win did not launch of a professional league and a national movement of young soccer fans to pick up the game. And remember, this list is generated from the modern era. However, one important note that must be mentioned: The win over Colombia was the first for the U.S. in the World Cup since its famous win over England.
*The one tragedy that marred this renowned victory for the U.S. was the shooting death and murder of Escobar once he returned to his home country — shot in a bar by a man with connections to the Colombian drug cartel. It is unclear exactly what was the man's motivation for shooting Escobar. However, it is speculated that Escobar's own goal played a large factor.
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