LOOKING BACK (PART VII): After an upset, dos a cero win, the USMNT may have been one handball away from reaching the 2002 semifinals

Landon Donovan connected for an insurance goal in the dos a cero result against Mexico in the 2002 World Cup. (www.AndyMead/YCJ.com)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

For the first time, a World Cup was played outside of Europe and the Americas. And for the first time, a World Cup was not organized by one, but by two countries, South Korea and Japan.

Venturing into such uncharted tournament territory meant a number of surprises and upheavals. Unannounced teams such as Senegal, Korea, Turkey and even the United States have succeeded in surprise after surprise. In fact, the highly unlikely duo of Korea and Turkey actually made it to the semi-finals

In one of the most surprising first round rankings in World Cup history, two teams who had won four games combined in the last 10 Cup appearances finished one-two in Group D – Korea and the United States. Encouraged by their enthusiastic fans in and out of the stadiums and a work ethic rarely seen at these levels, the Koreans not only qualified for the second round, but did not lose a game.

While the United States Men’s National Team struggled to replicate that feat, the Americans certainly had their moments.

Just 36 minutes into their opener against heavily favored Portugal, they found themselves with an incredible 3-0 advantage, capitalizing on Portuguese defensive errors and a bit of luck.

John O’Brien rebounded from a corner that goalkeeper Vitor Baia should have grabbed instead of hitting. Jorge Costa gave them a gift, an own goal in the 29th minute, and Brian McBride’s header gave the United States a three-goal bulge in the 36th minute.

Portugal rallied for two goals in the second half, but goalkeeper Brad Friedel stopped any other serious threats.

“Bruce mentioned that they had long European seasons, maybe 60-65 games with the top clubs and [in the UEFA] Champions League,” USA captain Claudio Reyna said. “They weren’t quite aware. We were flying. We were in really good shape. We had a great training camp in North Carolina. We kind of foamed at the mouth. They didn’t know and we were able to punish them.

The second game against the hosts was another challenge. It was the Korean fans, it was a sea of ​​red at the Daeguo World Cup stadium. Add a few drumbeats and plenty of flat-waving fans and it was hard for an opposing team to think, little alone to play well in that intimidating atmosphere.

“I remember coming out for warm-ups and all you could see was red,” Landon Donovan said. “Everyone wore the same red jersey. I never seen that in my life. Every time I close my eyes, I can see that memory so vividly. They were in unison singing the whole game. It was the best atmosphere I have ever been in.

Friedel prevailed again in what turned into a 1-1 draw against Korea, who solved the big keeper with a goal from Ahn Jung-hwan in the 78th minute. The Koreans essentially besieged the American goal in the second half after Clint Mathis netted a classic goal in the 24th minute as he trapped an O’Brien cross with his right foot and scored with his left foot.

The United States could thank Korea for reaching the second round. The Americans needed a tie with Poland to advance, but any thought of it was snuffed out when the Poles took a 2-0 lead after five minutes in what turned into an American loss. of 3-1. The Americans, however, still advanced as Korea managed to earn a 1-0 win over Portugal on Park Ji-sung’s 70th-minute goal. If the Portuguese had managed the draw – Sergio Conceicao had hit the post in the 84th minute – they would have moved on.

The price of the Americans?

The first Concacaf confrontation in the history of the World Cup against Mexico.

El Tri had dominated the series for years until the mid-1990s when the United States began winning home games, although the team struggled on the road, especially at the Estadio Azteca.

This match would take place in a neutral venue. So who knew what was going to happen?

In that encounter in …….., the United States upset Mexico 2-0 – their second dos a cero result in 18 months and the most important match in the two countries’ 68-year rivalry. Brian McBride and Landon Donovan scored goals on June 17 to propel the Americans into the quarter-finals against Germany.

The win was also significant as it was the first time the United States had won a knockout game in World Cup history. It was also the United States’ first World Cup shutout since England lost 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.

“It was difficult to get our guys back from Friday’s game,” USA coach Bruce Arena said, referring to a 3-1 loss to Poland. “We had to go for a formation that made sense for our guys to endure more than 90-95 minutes. Our guys left everything on the pitch today. They played well; I’m proud of them… It’s a great day for American football.

Missing two starters – defenders Jeff Agoos (calf injury) and Frankie Hejduk (accumulation of yellow cards) – from the loss to Poland, the United States started the game with an unusual 3-5-2 formation that allowed defender Gregg Berhalter, midfielder Eddie Lewis and striker Josh Wolff on his first World Cup starts.

“Well, it was a tough game,” Arena said at the time. “We were coming off of a disappointing loss, in the last game we played against Poland. We had a short period of rest. We had to prepare our guys to play, work out the game plan, allow them to last more than 90 mins Our guys executed it beautifully, played well against a great Mexican team, who have impressed everyone at the World Cup so far.

The match was a physical affair as referee Vitor Melo Pereira (Portugal) handed out 10 yellow cards – five to each team – and a red card – to Mexican Rafa Marquez, a future Red Bull, in the 88th minute.

“It’s a rivalry,” Arena said. “We know each other. There’s been a lot of bad blood over the years.

When asked if he thought the United States had been lucky, Arena replied: “I don’t know if we were lucky. We beat the group winner of the group with Italy. We beat one of the top five teams in the world. . . . Then we scored a point with Korea, the host country, which no one else could. We had impressive results in this World Cup. I wouldn’t call it luck, I think we have a good team. We will prove that we have one of the best teams in the world with Germany.

The United States struck first. The quick combination play started on the right flank when Reyna, who ran down the right flank, beat a defender and dribbled towards the baseline to draw in two Mexican defenders. Reyna handed the ball to Josh Wolff in the corner of the penalty area. Wolff returned the ball to an unmarked McBride in the middle of the box, where he fired a shot through three defenders and past airborne goalkeeper Oscar Perez in the eighth minute.

“It was such a good feeling to score a goal so early in the game and put the pressure on them [Mexico]”, Reyna said. “They had to take it up a notch and I think they put a lot of energy into getting one back.”

As Mexico continued to hold the majority of the ball in the second half, it took a counterattack for the United States to increase their lead to 2-0. Reyna started the game in the American half, sending a long looping ball down the left flank, where Eddie Lewis made a run. Lewis collected the ball before sending a perfect cross to the far post, where Donovan slipped past two Mexican defenders and nodded past Perez in the 65th minute.

The Americans found themselves one victory away from reaching the World Cup semi-finals for only the second time. They had accomplished the feat in the very first World Cup in 1930.

But sometimes all good things must come to an end and for the United States, their incredible Cup run was halted by a fierce German side who kept them from scoring in Ulsan, Korea. The Americans dominated their opponents but luck was not on their side as goalkeeper Oliver Kahn found a way to stop their shots after Michael Ballack’s header gave the Germans the lead in the 39th minute .

The United States nearly equalized in the 50th minute when Torsten Frings saved a Berhalter shot from outside the goal line with his hand to preserve Germany’s 1-0 quarter-final victory.

“It was one of the most special teams I’ve been on,” Berhalter said in 2011. “Everyone had the same goal. Again, very disappointing. An experienced referee, you would think that “he wouldn’t be wrong like that. It hurts. You also think how different it could have been for American football if it had been a goal. We could have gone to the semifinals. It could have been a lot more important. It was still an incredible experience.

Berhalter added that he had spoken to Frings, who later played with Toronto FC, on several occasions over the years.

“Every time we talked, I never talked about it,” he said. “He’s a professional and he did what he had to do at the time. . . . I don’t like much about the past. As far as I’m concerned, he did what he had to do. They made it to the World Cup final. If I was there, I probably would have done the same.

Beyond the ball from the hand, Tony Sanneh might have had the best American chance, but his late header narrowly missed the left corner. More than anything, in stark contrast to the great debacle of France 98, the Americans left this tournament with a new deep respect for the rest of the world, much more self-confidence and with their heads held high.