Editor’s note: This week at SB Nation, we are celebrating “Best Teams to Never Win a Championship Week“ across all our team brand communities. We decided to get in the act on the United States Men’s National Team side with a tribute to the 2002 World Cup team.
The 2002 World Cup was a highly anticipated tournament, as it was the first to be held in Asia and the first to be co-hosted by two nations: Japan and South Korea. Both nations entered the tournament hoping to show that Asian soccer could compete with the rest of the world. In all, 32 teams qualified for the World Cup, including a United States team that finished in 3rd in World Cup qualifying behind Costa Rica and Mexico. However, at 13th in the FIFA World Rankings entering the tournament, they still had grand plans to make a statement in the tournament.
The roster for the USMNT was a collection of many of what we now consider some of the best talent America has ever produced:
Defenders: 3 - Gregg Berhalter (Crystal Palace), 4 - Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado Rapids), 6 - David Regis (FC Metz), 12 - Jeff Agoos (San Jose Earthquakes), 14 - Steve Cherundolo (Hannover), 16 - Carlos Llamosa (New England Revolution), 22 - Tony Sanneh (Nurnberg), 23 - Eddie Pope (D.C. United)
Midfielders: 2 - Frankie Hejduk (Bayer Leverkusen), 5 - John O’Brien (Ajax), 7 - Eddie Lewis (Fulham), 8 - Earnie Stewart (NAC Breda), 10 - Claudio Reyna (Sunderland), 13 - Cobi Jones (LA Galaxy), 17 - DaMarcus Beasley (Chicago Fire)
Forwards: 9 - Joe-Max Moore (Everton), 11 - Clint Mathis (New York/New Jersey MetroStars), 15 - Josh Wolff (Chicago Fire), 20 - Brian McBride (Columbus Crew SC), 21 - Landon Donovan (San Jose Earthquakes)
Head coach Bruce Arena, who won 2 MLS Cups with D.C. United and took over the USMNT program after a disastrous 1998 World Cup campaign, hoped to make the magic happen in South Korea.
The USMNT was drawn into Group D with co-hosts South Korea, Portugal, and Poland. The entire tournament’s tone was set in its opening match on May 31st, when defending champions France lost in Seoul to World Cup debutants Senegal. It wasn’t until June 5th that the USMNT got their chance to make their mark, when they took on Portugal in Suwon. Portugal was ranked 5th in the world, but the USMNT used the goal to announce to the rest of the world that they were here.
John O’Brien started the scoring in the 4th minute, while a Costa own goal in the 29th minute made it 2-0 USA. Brian McBride made it 3-0 in the 36th minute, and Portugal was stunned. A Beto goal in the 39th minute and a Jeff Agoos own goal in the 71st minute made it interesting, but the USMNT were able to hold on and shock the world with a 3-2 victory over one of the main favorites in the tournament.
Next up was a match in Daegu on June 10th against co-hosts South Korea. Clint Mathis opened the scoring in the 24th minute to silence the home Korean crowd. It was a tense match the whole way through, with South Korea equalizing in the 78th minute. The match ended 1-1, and both teams were in prime position to advance out of the group.
That left a date with Poland on June 14th in Daejeon. The USMNT looked awful on this day, falling down 2-0 to Poland after just 5 minutes. They couldn’t find a lot of offense. They went down 3-0 in the 66th minute, and while a Landon Donovan goal in the 83rd minute gave the United States some pride, they had to look to the score in the South Korea-Portugal match to determine their fate. A Ji-sung Park Park Ji-sung goal in the 70th minute was the difference in a 1-0 South Korea win, and both South Korea and the United States moved onto the knockout stage.
The USMNT finished second in Group D, which earned a date with their archrival, Mexico. Mexico, who won Group G over Italy, Croatia, and Ecuador, was entering the match with a lot of momentum. However, the United States was hoping to once again find some magic. On June 17th in Jeonju, it was indeed a magical day for the Americans.
Once again, the USMNT got off to a hot start, when Brian McBride scored in the 8th minute to make it 1-0. El Tri didn’t have an answer for the USMNT, who controlled the pace of the match and frustrated their rivals. In the 65th minute, Landon Donovan scored on a running header to make it 2-0, and that scoreline held until the end. The United States, for the first time ever, had won a match in the knockout stage, and they advanced to the quarterfinals.
That set the stage for a quarterfinal match against Germany on June 21st in Ulsan. This was a match that was filled with several great chances and one huge controversy. The USMNT had a couple breakaway chances on German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn (who would go on to win the Yashin Award—now the Golden Glove—and also become the first goalkeeper to win the Golden Ball at the World Cup). Michael Ballack scored for the Germans in the 39th minute, but still the USMNT were in a good spot.
The controversy happens in the 49th minute, when the USMNT had a great chance on goal that was blocked by Torsten Frings on the line. However, the USMNT immediately appealed to the referee for a penalty because Frings stopped the ball with his arm. Replays would show a blatant handball by Frings on the line that prevented the equalizing goal, but the referee did not give a penalty to the United States. While the USMNT had a couple more chances, they ultimately fell 1-0 to Germany.
Germany would go on to beat South Korea 1-0 in the semifinal and lose 2-0 to Brazil in the World Cup final. The USMNT exited in the quarterfinals, its best finish at the World Cup since 1930. However, they could have found their way in a final had the Frings handball been called. It’s plausible they could have found a way to beat Germany with all their chances and momentum on their side, and South Korea would have also been a winnable match. Could they have beaten Brazil in the final? The gut says no, but in the World Cup, anything could happen. A World Cup that started with the defending champions losing to a team that had never competed in the tournament could have easily ended with an upstart American side lifting the trophy by beating the team that had won more World Cups than anyone else.
The 2002 USMNT team is easily the best team in the program’s history. The players on the team prided themselves on outworking its opponent, playing with pride, and they were also super talented individually and collectively. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts, and the USMNT proved to the world that they were a team that the rest of the bunch should not take lightly, and they’re the best men’s national team that never won the title it seeked.