To stay physically and mentally fit with zero setbacks for a grueling, 10-month soccer season is impossible. Truly putting on the blinders from the outside world for a month, maintaining your peak condition both on the field and away from training was the treacherous, yet not impossible goal. Curtailing every day to master those set of criteria was what the 23 men that represented the United States national team at the 2002 FIFA World Cup aimed to do. And did it better than anyone other male squad in the modern history of the country.
The 1930 American men finished third at the inaugural World Cup and won a knockout-round game one other time in history 72 years later. This week marks the 20th anniversary of The Yanks’ exit from the 2002 FIFA World Cup, held in Japan and South Korea. The Americans’ Round of 16 victory over Mexico stands as the most important game in one of the fiercest rivalries in international soccer. Awaiting in the quarterfinals was one of the tournament’s favorite’s Germany. Before we dive into the specifics of that match, we’ll look back at how that turn-of-the-millennium group of Americans made nearly unmatched strides, and how likely it is we’ll see it again soon.
“We established one of the best teams that we’ve had in national team history,” longtime USMNT defender Frankie Hejduk told Deadspin in a recent interview. “We had a bunch of guys that were a bunch of veterans that were at their peak — half of them playing over in Europe, half of them playing in the MLS. And then you had a bunch of young, up-and-coming stars that were, if not stars already, were about to shine in Landon (Donovan) and (DaMarcus) Beasley. All those guys. You had the best version of all of us as a team.”
The Columbus Crew legend is right. A dozen of the players from a previous golden generation of USMNTers were stateside when their shining moment came, the slightest advantage over the 11 playing in European leagues, including Hejduk, who was playing for German giant Bayer Leverkusen at the time. The first time Hejduk knew the true potential of the American men at the time wasn’t in the pre-Cup camp in North Carolina. It was at the 2000 Summer Olympics, where six 2002 squad members first played in a major international tournament together.
That largely under-23-American squad took fourth in Sydney, losing to Spain in the semifinals and largely outshooting Chile in the bronze-medal match, but losing to the South Americans 2-0. Brad Friedel, John O’Brien, Jeff Agoos, Josh Wolff, Donovan and Hejduk didn’t earn a medal but did advance the belief of the USMNT taking a bigger role on the world stage. Hejduk did develop a nickname for Donovan, “Superstar,” apropos due to the current San Diego Loyal head coach being named Best Young Player of the 2002 showcase.
“It’s pretty amazing it’s been that long though. 2002 feels like a really long time ago. I was just a kid. I was a baby. So it’s crazy to think about,” Donovan told Deadspin in a late May interview. “I remember being really brash, brazen, brave and fearless. That timeframe was so exciting because Major League Soccer didn’t exist when I was growing up. So my dream was always to play in a World Cup. So here I am getting the opportunity to realize my dream.”
Having the desire to be the best version of yourself is a great motivating line but much harder to apply. The USA was guaranteed 270 minutes of World Cup play. Things could fall apart quickly, especially with powerhouse Portugal across the field in its opening game of the tournament.
“That meant concentration, concentrating on your heart, your mind, your mind, your body, your soul, on the field, off the field,” Hejduk said. “... And every player got it. Literally, every player.” Donovan conquered: “I think there was a level of respect for everyone that we played. But we didn’t have any fear, especially the younger guys. We didn’t have any fear. So what if it’s Portugal? Who cares? Just go play the game. In retrospect, you don’t have to be the most talented group of players to be successful. If the mentality of the whole group is to be successful as a group, then you can do that.”
And it carried the USMNT to a quarterfinal showdown against Germany. After a Michael Ballack goal put the Americans down 1-0, a second-half opportunity to equalize off a corner kick would’ve played out much differently today. Claudio Reyna’s cross found a flick from Donovan into a prime area for a shot from defender Gregg Berhalter (yes, the current USMNT head coach). His attempt on goal was partially saved by German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn before deflecting onto the hand of teammate Torsten Frings. No call was made live and the game went on.
Should that scenario have played out in the present day, it would have been flagged by VAR and a penalty kick would’ve easily been given, alongside a red card to Frings. Intentional or not, his hand stopped a goal. That’s a cut-and-dry ejection, as what happened much more obviously in a 2010 World Cup quarterfinal to Uruguay’s Luis Suarez. Hejduk said either Donovan or Brian McBride would’ve taken the ensuing penalty kick. What version of soccer’s multiverse do we get from there? We’ll never know but you can’t dismiss an American victory. In this reality, Germany advanced.
The 2002 American men showed how close the program can come to earning a star above their crest, instead of seeing the USWNT have all four the country has earned at the senior level. Matter of fact, it’s been the women who’ve dominated on the world stage at any age group. Their great form isn’t the moral of this story though. It’s what Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and the current Americans who’ll play in Qatar two decades after the loss to Germany can learn from the elder generation.
Before even heading to the pitch, the world is such a different place now. Blocking out the media with increased expectations is now impossible. Donovan said if the 2002 USMNT crashed out in the group stage, there wouldn’t have been an uproar calling for Bruce Arena’s resignation. That’s steadily increasing, as it was Donovan post-South Africa that mainly represented the team in the press, including an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.
Berhalter will lead the USMNT to its first World Cup in eight years starting in November and more eyes will be on him and his team than ever before. Hejduk, his former club teammate and roommate, sees the origins of the current American squad from Berhalter’s days learning under Arena.
“(Gregg) learned through Bruce, that team, that year,” Hejduk said. “That team that we had was unbelievable. Everyone truly loved each other and (was) truly fighting for each other. When you have a group like that, with all of them at their peaks, and you can as a coach gather them and get them all in the same mind frame and like each other and laughing, hugging, crying and get all the emotions out of a player, like Bruce is able to do, I think Gregg has taken that to another level as well with the team he has now.
“From everything I hear, from everything a lot of people hear, he’s a player’s coach. He’s a guy that works hard, on and off the field for the players. The players really respect him. And we really respected Bruce and you have to have that with a coach. The respect’s gotta be there. The laughter’s gotta be there. Being able to take criticism from a coach, and that’s what Bruce, for me, was so great at, is being able to say ‘Hey man, you didn’t have a good game, but blah blah blah.’ I guess positive criticism. We all bought into it. I know Gregg for sure took every piece of the pie that he could from Bruce and learning all that.”
A big disadvantage the crop of current Americans may have is a lack of World Cup experience. The player pool may widen in the coming months, but only two players that represented the United States in 2014 look to have a legitimate path to Qatar in DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks. In other words, the likely forwards, midfielders and goalkeepers played a combined zero World Cup minutes. Unideal.
“I think it’s almost impossible to know just how big a World Cup is until you play in it,” Donovan said. “So that will be a learning experience for some of them. But they are very well prepared. And there’s not a lot that I’m going to tell them that’s going to impact them.” Donovan did stress showing videos and having people come speak to the team about what it’s like to play on the biggest stage in the sport can help. But it doesn’t replicate the real thing.
“By my second, third World Cups, I was much more comfortable with what the process was going to look like,” Donovan continued. “It’s probably not dissimilar to when people go to a Super Bowl. And they talk about that week off, how that’s different, having all the media, everybody paying attention, how different that is and you got to be able to focus on your job still. It’s a little bit of that. Until you really go through it and experience it, you’re not going to know what it’s about.”
Yet, the easiest way to connect the dots for the Americans from the last World Cup held in an Asian country to the next is through Berhalter. He saw what made that team great. It’s now his job to make sure history has a chance to repeat itself.
“I think the biggest reason for that team’s success was camaraderie, I really do, and a common goal,” Donovan said about 2002. “So a lot of times in a World Cup, individual players are thinking about themselves and how they further their career. It’s human nature. We all think ‘How can I make this best for me?’ If I show well, is a big club going to sign me? And I’m going to get a raise? Am I getting a new contract?’ Of course, that’s a piece of everybody and we’re all human. But that team felt like they were in it for the greater cause, greater good. And I think that had a lot to do with our success.”