When someone points them out, suddenly the U.S. bus tilts to the right. Nearly the entire team is up against the windows. Beers are raised to the rival bus. There is, in equal parts, a little bragging, a little laughing and a little taunting directed at their arch rivals.
“To the victor go the spoils,” says Cobi Jones. “I’m not going to apologize.”
The greatest World Cup triumph of the modern era, the victory that pushed the U.S. to the 2002 quarterfinal, was so satisfying on so many levels. For starters, who could have ever dreamt the U.S. would play a nation it borders in a World Cup elimination game?
“Can’t imagine it happening again in the next 100 years,” says Jones. “If ever again.”
And then there was the way the day began. The U.S. players arrived at the stadium, and as they began the ritual of walking the field before dressing they noticed a number of the Mexican players, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Rafa Marquez and others, having a laugh.
What was so funny? No one will ever know. But the U.S. players began to stew. How could they be so arrogant? They think they’ve already moved on to the quarterfinal. By the time the U.S. was in the locker room getting final instructions from coach Bruce Arena, there was a sense among the group that Mexico would not be smiling for long.
“We really felt we would get chances against Mexico,” recalls captain Claudio Reyna. “They were a strong team, they had just won their group and were playing very well. But we knew them inside and out and felt we could exploit them if we attacked.”
But in order to get after Mexico, Arena had to convince Reyna to accept a different role that day. Usually the team’s central midfield maestro, Reyna was told by Arena that he would be playing on the right side of a 3-5-2 formation against Mexico.
“I wanted Pablo Mastroeni and John O’Brien in the center of the midfield,” Arena explains. “For Pablo’s tackling and John’s passing. And I thought Claudio against Mexico’s left-sided midfielder (Ramon Morales) could be an advantage if we forced (Morales) to defend. If we made him track Claudio, it could cause them problems.”
Which brings us to the goal, scored by Brian McBride, but created by Reyna’s strong run down the right flank in the eighth minute. The goal was a not only a shock to Mexico but an immediate validation of Arena’s game plan. Mexico was now questioning itself.
“We played a quick free kick and caught them sleeping,” Reyna says. “I was able to get out wide. I picked my head up and made the run past the last defender. I realized there were a couple of players in the box. I saw Josh Wolff running. I played it to him. Josh did a great job shielding his man and pulling it back. And Brian’s finish was perfect.”
Before the game was 30 minutes old, Mexico was using its first substitution, sending Luis Hernandez into the game for Morales and adjusting its formation to deal with Reyna.
“The goal really unsettled Mexico,” Reyna recalls. “We punched them early and it really stung them and it frustrated them. We were defending really well with Gregg Berhalter, Eddie Pope and Tony Sanneh. Pablo was doing a fantastic job against Cuauhtemoc Blanco. We sensed their frustration and we felt settled. We were comfortable with the way we were positioned on the field, the way we were organized. And the threat of having Landon Donovan, Brian McBride and Josh Wolff to counter was something we knew could cause them problems. More than anything, the goal settled us, lifted us, motivated us. We could see they really didn’t have an answer. There are just times when you know as a player that the game plan is working in your favor. That’s a good feeling.”
It had been an interesting tournament to that point for Reyna. He was injured and not in the lineup for the Yanks’ shocking 3-2 victory over Portugal. In that match, O’Brien, the 25-year old Californian who played for Ajax of Amsterdam, and Mastroeni, one of the final players added to the U.S. roster before the World Cup, held down the center of the park. O’Brien scored the Americans’ first goal against Portugal and helped the U.S. move the ball effectively through midfield. Mastroeni relished the pit bull role. After Reyna returned to play in a 1-1 draw with the hosts South Korea and a 3-1 loss to Poland, Arena began to think of switching things around for the Mexico match. He was also going to have to face Mexico without two of his usual back-four starters Jeff Agoos, to a calf injury, and Frankie Hejduk, who picked up a second yellow card in the loss to Poland. Reyna, often played right back for his club team, Glasgow Rangers, was prepared.
“It was not an unfamiliar role for me,” says Reyna, “and it was good for the team.”
Had there been any doubt, it was erased after eight minutes.
“We went into that game with a lot of confidence,” McBride says. “Maybe that doesn’t seem normal since we got into the second round only after we’d lost to Poland and South Korea beat Portugal, but the fact that we’d pretty much beaten Mexico every time we played them outside of Mexico City gave us confidence. We knew our opponent well. We knew their style of play. We knew their players. That’s unusual in a World Cup.”
McBride’s memory of the goal – his second of the tournament and his third in two World Cups – remains vivid a dozen years later.
“I got fouled,” McBride says. “And as soon as I got up and got the ball I heard Claudio screaming, ‘Play me! Play it! Play it!’ So I played it to him. He was probably happy to be making that forward run, given his position. The rest became history. He kept running with the ball, drove to the end line, laid it across and Wolff made a near post run. And the key is he didn’t stop making the near post run, and laid it off to me.”
A prettier assist to that point in U.S. World Cup history would be difficult to find.
“It was an amazing pass," McBride recalls. “I know I probably said something, but I doubt he could hear me. It was just awareness. A lot of people would’ve stopped the run. If he had done that, Claudio’s pass would have been picked off by the Mexican defense. And the layoff to me was perfectly weighted for me. I was able to take my time, get my feet right and really know how I wanted to strike the ball. It almost felt like nothing was around me. It was almost like I just had to miss the guys who were in front of me and the goalkeeper.”
American soccer fans may not remember much of what happened in between McBride’s goal and Landon Donovan’s insurance tally on the counter in the 65th minute, a running header off an inch-perfect cross from Eddie Lewis (trumping Wolff’s lay-off as the best U.S. World Cup assist), but Mexican fans have probably not forgotten. There was some heroic goalkeeping from Brad Friedel and a missed handball in the box on O’Brien. When Donovan’s header hit the net, not only did the scoreline en Español, “dos a cero,” become a part of every American fan’s soccer lexicon, so did Mexico’s unsportsmanlike response become something that’s taken the rivalry to new heights ever since. Yellow cards started to fly. Mexico’s Hernandez, Blanco, Alberto Garcia Aspe and Salvador Carmona all went into the book in the next 20 minutes. Jones, who was brought off the bench to help the U.S. defend the lead, then became a target for Rafael Marquez, who drew a red.
“The ball pops up in the air,” Jones recalls. “I go up and he comes in foot first into my hip and follows through with the full-on head butt. I distinctly remember thinking, what the…? It was near midfield. He saw an opportunity. He was frustrated and decided to take it out on me. I wanted to jump up and have a go at him, but I knew the red card was coming. I stayed calm. That sealed the game, and that felt better than retaliating.”
The U.S. was on to the quarterfinal at the expense of its greatest rival.
“Even though we’d been on top for most of the 10 years leading up to that game, Jones says, “We were still considered the underdog. Mexico was considered the better team. To finally meet them on the world stage made it more than a World Cup match for me and the rest of the guys. It was more than that. This was personal. And we won.”
Mexico left the field without exchanging shirts with the U.S. Not that anyone cared. The U.S. would go on to play arguably its best match of the tournament in a 1-0 loss to Germany, but would leave the 2002 World Cup knowing it had raised the bar.
“It was a historic moment, getting to the quarterfinals as an underdog,” says Reyna. “It’s great now to have that as a benchmark. As a national team, it’s great for any current World Cup squad to know it’s possible. It was a World Cup that got us over a hump.”
With time to reflect, many of the American players who were a part of the team, who played a part in U.S. 2, Mexico 0, on June 17, 2002, believe it was McBride’s side foot finish off a Wolff pass, triggered by Reyna’s unexpected attack down the right flank, that was the most critical play in helping the U.S. reach those new heights.
“Mexico is a very emotional team,” says Berhalter. “Very temperamental. Things like that early goal, especially against us, unsettle them. That was a blow to them. I got a lot of calls after that game. You knew it was a game being watched all over the world.”
So beers were raised on the bus, as the U.S. took off to the airport. Raised to one another, and raised to the Mexican bus alongside, as the U.S. slowly inched by.
“It was more than a World Cup match,” Jones says. “This was personal. This is the one time we’ve played our biggest rival when everything was on the line. And we won.”
Additional reporting by Grant Wahl