The United States soccer team played only a bit part as the World Cup grew through the former century into the global behemoth we know today. But the Americans have had something to say during six consecutive appearances in the finals (counting this one in South Africa) starting in 1990. Here's the quick rundown of how every U.S. World Cup appearance has unfolded:
Only 13 teams even bothered to participate in the inaugural event. Not only was the United States one of them, the Yanks were even seeded. Imagine that. They beat Belgium and Paraguay to advance into the semifinals. But Argentina crushed the Americans 6-1 before losing to Uruguay in the final. The entire tournament was played in one city, Montevideo, Uruguay.
The field grew -- and the U.S. presence shrank accordingly. In fact, the United States nabbed the very last of 16 berths, defeating Mexico in Rome in a one-game play-in just three days before the tournament. The stay was brief; host Italy made short work of the Americans in a 7-1 crusher in Rome during single-elimination play. In the big picture, the tournament was growing quickly, now involving 32 entrants (winnowed to 16 qualifiers) and hosted in eight cities. The tournament was also a signpost for terrible times ahead: Italy's dictator
Organizational and logistical strife was the pre-tournament story of the initial tournament after WWII. But the Americans soon gave the world something else to talk about, shocking England with that famous 1-0 outcome in Belo Horizonte. Coached by Scotsman
The United States had been awarded World Cup 1994 two years prior to Italia '90. So it might have been awkward if the United States were adjudged incapable of qualifying for a World Cup without the grace of host status. Qualification, therefore, was critical for the 1990 World Cup -- and yet the Americans still needed a wee little miracle on the final day of the process in Trinidad and Tobago.
At the finals in Italy, coach
Things improved slightly in a 2-1 loss to Austria and a closer-than-expected 1-0 loss to the host Italians. Still, the Americans had been exposed and would need to do better in four years time.
A World Cup staged in the United States would come and go with a whimper, played out anonymously inside half-empty stadiums as the nation yawned. Or so the conventional wisdom went as spoken by big media, which would soon be exposed as immeasurably out of touch.
World Cup 1994 set attendance records (that still stand) and raked in massive profits. On the field, the Americans proved surprisingly solid as well. A few exports were playing in Europe by then, although much of the roster remained attached to a small-time league here.
The heart of the side was in the defense, a back line screened by German "passport player"
It was effective enough in an opening tie against Switzerland, a good side at the time.
The result was just an appetizer for the United States' big moment, a 2-1 win over fancied Colombia in the Rose Bowl. An infamous Colombian own goal before the break and a Ramos-
A disappointing 1-0 loss to Romania to close the first round left the Americans waiting on results to ensure a spot in elimination play. They made it, but were stuck with a July 4 date against mighty Brazil.
The second-round match was lost, but so much had been accomplished. Respect for the American team was growing, if grudgingly so. And the tournament's success began moving the game beyond media punchline status, as the sport sunned itself briefly in the American mainstream.
As memorable as 1994 had been, this one was totally forgettable. Precious little went right as the Americans were unceremoniously reminded of global soccer's class society: they were still the "help." Coach
Plus, the trickle of U.S. talent into Europe continued. Midfielder
The U.S. met Germany straight away and the European heavyweight knew just how to get at Reyna. When
Sampson's choice to dump captain Harkes before the tournament -- for an alleged extra-marital affair with teammate Wynalda's then-wife, ugliness that would tumble out much later -- had affected locker room accord. Still, the quality and effort improved a few nights later in a tense night in Lyon, a security nightmare as the U.S. met political rival Iran. The U.S. made a good account as Sampson fielded an attack-minded lineup, but
A minor miracle unfolded in the wee smalls of June 5. A mix of emerging stars and old U.S. hands from the 90s were expected to bunker in and limit damage in an opener against a celebrated Portuguese side. Instead, a brazen U.S. bunch ambushed the stunned Portuguese, who were down 3-0 inside 36 minutes. The European power could only rally to a point and the Americans turned a tournament
Suddenly, a formidable first-round assignment seemed less daunting. Clint Mathis' goal was enough to match the co-hosting South Koreans (1-1) before a 3-1 loss to Poland left the U.S. monitoring results.
Fortune may have favored the United States against Mexico, but luck was on Germany's side that day in Ulsan. Arena's team stretched the three-time World Cup winners, and
Afterward, Arena was hardly embracing talk of respect gained and moral victories. "It's nice to hear all the praise that we played well, we should have won, we could have won, this call, that call," Arena said. "The bottom line is, we should have won. You have to win those games."
Back home, the nation was rapt. A U.S. audience of more than 7 million watched the quarterfinal. Upon stateside arrival, Donovan, Mathis, McBride, Reyna,
Such a deep run into World Cup 2002 inflated hopes as an older, presumably wiser team landed in Germany. But the draw had been unkind once again, and the chances of moving forward shrank almost immediately as the U.S. opened play against the Czech Republic in Gelsenkirchen. Miscommunication in the back led to a great chance early, and
Things got little better from there and the U.S. chances were immediately on the skids
Eventual winner Italy was the foe, but the Americans seemed unfazed. They matched an early Azzurri goal before the night devolved into a
Reyna, a midfielder of so much class and quality, had a horribly bad moment. He turned an ankle while being stripped of possession near U.S. goal. Ghana took a lead and the Americans saw their best player limp away from international soccer.