By Steve Davis
May 18, 2010

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 Benito Mussolini saw the event as a handy propaganda tool to promote fascism.

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 Bill Jeffrey, the American team of part-timers had actually led Spain for in the opener before conceding three goals late. Still, the English were taken by surprise a few days later. And when Haitian-born Joe Gaetjens' redirected a speculative effort in the first half, the inventors of the game were in deep trouble. The Americans held for dear life and an iconic image was born: Gaetjens being carried victoriously from the pitch for his part in what remains one of global soccer's greatest upsets. Regardless, the Americans still finished last in the four-team first-round group.

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. Paul Caligiuri supplied one with a massive goal that historic day in Port-of-Spain. His shot had been hit with only a smidge of authority but was fortuitously well-angled against a setting sun.

At the finals in Italy, coach Bob Gansler had the tough assignment of assembling a representative side of collegians and indoor soccer players. He was criticized as overly conservative; but truly, what did people expect? Players such as Eric Wynalda, John Harkes, Tab Ramos and a few others would later enjoy fine careers, but they were young and naïve at the time. Wynalda proved as much in the opener when he was baited into a red card in a humbling 5-1 loss to Czechoslovakia.

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" Thomas Dooley and anchored by bullyboy center backs Marcelo Balboa and Alexi Lalas. Many of the players had never been part of a fully professional team. But Lalas said recently they were coached to play within themselves and not attempt what they couldn't do. "Everyone knew how we were going to play," he said recently. "It might not be pretty at times, but it would be effective."

It was effective enough in an opening tie against Switzerland, a good side at the time. Wynalda's expertly hit free kick helped split the points (a 1-1 draw) in the World Cup's first indoor game; it was played inside the Detroit Silverdome, where grass had been grown outside and then assembled indoors in large trays.

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-Earnie Stewart effort after intermission was backed by gritty defending in the tournament's biggest shocker.

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. Leonardo's vicious elbow nearly ruined Ramos' career, but it did reduce the vaunted Brazilians to 10-men for the entire second half. Relentless pressure finally paid off as Bebeto and Romario, Brazil's wondrous attacking tandem, combined for the game's only goal.

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 Steve Sampson's squad unraveled spectacularly in three first-round losses. A chastened United States would finish dead last among 32 teams and Sampson would be dismissed shortly upon touch down back home. In retrospect, something like this should have been more predictable from a roster that remained only marginally talented compared with most of the field. Still, growing interest back home, hope borne of the '94 second-round appearance and the contributions of fledgling Major League Soccer had offered false promise.

Plus, the trickle of U.S. talent into Europe continued. Midfielder Claudio Reyna was playing in Germany at Wolfsburg, where he had become one of the real American bright lights.

The U.S. met Germany straight away and the European heavyweight knew just how to get at Reyna. When Jens Jeremies kicked the U.S. midfielder in the back earlier in the opener at Paris' Parc des Princes, everyone in the stadium knew what kind of tight marking lay ahead for him. Meanwhile, Sampson had turned heads with his 3-6-1 gambit, a formation devised to shut down the German midfield. Tactical debates aside, it was Mike Burns' inability to protect the near post on a corner kick that put the Germans squarely in control. The second half was better, but things were sliding in the locker room after a 2-0 loss.

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 Iran struck on the counter in the 2-1 win. A final first-round date with Yugoslavia was moot. Sampson remained defiant in the face of it all. "I hope they remember this is an American team that played to attack," he said. "No American team has ever done that."

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 on its head with a 3-2 win. John O'Brien and Brian McBride supplied the memorable strikes (along with a wickedly deflected Landon Donovan cross ruled an own goal.)

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.

Reprieve delivered, Bruce Arena's men set about their World Cup masterwork, a convincing 2-0 win over bitter regional rivals Mexico. Arena's 3-5-2 formation, with Reyna roaming on the right, confused the Mexicans, whose frustrations were soon evident. Toward the end, indicative of a clearly beaten team, Rafael Marquez was ejected for his mid-air, two-pronged assault on Cobi Jones. Meanwhile, the unsatisfied Americans were off to the quarterfinals (which remains its deepest foray in modern day tournaments).

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 Gregg Berhalter's second-half header should have produced a penalty kick. But Torsten Frings' handball on the German goal line went unseen by the man in the middle, and the U.S. effort fell short in a 1-0 loss.

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, Tony Sanneh, Arena and others hit the talk show circuit with appearances on everything from the network morning shows to Letterman to all points in between.

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 Jan Koller's powerful 5th-minute header punished the Americans.

Things got little better from there and the U.S. chances were immediately on the skids after a 3-0 loss. Arena's team scrambled to recover and did manage to staunch the bleeding temporarily thanks to a gritty, memorable night in Kaiserslautern.

Eventual winner Italy was the foe, but the Americans seemed unfazed. They matched an early Azzurri goal before the night devolved into a curious 10-on-9 affair. Pablo Mastroeni and Eddie Pope were ejected, joining Italy's Daniele De Rossi. With acres of space to cover, Donovan chased and harassed heroically, as did others in a tour du force of determined defending. A gripping night ended in a 1-1 draw, setting up a critical match against Ghana.

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. Clint Dempseyresponded with a terrific goal but his side couldn't overcome a suspect penalty kick decision; German referee Markus Merk ruled that big defender Oguchi Onyewu had leaned too heavily on a much smaller Ghanaian forward. The 2-1 loss meant first-round elimination and, soon after, a coaching change for the United States.

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