Glorious nights at a World Cup are rarely the product of one or two individuals. Sweat-stained accomplishment is almost always a result of inspired endeavor dispersed throughout the field.
On the other hand, a few performances do rise above the others, supplying the narrow margin between success and something less. Here, then, are five of the best performances fashioned in a U.S. shirt during a World Cup (listed in chronological order).
Emotions are all over the place over the U.S.' shocking win against Colombia. People recall that memorable 1994 night in the Rose Bowl for reasons bright and dark. It was a spectacular upset, nudging America at large to get excited about the World Cup.
Some people might recall Earnie Stewart's giddy, almost childlike reaction after scoring the second U.S. goal. Or they might remember the bullyboys of the bunch, determined center backs Alexi Lalas and Marcelo Balboa, repelling repeated Colombian thrusts. It would all turn chilling later when Colombian defender Andres Escobar was shot and killed upon his return home, 10 days after his own goal helped the Americans pull off the stunner. The memories run the gamut.
But does anyone really recall that Ramos was an absolute tour de force, managing the midfield, passing with clarity and doing so much strong work on defense?
"All the stuff he did in that game, the little stuff, he made it look so simple, so it's easy to overlook," said Eric Wynalda, who was on the field that night. "But Tab was just unreal in that game."
Ramos was perhaps the best all-around player on Bora Milutinovic's 1994 U.S. team.
"You don't even think about it, but he had a lot of great games," Wynalda said. "It's just that a lot of them came in losses. The one that we got a great result out of was Colombia that night."
Landmark performances were sprinkled around the field in Suwon, South Korea, as Bruce Arena's team dealt a devastating blow to Portugal's ballyhooed side and set a course for a brilliant World Cup.
John O'Brien scored the shocking first goal and was a steady midfield ball handler. Young DaMarcus Beasley, showing not an ounce of regard for the opposition's heavily favored status, spent the night nipping at Portuguese attackers and zipping around on offense. Landon Donovan was bothering a Portuguese team that looked rusty or just plain overconfident -- and one that looked put upon for actually having to defend. Tony Sanneh's one-on-one defending at right back was brilliant, and his surges forward were adding to Portugal's misery before the break as the U.S. took a stunning 3-0 lead within 36 minutes. Indeed, he may have been the best on the field.
But if Sanneh's contribution of skill, smarts and industry wasn't the best among his peers that night, then it surely was McBride's. The big U.S. striker gave Portugal's decorated center backs everything they could possibly handle and had a direct hand in two U.S. goals.
Portugal goalie Vitor Baia couldn't hold McBride's thundering 4th-minute header off a corner kick. O'Brien was in the right spot to power his team into an early lead. Later, as Sanneh prepared to cross from the right, McBride aimed his run for the near post but then cleverly diverted to the back. He met Sanneh's centering pass with a perfectly glorious diving header, a goal that would eventually be the game-winner.
World Cup 2002 in Asia was such a watershed for American soccer, such a proud and momentous time, that fans sometimes forget just how razor-wire thin were the margins.
After the massive upset of Portugal, the United States would still need at least one more result to break free of group play. In the end a draw with South Korea was enough, although just barely.
And speaking of tiny margins, only by a whisker did they even manage the draw that day in the pulsating cauldron that was the 60,000-seat stadium in Daegu. That whisker belonged to goalkeeper Friedel as much as anyone.
Friedel's man-of-the-match performance included a brilliant 40th-minute stretch to stop a penalty kick and several other game-changing saves. He twice denied strong efforts from heralded Korean attacker Seol Ki-Hyeon, once with his left foot and again with his right hand, and he was well-positioned to thwart Choi Yong-Soo's point-blank blast.
The big American's PK stop, however, was undoubtedly the game-turning moment. Jeff Agoos was controversially judged to have fouled Hwang Sun-Hong near goal just minutes before intermission. Facing Lee Eul-Yong, Friedel gave the Korean shooter an early fake to the right before resetting. Then he dived aggressively right, stretching his 6-foot-4 frame as Lee propelled the ball goalward. Friedel got both hands to the shot and then watched as teammate Eddie Pope prevailed in a dash for the rebound.
The Koreans enjoyed a 19-6 edge in shots but could only better Friedel when Ahn Jung-Hwan beat Agoos to a well-placed free kick.
"The penalty save was a big momentum swing and gave us a big lift," Claudio Reyna said at the time. "We did our best to hang on. Having him back there is always a big advantage."
Reyna was the heart of the American effort in 2002 and the central focus of Arena's attack. So there was high tactical intrigue when he appeared on the right side of a 3-5-2 arrangement for the U.S.' second-round contest against bitter border rival Mexico.
With Pablo Mastroeni and O'Brien patrolling the middle and making good use of the ball, Reyna seemed to flummox the Mexicans with his appearance on the right. But it worked to perfection as the U.S. captain produced a two-way master work.
He may have been stationed nominally in the midfield, but Reyna essentially played as a right back. His job was to tame the rampaging runs of Ramon Morales and anyone else on Mexico's left. The U.S. captain so effectively dominated his flank that Mexico coach Javier Aguirre removed Morales after 27 frustrating minutes.
Early in the match, McBride took a quick free kick in midfield as Reyna raced down the right side. Reyna's centering pass found Josh Wolff, who supplied McBride for the finish.
Reyna was an absolute force throughout. Adding to the achievement was this: He was playing his third match in eight days, having started against South Korea and Poland. "Reyna played a position he was not used to and he came through big," Arena said at the time.
Precious little came out of the awkward U.S. stumble through Germany four years ago. Tellingly, the only brush with success came in a draw, albeit one that was worthy if not outright valorous. Three dismissals that night in Kaiserslautern (two for the United States) reduced the match to a 10 v. 9 oddity, but it also arranged circumstances that begged for heroes.
The United States held the eventual World Cup winners in a 1-1 draw thanks to relentless toil. McBride was literally bloody with effort, the recipient of a nasty elbow from Daniele De Rossi. Steve Cherundolo was a horse, too, somehow summoning the energy for carefully chosen dashes up the right side through the second half -- knowing full well that he would just as surely have to hurry back into defensive position.
But no one covered more ground that night than Donovan. His demonstration of will and stamina was nothing short of inspirational for teammates. With acres of space to cover in midfield, Donovan lumbered back and forth, forward and backward to apply pressure, finally dropping from exhaustion at the final whistle.
"He really did set the example for the whole team," recalled center back Jimmy Conrad, who was on the field that night.
Donovan's labor carried a practical value, too, for Italy was pressing ever harder for the game-winner. The American attacker always seemed to have another sprint in him, which prevented the Italians from being more assertive still.
"They had to respect his speed," Conrad said. "It kept them honest and made them stay home. Having him on the field that night made a big difference."