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Pushovers No More Long dismissed as a soccer-deficient nation by many Europeans, the U.S. rose up to beat a world power, Portugal, and tie cohost South Korea

June 17, 2002
June 17, 2002

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June 17, 2002

NBA Finals

Pushovers No More Long dismissed as a soccer-deficient nation by many Europeans, the U.S. rose up to beat a world power, Portugal, and tie cohost South Korea

They were angry. It hardly mattered to the U.S. players that
they were perhaps the biggest surprise of the World Cup last
week, or that they had finally buried the ghosts of 1998, or
that their stunning 3-2 win over powerhouse Portugal was the
Yanks' most significant soccer triumph in more than 50 years,
maybe ever. And even though the Americans' 1-1 tie against South
Korea on Monday put them on the brink of the second round--their
pretournament goal--they wanted more. "We led until the end,"
muttered 20-year-old midfielder Landon Donovan after the U.S.
had come within 15 minutes of victory in the lion's den of Daegu
World Cup Stadium. "Everyone's pretty upset."

This is an article from the June 17, 2002 issue Original Layout

This is the new breed of U.S. soccer player, one who isn't
satisfied with moral victories and pats on the head from the
international soccer community. Yet when Donovan had time to
digest Monday's result, he realized that soccer's favorite
whipping boys have taken a quantum leap forward. It comes down
to this: If the U.S. can tie or beat Poland (0-2) on Friday in
Daejeon, or if South Korea defeats Portugal in Incheon, the
Americans will reach soccer's Sweet 16. "Once we hit the
showers, we realized this isn't so bad," Donovan said. "If you
had told us we'd have four points after games against one of the
favorites [Portugal] and the home team, we would have taken it."

To see Group D favorites Portugal and Poland on the verge of
elimination at week's end could only be disconcerting to
European soccer fans, who invariably complain that other
continents receive too many World Cup bids. As the
self-appointed arbiters of the sport, Euros essentially split
into two camps when it comes to U.S. soccer. There are the
Snobs, who dismiss the Yanks as artless hustle players who never
win when it counts (see World Cup '98). Then there is the
smaller--but growing--faction of Fatalists, who fearfully assume
that the U.S. will take over world soccer just as surely as
McDonald's and Hollywood have invaded European popular culture.

Both sides weighed in after the U.S. upset of Portugal on June 5
in Suwon. The Snobs laid the blame on the losers' lax defense.
PITIFUL PORTUGAL LEFT TO LICK THEIR WOUNDS, read a headline in
The Times of London. The Fatalists, in turn, predicted doom and
gloom for the Continent. AMERICA E ARRIVATO! (America Has
Arrived!) blushed the pink pages of Italy's La Gazzetta dello
Sport, while a commentator for the Italian TV network RAI
soberly intoned, "Well, Italy had better win this year, because
after this everyone will have to move aside for the U.S.A."

The truth lies somewhere in between, of course, but the
Americans' effort against the Portuguese certainly gave the
Europeans reasons for pause, from forward Brian McBride's aerial
superiority (he created one goal and scored another) to John
O'Brien's deft midfield work to the way the defense, marshaled
by the elegant Eddie Pope, shackled reigning world player of the
year Luis Figo (whose $56 million market value exceeds that of
the entire U.S. team). For God's sake, the Americans beat the
world's fifth-ranked team without the benefit of their most
skilled midfielder, the injured Claudio Reyna, or their most
explosive scorer, Clint Mathis, whom coach Bruce Arena left on
the bench.

Yet what frightened (and enticed) Europe most of all was a pair
of 20-year-olds, Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, who tore through
the Portuguese back line as though it were crepe paper. If
Portugal has its Golden Generation, the storied backbone of its
national team, then Beasley and Donovan are the Yanks' young
Jedi Knights, joyously oblivious to past U.S. failures. ("The
Portugal game," Donovan said last Friday, "is the only history I
know.") Two months ago both youngsters seemed destined only for
cameos on the world's biggest stage. But after midfielder Chris
Armas tore his right ACL last month, Beasley took the starting
spot on the left side, where his blinding speed--of foot and
thought--is unmatched among U.S. wingers. Then, in a surprise
move, Arena chose Donovan over Mathis against Portugal, citing
Donovan's pace against a slow back line as well as his stamina
in tracking back to defend.

It all worked. Donovan stretched the Portuguese defense and
caused the second U.S. strike when his innocuous cross bounced
off Jorge Costa's head and into the goal. Beasley, meanwhile,
whipped down the left flank again and again, drawing five fouls
from flailing defenders. No wonder he already has such nicknames
as Run-DMB, Jitterbug and (Arena's favorite) Gumby. "You could
say that they're too young and haven't played in a World Cup,"
Arena says. "But I've watched them every day next to players who
have played in the World Cup, and if they're outplaying those
guys, it doesn't make sense to me that they shouldn't be
starting."

The 5'8" Beasley is listed at 126 pounds (the lightest of any of
the 736 World Cup players), but he says he actually checks in at
a hefty 134. These days the 5'8 1/2" Donovan is packing a
defined 150 pounds, thanks to a lifting program that he has
continued during the World Cup, often with Beasley. It's a
friendship that neither would have predicted when they first met
in 1997 at the U.S. under-17 residency camp in Bradenton, Fla.
"We weren't too close initially," says Donovan, who upon
arriving took Beasley's attacking midfield spot, forcing him out
to the wing. Nor did Beasley appreciate Donovan's overly
exuberant celebrations after he scored two goals in his first
U-17 game. "Everybody was like, 'Calm down. It's just a regional
team,'" Beasley recalls. "It wasn't like we were playing Brazil."

Only after Donovan and Beasley won the top two individual awards
at the 1999 under-17 World Cup (where the U.S. finished fourth)
did they become nearly inseparable. In the days after the
Portugal game, smitten reps for teams in Italy's Serie A,
Spain's La Liga and the English Premier League made inquiries
about the Seoul mates. Who knows? If they continue turning
heads, their market values--$5 million for Donovan, $1 million
for Beasley entering the World Cup--could soar as high as $10
million apiece. Donovan plans on returning to the San Jose
Earthquakes, who have him on loan from Germany's Bayer
Leverkusen, but... "I'll listen to anything," he says. Beasley
would like to win an MLS title with the Chicago Fire, but...
"I'm not gonna lie," he says. "I want to go to Europe."

More pressing, however, was Monday's game against cohost South
Korea and its delightful supporters, the Red Devils, whose BE
THE REDS T-shirts and KOREA TEAM FIGHTING! scarves have become
the World Cup equivalent of the Roots berets at the Winter
Olympics. Following South Korea's 2-0 opening-game victory over
Poland, the first World Cup win in the nation's history, a
throng of some 500 Red Devils gathered after midnight outside
the hotel where the U.S. team's families are staying, waving
flags and singing patriotic ditties in anticipation of their
countries' clash in Daegu. Though the Red Devils' group was
unmenacing, South Koreans are still bitter about an incident at
the February Olympics in which short-track speed skater Kim
Dong-Sung crossed the finish line first only to be disqualified,
giving the gold medal to Apolo Ohno of the U.S. Further inciting
the South Korean public last week, TV promos for the soccer
match shamelessly began by showing Kim hurling his nation's flag
to the ice in disgust.

While the U.S. team preached diplomacy ("We're allies," said
Arena, who helped arrange a feel-good photo op for the local
media with his niece and nephew, who were adopted from South
Korea as infants), some American fans fueled the fire by taking
aim at their foes' traditional canine cuisine. On a popular
Internet message board, one wise guy posted a picture of Scooby
Doo saying HEY KOREA: EAT ME! while others urged U.S. supporters
attending the game to chant Who Let the Dogs Out? Tasteless
stuff, of course, yet it revealed a harder edge to the showdown
than anyone had expected. With the rhetoric flying, organizers
ramped up already tight security around the U.S. team and at the
U.S. Embassy in Seoul.

On Monday, fortunately, nothing went off, as the Brits like to
say. Yes, the martyred speed skater Kim showed up with more than
60,000 other fans to cheer on the South Korean team, but the
focus was on the soccer. Entering the game, the U.S. coaching
staff knew that South Korea was quick, fit and relentless, but
its defense had a tendency to lose its shape. Sure enough, the
South Koreans controlled possession for the first 20 minutes
until Mathis, sporting a ridiculous Mohawk, streaked into space,
met O'Brien's feathery lob and deftly finished with his left
foot for a 1-0 lead.

Shortly before the half Brad Friedel, the U.S.'s bionic
goalkeeper, leaped to his right to save Lee Eul-Yong's penalty
kick, and all looked well. But in the 77th minute defender Jeff
Agoos lost Ahn Jung-Hwan for the game-tying goal, a stylish
header past a helpless Friedel. That marked a miserable trifecta
for Agoos, who committed the penalty and had an own goal against
Portugal.

All things considered, though, it was a banner week for the red,
white and blue. "I'm thinking about everyone who's ever said
anything doubting American soccer," said Donovan. "At Leverkusen
we'd always talk in the locker room, and I'd say, 'The U.S. beat
Germany a couple of times.' They'd say, 'That was just a
friendly. You guys can never win in a World Cup.' I hope we
opened their eyes."

In other words, after last week the Snobs can't dismiss the U.S.
out of hand anymore, and the Fatalists can only be feeling more
angst. Until last week Suwon was nothing more to the world
soccer community than a meaningless dot on a map. From now on,
though, the mere mention of that city will trigger a flood of
emotions for American soccer fans, just as the Argentines get
misty-eyed when they hear St. Etienne or the English when they
hear Sapporo or the Germans when they hear Seville. That's what
happens when you make history in this sport. Players, coaches
and tactics may change, but as these trailblazing Yanks will
learn, nobody forgets the classics.

For more World Cup coverage, including scores, photo galleries,
worldwide media reaction and reports from Grant Wahl, go to
cnnsi.com/worldcup.

COLOR PHOTO: GARY M. PRIOR/GETTY IMAGES STYLIN' Before a red sea of rabid home fans, the mohawked Mathis deftly sliced a ball past the South Korean goalkeeper.COLOR PHOTO: DAMIR SAGOLJ/REUTERS [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: JASON REED/REUTERS FLY BY McBride's header against Portugal was the decisive goal in a victory that fed Europeans' fears of future U.S. dominance.COLOR PHOTO: SHAUN BOTTERILL/GETTY IMAGES [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY ICE STORM After his goal, Ahn Jung-Hwan played to the frenzied crowd by mocking the Olympic speed skating controversy.COLOR PHOTO: LEE JAE WON/REUTERS [See caption above]
The Americans beat the world's fifth-ranked team without the
benefit of their most skilled midfielder and their most explosive
scorer.
"I'm thinking about everyone who's ever said anything doubting
American soccer," said Donovan. "I hope we opened their eyes."