July 11, 2003

U.S. Gearing Up for the Gold Cup

History in the Making

Unquestionably, the 2003 season for the United States Men’s National Team is born in the sunlight of its success in 2002. During the most accomplished year in team history, the U.S. compiled its best-ever record, captured CONCACAF’s highest prize, and ultimately astounded the world with its historic quarterfinal finish at the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan.

 The U.S. received command performances from veterans like Brad Friedel, Claudio Reyna and all-time leading capwinner Cobi Jones, while witnessing the birth of a new crop of stars in Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Pablo Mastroeni. With both the pride and pressure accompanying international success, the USA sets forth on another quest, with the next generation of American players pursuing the prize that ultimately awaits at the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany.

 Fortunately, the journey begins with the same captain at the helm, as U.S. head coach Bruce Arena has signed on to lead the side through the next World Cup cycle. With a four-year record of 34-18-14, Arena is the team’s all-time leader in victories and winning percentage (.621). In addition, the team won a record 12 games in 2002, including a championship run at the 2002 CONCACAF Gold Cup and their historic performance at the 2002 World Cup that featured victories against world power Portugal and regional rivals Mexico.

Start Me Up

The path ahead cannot be undertaken without first taking a nostalgic glimpse at the achievements of the past year. With an eye towards Korea/Japan, the U.S. began 2002 in spectacular fashion, as a mostly MLS-based team collected four wins and a draw en route to their Gold Cup title. The crown marked the second Gold Cup championship for the United States, the first coming in the event’s inaugural year in 1991. Already the seeds of an emerging team were planted.

U.S. forward Brian McBride netted four goals, including a hat trick against El Salvador, and would earn honors as the tournament’s MVP and leading scorer. Eddie Lewis and Frankie Hejduk, two of the team’s European based players who had slid off the national team radar, had rediscovered their form and looked to provide major contributions in the coming months. Most importantly, the side demonstrated a cohesive, high-pressure defense and a potent counter-attack that would prove to be a formidable presence come June.

After a rigorous schedule of friendlies that took the U.S. team across America and into Europe, Bruce Arena and his 23-man unit headed off to Seoul in late May, where the challenge of stepping onto the world’s greatest stage awaited.

World Cup Wake-Up Call

John O’Brien’s opportunistic goal in the 4th minute of the opening match against pre-tournament favorites Portugal may have sent shock waves throughout the world, but came as less of a surprise to a confident and well-prepared U.S. team. Focused and determined, the USA applied consistent pressure throughout the opening stanza, and when Brian McBride became the only player in U.S. history to score in two World Cups with his 34th minute strike, the team held a 3-0 lead and the potential for victory in its own hands. When the final whistle blew and the scoreboard read 3-2 in favor of the underdogs, the U.S. had delivered a powerful message to all future opponents. 

Outstanding efforts continued to highlight the team’s performance in group play. U.S. forward Clint Mathis, the USA’s leading scorer in 2002 with seven goals and two assists, silenced the delirious, 60,000-plus Korean fans, doing justice to a beautiful service from John O’Brien by delivering a clinical strike in the 24th minute that gave the U.S. an early 1-0 lead against the host nation. Brad Friedel made several spectacular saves in goal, including the first of two penalty kicks he would deny in the opening round, to help secure a 1-1 draw and a crucial point. And despite the 3-1 loss to Poland, the United States had accomplished mission number one: advance to the knockout stage.

With the nation rallying behind them, and a good-luck call from President George W. Bush as motivation, the U.S. team encountered bitter rivals Mexico in the Round of 16. From the outset, the U.S. men emphatically rose to the occasion. A textbook display of teamwork saw team captain Claudio Reyna blaze past two defenders and find Josh Wolff on the baseline, whose miraculous first-time pass found Brian McBride poised in the center of the box. McBride made no mistake, his perfectly placed strike in the 8th minute giving the United States an early lead. With an unrelenting defense and a Landon Donovan insurance goal, the U.S. would advance to the quarterfinals for the first time in 72 years.

Turning in arguably its best performance of the tournament, the U.S. relentlessly pursued two-time World Cup champion Germany from the opening whistle. Only the brilliance of tournament MVP Oliver Kahn would deny the American attack, his spectacular save on Landon Donovan providing the backdrop that would frustrate the U.S. throughout the match. Tony Sanneh, the speculative starter at the right back spot prior to the World Cup, turned in a world-class performance, denying the Germans at one end while pursuing scoring opportunities in the other. Despite the eventual 1-0 loss, the United States walked off the field in Ulsan with something no one could have anticipated: admiration from the American public and respect from the international community.

Blueprint for the Future

The USA’s achievements in 2002 merely provide the foundation from which to build the future. The U.S. is hard at work assembling a program that will help shape the group that will compete in World Cup qualifying beginning in the summer of ’04. During the previous four-year cycle, 93 different players saw time with the Men’s National Team, with future stars like Chris Armas, DaMarcus Beasley, and Clint Mathis seeing their first action with the senior team in that span. At the dawn of the new cycle, Arena will once again indoctrinate a new collection of players in search of talent capable of competing at the international level.

The potential list is promising – youthful, but experienced. Men like goalkeeper Tim Howard, a member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic team and the 2001 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year; Carlos Bocanegra, the 2002 MLS Defender of the Year; Bobby Convey, the youngest player on the 1999 U-17 national team that placed third in the World Championships, and a host of others.

The U.S. will begin defense of its Gold Cup crown starting this week (July 12). Twelve teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean square off in search of CONCACAF’s regional honors. Not only does the tournament award regional bragging rights; it provides fertile testing ground for the rigors and unique challenges of World Cup qualifying in the most diverse confederation in the world.

. . . . . .

United States Men’s National Team Manager Bruce Arena has finalized the 18-man roster that will defend the team’s confederation championship in the 2003 CONCACAF Gold Cup to be held July 12-27 in Foxboro, Mass., Miami, Fla. and Mexico City. 

Per tournament regulations, 18 players from the initial 25-man roster must be named to the final roster, with seven designated as alternates. Each team is allowed to replace a player from the 18-man roster with one of the seven reserve players at any time during the competition, with the approval of CONCACAF. Once replaced, a player may not return to the competition.

The U.S. opens Group C action on July 12 against El Salvador at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., with kickoff set for 6:30 p.m. ET. Having defeated El Salvador 4-0 in the quarterfinal round in 2002, the U.S. now holds a 9-1-4 advantage in the all-time series. The USA will take on Martinique in the first-ever meeting between the nations on July 14 at 9 p.m. ET in Foxboro, with that match scheduled to be broadcast live on Galavision. 

Should the U.S. advance beyond the group phase, their quarterfinal match would be held July 19 in Foxboro.  The semifinals are being played in Miami on July 23 and Mexico City on July 24, with the championship final scheduled for July 27 at the Estadio Azteca.

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