Exactly one year ago. June 5, 2002. The day the U.S. defeated Portugal in the World Cup. Many soccer fans have relived that Portugal game in their heads: trying to picture how the events of that historic run unfolded, play-by-play and goal-by-goal, hearing the shouts of “overrated” from the U.S. contingent of fans patronizing the Portuguese from the stands and remembering the team’s celebration after their shocking win. The following article is recap of that memorable day, told in a first-person account by sports fan and soccer novice Emily Bremer, an intern in the U.S. Soccer Communications Department, who fell hard for the World Cup while a world away in New Zealand.
USA-PORTUGAL: ONE-YEAR REMOVED
By Emily Bremer
I was in the North Island of New Zealand and not expecting a crowd at Kato’s bar that night. I was simply trying to play some pool with some buddies, but seeing as there were fans sitting, leaning and squatting against every square inch of that bar, the pool table was not looking like an option. With one look at the gigantic television screen I realized what the hubbub was all about: USA vs. Portugal. World Cup. “At least it’s not rugby,” I said to my American friends as we literally walked over people to the last remaining free space to watch. Although there were no hard core soccer fans among us, it was, after all, our country. To our surprise, we soon became World Cup junkies, finding ourselves at Kato’s every night until the end of the tournament.
If you were not lucky enough to be one of the some 37,000 fans watching the game from Suwon, South Korea, you probably remember exactly where, with whom, and how many cups of coffee you had during the game. One doesn’t soon forget games like that. No one expected the start of the U.S. - Portugal game on June 5, 2002. Ahead by three goals, soccer fans must have thought they were delirious in that early hour as they rechecked the score on their screens. But indeed the U.S. men were up 3-0 after 36 minutes of play and went on to win 3-2. It was a near perfect start to a World Cup that changed soccer in America. It had football fans from around the globe questioning just how good this U.S. team was. The win was called “stunning,” “surprising,” “shocking,” but no matter which superlative you choose to describe it, it was the perfect start to what was about to become a piece of U.S. soccer history and undoubtedly the best performance from the Americans in 72 years.
Since that fateful day exactly one year ago U.S. Soccer has not been the same. Portugal was favored by many to reach the semifinals of the World Cup. How was the U.S. to beat the likes of Figo and Pauleta? (“Crazy things happen in football,” goalkeeper Brad Friedel said after the game. “I guess this was another.”) Part of what made the win such an upset was that the United States didn’t have captain Claudio Reyna, and it didn’t have midfielder Chris Armas, and if that was not bad enough, they also didn’t have explosive scorer Clint Mathis. Add to that the fact that they had won only one World Cup match in 50 years and finished last out of 32 teams in 1998. The cards were not in their favor. But head coach Bruce Arena said, “We’ve been preparing for the game since last December. We knew all of Portugal’s strengths and weaknesses, and there are not a lot of weaknesses. But we came into the game believing we could win. We played to win, not to participate.”
The game ranks as one of the best wins in U.S. soccer history. Three goals in the first 40 minutes. USA 3, Portugal 2. In soccer. At the World Cup.
It was a game of offense. In the fourth minute, Earnie Stewart takes a corner kick, Brian McBride heads it on goal, Portugal’s goalkeeper made the original save, John O’Brien knocks it in for the rebound. 1-0. Thirtieth minute, Landon Donovan shoots, ball deflects off the shoulder of a defender and past the keeper and inside the post. 2-0. Thirty-sixth minute, Pablo Mastroeni finds Landon Donovan, who flips the ball to the streaking Tony Sanneh down the right wing. Brian McBride meets Sanneh’s cross with a diving header at the far post. 3-0.
But defense wins games. And despite Jeff Agoos knocking the ball into his own net with a swing of his left foot to make the game 3-2, Arena insisted, “It was the defense that won the game and kept Portugal on their heels. I’m very proud of my team. It was a great performance. We’ve beaten a great team.” With the magnitude of the victory in the Portugal game and the performances that would soon follow, the U.S. was starting to receive the credit they were due.
As we all know the team’s run at the World Cup ended before everyone would have liked. The 1-0 loss to the great combatant Germany was a tough loss to swallow, especially after their relentless pursuit during the entire game.
“I didn’t want to leave,” said Donovan, who created several dangerous scoring chances in the match “Usually you anticipate the whistle blowing but all of a sudden they put their arms up and I was like ‘Oh, my God, it’s over’. It was like so close, you know?” Germany would go on to the final match of the World Cup.
Despite the lingering feeling that if they had just a few more minutes they could have pulled off the victory, their World Cup 2002 experience was not supposed to unfold like it did. The Portugal win was never supposed to happen, neither was the tie with the host nation amidst a sea of South Korean fans, or the win over archrival Mexico. Meeting Germany in a quarterfinal was the culmination of what had become an eventful and historical trip for the U.S. The United States earned the respect of many great soccer nations during last year’s World Cup and something tells me they will no longer be viewed as the underdogs, but rather respected as a force to contend with.
Most memories that soccer fans have of the 2002 World Cup are rooted in that opening game vs. Portugal, June 5, 2002. It was the day the U.S. got the world’s attention and proved that the gap between football’s sharks and minnows is quickly diminishing. On that day, U.S. Soccer was placed onto the world map. Soon, the U.S. would become a threat. And all a sudden, the world is watching.