The last time the United States met Portugal in a World Cup was during the first round of the 2002 World Cup. The buildup in the American media could not be more different than this week’s hype. In 2002, the World Cup snuck up on the United States with ESPN spending little to no time promoting the tournament in advance while the general sports programs that dominated that network ignored the tournament’s start altogether. The 2002 World Cup was held in the Far East with South Korea and Japan splitting hosting duties and the time difference with the United States made viewing only possible for the hardcore soccer fans or insomniacs.
Soccer was still very much an underground sport in the United States in 2002. Soccer blogs did not exist. Twitter hadn’t been developed yet, and message boards tended to be where fans would congregate. The Premier League wasn’t close to being mainstream and MLS had just contracted two teams. Times were bad for US Soccer fans and even those of us plugged in had horribly low expectations for a World Cup where we had been drawn into a group with at least, on paper, three much stronger sides.
The seeded team in our group was South Korea, one of the host nations, and Poland — a good European side. But the overwhelming favorite in the group was Portugal. The Portuguese were semifinalists at the Euro 2000 tournament and boasted a generation of players that were dominant at the European club level. In time, this group of players would get Portugal to the Euro 2004 final and World Cup 2006 semifinals. But in 2002, they ran into the United States in the opening game of the World Cup and what ensued was one of the greatest upsets in recent major tournament history.
Luís Figo had just won the UEFA Champions League with Real Madrid. And along with the likes of Fernando Couto, João Pinto and Rui Costa, Portugal was loaded. By contrast, the best player for the United States, captain Claudio Reyna, was injured and arguably the nation’s most creative attacking threat, Clint Mathis, wasn’t trusted by his manager Bruce Arena.
Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, two 20 year-old youngsters with no major tournament experience, were given controversial starts in the match. Arena also made the controversial decision to start Frankie Hejduk at left-back something that Rob Stone, then the studio host for ESPN, couldn’t believe as the network came on the air at 2:30 am EST. Hejduk, then a right-sided midfielder playing in the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen, had little experience playing on the left side of the backline. Leverkusen had reached the Champions League final, losing to Figo’s Real Madrid but Hedjuk had been injured most of the season and by the time he returned to fitness, a coaching change had taken place and he was considered surplus to requirements.
Against this backdrop, I got up at 2:30 in the morning and went to my living room to watch the game. The US lineup was uninspiring though I recall being excited seeing both Beasley and Donovan in the starting XI. I thought to myself among the American players only midfielder John O’Brien and goalkeeper Brad Friedel could come anywhere close to rivaling Portugal’s squad. This was going to be ugly, I thought, but at least we qualified, having secured the final CONCACAF qualifying spot finishing below Costa Rica and Mexico. During qualifying, we even lost to Honduras at home.
The match kicked off with ESPN providing the world feed with American announcers Jack Edwards and Ty Keough. I went for a second cup of wakeup coffee when O’Brien improbably scored just four minutes into the World Cup. The United States, one of the weakest teams on paper in the competition, led one of the favorites! I was in disbelief and my scream woke up half the neighborhood. The next thirty three minutes were like being in a fantasy world. Donovan and Beasley were buzzing all over the pitch, Brian McBride was occupying the defense and 33 year-old Earnie Stewart, wearing the armband that day due to Reyna’s injury, looked like he was 25 again. Hejduk seemed untroubled at left-back while Tony Sanneh was galloping down the right side combining well with Donovan.
Portugal was shell-shocked and in minute 29 a Donovan cross intended for McBride instead was redirected into the back of the net by one of Portugal’s defenders! It was 2-0, and this time I kept my voice down. But minutes later McBride made it three when Sanneh found him open with a dangerous run and beautiful cross. This time I lept for joy, screaming and running out my front door. I was hoping nobody called the police because I was that loud and that excited.
Portugal eventually got two of the goals back but United States held on for a shocking 3-2 victory, one that propelled the nation to our greatest World Cup run since 1930. But much like 1930, it was hardly noticed among mainstream sports fans. The time difference of the games and the general apathy toward the sport among the mainstream American press combined that summer to deprive the nation of what could have been a glorious and patriotic time. But 2002 will forever be remembered. By 2006, MLS was rebounding, the Premier League was beginning to become popular in the States and games were on TV at a better time. ESPN, sensing 2002 could be replicated, used patriotic themes to promote its World Cup coverage in the summer of 2006.
But the US crashed out of the 2006 tournament and many soccer fans felt our timing had been all wrong. Subsequent events have proven we have hit a tipping point in this country, but if we have a 2002 type run this summer spurred by another win over Portugal, this time Americans will be celebrating in the streets.