Nearly a decade before there was Landon Donovan, Ian Darke and “Goal, Goal USA!”, the United States Men’s National Team took the field at the Jeonju Castle in South Korea for the Round of Sixteen at the World Cup Finals. In a host of personal reflections on that day, I’ve often wondered if the members of Bruce Arena’s 2002 United States side understood at all, or had given much thought to the notion at least, that this was a day where they were playing more than arch-rival Mexico. In many ways this question is foolish.
Of course they weren’t thinking about more than Mexico. After all, this was at a point in time where Mexico were still definitively an American nemesis, a regional giant the Americans couldn’t often slay, much less defeat with any marker of consistency. Given that task, there was no need to think of anything but the formidable opponent on the other side of the pitch. What’s more, the Mexicans were coming off a thrilling 1-1 draw with perennial world power Italy, and by most accounts, had controlled the run of play in that fixture.
The Americans limped in to Jeonju having been throttled by Poland 3-1. Down 2-0 after five minutes, that scoreline will always seem historically flattering. The Americans had found their way into the second round only with help—Park Ji Sung lifted the hosts to an improbable 1-0 defeat of Portugal with a goal in the seventieth minute, and as the seconds of USA-Poland winded down, a tense stoppage time a few hundred miles away ended in agony for the highly-regarded Portuguese and saw the Americans through to the second round
Given this set of fortuitous circumstances, the Americans likely greeted the simple opportunity to play another game with alacrity, and would have been ambitious indeed to look beyond the talented, confident Mexican team set to face them. Ninety minutes against El Tri were what mattered, and history would tell the tale, and the tale would create my question.
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