The history of the United States Men’s National Team stretches back over 75 years and has featured many memorable matches. But which is the best ever? Well, for my money, no US MNT game has ever transcended the brilliance and importance of the Americans’ victory over Mexico in the 2002 World Cup Round of 16 in South Korea.
Sure, our best ever World Cup finish came in 1930 when we placed third, but that was not exactly the most competitive World Cup field ever. Moreover, the 2002 World Cup was far more pivotal to popularizing soccer in America. The famed 1989 “shot heard round the world” match that resulted in our first World Cup qualification in decades was also an amazing game, but I think the 2002 World Cup match takes precedence.
To understand the importance of the game, you must first consider that the US had not reached the Round of 16 of the World Cup during the modern era. When you couple that tidbit with the fact we were playing our regional arch-rival Mexico, you can understand that the match that was played on June 17, 2002 truly was the biggest match in US history up to that point.
The US had reached the Round of 16 by beating Portugal and tying with Korea. A loss in the final opening round match to Poland could have shaken the Americans’ confidence, but they rebounded against Mexico with the most dominant, brilliant performance in team history.
The Mexico team was heavily favored entering the match. They had blanked the US 1-0 in their last meeting, and they featured far more players with experience at the top levels of world soccer. But the Americans had determination on their side, and they would not be denied a victory on that fateful day during the Summer of 2002.
Mexico almost took the lead in the second minute when they fired a deadly free kick on goal, but Brad Friedel made an amazing save to keep the game level. A mere six minutes later, Claudio Reyna flicked a cross toward goal which was deflected by Josh Wolff to Brian McBride at the top of box. McBride powered home a goal to give the US a 1-0 lead.
Mexico, led by Senor Blanco, continued to pressure the US defense, but Friedel continually denied the Mexican Nats a goal. A driving shot for Mexico in the 51st minute clanked off the bar, and you could tell the fortunate bounce for the Americans greatly frustrated the Mexican team.
In the 65th minute, the US Nats put the game away on a brilliant header by Landon Donovan off an Eddie Lewis cross. The Mexican team then completely unraveled, and rather than losing with dignity like true sportsmen, they began to take their frustration out on the Yanks. Rafael Marquez, perhaps Mexico’s finest player, was sent off in the closing minutes for a vicious tackle against Cobi Jones.
Minutes later, the whistle sounded and the US had made their first quarterfinal in over 70 years. A 0-1 loss to Germany in the next game would somewhat tarnish the Americans’ record run, but it does nothing to erase the importance of the victory over Mexico which resulted in the US becoming one of the final eight teams standing in the world’s most competitive tournament in all of sports.
I believe the victory over Mexico in 2002 is the greatest match ever played by the Nats, but if you have arguments for why it should be another match, let me hear about it in the comments.