Fifteen years ago, there was no social media and no hashtags to organize events. So when the United States Men's National Team played their World Cup opener in South Korea against the highly-touted Portugal team on June 5th, 2002 at 4 a.m. central time, it was up to good old word-of-mouth and traditional advertising to set up events and get fans together before the sun rose across the country.
The mood over the USMNT and the World Cup has changed over the years. Now–even if we haven’t fully embraced MLS on the level of the other big sports–the national team’s games are an event at big tournaments. I was at a bar in the middle of the day with lots of other patrons who specifically took long lunches to see the Algeria game at the 2010 World Cup, and you can find any number of venues where YouTube videos emerged celebrating Landon Donovan’s miraculous goal. Even the 2014 World Cup matchup with Portugal was heavily hyped and anticipated by the time it rolled around. It’s unimaginable now for a World Cup game involving our home side to go off without it being the top story that day.
Back in 2002, though, we were kind of in that period after the 1994 honeymoon where things could have been a bit rocky. The 1998 World Cup in France was a disaster, with the team only managing one goal while finishing 0-3 and dead last in the tournament. The team had some successes under Bruce Arena (new coach, same as the old coach), but we were still living in times where the last World Cup victory outside of home soil was the famous 1950 game against England.
Add in that the team’s opener was against heavily-favored Portugal, then ranked 5th in the world–and featuring Luis Figo, Rui Costa, and Pauleta–and expectations were not very high for the United States. Midfield star Claudio Reyna and striker Clint Mathis were both out with injuries, and to top it all off, with the games staged halfway around the world in South Korea and Japan, kickoff times were at a time when most were sleeping.
My birthday request, though, was to join up at the Arrowhead Stadium practice facility watch party. Fifteen years ago, with no kids yet, we could leave the house at 2 a.m. and go and stay out all night. It was one I’ll never forget, setting up on the floor near the front of the giant bubble below the giant screen.
It didn’t take long for the place to become electric. People were still filing in or finding their spots on the floor after hitting the donut table when the U.S. stunned Portugal. Off a corner kick, Brian McBride hit a powerful header that forced a save, and John O’Brien was there for the rebound, barely over three minutes in.
The place erupted, and then sat in rapt and nervous attention for another 25 minutes. That’s when a young Landon Donovan caught a turnover and hit a deflection that had us all thinking that maybe this was meant to be.
Portugal was shell-shocked. And just a few minutes later, Brian McBride scored a goal that will forever be treasured.
That was one of those “hugging strangers” moment as we all leaped to our feet again. When the World Cup had been in the U.S. in 1994, it hadn’t exactly been an offensive explosion. The 1998 version had been a dour disaster. This was unexpected and unprecedented.
Things were light until Portugal got one back, and then the last twenty minutes became nerve-wracking after Jeff Agoos hit a nice volley into the back of his own net.
The U.S. survived, and Waffle Houses were hit en masse as the sun was rising. This World Cup would also give us dos a cero, and an unimaginable quarterfinal appearance against Germany. It all started with a stunner against Portugal, a game–played halfway around the globe–that seems like a world away now.