When The Yanks tamed El Tri

The United States’ improbable run through the 2002 World Cup was highlighted by the most important victory in team history. Today marks the 20-year anniversary of the 2-0 win over Mexico in the Round of 16, which gave the team its first knockout-round victory and confirmed the Dos a Cero legend. This victory helped the US establish regional superiority and helped soccer explode in America.

The two teams had played 46 times since 1934. Mexico dominated the first half-century, winning 21 of the first 25 matches. Since 2000 though, the US had won four of the last five matches and now felt on level ground. “We know them. They know us. It’s nice we kind of caught up to them,” said captain Claudio Reyna. (NY Times

Both teams came into this match on the back of two different group-stage runs. Mexico won Group G after beating Croatia and Ecuador before a draw with Italy on the final day. The US came out of the blocks hot with a win over Portugal before a draw with South Korea. The Americans barely escaped Group D after losing to Poland 3-1, but with the South Korea win over Portugal, the US was through.

“The issue for us was that we’d played pretty well in our first two games, and then the third game we really, really struggled,” Landon Donovan said. “And so that was difficult because we sort of were brought back down to earth by a [Polish] team that had no chance of advancing to the next round. I think there was some concern.” (mlssoccer.com)

On paper, Mexico was the favourite. Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Jared Borgetti and Luis Hernández were all in their primes and a young Rafael Márquez had played well during the group stage. The United States was dealing with a couple of issues. Frankie Hejduk was suspended and David Regis and Jeff Agoos were out injured, prompting manager Bruce Arena to change his tactics. He opted for a 3-5-2 formation with Tony Sanneh, Eddie Pope and Gregg Berhalter anchoring the back. This would be the first time this team has played in that system.

The US struck early with Brian McBride scoring the opener in the eighth minute. After mostly Mexican possession over the first seven minutes, the US broke forward after a foul. Reyna, who was playing right midfield as part of the formation change, played a long pass to McBride and he was fouled. McBride takes the free-kick quickly to Reyna, who busted 40 yards down the right. He beat Salvador Carmona on the dribble and gets to the end line. The captain plays a low cross to Josh Wolff, who lays it off to McBride for the open shot at the goal.

“I’d say the first goal pretty much set the tone for everything. At that moment, I believe we really got the upper hand … They started to get nervous about everything they were doing at that time. And we profited from that,” Earnie Stewart said. (mlssoccer.com)

Mexico had most of the possession the rest of the first half, finishing with 67% of the ball. They created a couple of chances, including their best chance in the 35th minute, where an awkward Brad Friedel punch fell to Blanco at the penalty spot. Friedel was equal to the shot and the eventual rebound by Hernández went wide.

Friedel was called into action twice at the beginning of the second half, including pushing Braulio Luna’s set-piece off the crossbar. In the 55th minute, controversy struck. On a Luna corner kick, the ball was curled in and John O’Brien and Carmona rose to meet the ball. O’Brien ended up punching the ball clear and referee Vitor Melo Pereira didn’t notice. No handball was called after the Mexican appeals.

“It was a freak play,” O’Brien said. “It was a situation where you’re trying to mark your man and someone comes up underneath you and hits your arm. I didn’t do it on purpose.” (NY Times

Less than 10 minutes after the possible handball, the United States struck again. Sanneh makes the interception and plays the easy pass to Reyna. Reyna finds O’Brien and Eddie Lewis made a run down the left, who had not seen much of the ball in the second half. Lewis received the O’Brien pass and played the cross to on-running Donovan, who headed the ball home at the back post. It was another chance on the counter.

“We knew the writing was on the wall and it was very business-like to get through the rest of (the match),” Sanneh said. “They knew … At 1-0, they were three feet behind us and then we pulled a mile away. Then it’s like, ‘Alright, that’s not going to happen,’ and then I think emotions start to get into it and obviously they lost their cool.”

The match turned ugly after the second goal. Hernández was shown a yellow card for diving on a challenge from Pope in the 67th minute. Blanco was booked for kneeing Masteroni after the play three minutes later. In the 81st minute, Alberto Garcia Aspe received a yellow for a foul on Donovan. The final straw came in the 88th minute when Márquez was sent-off for a bad challenge on Cobi Jones.

“I challenged Marquez and he came in and he basically – so people don’t forget – he comes at me with his foot straight out, studs me in the thigh, in my hip with his studs, and then comes through and headbutts me in the side of the head,” Jones said. “Now that’s intended to hurt somebody.” (mlssoccer.com)

The final whistle blew and the final score of 2-0 was cemented in history. The United States’ performance was described as determined, efficient and tactically mature. Despite the line-up changes and the new system, the Americans showed fight and steadiness in the face of their most familiar foe.

“Everyone was tired, but it was very joyous. We were celebrating,” Reyna said. “The great thing about that group was the guys who weren’t playing were so excited and happy and taking part in the whole World Cup. A lot of different guys were in and out of the team, but the group was all together and just excited and happy.” (mlssoccer.com)

This match left a last legacy on US Soccer. Right before the match, President George W Bush called the team to say “The country’s really proud of the team. A lot of people who didn’t even know anything about soccer, like me, are all excited and pulling for you.” (The Washington Post) People were waking up in the early hours of the morning to catch this match. The team made the front page of the New York Times. Many made TV appearances when they returned home, including spots on the David Letterman Show, Good Morning America and Regis and Kelly. 

“When I went to Germany, they were very complimentary of our team and what we did,” Berhalter said. “It also helped at home. We came back and we were heroes. People in the streets in New York recognized me. What is going on?” (ussoccer.com)

Over the last 20 years, the rivalry has been pretty even with the United States having the slight upper hand. In 27 matches in that World Cup win, the US has 12 wins and Mexico has eight wins. Seven matches have ended in a draw. The United States has won three of the last four matches, including two trophies. The World Cup run ended when the US fell to Germany in the quarterfinals. Not only did this win change the image of the US as the best team in the region, but it changed the way the world viewed American soccer.

“The run itself in 2002 put US soccer on the map globally, in the eyes of other players around the world, the other staff around the world, the other federations around the world, the other leagues around the world,” Friedel said. “Really, that was probably the first time that people really got serious about what the United States could become in the future in soccer.” (mlssoccer.com)

By Travis Zuellig

USMNT Historian

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