It has been barely 12 years since Germany broke the hearts of USA soccer fans, but that game — in the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002 — seems as if it took place a generation ago. The Americans reached the final eight, improbably, but though they outplayed heavily favored Germany in the match, they lost 1-0.
Thursday, the Americans meet the Germans again, this time in the group stage. Depending on the result between Portugal and Ghana in the group’s other game, played at the same time, the U.S. vs. Germany match could be a win-tie-or-go-home affair — a similar scenario to 2002.
American fans have grown used to their team comfortably qualifying for the World Cup and being competitive once they arrived, but 12 years ago, neither was a foregone conclusion. The Americans barely qualified for the 2002 World Cup, and when the tournament started, most pundits picked the Americans to again be embarrassed. Instead, a confident USA side strolled to a 3-0 lead in the first half of their opener, against Portugal, a team that many picked as a contender to win it all. The Americans held on for a 3-2 win that propelled them all the way to the knockout round, where they throttled Mexico 2-0 to earn a berth against the Germans.
Longtime American fans can hardly forget that game against Germany. The USA had the majority of the scoring chances, and German defender Torsten Frings used one arm on his own goal line to stop a volley from Gregg Berhalter, an illegal denial of a goal that was ignored by the referee. Germany’s Michael Ballack scored the winning goal in the 39th minute, and the result could only seem wildly unfair to American fans; the USA had created the chances, but Germany had won the game.
ESPN’s Michael Davies is English and, therefore, knows all about losing to Germany at soccer. He summed it up succinctly at the time, writing: “The Americans just got their hearts broken by the Germans after outplaying them. Welcome to the glorious world of international football, America.”
None of the Americans who played that day are on the 2014 roster; only DaMarcus Beasley even sat on the bench. In many ways, though, the players on this squad are just the latest pilgrims on the 12-year journey to get back to the same level of “the glorious world of international football” — and it’s the Germans that once again stand in their way.
The USA has yet to realize the promise of that unlikely quarterfinal run in 2002. That tournament was in some ways the rebirth of soccer in the USA; Major League Soccer went from contracting to expanding in the wake of the tournament, and countless people became fans of the men’s national squad, still America’s most popular soccer team. It has not led to more success for the team, though. Since that win over Mexico, the USA has not won another knockout-round game.
A win or draw Thursday would not only get the USA back into the knockout round, but also help erase the memories of that 2002 game, when the unexpected should have happened but didn’t.
Twelve years later, it is not implausible that the USA might pull off a positive result. A loss, though, could mean that Ghana or Portugal goes through — and the USA would have to go home and wait another four years, again, to surprise the world as it did in 2002.
Jon Marthaler is a Twin Cities-based writer and regular contributor to the SoccerCentric blog on startribune.com.