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History of the US Men’s Soccer Team

Written By Denis Cummings
Last updated: August 6, 2023

The U.S. national team in the last two decades has steadily transformed itself from a team of amateur and semi-pro players who could barely qualify for the World Cup into a respectable international side. As it prepares for its World Cup opener against England, in what may be the most anticipated game in U.S. soccer history, we look back at its greatest triumphs and disappointments.

History of the US Men’s Soccer Team

The Early Years

The U.S. was one of 13 countries to accept an invitation to compete in the first-ever World Cup in 1930. The team defeated Belgium 3-0 in its first game (one of the first two games in World Cup history) and went on the finish third, still its best-ever finish.

The Americans played the next World Cup in 1934, but were eliminated after one game, a 7-1 drubbing to host Italy. They failed to qualify in 1938 and the next two scheduled tournaments were cancelled due to World War II.

At the 1950 World Cup, the United States pulled one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history, beating England, one of the tournament favorites, 1-0 on a diving header goal by Haitian immigrant Joe Gaetjens. The result was so stunning that some English papers allegedly believed the score was a misprint and listed England as a 10-1 winner.

The game was chronicled in the book “”The Game of Their Lives” and in the 2005 movie of the same title.

Sources in this Story

Paul Caligiuri and the Return to the World Cup

It would be another 40 years before the U.S. returned to the World Cup. Though professional soccer briefly became popular in the 1970s as the NASL attracted aging stars such as Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, there were few talented American players.

The emergence of today’s national team can be traced back to two events in late-1980s. First, on July 4, 1988, FIFA awarded the 1994 World Cup to the United States, with the condition that the U.S. Soccer Federation plan to create a professional soccer league (Major League Soccer).

Second, the men’s national team qualified for the 1990 World Cup with a thrilling 1-0 win at Trinidad and Tobago, which needed only a tie to hold off the U.S. for the final qualifying spot. Paul Caligiuri’s game-winning goal, which The New York Times wrote at the time “saved American soccer,” has taken on legendary status for U.S. soccer fans.

“At least half of the things that have happened in U.S. soccer since would never have occurred if Paul hadn’t scored that goal,” said former national team star Tab Ramos in 2001.

Things did not go as well for the U.S. at the World Cup, losing all three games in the group stage by a combined 8-2.

Hosting the 1994 World Cup

The U.S., with a distinct lack of soccer tradition, was a controversial choice to host the World Cup, but the tournament was a great success. An average of nearly 69,000 fans—still a World Cup-record—turned out for the games, and the U.S. team exceeded expectations, upsetting Colombia and narrowly losing 1-0 to eventual champion Brazil.

“Soccer Stateside has been derided in the past as the world’s biggest baby-sitting service, but last week this huge youth-participant sport came of age,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff after the victory over Colombia.

Improvement and 1998 World Cup Disappointment

Major League Soccer debuted in 1996, and though it captured little of the excitement of the World Cup, it did provide a place for American players to play high-level soccer at home. The national team built on its success from the World Cup, beating Argentina in the 1995 Copa America and easily qualifying for the 1998 World Cup in France. In the 1998 Gold Cup, goalkeeper Kasey Keller made 10 saves in a dramatic 1-0 upset of Brazil.

Expectations were high for the World Cup, but it would be a disastrous tournament for the Americans. After losing the opener to Germany, they suffered an embarrassing loss to Iran, eliminating them from contention. They lost their final group game to Yugoslavia and finished dead last in the 32-team field as many players took shots at coach Steve Sampson.

Sources in this Story

2002 World Cup Quarterfinalists

The U.S. rebounded from the disappointment of 1998 to qualify for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, where a new generation of players would lead the team to its best finish since 1930. More amazingly, many Americans were willing to wake up in the early hours of the morning to watch the games on television.

The U.S. opened the tournament with an upset of Portugal, eventually advancing to the second round and defeating archrival Mexico to reach the quarterfinals. Though the team lost 1-0 to Germany, it was internationally lauded for its attractive attacking style in the game.

“World Cup 2002 finally showed the planet that the US are capable of playing quality football at the highest level. … The United States can now truly lay claim to being correctly identified as an emerging football nation,” wrote the BBC.

2006 World Cup Failure

Building on the World Cup victory over Mexico, the U.S. won the 2005 Gold Cup and finished in the top of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, establishing itself at the top team in North America. Expectations for the World Cup were again high, but the U.S. would disappoint.

Drawn into the “Group of Death” with the Czech Republic, Italy and Ghana, the U.S. could only manage a draw against Italy in a hard-fought game marked by three red cards. Though a dubious refereeing decision contributed to their loss against Ghana, it didn’t disguise the fact that the team wasn’t as good as advertised.

“We’ve got a long way to go to be consistently competitive with the best teams in the world,” said Sunil Gulati, president of U.S. Soccer.

2009 Confederations Cup Performance Raises Expectations for World Cup

The U.S. beat Mexico in the 2007 Gold Cup, thereby earning a place in the 2009 Confederations Cup alongside powers Spain, Italy and Brazil. After dropping its first two matches to Italy and Brazil, the team astonishingly qualified for the knockout stage with a 3-0 win over Egypt.

Drawn against Spain, the world’s No. 1 ranked team, the Americans pulled a stunning 2-0 upset, ending the Spaniards’ 35-game unbeaten streak and reaching the first FIFA tournament final in U.S. men’s history.

In a rematch against Brazil, the U.S. scored the opening two goals, but conceded unanswered goals in the second half and lost 3-2. Despite the loss, American soccer officials and fans were optimistic about the team’s performance in the tournament.

“Over all, this was a great day for U.S. soccer that will go down in history as one of the truly great moments for our sport,” said Don Garber, commissioner of Major League Soccer.

Reference: U.S. Soccer Web site

The Official Site of U.S. Soccer provides coverage of the men’s national team.

Source: U.S. Soccer

Charles Eames

Denis Cummings is a history enthusiast and author, with a passion for uncovering the stories of the past. Through his writing, he seeks to share his love of history with others and provide a unique perspective on the events that have shaped our world.

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