In 1930, Team USA finished third place in the first-ever FIFA World Cup held in Montevideo, Uruguay. The semifinal finish is the best in U.S. team history.
On Monday, the United States will begin competition in its ninth FIFA World Cup when it plays Ghana in Natal, Brazil. Those nine tournaments span the entire history of the World Cup, from the first event in 1930 in Uruguay when all but four European teams refused to make the trip, to the upcoming edition that is expected to draw nearly 3 million fans and attract a global television audience to watch 32 teams compete for the world championship.
Throughout the years, the United States has had triumphs and disappointments, milestones and misery, big wins and small “victories.” Visit some of those highlights from the country’s first eight World Cups:
1930: Doing It In Threes
A world away from his home in Fall River, Massachusetts, Bert Patenaude made World Cup history on July 17, 1930. The 20-year-old scored in the 10th, 15th and 50th minutes as the United States beat Paraguay 3-0 in Montevideo, Uruguay. The feat — although not originally recognized until 2006 — was the first hat trick in World Cup history. Patenaude’s play was the highlight of the U.S. performance at the first World Cup. It didn’t matter that the field was small — just 13 teams — or that few were following the tournament back home. Patenaude scored six goals as the Americans blanked Belgium and Paraguay each 3-0 before falling 6-1 to Argentina in the semifinals. The third-place result remains in history as the United States’ best finish.
1950: The Miracle On Grass
The founders had an air of superiority when it came to soccer … er, football. Even though the English created the sport’s first standardized set of rules in 1848 and set many foundations upon which the sport grew, England declined to become founding members of FIFA in 1904 and abstained from the first three World Cups. So when England’s team finally made its World Cup debut in 1950 in Brazil, the powerhouse “Kings of Football” were thinking more about a world championship than a ragtag U.S. squad with 500-1 odds of winning the tournament. England had some of the best players in the world; the United States had a teacher, a postman, a dishwasher and a funeral director. Yet on June 29, 1950, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, the Americans stood their ground. In the 38th minute, U.S. captain Walter Bahr took a harmless long-range shot. Before England’s goalie could catch it, though, U.S. teammate Joe Gaetjens redirected the ball into the back of the net. Though the English did everything they could to try to equalize, they simply couldn’t get a ball past U.S. goalie Frank Borghi. The match spelled doom for England, which failed to advance to the final round. The United States didn’t advance, either. But the “Miracle on Grass” became known as one of the most shocking upsets in sports history.
1990: Back Again
U.S. soccer fans certainly don’t dismiss their country’s achievements at the 1930 and 1950 World Cups, but a 1989 game also watched by virtually no Americans is far more significant. Seemingly everything was on the line that day in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. Though the U.S. team hadn’t qualified for a World Cup since 1950, FIFA had already awarded the country hosting rights to the 1994 event. Yet on Nov. 19, 1989, the U.S. team faced a must-win qualifying game against Trinidad and Tobago. Anything less and the United States was out of the World Cup — and the 1994 hosting rights might have been in jeopardy. The team made up of college players and low-level professionals did not lose, though. Defender Paul Caligiuri’s long, looping left-footed shot secured the 1-0 victory. Although the United States lost all three of its games at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the foundation was set. The U.S. team hasn’t missed a World Cup since.
1994: Hosting And Advancing
The 1994 World Cup was all set to kick start soccer’s growth in the United States. Massive (American) football stadiums were set to host sellout crowds all around the country. Major League Soccer would debut two years later as a first-division professional league. Now it was up to the U.S. squad to deliver a memorable performance in front of its home fans. With no shortage of great hair — we’re looking at you, Alexi Lalas, Cobi Jones and Marcelo Balboa — and now-infamous denim-themed jerseys, the Americans did just that. They opened with a 1-1 draw against Switzerland in from of 73,425 fans in Pontiac, Michigan. Then came the shock 2-1 win over the heavily favored Colombians in front of 90,000-plus at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Another sold-out Rose Bowl crowd watched the final group stage game, a 1-0 loss to Romania. But the United States still advanced to the round of 16. It was there that the run finally ended. Eventual champions Brazil claimed a 1-0 victory, but as the 80,000-plus fans at Stanford Stadium in California witnessed, the U.S. soccer team had arrived.
2002: A Stunning Start
After the U.S. disaster at France in 1998 — three games, three losses, one goal scored, last place overall — the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea was an opportunity for a fresh start. And did the Americans ever get off to a fresh start. U.S. fans waking up in the early morning hours of June 5 watched as John O’Brien, an own goal and Brian McBride put the United States up 3-0 after 36 minutes in its opener against Portugal. The heavily favored Portuguese squad quickly got one goal back, and then a U.S. own goal in the 71st minute cut the lead to 3-2. But the Americans held on, setting the stage for the country’s most successful run in the World Cup since 1930.
2002: Archrivals On The Biggest Stage
Soccer in the United States had been on a steady upward trajectory since Paul Caligiuri’s goal in 1989, but the sport’s North and Central American epicenter remained decidedly south of the border — at least, that’s how most Mexicans saw it. Then came the dream round-of-16 match between the two archrivals. Brian McBride got the game off to an American start when he teed up from the center of the penalty box for an eighth-minute goal. As Mexico turned up the pressure and took over the possession, U.S. goalie Brad Friedel put up a wall on the back line. Then, in the 65th minute, the 20-year-old Landon Donovan sealed the 2-0 victory when he headed in a cross from the back post. The U.S. team’s dream run came to an end in the quarterfinals with a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Germany, but not before elevating U.S. soccer to its highest standing yet.
2006: A Gutsy Draw Against Italy
Before the 2006 World Cup became a somewhat unforgettable event for the U.S. team, the squad faced Italy in a crucial group stage game. Without at least a draw, the tournament would all but certainly be over. But in a performance that can best be described as gutsy, the Americans grasped to life. Italy lost an early 1-0 lead when it scored an own goal in the 27th minute, then it lost one of its star players a minute later when Daniele De Rossi was sent off for an elbow that bloodied Brian McBride’s face. But the U.S. advantage quickly vanished when two of its players also left with red cards by the 47th minute. The second half was effectively 9 vs. 10 in the Italians favor, yet the Americans held on for the 1-1 draw. The memorable performance was rendered moot a few days later when Ghana eliminated the United States in the final group stage game. But the U.S. result against Italy became more impressive in retrospect after Italy went on to win the World Cup. The Italians gave up just two goals along the way, and failed to beat just one team: the United States.
2010: Donovan Delivers
Four years of buildup was minutes away from an anticlimactic finish. The United States needed to beat Algeria in its final group stage game at the 2010 World Cup, or else the Americans were going home. And with 91 minutes off the clock and the score tied 0-0, American fans were starting to resign themselves to the latter. That’s when Landon Donovan picked up the ball at midfield and led a lightning-fast, desperation counterattack. He passed to Jozy Altidore on the outside, and he sent the ball right back in front of the goal to Clint Dempsey. Stuffed. Saved. Game over. But wait! Donovan, trailing the play, blasted the sitting ball into the far corner of the net. The iconic goal sent the United States back into the knockout round and remains arguably the most famous U.S. goal in World Cup history.
Chrös McDougall has covered Olympic sports for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.