Skip to main content

The 10 Best Moments in USA World Cup History

Screen shot 2014-06-13 at 2.52.13 PM.png

Which Play Over the Years Takes the Top Spot? (Click Next to Begin)

The U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team has participated in 9 of 19 World Cups. This year will mark the tenth time the States have been invited to the prestigious event, bringing our squad’s rate of entry up to 50%. After participating in the inaugural tournament, the team barely qualified for the World Cup in 1934, and the level of play dropped off so badly that we were left out of the field in ’38. Later, the U.S. took a 40-year hiatus from the Cup, between the 1950 and the 1990 events. This break was hardly optional; America simply fielded many poorly prepared international units in the late 20th century. Soccer hasn’t always been a popular sport in the United States, but its importance is growing, as evidenced by the USA Men's Team's qualification for the 7 most recent World Cups, including the 2014 games.  Between both genders’ teams, we’ve only won two World Cups (Women, 1991 & 1999). Still, throughout our limited history, the Americans have managed to create some jaw-dropping, spectacular moments. Here are a few to keep you satisfied before more madness ensues starting June 16.

10. The U.S. Leads 3-0 v. Portgual in the First 36 Minutes of the 2002 Tournament

In a matchup that should have been one-sided in favor of the golden generation of Portuguese players, the USA shocked the world. In the first match of the opening round of the Cup in 2002, 3 goals were scored in the game’s first 36 minutes. All were for the US. Between John O’Brien, Brian McBride, and an own goal, the United States found themselves up 3-0 on a loaded Portugal team. The Americans would hold on to the lead, winning 3-2, and using their momentum to reach the quarterfinals, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished since 1930.  It wasn’t a do-or-die situation, but by beating the Portuguese handily, the US simultaneously eliminated Portugal from contention and showed the world that the Americans are for real.

9. Men’s Team Defeats Mexico 2-0, 2002 Tournament

In the first World Cup shutout for the United States since 1950, our Mexican neighbors to the south were victimized. In a monumental rivalry game, goals from Brian McBride and a young Landon Donovan led the US to victory. Brad Friedel’s keeping prowess kept El Tri off the board. In this match, the USA tied their personal records for most wins at a World Cup (2) and most goals in a World Cup run (7). The Americans would lose in a controversial quarterfinal game to Germany, but in reaching so many firsts since the middle of the 20th century, the US Men’s Team succeeded. Here’s McBride’s 8th minute goal that set the tone for the rest of the match.

8. U.S. Men's National Team 1-1 Draw v. Italy, 2006 World Cup

The fact that a tie game makes the list sure does tell you something about the state of USA soccer. In reality though, the draw with Italy was a terrific accomplishment for a nation who has never been too serious about the sport. Italy would go on to win the tournament, and as some might tell it, barring some questionable officiating and unfortunate red cards the US should have won this game. Our lone goal during the match technically wasn’t our goal – the ball scurried into the net after bouncing awkwardly off Italian Zaccardo’s leg. Still, it’s a point of pride for our country. You can watch the video of the goal below.

7. Men’s Team Defeats Colombia 2-1 in the Rose Bowl, 1994

Another own goal, from Colombia this time, was the difference maker in this seemingly one-sided matchup. But regardless of the nature of the victory, this win in 1994 established the legitimacy of United States soccer on a global scale. The 1994 World Cup is the only tournament that the United States has hosted. It was also the first time the United States had beaten Colombia in a head-to-head competition. With the win, the Americans advanced into the second round and proved their worth to the world. Below is the own goal that helped the Americans pull off what seemed to be impossible. Overshadowing the US win is the sad reality that the perpetrator of the mistaken score, Andrés Escobar, was murdered upon his return to his home country.

6. “The Miracle Match”, USA Defeats England 1-0 in 1950

Coached by Scotsman Bill Jeffrey, the American team in 1950 was full of part-time athletes. Jobs amongst the players on the team were laughable compared to the professionals that play today – we had dishwashers and mail carriers suiting up. That year, we finished dead last out of the four in our grouping, but Joe Gaetjans’ single goal will forever remain an icon of our victory over the inventors of the game. It’s hard to imagine the significance of the match’s outcome more than 50 years later but the game must have been important since it was immediately turned into a movie. It’s the equivalent of the US losing to the British in Lacrosse, Baseball, or American Football; it shouldn’t ever happen. Here’s some rare footage of the historic upset.

5. Bert Patenaude Scores the First Ever Hat Trick in a World Cup, 1930

In a 3-0 victory over Paraguay in the World Cup’s initial year, prolific American striker Bert Patenaude sealed his place in history when he scored all three of the USMNT’s goals. For many years, FIFA credited Patenaude’s second goal in the 15th minute of the game to Tom Florie. The U.S. Soccer Federation had recorded the score as belonging to Patenaude. Others dismissed the point as an own goal. Clearly, there was a dispute over the goal’s source. 76 years later, FIFA changed its tune and formally recognized Bert as the responsible party of the goal. In the semifinals, Argentina would thoroughly defeat the United States, but Patenaude’s famous record will stand the test of time.

4. “The Shot Heard Round the World”, 1989

In 1989, sparingly used Paul Caligiuri found himself on the field in an international match. As Caligiuri would later admit, “It was the first and only game out of my 110 national team games that I played at center mid”. Facing Trinidad & Tobago in a qualification game, the United States was attempting to earn an invitation to the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. Caligiuri wasn’t on the field to score, but to mark the opposition’s best player, Russell Latapy. “My orders were very clear: ‘Do not go forward and risk a counter-attack”. 31 minutes into the match, Paul defied orders and capitalized on a fortuitous opening in the defense. Since the 1990 tournament, the Americans have played in the World Cup ever four years.  Had the U.S. played well in the Cup that year (they lost all 3 of their first round games), this moment would probably be closer to #1.

3. Abby Wambach's 122nd Minute, Game-Tying Goal Against Brazil, 2011

Abby Wambach’s header was a thing of beauty, a lovely demonstration of the spontaneity and emotion of sports. Without the goal, this quarterfinals run would have been the earliest World Cup exit in the history of the USWNT. The U.S. was backed into a corner, playing short-handed in extra time. A positive outcome seemed more than unlikely. But in the 122nd minute, Wambach and the rest of her team had their prayers answered. Megan Rapinoe delivered a wondrous cross into the box that connected with Wambach’s forehead and came to a stop only once it was in the back of the net. The goal is the latest one scored in the history of the World Cup, for both the men and women’s tournaments. The U.S. pulled the comeback off in a shootout but later lost in a similar scenario against the Japanese in the finals. Regardless of the second-place finish that year, this match’s ending will always represent the power of perseverance in our country.

2. Landon Donovan’s 90th Minute Goal to Beat Algeria, 2010

As the whistle was threatening to blow at any second, the Americans and Algerians were tied 0-0 in the final match of the group round in South Africa. With England defeating Slovenia, Bob Bradley knew that his squad needed a win and a three-point boost in order to advance into the round of 16. Landon Donovan, the U.S.’s all-time leading scorer, had a momentary chance to bring the game out of its scoreless funk.  On a rebound off Clint Dempsey’s blocked shot, a hustling Donovan saved the United States with a basic finish into the net. It wasn’t a particularly athletic or impressive strike, but Donovan’s last minute goal advanced the Americans into the next round and at the same time raised the awareness of fans back home about how exciting this sport could be.

1. The Women’s Team Wins the World Cup in a Shootout, 1999

There is only one choice to present as the pinnacle of United States soccer: a dramatic World Cup finals victory at the end of the 20th century. Brandi Chastain’s shootout goal marks the conclusion to a challenging World Cup contest against the Chinese. The first four shooters all netted their shots, and with Briana Scurry’s rejection of China’s third attempt, the moment belonged to Chastain. Everything went perfectly as the ball glanced off Chastain’s left leg and rocketed towards the upper right hand corner of the net. Brandi Chastain can’t find many too many words to describe the instance; she calls it “awesome”. But it was slightly more than awesome. The goal won the U.S. its second World Cup, transformed perceptions about women’s sports in America, and formalized the dominance of the USWNT on the international level. It deserves the #1 spot, but hopefully the 2014 tournament allows us to knock this a few numbers back on this list.