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Top 10 U.S. Soccer Victories

June 25th, 2009 · 2 Comments · Lists, soccer

Soccer is one of those sports in which competition is infrequent enough that we can do a top 10 list — and have some hope of defending it.

Imagine trying to do the 10 best Dodgers victories, or even the 10 best Lakers victories. Well, you could, but you’d be left with 50 games that ought to have a shot at No. 10 … 50 games you don’t quite remember and would have trouble finding information on or putting in context.

You can do it for football (American football), barely, but not for baseball or basketball. Too many games.

But soccer. Yes. Doable. Even for the club teams with lengthy histories. (I imagine you could do a search for “Arsenal” and “10 best victories” and find some fan’s list.)

A top 10 is especially possible for a national team, which plays really meaningful matches infrequently. The World Cup, for instance, is a relatively recent phenomena, starting up in 1930 and not played in 1942 and 1946. That means only 18 World Cups.  If you’re 65 years old, you personally could have followed all but the first three World Cups.

And a top 10 absolutely is practicable for the U.S.  soccer team because it has almost no history before 1989. That is, quite a few of us are conversant on 99 percent of important matches played by Americans. We may even have seen many of them.

It isn’t surprising that the U.S. 2-0 victory over Spain on Wednesday, in the Confederations Cup, triggered talk about where it fits in with best U.S. victories. Alexi Lalas and John Harkes of ESPN said, basically, “pretty high.” However, George Vecsey of the New York Times decided it should be No. 1, and George has seen a lot of soccer,  particularly for a man of his (my?) generation.

Here is my own Top 10 U.S. soccer victories:

10. U.S. 2, England 0, Friendly, 1993. It didn’t really mean a lot, in June, in Foxborough, Mass., against an English side wearied from just completing its club season. But it was big for the U.S., which hadn’t beaten anybody important for a very, very long time. It validated coach Bora Milutinovic’s handling of the U.S. side, and gave Americans fans hope that maybe the U.S. wouldn’t do a three-and-out at the 1994 World Cup. Goals by Thomas Dooley and Alexi Lalas.

9. U.S. 3, Mexico 0, Friendly, 2000. Remember, the concept of a “friendly” match never applies to the Yanks and El Tri. These are all quite intense, and quite unfriendly. In this one, the U.S. just blasted Mexico, in East Rutherford, N.J. Goals by Brian McBride, Ante Razov and Frankie Hejduk. It is important because it marked the moment in history when Mexico’s dominance of the U.S. ended (we now can say with hindsight). Beginning with this match, in June of 2000, Mexico is winless against the hated Yanqis on American soil (friendly, qualifier, Gold Cup, whatever),  going 0-9-2 and being outscored 19-3.

8. U.S. 3, Argentina 0, 1995 Copa America. A drubbing of a global heavyweight in a serious competition. Yes, Argentina already had clinched a spot in the knockout round, but still, this was the Argentina of Batistuta, Balbo and Simeone. Goals by Frank Klopas, Alexi Lalas and Eric Wynalda, in Paysandu,  Uruquay. A match that helped solidify Steve Sampson’s place as U.S. coach through the 1998 World Cup.

7. U.S. 2, Mexico 0, 2002 World Cup. The result was not a big surprise, no, but it was delicious and memorable for two key reasons: 1) It put the Americans into the quarterfinals of a World Cup, and 2) it kept Mexico from getting there. Hard to beat that combination. Brian McBride scored early, Landon Donovan late (after a 70-yard run, putting in a header on a sublime cross by Eddie Lewis). A match in which Mexico dominated the run of play but the U.S.  counterattacked with aplomb. The high tide of modern U.S. World Cup history.

6. U.S. 2, Colombia 1, 1994 World Cup. Both Harkes and Lalas brought up this victory as one of the top handful, but let’s remember that both of them played in it. It was an upset, yes, and Pele had touted Colombia to win the World Cup. A nice victory, but … Colombia already had lost 3-1 to Romania; the U.S. margin of victory over Colombia was an own goal (Earnie Stewart scored the other); the match was played at the Rose Bowl and the U.S. had a huge home-field advantage. Colombia turned out to be overrated, failing to survive the group stage. Again, a very nice victory, and about as well as that 1994 team ever played. But not quite as memorable as those coming up.

5. U.S. 3, Portugal 2, 2002 World Cup. The match that made the long run in the 2002 Cup possible. Portugal was heavily favored and expected to make a run at Winning the Whole Tournament. It was the team of Luis Figo and Joao Pinto, Rui Costa, Beto and Sergio Conceicao. Before the tournament, this was the match U.S. backers wrote off as a lost cause, preferring to look at South Korea and Poland as a source of group-play points. But the U.S. came out with tremendous energy and confidence, surprising the Portuguese, and it was 3-0 in 36 what-the-hell-just-happened minutes. John O’Brien scored in the fourth minute, a shot/pass by Landon Donovan turned into an own goal, and Brian McBride scored on a header in the 36th minute. From then on, though, it was about holding on against the Portguese, and with Brad Friedel in the back, the Americans did. Just. A shocking result. A massive upset and the source of three of the four points the Yanks needed to get out of group play.

4. U.S. 1, Brazil 0, 1998 Gold Cup: The Kasey Keller Match. Semifinals of the CONCACAF regional tournament in which world No. 1-ranked Brazil was a wild-card invite. Brazil dominated play (well, of course), but Keller, the U.S. keeper, had an answer for every shot attempt. He was credited with 10 saves, but it seemed like 20. Romario alone had a half-dozen good scoring chances, and after Keller stopped one point-blank header Romario shook Keller’s hand. Yes, in the middle of a match. When it was over, Romario famously (in U.S. soccer history, anyway) said, “That was the greatest performance I have ever seen in a goalkeeper. It was an honor to be on the field with him.” Preki Radosavljevic scored the goal, and it remains the only U.S. victory over Brazil, which has won the other 13 matchups.

3. U.S. 2, Spain 0, 2009 Confederations Cup: The only other U.S. victory over a team ranked No. 1. And it came in a FIFA-sanctioned international tournament. Not the World Cup, no, but the Confederations Cup is a bigger deal than the Gold Cup, and it’s not as if Spain was going through the motions. Take into account Spain’s 35-match unbeaten streak and 15-match winning streak and its not losing to a non-European side since 1999 … and well, this looks better by the minute. A very nice goal by Jozy Altidore in the first half, and the fairly lucky goal by Clint Dempsey in the second half. A result that was one of those rare events in sports that actually did shock the world because this tournament is on TV just about everywhere.

2. U.S. 1, England 0,  1950 World Cup. In terms of the enormity of an upset, this is the top of the charts. A preposterous, unbelievable result that probably provoked a similar reaction in tens of millions of fans around the globe: “This can’t be right.” But it was. A ragtag team of immigrants and second-generation soccer hobbyists, rounded up for the first post-WW2 tournament, went out to Belo Horizonte (the sticks, in Brazil), for the second game of group play. England was so certain of victory it didn’t even send one of its best strikers. The English apparently were fat-headed and overconfident when they got there, and a guy from Haiti named Joe Gaetjens, who wasn’t even an American citizen, scored the U.S. goal on a first-half header. Just because no one in the U.S. cared, in 1950, doesn’t diminish the magnitude of this result. The U.S. over England? It just could not happen.

1. U.S. 1, Trinidad & Tobago 0, 1989 World Cup qualifying. This match seems to be slipping off the radar of U.S. soccer fans and media, and that’s unfortunate as well as just plain wrong. This is the victory that made all of modern American soccer possible. If the Americans don’t win … well, if they don’t win, the mind reels. They don’t make the 1990 World Cup, they probably lose the chance to stage the 1994 World Cup, Major League Soccer might not exist, the U.S. might still be a guppy in CONCACAF — and all the Yanks who have made a living in this game might have become high school gym teachers. The situation was this: Last match of qualifying; the U.S. had to win to advance; T&T needed only a tie, and the match was played in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The U.S. had scored all of three goals the previous seven qualifiers, and it wasn’t clear the Yanks could score on an empty net. The team was met by a late-night mob scene at the airport where T&T fans chanted “Search and destroy!” — which was the team motto but sounded more than a little intimidating. Travel agencies in Port of Spain already were selling packages to Italy (where the 1990 World Cup would be played), and until a few years ago I still had a straw hat with a red band lettered in black with the words, “Trinidad & Tobago, Italia 1990.” … Day of game, the stadium near the port was a sea of red (the national color), and everyone was in their seats hours and hours before kickoff; reporters had to be escorted into the stadium by riot police who pushed and shoved their way through people crowding the aisles. Chaos. And then late in the first half, Paul Caligiuri scored from some 30 yards out on a ball the keeper might have lost in the Caribbean sun. Maybe the greatest strike in U.S. history, irrespective of the situation. The Americans, essentially a college all-star team, then defended like mad for an hour … and won. I still remember the sickly sweet smell of spilled champagne in the visitors’ tiny locker room as the Americans celebrated a wholly unexpected victory — and entry into the World Cup.  The Game That Changed Everything.

Note: Matches above I saw in person. Nos. 1, 5, 6.


2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ian // Jun 26, 2009 at 6:09 am

    Good list. I think I would change a couple in order in the top 5, but they are the solid top 5. I tend to agree with you that the Rest of the World won’t ever put the T&T match high on the list. But it’s the game-changer that matter. Every soccer player in the country owes some debt to that match. It was the match that said all of these AYSO kids had a chance to continue on playing the sport.

    I actually move the England match to No. 4, solely because it wasn’t really a U.S. team any more than Sylvester Stallone is a real American goalkeeper and Pele hit a bicycle kick with broken ribs.

    This Spain match, the Brazil match and the Portugal match are all like 2a, 2b and 2c. I will always love that Preki, a naturalized citizen known more for his days in the MISL, scored the goal against Brazil. This Spain match could move to a solid No. 2 over time. But I agree with Damian’s assessment that if the U.S. loses 3-0 or 4-0 to Brazil on Sunday, it has to move down the list as an anomaly.

  • 2 Doug // Jun 26, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    Yes, the U.S. has to give a good account of itself on Sunday. You just know that all the Jim Romes of the soccer hating world are praying for a massive U.S. pratfall so they can resume their traditional trashing of real football.

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