Three years ago, the United States arrived at the World Cup with mixed expectations. Bruce Arena's squad had put together a strong 2002 campaign leading up to the World Cup, posting a 5-4 record against some of the top teams in the world, including Italy and the Netherlands.
However, the Americans faced some questions about their lineup and a formidable group that included European giants Portugal and Poland, along with host country Korea. The U.S. responded by dismissing their critics and shocking the world with a stirring performance that saw the team advance all the way to the quarterfinals.
The player that spearheaded the U.S. team's run was none other than former Quakes star forward Landon Donovan.
Going into the tournament, Donovan was not a certain starter, but he made his presence felt after earning a spot in midfield against Portugal in the Americans' first match on June 5, 2002. After John O'Brien opened the scoring, Donovan forced the second goal with a dangerous cross that turned into an own goal. He then set up Tony Sanneh, who found Brian McBride for another goal later in the first half to help the U.S. get out to a 3-0 lead in the first half. Portugal rallied for two goals, but could not tie the game, and the Americans had a historic victory.
In the second match, the U.S. not only had to face another strong opponent in South Korea, but the team also had to contend with a fervent home crowd that turned the stadium into a sea of red. The Americans again got off to a great start in the match, as Clint Mathis gave them a 1-0 lead in the 24th minute. Despite conceding the equalizer late in the match, the U.S. had positioned itself for a berth in the second round with four points after two games.
The Americans had a let-down in the third match of group play, losing 3-1 against Poland, but Donovan netted his first goal of the World Cup in the second half. He also had a goal called back after the referee whistled him for a controversial foul.
The Americans' second round opponent was a familiar one, as they squared off against neighboring CONCACAF rival Mexico. Again, the USA struck first with a Brian McBride goal in the eighth minute. After staving off a number of Mexican attacks, the Americans put the game away in the second half on the strength of the 20-year-old Donovan. Eddie Lewis, a former San Jose Clash player, served a cross into the box for Donovan, and the San Jose Earthquakes forward drove a header past Mexican goalkeeper Oscar Perez and into the net for a 2-0 lead, propelling the U.S. into the quarterfinals, a feat that few pundits would have predicted prior to the tournament.
Against perennial World Cup contender Germany in the quarterfinals, the Americans demonstrated how far they had come since the disappointing 1998 World Cup. In 1998, the Germans defeated the U.S. 2-0 and controlled the match. On June 21, 2002, against Germany, the Americans pushed the tempo and had a number of opportunities to score in the first half, only to be denied by the superb goalkeeping of Oliver Kahn.
Donovan proved again that he is a world-class player, creating three golden scoring opportunities, only to be denied by Kahn. Michael Ballack put the Germans in front 1-0 late in the first half, and despite creating a number of opportunities, the U.S. could not even the match. They had lost the match, but they had earned the respect of the entire world, while also capturing the imagination of the American public.
However, Donovan continued to amaze fans as he boarded a plane from Korea on Saturday morning and arrived in San Jose less than two hours prior to the Quakes match against the Colorado Rapids. The Ontario, Calif., native then arrived at the stadium just before his teammates took the field for warm-ups. He held a short press conference in front of throngs of reporters and then took a seat on the bench for the Quakes match.
With San Jose leading 3-0 and the crowd chanting "Don-o-van", "Don-o-van", head coach Frank Yallop signaled for a substitution. Ariel Graziani came off the field and the Quakes' World Cup hero entered in the 85th minute to the delight of the fans. Four minutes later his throw-in found Dwayne De Rosario in the penalty box. De Rosario beat a defender and dribbled around goalkeeper David Kramer, before having the ball knocked off his foot into the net for an own goal and a 4-0 lead.
In 24 hours, Donovan had provided thrills on both sides of the globe, proving himself as one of the top young players in the world against World Cup runner-up Germany in a tough 1-0 loss and then sending the San Jose crowd into delirium with his unexpected return to Spartan Stadium.