Nobody gave the US a chance in their opening game of the 2002 World Cup against "Figo & Friends" – the Portuguese squad boasting a golden generation of players led by Real Madrid man Luís Figo. The game was supposed to be a one-sided embarrassment, and the rest of the group, which included Poland and co-hosts South Korea only slightly less so.
“The group that we drew – Portugal and Poland and Korea – I don't know if they called it the group of death, but a lot of people honestly didn’t give us much of a chance,” then-US assistant coach Dave Sarachan recalled to ExtraTime Radio on Monday. “The motto we had was, ‘position ourselves.’ Just put ourselves in position to advance and focus on Game 1, which was Portugal, which everyone, all bettors, everyone figured there was no chance.
“But within our team and our group the attitude was we really believed we matched up well with Portugal and that went a long way.”
And, in the the blink of an eye, the US were up 3-0 against that very same talent-laden Portugal squad, an experience Sarachan simply described as “surreal.”
Strikes from John O’Brien and Brian McBride sandwiched an own goal from Portugal’s Jorge Costa to put the US up three within 36 minutes, and they withstood a furious rally to hold on to a 3-2 win that the BBC called “one of the World Cup's great upsets.”
“We beat a great team today,” then-US head coach Bruce Arena said after that game. “We came into this game believing we could win this game, and our guys played a great 30-40 minutes in the first half that really won the game for us.”
An understatement, to say the least. The US had struggled to find the net during qualifying, and not only did Portugal feature Figo, but also the great Milan playmaker Rui Costa, another then-Serie A star in Sergio Conceição and the deadly goalscorer Nuno Gomes.
This was a group that had won consecutive U-20 World Cups in 1989 and 1991 and was finally ready to make good on its promise at the World Cup, especially coming off a run in the 2000 Euros which featured one of that tournament's great games, a semifinal loss to Zinedine Zidane's France.
This was supposed to be Portugal's time. Instead, many in the US camp felt this was a group a year past its peak, which Arena later recalled, as did Sarachan.
“We were in the tunnel and beginning to walk out for the national anthems,” Sarachan explained. “You’re standing next the other team and the coaches and you’re glancing and you’re checking it out. I do remember looking at Figo and a few of the other guys and they looked tired. They had come off a long season, some were in Champions League. They looked as though they were beatable. I can’t explain it.”
Turns out, Arena and Sarachan were right on the money, and a good thing, too – not only was it one of the great upsets in World Cup history, it set up the USMNT's greatest World Cup run in the modern era.
Can the USMNT pull off the same trick against Ronaldo & Friends in 2014? Or will Portugal's golden boy come through this time around? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
USA GREATEST WORLD CUP MOMENTS