USA Greatest World Cup Moments, No. 1: Dos a Cero takes full flight in South Korea
I wasn't awake during the early morning hours on June 17, 2002. And I suspect the vast majority of Americans were in varying states of REM sleep as well.
But while those of us without the requisite soccer savvy (or whose job required some level of coherence) sawed logs, history was being made thousands of miles away in Jeonju, South Korea, as the United States and Mexico met in a World Cup knockout match that still defines the rivalry's narrative 12 years later.
Dos a Cero.
It's a scoreline that requires no explanation, and one that fate has decided to replay over and over. (Although the first dos a cero result against Mexico actually came a year prior.) It's also MLSsoccer.com's top USMNT World Cup moment, a victory that sent the team to international heights they've yet to replicate. Heights that could have been even more dizzying if not for a handball and some bad luck a few days later.
And it might not have happened if not for a team that paid no attention to what they were supposed to be capable of, and a healthy dose of South Korean "integrity," as Brian McBride put it, that allowed the the US to shock the world by returning to the World Cup knockout stage.
Then, for 90 minutes, the Americans shocked a El Tri side that was so confident of their place in the quarterfinals that they took their pregame walk on the field in jorts, sharing laughs that would later be revealed to be a major motivational factor for their regional rivals.
But Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Rafa Márquez, Jared Borgetti and the rest weren't laughing eight minutes into the match when the US landed their first blow via McBride.
With the US content to stay compact, soak up pressure and prevent the Mexicans from exploiting the 1-v-1 matchups they feasted on, it made perfect sense that a lightning-fast counterattack broke El Tri's back before they could really settle into the game.
Fouled just inside the Mexico half, McBride heard the screams of Claudio Reyna – deployed as a right wing back in what would be revealed to be a stroke of tactical genius by Bruce Arena – and played the ball without hesitation to his streaking teammate. The run was brilliant, two Mexican defenders left in Reyna's wake as he made a beeline for the endline before rolling the ball toward Josh Wolff at the near post.
The pass from Wolff was even better, the ball feathered back toward the trailing McBride with the outside of Wolff's right boot. Perfection, a ball that made McBride's first time finish with his right foot, one that split two defenders and barreled past a helpless Óscar Pérez, seem meant to be.
“I knew I hit it right," McBride told MLSsoccer.com in a recent interview. "I didn’t try and make it perfect and put it in the exact corner. I knew I didn’t have to. I had the easiest part really."
Then came the hard part, holding that early lead in the face of unrepenting Mexican pressure. But the US held – in part thanks to Brad Friedel's heroics in goal and some help from the referee, who missed John O'Brien's punched clearance in the box.
"They showed the replay on the big screen and we saw it, 40,000 fans saw it," Mexico head coach Javier Aguirre made sure to mention after the loss.
But El Tri could only blame themselves after they fell asleep on counter. This time it was Landon Donovan, making the most of his first appearance on the World Cup stage, who streaked downfield to meet Eddie Lewis' pinpoint cross at the back post.
Dos a Cero.
Of course, an ugly moment marred the end of the match – a violent challenge from Márquez laying Cobi Jones out and ending the Mexican captain's tournament with a red card – and El Tri stormed off the field without swapping jerseys, but history had been made and Germany awaited with a spot in the semis on the line.
"They used to call us the sleeping giant in the old days," then US Soccer Federation president Bob Contiguglia said after the match. "I think the sleeping giant has woken up. Someone said to me this is the World Cup for the minnows. The minnows are becoming bigger fish."
"When I got to the locker room, I said, 'This is really weird,'" Donovan marvelled. "It's like it's not happening. It's like a dream."
But it was real. For the first and still only time in US Soccer history, the quarterfinals awaited.
"I’m proud of them," Arena said. "… It’s a great day for US Soccer.”
The greatest day, some would say.
USA GREATEST WORLD CUP MOMENTS