The US national team’s dismal showing in the 2006 World Cup is not remembered fondly by most fans, but for a fleeting 90 minutes, the team managed to put together one of the most heroic showings seen from an American side on the world stage, standing toe-to-toe with a team that would eventually be crowned world champions.
Expectations for the US were high coming into the tournament, with the team sitting at No. 5 in the FIFA World Rankings and coming off a run to the quarterfinals in 2002. But they were blown out, 3-0, by the Czech Republic in their Group E opener, setting the stage for a critical second game against three-time world champions Italy.
“It was really a chance for redemption of some sort, and to prove that we can play with the best countries in the world, at the highest level and in the biggest games,” said former US international defender Jimmy Conrad, who made his World Cup debut in the match when he came off the bench. “We’re very proud of that performance. I get talked to about that one quite a bit. “
But the Italy match lives on in American soccer lore for much more than just the result – a 1-1 draw with both goals scored in a five-minute spell early in the first half.
But then the hammer came down on the US squad with two red cards: midfielder Pablo Mastroeni was thrown out just before halftime and center back Eddie Pope received a second yellow card two minutes after the break.
Down a central defender, manager Bruce Arena subbed on Conrad. His mission? Keep it simple.
“I probably overthought my performance and what I was going to do and how I was going to prepare, but that might have been the best introduction for me because I just had to go in and dive into things … and just make good soccer decisions at every single moment,” Conrad explained. “When we were a man down, we were kind of playing with house money because there wasn’t as much pressure.
“Italy should have scored, Italy should have beat us in that situation and they didn’t, so it was a nice situation for me personally to walk into because there was nothing to lose.”
Nothing to lose, indeed – and the US nearly had their game-winner as DaMarcus Beasley found the back of the net, only to see the tally waved off after Landon Donovan was judged to be in an offside position and obstructing the view of Italy ‘keeper Gianluigi Buffon.
Still, the US earned the Italians’ respect with the result, which was even more special when the Azzurri captured the World Cup trophy a few weeks later in Berlin. The Americans were the only team they failed to overcome.
“I remember them [the Italians] being very respectful after the game, like they were really impressed with our performance and, it’s not often where opposing teams are asking for Americans to switch jerseys," Conrad said. "We’re usually some of the ones that are initiating that, and it was cool that the Italians were doing it after the game.
“There was real admiration and respect there, so that was really something I’ll always remember," Conrad continued. "They were good, but I don’t think we were that far off of them. We held our own with the world champions and I think that’s something we felt proud about, because when you get knocked out of the group stages you’ve got to hang your hat on something.”