I do not remember what the first US men's national team I ever watched was, nor do I remember watching it. I do, however, remember the moment that I became a USMNT fan.
It was during the 1986 World Cup. My uncle Bob was over – Bob was a citizen of the world, having been in the Navy and worked in aerospace engineering around the globe – and had thus become a fan of the world's game. He'd had us turn on this event called the "World Cup" and watch the guys who he said were the greatest athletes on earth.
I don't remember which game it was. I'd like to think it was Argentina vs. England, but probably not. I do, however, remember asking Uncle Bob whether the US were going to win the tournament. He explained that we were not, that we hadn't qualified for this World Cup, and that we hadn't actually qualified for any world cup since 1950, so long ago that both he and my parents were younger than I was right then and there.
We were the minnows, the underdogs, and probably always would be, he said.
And so, of course, I was hooked. That was the exact moment I became a USMNT fan. I needed to be on the ride from the very beginning, to get on at the lowest point.
In the ensuing three-and-a-half decades I have watched, I'm guessing, somewhere north of 95 percent of the games the USMNT have played. I can state for a fact that I have watched every game since the 1993 Copa America, and can tell stories of driving across multiple states to see closed-circuit streams of World Cup qualifiers (Honduras, 2001), and have been to more than just a couple of shady websites to find copies of games from back in the day.
Also from back in the day, I wrote a column for Howler magazine called "What is American Soccer?" As part of the research for that piece, the good folks at Howler bought me DVD copies of 30+ games from the previous 25 years – all the way back to the late '80s – so I got to watch many of those old games again, over and over.
All of this is by way of saying that I have seen the good, the bad and the extremely and far-too-often ugly from the USMNT over the past 35 years. It's been a lot.
From that vast treasure trove of memories, here are my five favorite performances. Note I'm not going to say "results," because while those two things are often aligned, they're not always aligned.
No. 5: USA 4-0 Mexico, 1995 U.S. Cup
Yes, there was once upon a time a tournament called the "U.S. Cup" and yes, I sure did love it. It was vehicle to get high-level competition for the USMNT, a team at that point composed in large part of guys who were not, in fact, playing much first team club soccer. The inaugural season of MLS wouldn't start until almost 10 months after this game took place.
In spite of that lack of sharpness, this game was the fist time the US went out and played what I'd consider something close to beautiful soccer against a good opponent. Claudio Reyna, with a goal and two assists, was at the heart of it.
Reyna's coming out party was the 1992 Olympics, after which he'd received and politely declined – I'm not kidding here – a contract offer from Johan Cruyff's Barcelona. He then dominated two more years of college soccer under Bruce Arena and was supposed to then have a global coming out party at the 1994 World Cup, but picked up an injury in the run-up. And so the US, under Bora Milutinovic, kind of gave up any notion of having the ball during that particular tournament.
That was very much the right call as the US Bora Ball'd their way into the Round of 16 before losing heroically by 1-0 to eventual champions Brazil.
This game, this absolute destruction of Mexico, was that defensive effort + the ability to do devastating things with the ball. It was also very much the game that launched the modern era of the USA vs. Mexico rivalry.
No. 4: USA 2-2 Slovenia, 2010 World Cup group stage
It's not the game you thought I'd pick from 2010, right? The iconic moment from that World Cup – probably still the iconic moment from all of US soccer history – came in the third game of the group stage, against Algeria.
But Slovenia were actually a much better team than Algeria, and the US sleepwalked through a first half that saw them go down 2-0. It was brutal and dispiriting to watch, and just about everyone in the world watching it must've felt that the game was over.
Then the US played the best half of soccer I think I've ever seen from this team, beginning with Landon Donovan trying to murder Samir Handanovic but accidentally scoring a goal instead in the 48th minute. They battered the Slovenians the entire time, spurred in large part by a switch to more of a 4-1-3-1-1 for the second half, with Mo Edu (on for Jose Torres at the half) holding in front of the central defense, which allowed more freedom to Michael Bradley, Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Benny Feilhaber (on for Robbie Findley at the half). That eventually became a 3-2-1-4 for the final 10 minutes as the US threw the kitchen sink forward in search of an equalizer and then a match-winner.
Yes, there was a match-winner. I am still much, much angrier about Koman Coulibaly mysteriously ruling out Edu's goal than I ever was about the Torsten Frings non-call eight years previous.
No. 3: USA 2-0 Mexico, 2002 World Cup Round of 16
You know about this game. If the 4-0 win over Mexico in the 1995 US Cup kicked-started the modern rivalry between the two nations, and the 2001 Hexagonal match in Columbus (dubbed "La Guerra Fria" by the Mexican press given the temperature in Ohio), the original Dos-a-Cero, had codified it as the defining match of the region, this was the one that would give it some global shine.
The US had backed into the Round of 16 after getting pummeled by Poland in the third group stage game, and were prohibitive underdogs against El Tri. They'd been overwhelmed in midfield, gappy at the back and largely static up top for the final two-and-a-half group games after that rampant first half to open the tournament against Portugal.
So Bruce Arena changed things up, moving to a 3-5-2 and deciding to play almost exclusively on the counter in this one. Mexico could complete as many passes as they wanted, they just weren't allowed to do good things once they got within 35 yards of goal.
And so they didn't, only really ever threatening Brad Friedel's goal on set pieces. The US scored first via Brian McBride off an incredibly sweet Josh Wolff lay-off, and then scored midway through the second half after John O'Brien, Eddie Lewis and Donovan torched poor Gerardo Torrado on the break.
It wasn't beautiful soccer, but there were two beautiful goals and a genuine sense that the US were in control throughout the entire game.
No. 2: USA 2-0 Spain, 2009 Confederations Cup semifinals
This Spain team(*) is the best team I've ever seen in international soccer. They were unbeaten in 35 straight games entering this tournament, and had cruised through the group stage with a laugh.
(*) They were without Andres Iniesta throughout the tournament, but their midfield trio was still Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas. Unreal.
The US had lost each of their first two group stage games, 3-1 to Italy – Giuseppe Rossi sure did celebrate a lot! – and 3-0 to Brazil, with both games getting out of hand after the US went down to 10 men. It was going to take a miracle to get through to the knockout rounds, but they made their own luck with a crushing 3-0 win over a pretty good Egypt team combined with Italy getting punked 3-0 by Brazil. That sent the Italians out and the US through.
It was supposed to be short lived. Again: Spain weren't just the best team in the world (they'd won the 2008 Euros in something beyond convincing fashion), they were already on the shortlist of the best teams of all time. This same group would go on to win the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 Euros.
And the US outplayed them. As Feilhaber said on last week's Extratime, the US were supremely confident going into that game and understood that if they sat deep and absorbed, they'd be able to find chances on the break, while not letting the Spaniards pass around and through them with their tiki-taka. So that's what the US did, playing to their strengths and absolutely deserving that 2-0 win.
By the way: while the US did sit deep and hit on the counterattack, they still had 43 percent possession, and selectively pressed the Spaniards as well (as you can see on the lead-up to the second goal). This was not some smash-and-grab job.
Had Charlie Davies, Stu Holden and Oguchi Onyewu stayed healthy – or even just two of the three – the US would've made the quarterfinals and maybe even beyond in 2010. Oh well.
No. 1: USA 0-1 Germany, 2002 World Cup quarterfinals
Yes, the best performance I've ever seen from the US team ended in a loss. That is the nature of this game of ours, which is cruel as hell.
Yes, above are embedded just the highlights from Reyna rather than the full game highlights, because Reyna's ability to dictate both the tempo of the game and where on the field it was played were what elevated the US on the day. They basically tell the whole story. That compilation is breathtaking, and it doesn't even include the fact that Reyna carved the Germans open inside of 90 seconds:
(Sanjiv left out this touch which was absolutely onside dammit VAR!) pic.twitter.com/Zi2ceTDgVW— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) March 18, 2020
Reyna, O'Brien and the forever underrated Pablo Mastroeni were the midfield trio. Frankie Hejduk and Eddie Lewis were the endline-to-endline wingbacks, with Donovan and McBride up top. All three CBs – including current USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter, the man whose equalizer was batted off the line by Frings – could pass and move. Reyna himself almost scored a chip from midfield; Clint Mathis came off the bench and set up Tony Sanneh for what should've been an equalizer with just minutes left; Oliver Kahn had to be massive throughout.
It was heartbreaking, and I don't think I'll ever be over it, but that's the best I've ever seen the US play.
The good news? With the current crop of young players coming through the system, I don't think it'll be long before the USMNT can hit that level again.