Armchair Analyst: The what-ifs of Torsten Frings' handball in 2002

You know the play. If you were around and able to watch the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, a game in which the underdog US men's national team TOOK. IT. TO. the favored Germans, it is indelible. You can't unsee it.

If you weren't around in 2002, or if you came to love this game of ours well after that point, you've still probably seen it and now it's there, in your brain, forever. It is that famous. It is that memorable. You all know what I'm referring to:

That was a handball by Torsten Frings. That was a game-changing handball by Torsten Frings, because even though Germany were up 1-0 at that point, the US were just smashing the hell out of them. They'd been on the front foot from literally the opening seconds, and only a magnificent display from goalkeeper Oliver Kahn was keeping the US off the scoreboard. But this play here, with Gregg Berhalter getting loose after Tony Sanneh's flick... this was the equalizer. This was it.

Frings batted it out of goal. It's a clear-as-day handball. We all remember it because it was that important.

Or actually, maybe it wasn't. Before you punch your computer screen, hear me out, because there are a few different ways this could've gone if the US get the call:

1. Kahn makes the save, the US fail to equalize and lose

Frings is sent off, but Kahn was flawless that entire tournament – right up until biffing it vs. Brazil in the final (it's a cruel sport). Maybe he makes the save. Maybe whoever the US penalty taker is/was/would've been misses.

Either way, this ends up becoming eerily reminiscent of the 1994 USMNT World Cup exit. In that game they played more than a half 11v10 against Brazil, but Brazil were just too good and too experienced. They found a goal, and the US didn't.

That could've been the case again in 2002. And instead of the aftermath of the game being "we went out on our shields, and we were robbed," it's just... "more of the same."

This would've been a worse outcome.

2. The US equalize, but go on to lose anyway

This is honestly what I think would've happened if the correct call had been made. You think Germany weren't entirely capable of buttoning it up with 10 men for the rest of regulation and then 30 minutes of extra time before relying upon Kahn in penalties?

Yes, it's a gamble, especially because Brad Friedel had already saved two pens in the tournament. But are you really ready to bet against the Germans in World Cup penalties? No damn way.

This would've been the real "it's a cruel sport" ending for the US: Outplay Germany, get the equalizer, fail to batter down the door for the game-winner, then go into pens with a guy who'd already saved two... and lose. This is how the game can drive you mad.

I think if this had been the outcome, the post-elimination narrative and feel would've been pretty similar to what we had in reality. But there would've been a scapegoat (maybe Friedel, but more likely one of the PK takers) fed to the fans for the rest of the decade.

This would've been a worse outcome.

3. The US equalize, win and advance

"We beat Germany in a World Cup quarterfinal!" would be probably the greatest accomplishment in the history of the men's program. It's a win like no other.

It was a win that would've sent them on to face, in the semifinals, a South Korea side that had thoroughly outplayed the US in the group stage – a game that was almost entirely one-way traffic for the final hour. It was a South Korea team that'd had a ton of luck to get to that point, but also a South Korea team that had the best home-field advantage I've ever seen at a World Cup. The US, even if things were perfect, would've been major underdogs.

But things weren't perfect. Jeff Agoos had gotten hurt early in the tournament, and his summer was done. Berhalter and Eddie Pope, two of the three starting CBs during the knockout rounds, had each picked up yellows against both Mexico and Germany. They'd both have been suspended. The only remaining true CB on the roster at that point would've been the 32-year-old Carlos Llamosa, who played the final 10 minutes of the first group game, but hadn't been seen since. Tony Sanneh, usually a wingback or a d-mid, would've been the RCB in the back five Bruce Arena was using. David Regis, who ended up being the only rostered field player in 2002 to get no game time at the tournament, likely would've slotted in on the left.

So... an entirely new defense with two guys played out of position on the road in a World Cup semifinal. Ok, this seems not great.

It gets worse, though. While Claudio Reyna deservedly made the World Cup Best XI and John O'Brien's performance is rightfully celebrated almost two decades later, the simple truth is that the US were terrible in 2002 without d-mid Pablo Mastroeni, the only defensive midfielder on the roster. Reyna and O'Brien were overrun against South Korea in the group, and then overrun against Poland in the group. Mastroeni started in the 3-2 win over Portugal, the dos-a-cero over Mexico and the quarterfinal against Germany.

He'd been excellent at just ending opposing forays and calmly cycling the ball:

There was no back-up defensive midfielder on the team. And Mastroeni had, like Pope and Berhalter, earned himself yellows in each of the first two knockout round games.

So the US would've been going into the semifinals against a revenge-minded South Korean team that had already outplayed them, and were missing their two best center backs and their only d-mid. You could argue, at that point, that Joe-Max Moore – a forward who Steve Sampson had somehow decided to play at d-mid for a half back in 1998 – was the most experienced defensive midfielder on the team.

Which is to say I think the US would've been slaughtered. Given the number and quality of defensive players missing for the US, it's not reasonable to have expected any other outcome. I think it would've gotten ugly, to the point where "we beat Germany in the quarterfinal!" would have gotten over shadowed by "damn, freaking South Korea took us to the woodshed in the semis."

I'm not brave enough to say this would've been a worse outcome. Advancing further in a tournament is, by definition, better. That said, the way you go out, and to whom, leaves a mark. 

But does any of it actually matter?

Here is the thing: South Korea had made four consecutive tournaments heading into 2002, and had been eliminated in the group stage each time. Then they hosted and made it all the way to the semis with the help of their amazing crowd, exceptional fitness and some, uh, friendly calls. It was a lot to go from "had never won a game and were always eliminated in the group stage" to "all the way to the semifinals," but it did feel like they were due for some tangible progress. A round of 16 appearance (like the US had in 1994 after having gone out in the group in '90) would've been natural, and even a quarterfinal showing not out of the question.

The semis, though? That was a lot. Obviously it would be the exact boost South Korean soccer needed to jump consistently into the top 15 (or so) teams in the world. That's what happens, right? You go from being a good team that consistently makes the World Cup to a very good team that consistently gets out of the group. And one day, a generation down the road, you become a genuine contender.

Except no, that's not how it happens. South Korea have made the subsequent four World Cups, but have only advanced out of the group once. In that 2002 tournament they won three games. In the subsequent four tournaments, they've won three games. Nor did their 2002 World Cup run end their long-standing and, at this point, kind of hilarious struggles in the Asian Cup – a tournament they haven't won since 1960.

South Korea have that memorable run in 2002, but otherwise they are still South Korea on the international stage.

The same goes for Turkey, 2002's other surprise semifinalist. The Turks had not qualified for the World Cup since 1954 before making it all the way to the semifinals in 2002 (they actually beat South Korea in the third-place game). In the aftermath of that great and entertaining run they've... not qualified for the World Cup since. They also failed to qualify for two of the subsequent five Euros, including the tournament immediately after their great run, in 2004 (and they had to suffer through watching the Greeks win the title, which I'm sure was not much fun for folks on the east side of the Aegean).

My point is not to diminish the accomplishments of those teams. My point is to say catching lightning in a bottle for a summer tournament isn't prima facie evidence of a new golden era. And in fact I think the correct argument is "a series of outlying positive results can dangerously obscure a broken or damaged process." That's what we saw for the USMNT in 2014, when they played like minnows, but advanced out of the group anyway. The results so enthralled folks the powers that be decided to stick with a broken process.... right up until it cost the federation an appearance in the 2018 World Cup.

Which is to say whether the US went out in the quarters against Germany or the semis against South Korea – and again, I don't believe there is any reasonable expectation that the US could've advanced to the final – I don't think things would've changed much, if at all. Just as semifinal appearances didn't change things much, if at all, for South Korea or Turkey. The US still would've been the US: a team that needs good chemistry, good luck and a great performance in goal to get out of the group, and then much more of the same to advance at all beyond the round of 16.

The memories would've been great, and 25-year-old Matt sure would've liked another early morning at the pub back then. But I don't think we'd be living in an appreciably different world had Hugh Dallas blown his stupid whistle.

One other thing to think about:

Frings' wasn't the only uncalled handball that summer. I've never been as upset about the his handball as many others because, let's face it, karma is real and the US got the call that mattered most that summer. If the price for dos-a-cero in the round of 16 was heartbreak in the quarters, that's a price every US fan should be happy to pay 100 times out of 100.

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