The 5 Most Pivotal Moments in U.S. Men's Soccer History

To know where American soccer is going, you have to understand where it’s been. In my first piece for The Players’ Tribune, I chose to write about the five most pivotal moments in the history of the U.S. Men’s National Team. Let’s get to it.

1) Dos a Cero: The 2002 World Cup Win Over Mexico
Let me start with a tip of my hat to South Korea. One of the most important results in American soccer didn’t even feature a single American player. It was South Korea’s 1-0 win over Portugal. In the group stage of the 2002 World Cup, it was South Korea’s wild win over Portugal (the Europeans squandered a handful of scoring chances and drew two red cards) that put the U.S. through to the next round. So let me just just say: Thank you, Park Ji-sung, for this brilliant goal:

Without this goal, we wouldn’t be talking about 2002 as America’s most successful World Cup showing ever. As much as the attention and hype around the U.S. team has blown up in recent years — and rightly so — 2002 still goes down as our most successful run. It’s a reminder that soccer is a game of the little things — a game of skill but also a game of chance. Even if you’re good, sometimes you need a little help. Portugal’s red cards and Park’s goal was that help. World Cup play is a one-off situation — anything can happen. We were moving on out of the group stage, but Portugal’s melt down was an important lesson about staying poised.

But again, it’s a game of inches. Even down two men, Portugal fired shot after shot on goal late in the game. Nothing found its way past the keeper. American soccer fans everywhere should be thankful it didn’t.

That stage was set for Mexico in the round of 16. Half way across the world, we were facing our next door neighbors. America had never won a game after the group stage before, so the stakes couldn’t have felt higher.

Younger soccer fans may not remember, but Mexico was at the height of its CONCACAF dominance at the time. Mexico felt like they had our number, even though the facts didn’t entirely back it up (we had actually beat them once the previous year). But they had a big brother-little brother arrogance towards us. We were supposed to play our role: show up, play hard, but eventually lay down. That only fired us up more, and we came out setting the tone with very fast, physical play. We used our size to push them around and beat them to the ball. We were bigger and scrappier. Anyone who watched that game can remember how we out-muscled and out-ran Mexico.

Look at the second goal. Eddie Lewis makes a great run, leaving Mexico’s defense in the dust. We were just in better shape. Then he sends a perfect ball across the net, and Landon finishes it off. That goal sealed the victory for us.

Ever heard American fans chant the words, dos a cero? They’re talking about this 2-0 win over Mexico. It became an American rallying cry. There was no longer any doubt about where we stood in the U.S.-Mexico rivalry. We went at them, mano a mano, on the world stage and came away with a win. I heard from family and friends back home in L.A. that on the day of the game, Mexican flags were flying all around the city. The next day, after the result, only U.S. flags were out. The next time we play Mexico, listen for it: dos a cero, dos a cero, dos a cero. You’ll hear it rising from the crowd.

2) Paul Caligiuri’s Butterfly Effect
Let me take you back to the dark ages of American soccer. Pick any year before the 1990s. Let’s start with 1989, which soccer fans will know I’m not choosing at random. In the ‘80s, when I was coming up as a player, there weren’t casual soccer fans — there were only diehards. At the time, how many Americans could name a single member of the U.S. National Team? Pretty much nobody. Newspaper coverage of U.S. matches? Yeah, right. And what if you wanted to watch the national team play in a World Cup qualifying match, or an international friendly? Good luck finding somewhere that was showing it. You’d have to search long and hard. I used to drive around L.A. looking for a Mexican restaurant that had purchased the game on satellite TV. You’d walk into a nondescript taqueria and a waitress would lead you into a banquet room in the back where 50-60 other soccer fans were seated in front of a little TV. You’d pay $20 per person. It felt like a secret poker club.

In 1989, Paul Caligiuri sparked the flame that changed U.S. soccer. Caligiuri’s goal in the 1989 World Cup qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago sent the U.S. to its first World Cup since 1950. The goal was dubbed “The Shot Heard Round the World.” It was huge. I’m not sure it was the shot heard around the world, but it was definitely the shot that jumpstarted mainstream America’s interest in soccer.

It’s hard to overestimate the connection between Paul Caligiuri’s goal and everything that’s happened since. That goal was like a butterfly flapping its wings in China, and a tidal wave hitting the U.S. It set everything in motion. That’s what got the U.S. into the World Cup, which allowed us to host it four years later. The formation of the MLS and women’s leagues followed. It all goes back to that one moment against Trinidad and Tobago.

Today, young soccer fans have it so good. Soccer is everywhere. I’ll be on the treadmill at the gym and a soccer game will be on the screen. I couldn’t have dreamed of this when I was 10 years old. But for kids today, they can’t understand that there was a time when soccer was an underground sport.

If we want to keep getting better — for us to pursue that elusive goal of winning a World Cup someday — soccer has to become a part of American culture.

Take a look at Caligiuri’s goal and give it a salute. It was the start of something big.

3) Cuatro a Dos: Mexico’s Revenge
Remember dos a cero in 2002?

Mexico did.

The U.S. and Mexico met again at the Gold Cup final in 2011. This time, though, a different Mexican team showed up. I don’t just mean different players. Mexico’s team represented a completely overhauled national program. In fact, the 2-0 loss to us in 2002 was, in some ways, the biggest catalyst for Mexico’s resurgence. After 2002, they rebooted their system and reemerged much stronger. It was a comprehensive and bold reboot that took time. I think Mexico realized that it had to become a more physical team; they felt they were overrun by the Americans in 2002. They started looking for players that weren’t just technical, but physical, too. You saw the difference in young stars like Dos Santos and Chicharito — guys who had the full package, not only the technical skill. Mexico put together a team with more speed, more power and more aggressiveness. The era of little touch passes and maintaining possession was replaced with physicality and power.

The match opened well for us. We jumped out to a 2-0 lead. We were rolling. But then you saw Mexico turn it on. They poured in four unanswered goals. In front of 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl, Mexico made it look easy. It was like they were saying, “We’re the big brother again.” At least after that match, they were right.

Dos Santos’ final goal was masterful. It was the dagger. Tim Howard’s frustration says it all here.

The loss really stung, but it sent an important message to U.S. soccer and its fans: You can’t rest on your laurels. The game of soccer moves quickly; year to year, there’s a lot of undulation, so you have to stay on your toes. You have to keep building. Mexico showed patience in nurturing its young stars and promoting a new style of play. It was a lesson for American soccer that you have to be willing to reevaluate your system. Even though the loss was a low point, it was a good reminder that rebuilding has to start right away.

4) The Hiring of Jürgen Klinsmann
Bringing Klinsmann on as the head coach wasn’t just symbolic, but the symbolism couldn’t be overlooked. It wasn’t a coincidence that just a month after the 4-2 loss to Mexico in 2011, National Team coach Bob Bradley was fired and Jürgen Klinsmann was hired.

Klinsmann was an important hire for the stature of American soccer. The message was: it’s time for the U.S. to reboot. And fast. But like many people who are connected to the American soccer community, I had some reservations. A German coach brought in to lead the USA? There were a ton of Americans qualified for the job. Would Klinsmann understand American players? Would his coaching style translate?

Yes, Klinsmann was born and raised in Germany, but in fact his soccer experience is varied. He played all over Europe. He can see the game from a lot of different angles. I think American players instantly respected him in a new way. He was able to get a little more out of his players. They respected not only his credentials as a former player (World Cup winner, UEFA Champion), but also as a coach with an eye for the European game. He had credibility. I’ve been there, he could say to his guys.

Klinsmann also deserves credit for expanding the U.S. roster to include foreign-born Americans, like Jermaine Jones, Julian Green and Fabian Johnson. These are guys who grew up, for the most part, playing a European style. The more athletes with European talent who we can recruit to our national team — and to the MLS — the better off American soccer will be. Soccer thrives when you force players to adjust to new tempos and new skill levels.

Klinsmann also declared that youth matters. I respect Landon Donovan — he was my teammate for years — but Klinsmann made a bold decision to leave Landon off the 2014 World Cup roster. Whether that roster move was the right one or not, it was Klinsmann’s way of honoring the young guys. From what we’ve seen of young guys like DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green, he may be onto something.

One of the big improvements Klinsmann made was to schedule more top-level opponents. The U.S. started playing friendlies against teams like Italy, Belgium, Brazil, Germany and Uruguay — making the U.S. raise its level of play with each match. He threw them into the fire.

Credibility alone doesn’t win you soccer matches. But Klinsmann’s combination of experience, stature and coaching vision is a good recipe for the future. I just hope he’ll schedule a match with Germany soon. Why not take on the world’s best?

5) The Dominating Victory Over Argentina in 1995
American soccer has always faced the question: “Was it a fluke?” After the 1994 World Cup, when the national team had some things go our way, the questions didn’t go away — they intensified. At the World Cup, we had advanced out of the group stage. Fluke. We had played Brazil, the eventual winner, close in a 1-0 loss. Fluke. We still had doubters, here and around the world. The mantra boiled down to: “They’re going to fall back into the abyss.” Part of being an American soccer player is learning to hear the criticism, then learning to tune it out.

That was the backdrop for the Copa America in 1995, when the U.S. team shocked the soccer world with a 3-0 win over Argentina. We had something to prove. The Argentina win was one of the biggest statement games for U.S. soccer that I’ve ever played in — for both on- and off-field reasons.

The Copa America that year was hosted by Uruguay, which meant that Argentina was essentially playing a home game. People forget just how competitive those CONMEBOL teams were in that era. Argentina was a juggernaut. They had tremendous players like Diego Simeone, Ariel Ortega and Gabriel Batistuta (whose nickname was Bati-gol because he found the net so often).

The match was billed as minnows versus giants. It was time for comeuppance for the Americans. The stadium was packed to see just how brutal the drubbing would be. But then we won. And not only that, we won 3-0. We played well. Suddenly people in South America and around the world were marveling at how we didn’t just win — we dominated.

It felt like a movie where all the odds were stacked against us. The training facilities were lousy. Hostile crowds booed us wherever we played. Out hotel rooms were cramped and crowds gathered in the lobby to stare at us; it felt like a fish bowl. It was humid all the time, even at night. The food didn’t always sit well with us.

But there was more than just expectation and reputation on the line. Not a lot of people know this, but the U.S. team was going through contract negotiations at the time, and the most tense moments happened while we were in South America. We were fighting against our own side off the field and trying to focus on soccer on the field. The height of the drama happened when we decided not to show up for one of our practices in Uruguay. It was our way of protesting. Tensions were really high. There were phone conversations with U.S. soccer officials that I don’t want to write about here. It made our coach — an interim coach who was trying to secure a full-time gig — really worried. But we had to stand our ground as a unit. This was our job, our livelihood.

We didn’t plan it that way but our solidarity over contract negotiation had the side effect of improving our play on the field. Everything we were going through made us the team we were. We were tighter than ever before. When your guys have your back, it’s easier to make that extra run, make that extra tackle, and support your teammate in every way you have to in the game of soccer. The Argentinians never saw us coming.

I assisted on the second goal, a cross from the right side of the box to Alexi Lalas for the finish. We were pressing them offensively the whole match. Changing the point of attack was one of our goals in the game. On that play, we switched fields and I found myself one on one with their defender. I had a little time and space, and was able to size him up. One thing I’ve always been is quick. If you get me one on one, I’ll take that any day. I did a little shake, got him to freeze for a second and my opening appeared. I drove the ball low and hard across the goal. Alexi finished the cross perfectly — much like his hair at the time.

After the game, we were singing in the locker room. Did we just go out and beat Argentina? And 3-0? Yes, yes we did.

Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé.