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The USMNT focuses on the grand prize

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The USMNT thanks the fans after qualifying for Qatar and the World Cup.

The USMNT thanks the fans after qualifying for Qatar and the World Cup.
Image: fake images

Staying physically and mentally fit without setbacks for a grueling 10-month soccer season is impossible. Truly putting on the blinders from the outside world for a monthMaintaining his best condition both on the field and outside of training was a treacherous goal, but not an impossible one. Cutting every day short to master that set of criteria was what the 23 men who represented the United States national team at the 2002 FIFA World Cup set out to do. And he did better than anyone on the men’s squad in modern American history.

The 1930 American men finished third in the inaugural World Cup and won a knockout round match another time in history 72 years later. This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Yanks’ exit from the 2002 FIFA World Cup, held in Japan and South Korea. The Americans’ Round of 16 victory over Mexico stands as the biggest game in one of international soccer’s fiercest rivalries. In the quarterfinals, one of the favorites of the tournament, Germany, awaited him. Before we dive into the details of that match, let’s take a look at how that group of turn-of-the-millennium Americans made almost unmatched strides, and how likely it is that we’ll see it again soon.

“We put together one of the best teams we’ve ever had in national team history,” longtime USMNT advocate Frankie Hejduk told Deadspin in a recent interview. “We had a group of guys that were a group of veterans who were in their prime, half of them playing in Europe, half of them playing in MLS. And then you had a bunch of up-and-coming young stars who, if they weren’t stars, were about to shine in Landon (Donovan) and (DaMarcus) Beasley. All those guys. You had the best version of all of us as a team.”

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The Columbus Crew legend is right. A dozen of the players from a previous golden generation of USMNTers were in America when their shining moment hit, the tiniest advantage over the 11 playing in European leagues, including Hejduk, who played for German giant Bayer Leverkusen at the time. The first time Hejduk learned of the true potential of American men at that time was not in pre-Cup camp in North Carolina. It was at the 2000 Summer Olympics, where six members of the 2002 team played together for the first time in a major international tournament.

That mostly American under-23 team took fourth place in Sydney, losing to Spain in the semi-finals and heavily beating Chile in the bronze medal match, but losing to the South Americans 2-0. Brad Friedel, John O’Brien, Jeff Agoos, Josh Wolff, Donovan and Hejduk did not win a medal, but they promoted the belief that the USMNT would take on a larger role on the world stage. Hejduk developed a nickname for Donovan, “Superstar”, due to current San Diego head coach Loyal being named Best Young Player of the 2002 exhibition.

“It is quite surprising that so much time has passed. 2002 feels like a long time ago. I was just a child I was a baby. So it’s crazy to think about that,” Donovan told Deadspin in an interview in late May. “I remember being really cheeky, brash, brave and fearless. That period of time was very exciting because Major League Soccer didn’t exist when I was a kid. So my dream was always to play in a World Cup. So here I have the opportunity to realize my dream.”

Having the desire to be the best version of yourself is a very motivating line but much more difficult to apply. The United States was guaranteed 270 minutes of play in the World Cup. Things could quickly fall apart, especially with mighty Portugal crossing the pitch in their first game of the tournament.

“That meant focus, focus on your heart, your mind, your mind, your body, your soul, on the pitch, off the pitch,” Hejduk said. “… And all the players got it. Literally all the players. Donovan conquered: “I think there was a level of respect for all of us who played. But we were not afraid, especially the younger ones. We had no fear. So what if it’s Portugal? Who cares? Just go play the game. In hindsight, you don’t have to be the most talented group of players to be successful. If the mentality of the whole group is to succeed as a group, then you can do it.”

And led the USMNT to a quarter-final match against Germany. After a Michael Ballack goal put the Americans down 1-0, a second-half chance to equalize from a corner kick would have been a lot different today. Claudio Reyna’s center found quick movement from Donovan in prime area for a shot by defender Gregg Berhalter (yes, the current USMNT head coach). His goal attempt was partially stopped by German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn before deflecting into the handball of teammate Torsten Frings. No live call was made and play continued.

Had that scenario played out today, VAR would have flagged it and a penalty kick would have easily been given, along with a red card for Frings. Intentional or not, his hand stopped a goal. That’s a cut and dry ejection, since what happened much more obviously in a 2010 World Cup quarterfinals Uruguayan Luis Suarez. Hejduk said Donovan or Brian McBride would have taken the next penalty kick. What version of the soccer multiverse do we get from there? We will never know, but an American victory cannot be ruled out. In this reality, Germany moved forward.

The 2002 American Men demonstrated how close the program can come to earning a star above its crest, rather than seeing the USWNT have the four the country has earned at the senior level. In fact, it has been women who have dominated the world stage in any age group. However, his great form is not the moral of this story. It’s what Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and the current Americans who will play in Qatar two decades after the loss to Germany can learn from the older generation.

Even before heading onto the court, the world is such a different place now. Blocking the media with higher expectations is now impossible. Donovan said that if the 2002 USMNT crashed in the group stage, there would not have been an uproar calling for Bruce Arena to resign. That is steadily increasing, as it was Donovan after South Africa who primarily represented the team in the press, including an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.

Berhalter will lead the USMNT to its first World Cup in eight years starting in November and more eyes will be on him and his team than ever before. Hejduk, his former clubmate and roommate, sees the origins of the current US team from Berhalter’s apprenticeship days with Arena.

“(Gregg) learned through Bruce, that team, that year,” Hejduk said. “That team we had was incredible. They all really loved each other and (were) really fighting for each other. When you have a group like that, with all of them at their peak, and you can as a coach get them together and put them all in the same frame of mind and like each other and laugh and hug and cry and bring out all the emotions of a player, like Bruce is able to do, I think Gregg has also taken it to another level with the team that he has now.

“From everything I hear, from everything a lot of people hear, he’s a player coach. He is a guy who works hard, on and off the field for the players. The players really respect him. And we really respect Bruce and you have to have that with a coach. The respect has to be there. The laugh has to be there. Being able to take criticism from a coach, and that’s what Bruce, to me, was so good at, is being able to say ‘Hey, you didn’t have a good game, but blah blah blah.’ I guess the positive review. We all buy it. I’m sure Gregg took every piece of the pie that he could from Bruce and learned all of that.”

One big handicap that the current crop of Americans may have is a lack of World Cup experience. The player pool may expand in the coming months, but only two players who represented the United States in 2014 appear to have a legitimate path to Qatar in DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks. In other words, the likely forwards, midfielders and goalkeepers played a total of zero minutes in the World Cup. An ideal.

“I think it’s almost impossible to tell how big a World Cup is until you play in it,” Donovan said. “So it will be a learning experience for some of them. But they are very well prepared. And there’s not much I’m going to tell you that’s going to shock you.” Donovan emphasized showing videos and having people come talk to the team about what it’s like to play on the biggest stage in sports can help. But it does not replicate the real thing.

“By my second or third World Cup, I was much more comfortable with what the process was going to look like,” Donovan continued. “It’s probably no different than when people go to a Super Bowl. And they talk about that week off, how that’s different, having all the media, everyone paying attention, how different that is and you still have to be able to focus on your work. It’s a bit of that. Until you really go through it and experience it, you won’t know what it’s all about.”

However, the easiest way for Americans to connect the dots from the last World Cup held in an Asian country to the next is through Berhalter. He saw what made that team great. Now it’s his job to make sure history gets a chance to repeat itself.

“I think the main reason for that team’s success was camaraderie, I really do, and a common goal,” Donovan said of his 2002 pro career. It is human nature. We all think ‘How can I make this better for myself?’ If I do well, will a big club sign me? And am I going to get a raise? Am I going to get a new contract? Of course, that is part of everyone and we are all human. But that team felt like they were in it for a greater cause, a greater good. And I think that had a lot to do with our success.”

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