United States soccer fans all over the country held their collective breaths on June 23, 2010, as the final minutes of the final FIFA World Cup match for Group C—and the United States’ last hopes for advancement—ticked away. Shot after desperate shot got deflected away or missed the mark. Then, in the 91st minute, number 10 followed up on a second-chance shot, slotting it just inside the left post before sliding victoriously into the left corner flag and being mobbed by white shirts. Landon Donovan’s last-second goal to clinch the group is widely recognized by today’s fans as the biggest moment in U.S. soccer history, but there have been quite a few major FIFA World Cup achievements for America.
FIFA was founded in 1904, but the inaugural tournament did not take place until 1930. The tournament was held in Uruguay, and the United States finished in a tie for third place, as there was no official match for third place back then. Only 13 teams participated, and only four of those were from Europe.
The United States participated in six more World Cup tournaments over the next 80 years, recording two trips to the round of 16 and one trip to the Quarterfinals in 2002, where it lost to Germany in a heartbreaking 1-0 elimination.
The 2002 tournament was the most successful for the U.S. since the first World Cup 72 years prior. The team dominated CONCACAF qualifying with four shutout wins in the semifinal round and no losses in the final round. The U.S. clinched its place in the tournament on home soil for the first time with a 2-1 victory over Jamaica at Foxboro Stadium, and had two major wins against Portugal in the group stage and Mexico in the round of 16. Claudio Reyna was named to the All-Tournament Team, and Landon Donovan received Honorable Mentions.
The U.S. took the international spotlight with the 1994 World Cup, when it was awarded its first—and only—hosting bid on the country’s 213th birthday. The ’94 tournament was said to be the greatest event in FIFA history, with more than 3.5 million soccer fans crowding stadiums across the country. The event broke the attendance records of the 1990 tournament in Italy by over one million, and the U.S. advanced to the round of 16 for the first time in 64 years. It ultimately lost to Brazil on July 4, 1994, exactly five years after being awarded the host bid.
In 1997, the U.S. finished its grueling 16-game qualifying run for the ’98 tournament with only two losses, and won a historic point on Mexican soil with a scoreless draw. The U.S recorded its first win in Mexico in an international friendly game in 2012, but has yet to defeat Mexico at home in a World Cup match.
The 2010 tournament saw a great start for the U.S. with five straight wins in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying to take first place in the group and clinch its spot. The team went undefeated at home in 2009. Though Ghana defeated the U.S. in the round of 16, the tournament was not a complete wash. Donovan’s miracle goal in the group stage can still put a smile on any fan’s face, and Clint Dempsey and Donovan became the second and third U.S. players to score in multiple tournaments. Donovan’s three goals in the tournament earned him the title of all-time goal leader for the U.S.
Perhaps the biggest moment in U.S. soccer history, however—one that few people alive today can say they witnessed—was the major upset over England in the 1950 FIFA World Cup. Though the U.S. took last place in the group stage with only two points, the manner in which the team earned those two points has been immortalized in soccer history, spawning both a book and a movie.
It was the first tournament post World War II, held in Brazil. The U.S. had missed the 1934 and 1938 tournaments, and support for soccer was at an all-time low. The entire U.S. side was a hodgepodge of dishwashers and cab drivers. Players who made the squad had to bow out because they could not miss work in the post-war job market. England, considered the “inventor of soccer,” was the heavy favorite to win the tournament. After a disappointing 3-1 opening loss to Spain, in which the U.S. took an early one goal lead, the team was not optimistic about its chances against the English side. The game began as expected, with England dominating possession and bombarding the goalkeeper with shots, but the U.S. managed to keep the board clean.
It happened in the 37th minute. Junior high school teacher Walter Bahr put a low cross in front of the English goal. The goalkeeper shifted right, leaving his left defenseless just as Haitian-born, New York dishwasher Joe Gaetjens dove across the penalty spot, heading the ball into the net. The Brazilian crowd erupted with cheers for the “underdog” U.S. team and, when the match ended, placed Gaetjens on their shoulders and carried him around the stadium. Papers called the 1-0 victory the “biggest upset in international soccer.” It was said that fans believed the score to be a telegraph error, thinking the true score was 10-1 in favor of England. English papers even printed that score, to their great embarrassment later.
The 1950 FIFA World Cup may not have been the United States’ best showing, or its highest finish, but the major upset over England has its place as one of the most, if not the most incredible moment in U.S. soccer history. Donovan’s last-minute winning goal, the ’97 draw in Mexico, and the entire 2002 World Cup also hold special places in U.S. soccer fans’ hearts.
Commentary by Christina Jones