No one expected the US to beat Portugal in 2002, either

Win, and they’re in.
Win, and they’re in.
Image: Reuters/Toru Hanai
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The US national team takes on Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal at the World Cup today. Victory would guarantee the Americans a spot in the sweet 16.

In many ways, the match is a repeat of the 2002 World Cup, when the two teams faced each other in South Korea. Portugal had the world’s best player back then, too (it was Luis Figo). Then, as now, the US fielded a roster of determined team players but no truly world-class stars.

“I think we don’t get the respect we deserve as a country in the way the game is perceived internationally,” reminisced midfielder Pablo Mastroeni about 2002. ”We had this thing where we wanted to prove to everyone, including ourselves, our teammates, and the federation that we have great players here in America.”

It was an almighty shock, then, when the US led 3-0 at halftime and went on to win 3-2. ”The pressure from Portugal was incessant after the second goal,” the BBC wrote at the time, “but America held out valiantly to cause one of the biggest World Cup shocks ever.”

When Clint Dempsey and the rest of US soccer’s 2014 vintage take the field in the Amazonian city of Manaus, they will be underdogs again. But a victory would not be as much of an upset as 12 years ago, when they proved to everyone that Americans could play football with their feet. That, in itself, has shown how far the US has come.

Further, this time the Americans are coming off a morale-raising victory against Ghana, while Portugal is probably much weaker as a team this time around. They were destroyed by Germany in the opening game, albeit with 10 men for most of the match. And Portugal is more reliant than ever on Ronaldo, who will play with tendonitis.

Robin Fraser, an assistant coach with the MLS team New York Red Bulls, told the New York Times that two men need to be guarding Ronaldo at all times to negate this threat. Still, US player Michael Bradley said of Ronaldo: ”We understand what a special player he is, we understand how good of a team they have, but it’s not something that fazes us.”

The US will be motivated: A victory against Portugal would turn their last group match against the fearsome Germans into a formality.