Wednesday 16 March 2022, 05:00

The American upset that rewrote history

  • USA stunned Mexico in the Round of 16 at Korea/Japan 2022

  • It created a power shift from Mexican dominance to tight tussles

  • FIFA recalls the game as it approaches its 20th anniversary

Meetings between Mexico and USA were not always the tight affairs they are today. El Tri, indisputably Concacaf’s leading light for many decades, utterly dominated the Stars and Stripes between 1937 and 1980, when they went 24 games unbeaten. It would be fair to say, then, that the gap between the relentless Mexicans and the emerging Americans was substantial. On 23 November 1980, USA finally laid the ghost to rest with a 2-1 victory in Fort Lauderdale that the Mexican media preferred to gloss over. Further warning shots came in the form of US victories in the semi-final of the Gold Cup 1991 and the quarter-finals of the Copa America 1995, but it was still not enough for a country that needed a compelling reason to fall in love with football. That would have to wait until 17 June 2002 and a game which, 20 years on, remains a milestone for football in the USA. The setting was Jeonju in Korea Republic, where the pair faced off in the Round of 16 at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™.

USA were not widely tipped to trouble their neighbours, even if, under the stewardship of Bruce Arena, they had come through their group with a surprise opening win over Portugal, a draw with Korea Republic and a loss to Poland. Indeed, they had looked to be heading home until the co-hosts scored a late winner in their final game against the Portuguese. Mexico, meanwhile, with Rafael Marquez as captain and the talismanic Jared Borgetti up front, had a squad full of household names and had showcased an attractive brand of football in topping Group G ahead of Italy, Croatia and Ecuador. With history on their side, Javier Aguirre’s charges were understandably favourites. However, his counterpart Arena had shown his tactical nous en route to the knockout phase, where he rejigged things once more with a 3-5-2 formation. “We decided to defend with three big centre-backs to stop Borgetti,” he said. “After the game against Poland on the Friday, we didn’t have much time to recover, so we had to devise a more passive strategy than usual and play on the counter, which worked perfectly.” The third central defender, who was impressive throughout that World Cup, was none other than current national team coach Gregg Berhalter. “I was expecting them to have three across the back, although I thought [Landon] Donovan would play on the right and [Claudio] Reyna in a deep lying centre-forward role,” recalled Aguirre. “In the end it was the other way around.” Reyna had been criticised for his France 1998 campaign, but Arena boosted his confidence by naming him captain. The former duly repaid the faith put in him with one of the performances of his career against El Tri and was instrumental in Brian McBride's opening goal after eight minutes. With their noses in front, Arena doubled down on his initial game plan. Mexico could find no way to unlock the defensive web that Arena had woven, something that clearly frustrated Borgetti: “We knew the USA were going to be like this – a team that counter-punches very well with fast players.”

The coup de grace was provided on 65 minutes, with a stellar contribution by the player who would become their biggest star: Donovan. “My career was almost non-existent, even less so on the world stage,” he explained in an exclusive FIFA + documentary 2002: An Asian Odyssey. “I was a promising talent, but there were doubts about whether I would fulfil my potential or not.” Donovan’s goal all but sealed Mexico’s fate. “At 2-0 the game was over – that ended our hopes. There wasn’t enough time and we didn’t have the right tactical set-up,” Aguirre said after a match that ended with the dismissal of Rafa Marquez for a nasty challenge on Cobi Jones. El Tri, who would also be eliminated in the Round of 16 in the next four editions, bowed out with a defeat they could not have expected. Despite succumbing in the quarters to eventual runners-up Germany, USA’s victory against their arch-rivals fuelled a revolution, as Donovan acknowledges: “It was a pivotal moment. Today we’re a very different footballing country than we were 20 years ago. I think we can all be very proud of our role in that.” Indeed, the transformation is undeniable. When the two foes meet again on 24 March on in Concacaf qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™, Gerardo Martino's side will be seeking to disrupt the current trend that, 20 years after Korea/Japan 2002, has seen USA prevail in their three meetings so far this decade.