Another opponent, another link to the best performance ever by an American team at the World Cup. When the United States lines up against Germany on Thursday with a chance to advance hanging on the result, it brings back memories of a match the two nations played in Ulsan, South Korea, in 2002.
The match in Ulsan was a quarterfinal battle, not a group game, but the USA needed a strong performance against highly touted Germany in order to advance. Bruce Arena's team arrived in the round of eight after a second-place finish in their group that included a 3-2 win over vaunted Portugal, followed by a 2-0 defeat of regional rival Mexico in the round of 16.
For the Yanks, a proactive and attacking approach provided their best chance to beat Germany. Starting defender Tony Sanneh, who now runs a foundation bearing his name that uses soccer to empower at-risk youth in his native Minnesota and played a role in recruiting Timmy Chandler to the U.S. with his playing connections to Germany, remembers distinctly the feeling in the squad that their opponent was ripe for the taking.
"There are some games where [you think,] 'These guys are awesome and we gotta get three points,' but not necessarily, 'Win the game,'" Sanneh explains. "This was a game where I thought we could win.
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"We were playing pretty well in the tournament. I think at this point Germany out-battled people. We had a team that could stand toe-to-toe with most people as long we attacked them."
The Americans did just that, taking the game to the powerful Europeans. In the first half, Landon Donovan found himself one-on-one with goalkeeper Oliver Khan twice; Kahn saved both efforts. The game did not lack chances, and though the U.S. would rue their misses, the game unfolded as an exhibition of American intent.
"I think we were more confident against Germany," the now-43-year-old Sanneh remembers about the difference between the opener against Portugal and the quarterfinal match. "We had played them two or three times before. We had a lot of players who played inside of Germany, so we knew a lot more about them."
He added, "Where the Portugal game was our first World Cup game against a team we had never played against, and there was still a lot of question about how we were going to perform under the pressure, by the Germany game we believed in ourselves and we believed we could play with anybody in the world."
The Americans could play with the Germans, that much was obvious. But a slip on set-piece defending in the 39th minute put them behind before the end of the half. Michael Ballack headed home a goal from a free kick to give Germany a one-goal lead.
In the second half, Sanneh in particular played a significant role in the approach, flying up and down as a wing-back in Arena's 3-5-2. The defender recalls a specific sequence in particular when he started, and nearly finished, an American attack.
"I had one where I made a 60-70 yard run," he says. "I remember cutting inside and passing it, and then I took five slow steps and I decided to keep running into the box, where if I kept up the sprint, I probably get to the header I missed by 2 feet."
While video of the match doesn't necessarily show that Sanneh slowed his run, the memory of that missed chance clearly sticks with him. That opportunity, and others the USA created but missed over 90 minutes, proved to be their undoing. Even when they managed to put the ball on goal out of the reach of Kahn, the fates conspired against them. What came next is the prevailing image Americans fans remember from the game...
In the 50th minute, the Americans won a corner kick. Sanneh flicked Claudio Reyna's near-post service toward the back post, where Gregg Berhalter redirected it toward goal. Kahn's light touch pushed the ball onto the hand of German defender Torsten Frings, stationed on the post. The referee missed the transgression. The Americans protested. No satisfaction arrived.
"I'm the guy that was arguing with the referee," says Sanneh, talking about video of the incident.
To his credit, Sanneh refuses to place the blame for the balance of the game, or even the ultimate 1-0 loss, on the missed hand ball. The Americans controlled their fate.
"I don't think [it was a distraction]. Subconsciously, you don't realize it, but you have an excuse," he explains. "On this day, whether it was luck, whether it was meant to be, we weren't great finishers."
Sanneh puts a lot of stock in the notion of finishing. Not just goals, but games.
"That's the maturity of the teams," he says. "You look at the game against Portugal [on Sunday], going down ... maybe it's easier to play when you're behind. We missed some easy chances in that game. Ultimately, it's about getting three points; instead, we get one point."
As for the World Cup rematch with Germany, Sanneh actually sees that game very differently. With only a draw needed for both teams to go through, the ex-U.S. international suggests neither team will be intent on winning.
"There's no logical reason we should play soccer this last game," he suggests. "We don't have to win this game. This should be a nice friendly game. It would be much different if this was a winner-take-all mentality. This game really comes down to tactics. Playing as much soccer as you can to satisfy FIFA, but making sure that you don't put yourself in a position to get scored on."
However the showdown with Germany plays out, the progress made in the U.S. program is evident.
"We're able to play with any team on any given day, and I think that's a big step forward in the right direction," he says. "It's going through these experiences, you're going to see us continue to mature, where [in] games like these we don't make these last-15-minutes mistakes and we end up on top."
In other words, the USA is learning how to finish.