ESPN FC writer Roger Bennett visited with players from past World Cups to collect their memories of playing on football's biggest stage. The following is an excerpt from Roger's conversation with retired United States striker Brian McBride who was part of the U.S. squad that made a Cinderella run to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals.
McBride recalls the lead-up to the tournament and the methods used by head coach Bruce Arena to inspire the squad to reach unprecedented heights in U.S. Soccer history.
"The expectations were low for our squad after 1998 when we had shot ourselves in the foot... but because of that performance, as soccer players, it felt like so much was riding on the tournament for us in terms of the future of the game.
Behind the scenes, there was a lot going on in terms of negotiations for our contracts with the U.S. Team. We felt if we played well at the World Cup, our performance would give us a great contract. A bad showing could see money taken off the table. So before the tournament even began, the camaraderie this squad shared and the willingness we had to work together and emphasize the collective over the individual. After 1998, we knew we needed to stick together.
That tone began back at January camp when everyone got together. [Head coach] Bruce Arena did not give the normal coach's address where he just welcomed everybody. He simply (referred to the first World Cup game and) said: "We can beat Portugal. As a player you always want to believe, so when Bruce just set the tone and came right out with it, every time we met after that, we kept repeating it. Cynics would say he brainwashed us, but we started to believe it -- a parallel I imagine to how this current U.S. team feels right now.
This was a special group of players. John O'Brien, "Jonny O" was one of the most talented players I have been around, Clint Mathis was coming into this own with all that confidence. Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley were young and fearless. They both play the game with joy -- couple that with the defensive solidity of Eddie Pope and Brad (Friedel) and top it off with Claudio Reyna and you can gain a sense of why we were confident.
When we left the U.S. there was not much fanfare. It was different back then. 1994 put football on everyone's tongues. In 1998 we had laid an egg. Americans love winners and we were not that. But we knew winning the World Cup was not necessarily the only way for us to win. We only had to make progress.
The opening game against Portugal was special because it set the tone. I love my goal in that game because I knew exactly where my wife and mother were in the stadium and was able to point to them after scoring, but the truth is if the game had gone on for another 15 minutes Portugal would probably have tied it up.
The Mexico game in the round of 16 was one in which we played with so much confidence. We knew them so well. We knew we could beat them and we had a gameplan that really played out to perfection.
Mexico blew us away from the outset but we always knew they would have the ball more. The way Bruce set us up tactically was perfect. We knew we had to keep our shape. We knew we were not in the Azteca where we would soon be exhausted chasing the ball. We knew we needed big performances -- Brad Friedel had one -- but we never got flustered. We had the understanding they would have the ball but we knew we could hit them on the break or with direct balls or with free kicks. Our mentality was one of patience.
I have forgotten a lot about my career but I remember my goal vividly. I got fouled. I heard Claudio (Reyna) screaming bloody murder for me to play the free quick to him quickly so I put the ball down and tapped it to him. He overlapped and I charged forward. In my mind I knew I had to get to the box. (Reyna) got to the end line. Josh Wolff normally would stop his run two or three yards past the post and wait for the ball, but this time he kept running. Somehow he knew I was coming late into the box which was really unusual and he was able to see me unmarked and flick the ball with the outside of his foot with perfect placement and pace. All I had to do was to think where the Mexican goalkeeper and defenders were and place the ball in the goal. I kept telling myself not to panic and make sure I did not lean back and sky it...
When it came to the goal celebration, normally I am the guy who people jump into my arms whether I score or not. But this time, I ran to Claudio to jump into this arms. I jumped and he jumped into me at the same time. It was a little awkward, both then on the field and now when you look at it.
How did it feel? For me it was more a goal for the team. It solidified our sense that we could do this. I am not trying to pretend I was not overjoyed. I was. But it was a goal that was about all the hard work we had put in from the May camp onwards with the group. It was special for all of us. Like most of my goals it was not one I made. It was a team goal I was just there to put it away.
Afterwards in the locker room, it felt we were as close as a group of guys could ever feel. We had proved to ourselves, and we hoped to most of the soccer world, that we could play. To be honest we had little sense of the growing following back in the United States. I have never been someone motivated to prove people wrong. I always just cared about winning. And to look at those guys down to the 23rd player and know this was a group of winners made me feel so fortunate."