Jun 22, 2014; Manaus, Amazonas, BRAZIL; United States fans cheer before the first half of a 2014 World Cup game against Portugal at Arena Amazonia. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

World Cup Flashback: 2002 All Over Again


Those who know me or who follow me on Twitter know that I had the grave misfortune to have had to hop a flight to South Korea on Sunday afternoon. With the flight departing at nearly 3pm CST and the USA kicking off against Portugal at 5pm CST, I expected that I would have to miss one of the most important matches in recent US Soccer history.

Devastation turned to elation when I discovered that my Delta international flight had wifi. I plunked down $40 to purchase wifi for the duration of the flight. It was an absurd figure, but well worth it if it meant that I would be able to watch the match.

As it turned out, for $40 I got a wifi signal that was so slow and unstable that it could not run the ESPN Watch feed. I was able to run the Univision feed, but only in stop-start fashion with the match pausing a few seconds every 3-5 seconds which made for some painful viewing.

Still, I was more or less able to keep up with what was going on via Twitter and the Univision feed and even, somehow, got a 3-5 minute run after the 60th minute where the feed did not pause at all and the quality reached the point where I could actually make out individual faces.

Jun 22, 2014; Manaus, Amazonas, BRAZIL; United States defender Fabian Johnson (23) sits on the ground after the final whistle as Portugal forward Varela (18), who scored the tying goal walks past during the second half of their 2-2 tie in a 2014 World Cup game at Arena Amazonia. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

What Delta did not advertise, however, was that the internet connection would be broken once we left US airspace, which happened in the 91st minute with the score 2-1 in favor of the Yanks. Naturally, I assumed that we won. Upon touchdown at Seoul Incheon Airport, the pilot was kind enough to inform us otherwise.

A Japanese TV network replay once in my hotel confirmed the draw, the manner of which was agonizing even though I knew what was coming. Upon the final whistle I thought to myself, “Dammit, it is 2002 all over again”.

Last week, I wrote about my experience at Suwon Stadium in 2002 as the United States toppled Portugal by a score of 3-2.Those who remember that World Cup or know their World Cup history will know what came next.

In match #2 of the World Cup for the United States, we made the trip down to Daegu to meet up with the hosts, South Korea. The stands were a sea of red, packed with rabid Korean fans coming off of a win over Poland and confident that their team would topple the US.

Perhaps by design, the US fan sections were split up in this match such that there were relatively small groups of fans together around the stadium. Had we been all together, though, it would not have mattered – any chants we started were quickly drowned out by 60,000 screaming Koreans.

We could not even hear ourselves chant. We had to resort to chanting “USA” in between refrains of “Daehan Minguk!” such that it became: “Daehan Minguk – USA – Daehan Minguk – USA!”.

Feb 22, 2014; Sochi, RUSSIA; Korean fans during the medals ceremony for short track speed skating ladies 1000m during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at the Medals Plaza. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

It was a rough and tumble match, with bodies flying everywhere. Korea had a number of opportunities to open the scoring in the first 20 minutes, but the combination of a tough US defense and Brad Friedel in net kept them out.

The US opened the scoring through Clint Mathis in the 24th minute as he deftly took down a pass in the box with one foot and fired past the keeper with the other.

It was more or less one way traffic in favor of Korea after that until the 39th minute when the referee whistled for a penalty against Jeff Agoos for taking down Hwang Sun-Hong.

As he did so many time during that tournament, Friedel came up huge with the save on Lee Eul-Yong’s penalty attempt and the rebound went wide of the net. The US went into the half up 1-0.

The 2nd half was more of the same – one way traffic with opportunity after opportunity for Korea. The US held on and it looked like they might clinch a spot in the 2nd round after only two matches.

Ahn Jung-Hwang ended those hope in the 78th minute, getting on the end of a free kick and beating Friedel with the header. Instead of full points, the US had to hang on to secure a point which left them tied with Korea at the top of the group with 4 points.

Portugal would batter Poland by a score of 4-0 to put themselves in with a shot of going through on 3 points.

Next stop, Daejeon where the US needed only a point against Poland to go through. Poland’s tournament had been a shocker, eliminated already having lost by an aggregate score of 6-0. We all hoped they were thoroughly demoralized and that the US would get the necessary result.

It wasn’t to be that easy, however, as Emmanuel Olisadebe put Poland ahead in the 3rd minute following some sloppy defending on a corner kick. Landon Donovan leveled the score a minute later, however the referee ruled (questionably) that Donovan had fouled the defender on a 50/50 header and waved the goal off.

The US briefly lost focus in the protests and promptly gave up a 2nd goal in the 6th minute to Pawel Krysalowicz. In the 66th minute, Poland put the match out of reach with a header from Marcin Zewlakow.

At that point, all we could do inside the stadium was helplessly wait for news from Incheon where Portugal and Korea were deadlocked at zero. Despite our win over Portugal, they had us on goal differential and if the results held up, we were facing the cruel fate of going from thinking we were through only to find ourselves going home a few days later.

The relatively sparse Korean crowd in attendance were listening to the Korea match against Portugal, so we knew when Park Ji-Sung fired home a beautiful goal in the 70th minute to put Korea on top. We celebrated as if it was a goal by the United States (which finally came in the 83rd minute courtesy of Landon Donovan).

It was a tense final few minutes as waited for the match in Incheon to end. When it did, it did not matter that most of Korea had rooted against the United States. We thanked every single Korean we could and we celebrated getting through to the 2nd round.

June 21, 2014; Fortazela, BRAZIL; Ghana player Sulley Ali Muntari (red) attempts a bicycle kick in front of Germany player Thomas Mueller during the 2014 World Cup at Estadio Castelao. Mandatory Credit: Tim Groothuis/Witters Sport via USA TODAY Sports

When I look at the situation we face this Friday, I have this gnawing fear in the pit of my stomach that a similar situation could emerge where we are (ironically) cheering for Portugal to get the result this time. The goal differential margin between the US and Ghana is only 2. That gets reversed immediately by a US loss and a Ghana win.

What leaves me petrified is knowing that Portugal has a huge goal differential to make up. They will be throwing everything forward which plays into Ghana’s hands. Their team speed makes Ghana a dangerous counter-attacking side and it is very easy to envision a 2 or even a 3 goal win for Ghana in this match.

I desperately home that I am wrong, but that blown opportunity for 3 points against Portugal may well mean the end of the tournament for us. The easiest thing to do, of course, would be to get a result against Germany. Let’s hope that it happens.

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