By Noah Davis
Nine times, the United States has gone to the World Cup. Nine times, it has failed to bring home the trophy. (Not that anyone really expected it to, but still.) Below is our ranking -- a little objective, a little subjective -- of the teams from worst to best, with the 2014 squad thrown in for good measure.
(Host nation in parentheses.)
10. 1934 (Italy)
World Cup finish: 16th of 16
Stars: Aldo Donelli, George Moorehouse, Billy Gonsalves
How'd they do: This tournament is barely worth mentioning. While the Americans defeated Mexico (hooray!) to qualify, they were blown out 7-1 by host Italy in the opening match of the 16-team, single-elimination event. A New York Times article credited "the invaders" for holding the Italians scoreless for 18 minutes, but admitted that "the Americans really had no chance against the fine team play of their rivals." Benito Mussolini, using his World Cup to promote fascism, attended the match, even paying for his own tickets. Donelli, who scored the Americans' only goal, later coached the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Rams.
9. 1990 (Italy)
World Cup finish: 23th out of 24
Stars: Tony Meola, Tab Ramos, John Harkes
How'd they do: Just qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1950 was the real miracle. It took an incredible blast from Paul Caligiuri against Trinidad & Tobago for the Americans to reach Italia '90, which is widely regarded as one of the dullest tournaments in history. The 2.21 goals per game still stands as the record low, and FIFA eliminated the back pass to the goalkeeper and increased the points for winning a group stage game from two to three in 1994 as a result. The United States, an inexperienced group whose average age was 23, didn't get any favors with a draw that pitted it against powerhouse Czechoslovakia, the hosts and Austria. In their first match, the Americans fell to Czechoslovakia 5-1 and were "humiliated to the point of embarrassment," according to the Times. While Bob Gansler's squad faired better against Italy, losing 1-0, and suffered another one-goal defeat in its third group match, it went home without a point. Still, the tournament would provide valuable experience for players like Meola, Ramos, Harkes, Marcelo Balboa and Eric Wynalda, who would go on to play starring roles four years later. And it provided a platform for players to jump to European clubs as a dozen moved abroad. Also, the team produced a sweet video for its official theme song that involves a tremendous amount of dancing on the beach.
8. 1950 (Brazil)
World Cup finish: 10th out of 13
Stars: Joe Gaetjens, Walter Bahr, Harry Keough
How'd they do: Brazil hosted the first World Cup since 1938, which featured only 13 teams after France, India and Scotland withdrew. Tournament organizers opted for a group stage with knockout rounds, a structure designed to increase the number of games and allow Brazil to show off its improved infrastructure. (If only we could say the same thing about 2014 ...) The Americans, a band of semi-professionals led by captain Bahr, were drawn into Group 2 alongside Spain, England and Chile. After falling 3-1 in their first match to La Roja, they faced the English at Estadio Independencia in Belo Horizonte. More than 10,000 fans turned out, eager to see England, who was a 3-1 favorite to win the entire tournament. The U.S., meanwhile, had won just four matches since 1934. The Stars and Stripes would produce one of the most shocking upsets in World Cup history. In the 37th minute, Bahr took a shot from 25 yards. As English goalkeeper Bert Williams moved to collect the shot, Gaetjens, a Haitian immigrant who was eligible for the U.S. team because he declared his intention to be naturalized, although he never would do so, dived headfirst, tipping the ball into the net. The U.S. held on to the lead, the heroics of goalkeeper and professional baseball player Frank Borghi needed time and time again. The loss sent England home after the group stage. "We went out and had a couple beers afterward," Bahr told SI.com. "I felt badly for England: How were these guys going to go home and explain losing to the United States?
7. 1998 (France)
World Cup finish: 32nd out of 32
Stars: Claudio Reyna, Cobi Jones, Eddie Pope
How'd they do: In a word, horribly. Following the success of the 1994 World Cup both on and off the field, the U.S. team expected to compete for a spot in the second round in France. Instead, they imploded as the squad fractured. The divisions started before the tournament with manager Steve Sampson leaving Captain America John Harkes off the roster for what we'd later come to find out was a rumored affair with star forward Eric Wynalda's wife. The inclusion of David Regis, who did not help the team qualify but started all three games after having his citizenship fast-tracked, further split the squad, as did Sampson's curious decision to adopt the little-used 3-6-1 formation. Sampson left '94 stars Tab Ramos, Jeff Agoos, Marcelo Balboa and Alexi Lalas on the bench for the first match against Germany, a 2-0 loss. (A forward named Jurgen Klinsmann scored the second goal.) In the next game, only Brian McBride's 87th-minute goal saved the U.S. from an embarrassing shutout against Iran. Even so, the underdog Iranians defeated the Great Satan 2-1, ensuring the Americans wouldn't advance. Four days later, the U.S continued the abysmal showing with a 1-0 loss to Yugoslavia, ending the tournament 0-3 with a minus-four goal differential, solidly in last place.
6. 1930 (Uruguay)
World Cup finish: 3rd out of 13
Stars: Bert Patenaude, Thomas Florie. George Moorhouse
How'd they do: It took the team, primarily consisting of stars from the American Soccer League, 18 days on the ocean to get to Uruguay for the first World Cup. They faced a diluted field as only four European squads arrived, with none of the best in the world like England, Scotland, Italy and Austria. No one expected much of the Americans after their abysmal showing at the 1928 Olympic Games, but the team defeated Belgium 3-0 in front of 15,000 spectators at Central Park Stadium in Montevideo, then dispatched Paraguay by the same score to advance to the semifinals. Patenaude, only 20 at the time and an emerging forward for the Fall River Marksman, scored the first World Cup hat trick. (FIFA wouldn't recognize his achievement until 2006, the second goal originally listed as an own goal.) The Americans met Argentina with a place in the final on the line, and, while they expected to win, the proceedings quickly went poorly. U.S. goalkeeper James Douglas twisted his knee while defender Ralph Tracey broke his right leg, although both continued to play as no substitutions were allowed. In the second half, Tracey's injury forced him out of the game -- obviously -- and Argentina turned a 1-0 advantage into a 6-1 destruction. The U.S., which earned the nickname "the shot-putters" for its physical style, would go on to take third place by default as Yugoslavia refused to contest a final match in protest of the refereeing during their semifinal against the host nation. The result remains the U.S.'s best finish at the World Cup.
5. 2006 (Germany)
World Cup finish: 25th out of 32
Stars: Landon Donovan, Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride
How'd they do: Another underachieving team. Entering the tournament, the United States found itself ranked an inflated fifth in FIFA's byzantine rankings, along with fellow Group E teams Czech Republic (second), Italy (13th) and Ghana (48th). But the Americans, carrying the momentum from success at the 2002 tournament and returning many stars -- including Donovan, McBride and DaMarcus Beasley -- felt as though they could advance. It took five minutes for the dream to turn nightmarish. Jan Koller scored almost immediately for Karel Brückner's Czech Republic side in Gelsenkirchen, and the rout was on. Eighty-five minutes later, the U.S. had lost 3-0, its confidence deflated. An inspiring draw with eventual champion, Italy -- one of the best individual performances in U.S. World Cup history -- gave the Americans a shot at the next round. They needed Italy to surprise the Czechs, which they did, and a defeat of Ghana, which they failed to accomplish. Ghana's first goal came when Reyna, the midfield talisman for so long, lost the ball at midfield and the second after central defender Oguchi Onyewu fouled Razak Pimpong on a header in the box, resulting in a penalty. Both moments were emblematic of U.S players being a step slow and a bit too unskilled to compete on this level of international competition. But the tournament was also a sign of the growth of the sport in the country, as almost 10 million people watched the U.S.-Italy game and 120 million saw at least a minute on television.
4. 2010 (South Africa)
World Cup finish: 12th out of 32
Stars: Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard
How'd they do: The greatest "what if" tournament in U.S. soccer history. What if Charlie Davies didn't get into a car accident during qualifying and miss the World Cup? What if Donovan doesn't score against Algeria to put the Americans through to the knockout stage? What if the Americans defeat Ghana in the Round of 16, opening the way for a deep run? After the disappointment of 2006, the U.S. looked to make amends in South Africa. Donovan vowed to be better, and emerging talents like Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley added skill to Bob Bradley's experienced side. The footballing gods smiled upon the squad during the draw, placing them in an E(ngland), A(legeria), S(lovenia), Y(anks) group. And yet, Robbie Findley started three matches, Jonathan Bornstein two, and there was never enough firepower on the bench to make a difference. The U.S. showed tremendous grit, coming back from a goal down against England and two versus Slovenia to tie, and defeating Algeria in the most dramatic possible fashion, but fell in extra time to Ghana after once again battling back. This isn't an admonishment, but it is a fact: The Americans weren't quite good enough. Also, it's strange to think "Go, go USA" will be Donovan's last World Cup moment:
3. 1994 (United States)
World Cup finish: 14th out of 24
Stars: Marcelo Balboa, Tab Ramos, John Harkes
How'd they do: A lot better than anyone expected. Head coach and chief miracle-worker Bora Milutinović built a tight-knit, unified group, thanks to the U.S. Soccer Federation, which contracted most of the squad for two years before the tournament. While the group might not have been -- OK, definitely wasn't close to being -- the most talented in the world, they knew each other's games from the endless camp in Mission Viejo, Calif. Their work on the field demonstrated that understanding. The team also had a fair amount of talent playing in Europe. Harkes was with Derby County, while Ramos played at Real Betis, and Eric Wynalda at 1. FC Saarbrücken. They played fearlessly, not backing down to Switzerland (1-1), Colombia (2-1 win) or Romania (1-0 loss) in the Group stage. Nor did the U.S. fear Brazil, a team that was favored to win the World Cup (and would do so) but needed 78 minutes to score against the stout American backline led by Balboa and Alexi Lalas. Perhaps even more importantly, it was the start of something. The tournament netted $50 million for the newly established USSF, while today's stars like Michael Bradley, Graham Zusi and Omar Gonzalez got their first impressions of high-level international soccer. And the blueprint the U.S. team established -- defend together, attack together, run hard, be fit -- continues to be its trademark.
2. 2014 (Brazil)
World Cup finish: We'll see
Stars: Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Michael Bradley
How they'll do: Getting out of the group that features Germany, Portugal and nemesis Ghana would rival the quarterfinal run in the 2002 World Cup as the best accomplishment in American World Cup history. And the U.S squad will do it without Landon Donovan, left off the roster by Jurgen Klinsmann in a move that shocked nearly everyone who pays attention to these matters. While the team the German coaches brings to Brazil is inexperienced, it's the most talented group ever assembled when you factor in all 23 players. (The 2002 team had a better starting 11.) There are, however, plenty of questions to answer. Can Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron, two players with no World Cup experience and little time playing next to each other, hold done the center back spots? Will DaMarcus Beasley, now 32, be able to hold up at left fullback? Can Bradley and Jermaine Jones work together in central midfield to provide cover for the backline and also facilitate the attack? Will Dempsey produce a few moments of magic, the type of things Donovan has done? Can Jozy Altidore become the first forward since McBride in 2002 to score for the U.S. at a World Cup? Should Altidore even be starting? Will youngsters like DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green show they deserved to be picked over older, more experienced players with less potential? For the U.S. to succeed, the answers to all those questions don't need to be yes. But some of them do. Of the 10 squads that have contested the World Cup in American history, the group has both the highest potential for greatness and the best chance to flame out in spectacular fashion. We shall see.
1. 2002 (Japan/South Korea)
World Cup finish: 8th out of 32
Stars: Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna, Brad Friedel
How'd they do: The team was the perfect mix of World Cup veterans like McBride and Friedel and bright young stars like DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan, just three years out from winning the Golden Ball at the 1999 U-17 World Cup. Bruce Arena's team shocked Portugal, scoring three goals in the first 36 minutes, before drawing South Korea and losing to Poland, but advancing thanks to South Korean Park Ji-Sung's 70th-minute goal against Portugal. In the Round of 16, the lightning-quick Americans dominated Mexico, sending their archrival home early. If not for Torsten Frings, whose uncalled handball on the line saved a goal, and the heroics of Golden Glove winner Oliver Kahn, the Americans might have defeated Germany and found themselves in a semifinal rematch with host South Korea. Then things really would have gotten interesting. It was the squad that all future versions of the Stars and Stripes will be measured against.
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