At 5:00 a.m. Eastern Time on June 5th, 2002, an unheralded U.S. men’s national team kicked off its World Cup against Portugal. At 5:03, John O’Brien scored for the U.S. By 5:36, the Americans led 3-0.
The only previous time the United States faced Portugal in the World Cup, it ended in a 3-2 U.S. victory. That was 12 years ago, and only two players from that match will be at today’s game: Damarcus Beasley is now a left back, Paulo Bento is now managing his national team. But there are lessons to be learned nonetheless.
That Portugal side, like the current one, featured the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year. Luis Figo, like Cristiano Ronaldo, was a 29-year old who had just come off a Champions League winning season with Real Madrid. When both players went to Madrid, it was for a record fee. The Portuguese team built around Figo had made the semifinals at Euro 2000, just as the Ronaldo-led Portugal made the semifinals at Euro 2012. The 2002 Portuguese team flamed out in the group stage despite high expectations. And if the U.S. can beat Portugal today, the 2014 version will flame out in the group stage.
In short, there is some precedence for what the U.S. will be trying to do tonight in Manaus. If eerie similarities and time machines aren’t your thing, the present tournament has been one for underdogs and surprises. Who expected the sudden demise of Spain, or Costa Rica’s advancement from one of many groups of death? Yesterday, Ghana provided another surprise with a 2-2 draw against Germany. It made American advancement slightly more difficult, but reinforced the early theme of this tournament: everyone is vulnerable. European teams have looked especially so in the heat and humidity of Brazil’s northern cities. And Portugal? Not only did they lose 4-0 in their first match against Germany, but they lost the services of Pepe, Hugo Almeida, and Fabio Coentrao. Cristiano Ronaldo has been tamed by a lingering knee concern.
Given all of that, the American mind begins to race to previously impossible ends. If you had told me even a week ago that there would be this much reason for optimism heading into the USMNT’s match against Portugal, I don’t think I would have believed you. Weakened or not, this is Portugal. Ronaldo needs just one moment to undo ninety minutes of solid defending. There were reasons for our pre-tournament pessimism.
But I will exhaust both you and me if I continue to overthink this. I have written a lot about something that in truth is very simple: win, and the United States will escape the group of death. Draw, and the United States will probably escape the group of death. Opportunities this big don’t come along very often. Let’s fucking do this.