At the first World Cup in 1930, the United States was one of the 13 nations to compete in Uruguay, with Bert Patenaude of Falls River, Massachusetts finishing as the tournament’s third leading scorer. While there was no consolation match for the finals, the United States is listed by FIFA as the third-place team after losing to finalist Argentina.
The U.S. traveled to Italy for the 1934 World Cup but lost their only match 7-1. They did not participate in the 1938 tournament in France but did make the trip to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.
It was there that the Yanks notched possibly their greatest victory. Figuring an easy victory, England kept a fatigued Stanley Matthews on the bench for the second match of the group stage against the U.S. Instead, Joe Gaetjen’s goal in the 38th minute that proved the difference and gave his team a shock 1-0 victory. This would be the only highlight of the tournament for the United States, as they lost their only other two matches and fell out of the group stage.
The United States would not qualify for another World Cup for 40 years.
Due to a lack of a major professional league, the U.S. was a minnow in international soccer over the next four decades. The U.S. Soccer Federation attempted a few different tactics to resurrect the national team (including having it participate in the 1983 North American Soccer League season as Team America) but it would come up short repeatedly.
Two events began a U.S. soccer renaissance. The first was the 1-0 win away at Trinidad & Tobago in the last match of the CONCACAF Championship, which qualified them for the 1990 World Cup. The second was the awarding of the 1994 World Cup to the U.S.A., a controversial decision at the time because it did not have a professional outdoor league. This World Cup would be the impetus for the establishment of Major League Soccer, which today is a major contributor to the national team.
For their first World Cup in 40 years, U.S. coach Bob Gansler had to rely primarily on college players due to injuries to the few U.S. professionals and the lack of a domestic league. The result as predictable as they lost all three group stage matches.
The 1994 World Cup was historic for a number of reasons. It was the most attended World Cup in history and when the U.S. kicked off their draw against Switzerland in the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit, for the first time a World Cup finals match had been played indoors. Despite home field advantage, the Yanks barely escaped the group stage and this was mainly due to their 2-1 victory over Columbia. This was the Andres Escobar own-goal match which was an alleged cause for his murder after the World Cup. The U.S. would fall to eventual champions Brazil in the next round.
The 1998 tournament was a disaster, as the U.S. finished last in the tournament with no wins. Coach Steve Sampson was blamed for the disaster but team chemistry was also a major factor. Thus expectations were low for the U.S. going into the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. However, spurred on by their 3-1 upset of Portugal, the Yanks advanced to the quarterfinals before they were knocked out by Germany. To reach that point, they had to defeat CONCACAF rival Mexico, the first match between the two during the World Cup.
The 2006 and 2010 World Cups had one major similarity for the U.S. – Ghana. In 2006, the Yanks could have advanced from the group after drawing with Italy but a 2-1 loss to Ghana sunk their chances. The 2010 World Cup will be remembered forever in the U.S. for Landon Donovan’s stoppage time goal to beat Algeria and advance from the group stage. There they met Ghana, and again they lost 2-1.
Coming into this World Cup, the United States only has seven wins in their World Cup history. However, this is a nation on the rise internationally and their inclusion in Group G could cause problems for the favorites.