U.S. World Cup History

Edited by Anthony Russo and Ben Taylor (2015)

Although the United States Men’s National Team is finally gaining global prominence after years of irrelevancy in the football world, the Americans have a rich and deep history on the global soccer stage. Here is a closer look on the history of U.S. World Cup history.

1930: Starting with a Bang

Fourteen years after playing its first international match ever, the United States participated in the first-ever World Cup in Uruguay. The Americans did not take long to leave their mark on the record books—during the group stages, Bert Patenaude scored all three goals in the United States’ 3-0 victory against Paraguay, making him the first player in World Cup history to record a hat trick. [1] Although the Americans eventually lost to Argentina in the semifinals, the 1930 World Cup still marks the furthest stage the Americans have reached in World Cup history. Reaching the semifinals was also a massive global accomplishment; the Americans became the first team in World Cup history from outside of Europe or South America to reach the semifinals. This record will ultimately stand until 2002, when both Turkey and South Korea qualified for the semifinals.

1950: The Miracle on Grass

After qualifying for its first World Cup in 16 years and dropping its opening match 1-3 to Spain, the United States took on England, the tournament’s overwhelming favorites. In a David vs. Goliath matchup, the Americans pulled off what is still considered today as one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history. A fortuitous deflection gave the United States a goal in the 37th minute, and strong defensive play allowed the Americans to escape Belo Horizonte, Brazil with a 1-0 victory. The result sent shockwaves throughout the soccer world. The original report of the score by BBC radio was assumed by the British to be a mistake, and The New York Times ignored the wire reports from the match because they thought it was a hoax. The victory, which today is still known as “The Miracle on Grass,” continues to be one of the greatest accomplishments in United States soccer history. [2] A 5-2 loss against Chile in the final matchup of group play sent the Americans packing, but not without making a major impression on the global stage. The victory only proved to be a flash in the pan, however, as the United States was on the verge of a 40 year hiatus from World Cup competition.

1950-1990: The Great Drought

The momentum from the Miracle on Grass unfortunately did not carry through into future years for United States soccer as the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup for the next 40 years. The United States did not even come close to qualifying for the world’s biggest tournament, outscored by a combined 31-12 through two rounds of qualification in the 1950s. [3] During this 40 year World Cup hiatus, nine different U.S. presidents took office, three wars transpired,  and a North American professional soccer league was even established. Although this period was definitely a low point for United States soccer, it helped shape the global impressions of the Americans on the pitch moving forward into the 21st century. Unlike other sports or realms of international relations, the U.S. was seen as a lovable loser, and this aspect undoubtedly helped the Americans gain more global popularity at future World Cups.

1990: Back on the Global Stage

After 40 years of futility and failure to qualify for the World Cup, the United States finally broke through in 1990. [4] Qualifying for the World Cup in Italy gave the Americans their first taste of meaningful international competition in nearly half a century. Although the United States was able to reach the World Cup, it was not able to muster up a win. The Americans fell in three straight matches to Czechoslovakia, Italy and Austria.

1994: World Cup USA

In a controversial move by FIFA, the United States was named as the host nation for the 1994 World Cup, giving the Americans an automatic qualification into the event. After fighting to a draw in the first match—the first World Cup game ever played indoors—the U.S. benefitted from an Andres Escobar own goal to defeat Colombia 2-1 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The victory gave Americans a taste of the excitement of international soccer on their home turf. Although the U.S. would fall to Romania in their last group match, they still managed enough total points to qualify for the knockout stages for the first time since 1930. Matchups did not benefit the U.S. however, as they fell to eventual champions Brazil in the Round of 16.  [5]

1999: This One is For The Girls

Selected to host the 1999 women’s World Cup, the United States won a thriller against China in a penalty shootout to capture the crown for the Americans’ second World Cup title. After the match finished scoreless through extra time, Brandi Chastain’s memorable penalty kick goal gave the Americans the title and instantly became one of the most iconic celebrations in the history of sports. [6]

2002: Final Eight, But Not Quite Elite

Eight years after reaching the knockout stage on its own soil, the US men improved their World Cup performance by advancing to the quarterfinal round. The Americans punched their ticket to the final eight by defeating Mexico 2-0 in their first knockout game in Seoul, South Korea. Brian McBride and a young Landon Donovan notched goals for the U.S. to top their border rivals, but the Germans got the best of the Americans in their quarterfinal matchup. [7]

2006: A New Rival Emerges

Although the 2006 World Cup was a major disappointment for the US Men’s Soccer team and their fans, it set the stage for what would become a trilogy against an unexpected foe. Entering the last day of matches with the chance to qualify for the knockout stages, the US was required to beat a Ghanaian team that was coming off of a 2-0 win against the Czech Republic. The US was able to knot the match at 1-1 with a late 1st half goal by Clint Dempsey, but the Ghanaians answered quickly, and a penalty shot by Appiah in 1st half stoppage time proved to be the game winner. Though the US were sent home early, this match would prove to be a catalyst in an captivating yet unexpected rivalry against Ghana that would continue in the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups.

Clint Dempsey shortly after scoring the equalizing goal against Ghana in the 06 World Cup

Clint Dempsey shortly after scoring the equalizing goal against Ghana in the 06 World Cup

2010: Donovan Downs Algeria

Coming into the 2010 World Cup with high expectations after 2nd place finish at the 2009 Confederations Cup, the Americans was on the verge of elimination when it needed a win against Algeria to advance to the knockout stages. With the final minutes of the match ticking down, the Algerians made it very clear that they were willing to play for a draw, even if came at the cost of their own advancement to the knockout stage. Landon Donovan had other plans for the Americans, however. Donovan’s goal in 2nd half stoppage time lifted his nation to victory with the most memorable tally since the Miracle on Grass. Although the US. fell in the knockout stage to a Cinderella Ghana squad, Donovan’s goal did not just resonate with soccer fans, but captivated all Americans and single-handedly assisted in the sport’s national advancement. [8]

2014: A New Era

U.S. fans came into the 2014 World Cup with a mix of optimism and pessimism. Optimistic based on the charismatic new coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, had led the team to a good start, winning the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup and topping the Hex – CONCACAF’s final round of World Cup qualifying. However, they drew arguably the toughest World Cup group – Germany were #2 in FIFA rankings, and the future champions, Portugal came in ranked #4 in the world and had one of the two best players in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo, and Ghana were one of the strongest African teams, and had knocked the U.S. out of the two previous tournaments. The U.S. started strong, finally beating their continued rivals Ghana 2-1 on a late corner from 21 year-old substitute John Anthony Brooks. They followed it up with their best performance of the tournament, in which they outplayed Ronaldo and the Portuguese for 90 minutes, but let up in injury time and were punished with a swift counter from a turnover around midfield that ended with a headed goal from a Ronaldo cross that tied the game at 2-2. The Americans made a valiant defense effort, but could only muster a 1-0 loss against the future champions.

However, their previous efforts were enough to advance them to the round of 16 in which they were matched up with the previously perfect Belgians. The Belgians outplayed the Americans for the duration of the game; however, due to some good defending and a valiant effort by Tim Howard the game was still 0-0 going into injury time when Chris Wondolowski missed a point blank chance that surely would have one them the game. Belgium went on to win 2-1 in extra time. The team however was applauded for their overall performance and making it out of the “Group of Death.”


Wondo misses a chance to send the USMNT through to the quarterfinals


Click here to return to the USA Soccer and World Cup 2014 main page.

How to cite this page: “U.S. World Cup History” Written by Daniel Carp (2013), World Cup 2014, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/world-cup-2014/u-s-world-cup-history/ (accessed on (date)).


3 thoughts on “U.S. World Cup History

  1. Beth Scott

    Hi just noticed a typo you may want to fix. Under section about Wondo missing a shot, it says one instead of won. Great article tho!

  2. Anthony Russo

    Great read! I would like to edit this page for the World Cup Editing Project if possible


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