Even with a pressing injury problem and questions around the relative health of Cristiano Ronaldo's famous knee, the United States will line up against Portugal on Sunday in Manaus as a decided underdog. That die was cast the moment the tournament draw came down, placing the Americans in a group with the Portuguese for the second time in World Cup history.
The first time the U.S. found themselves grouped with Portugal, at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea, they carried an even greater underdog status. No one gave them much of a chance. The soccer world viewed the result of the opening group stage match as a foregone conclusion.
"We were looking forward to the challenge," remembers Jeff Agoos, who started at center back on that day in Suwon, South Korea. "Any good athlete wants to challenge themselves against the best, and Portugal in 2002 were one of the best teams in the world."
In the midst of a "golden generation," Portugal not only had the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year in midfielder Luis Figo, but also the attacking brilliance of Rui Costa, the scoring prowess of Joao Pinto, and the defensive strength of Jorge Costa, among others. It was that group that experts tapped to lead the national team to a deep run at the World Cup in 2002.
Midfielder Pablo Mastroeni, inserted into the lineup three days before the game after Claudio Reyna suffered a hamstring injury, recalls the buildup to the match.
"I vividly remember the preparation for it was super-involved, with a lot of video and just getting the right mindset for the game. It was one where we knew we needed to be fully concentrated and focused for 90 minutes."
The Americans' status as clear underdogs fed into their mentality for the match and overall for the entire tournament. After a last-place performance at France '98, the U.S. felt they had something to prove on the game's biggest stage.
"I think we had a quiet confidence," Agoos says. "Player for player, they were better than us. We knew that all 23 players were going to battle hard for one another and support one another and that we were there to do something really special. But there was no bravado, no brashness in terms of going into that game."
"I think we don't get the respect we deserve as a country in the way the game is perceived internationally," Mastroeni explains. "We had this thing where we wanted to prove to everyone, including ourselves, our teammates, and the federation that we have great players here in America."
It didn't take long for the U.S. to put themselves in front. John O'Brien's goal off a rebound staked the Americans to a 1-0 lead in just the fourth minute. The dream start built belief within the team that they were capable of springing the upset.
"John's goal was sort of the blow to the midsection, if you're in a fight," Agoos says. "It knocked the wind out of them, but didn't put them down."
"All those little conversations we had among ourselves as players," Mastroeni says, "where we said 'Man, we're up against giants and no one believed in us,' it was 'Let's go out there and show the world.' The fact we scored an early goal, the belief became even more tangible."
A second goal from Landon Donovan, a fortuitous deflection off Jorge Costa, extended the lead to 2-0. Agoos calls it "the hit that wobbled them."
Mastroeni sees that goal as a sign that the soccer gods were smiling on the Americans. "I think that's what you feel 'this is our day.' It doesn't matter what happens -- it hits off this guy's back, and it goes in the goal, it's meant to be," he says.
Then, shockingly, the Americans got a third goal, when Brian McBride dived to head in a Tony Sanneh cross at the back post. Inside of 37 minutes, the U.S. held an astonishing 3-0 lead. If it didn't seem real before, it became real the moment McBride hopped up and pumped his arms and legs in celebration.
"[Brian's goal] was the knockout blow," says Agoos, finishing the boxing analogy. "Not that they didn't get back up, but they got back up and were really angry at that moment. The question was if we could move around the ring and avoid the fighter and not get knocked out."
"You didn't want to hold back, you didn't want to think about getting ahead of yourself," Mastroeni recalls, speaking on the emotion of the game. "It was real, it was authentic, it was, 'Holy cow, this is going to happen, we are going to win this game.'"
Portugal clawed one back before halftime, signaling their intent to make a comeback. Beto's goal began the U.S.'s long, difficult task of hanging onto the lead against one of the world's preeminent attacking teams. Then, Agoos scored an own goal with less than 20 minutes left to bring the Portuguese within one.
"It's almost like sneaking into a bear's cave and trying to take all of his food, and then he wakes up. Thirty-five to 40 minutes into the game, you could just feel the momentum shift," Agoos says, looking back.
"At some point, the feeling of, 'We're going to win,' starts wearing off when they start putting the ball on the floor and moving it around," Mastroeni remembers.
The Americans bunkered, withstood and survived. When the full-time whistle blew, the scoreboard read "USA 3, Portugal 2." The U.S., a team no one gave a chance to best the Portuguese collection of stars, pulled off the shock of the tournament.
"I remember going in the locker room and everyone was hugging," Mastroeni recalls about the postvictory glow. "You could talk about it all you want, you can say, 'Guys, if we stick together, we can believe.' But after you see something like that, and it manifests into reality -- it's beyond any experience I've ever had as a human being."
Without question, it was the biggest victory in modern American soccer history. The U.S. played toe-to-toe with world powers before, but this was different, this was the World Cup. From a more practical standpoint, the three points earned against Portugal set up the Americans to escape the group.
For that moment, though, when the adrenaline still pumped through their bodies and the magnitude of the win still turned in their minds, the group of underdogs celebrated.
"As we were high-fiving and giving each other hugs in the locker room, I remember there was a moment when I looked around the room and everyone was staring into the ground," Mastroeni recalls. "Everyone was kind of lost, everyone was trying to process this whole phenomenon that took place, David against Goliath. Like, 'Holy cow, I can't believe I was in this locker room at this time when such a magnificent event occurred.'"