The Top 5 Days in American Soccer History

Where does the magical night in Columbus rank?
by Robert Hay   |   Friday, September 13, 2013

Soccer Americana - column on the intersection of American culture and soccer in media, politics and pop-culture

Tuesday night was an incredible night for U.S. soccer for a number of reasons. At the most basic level, it was the Yanks qualifying for a 6th straight World Cup, which is quite an achievement.

On a deeper level, it was more profound, as they crushed their most hated rival in front of a passionate in-person and virtual crowd. As images of U.S. players pouring beer on each other in front of hundreds of fans while ESPN anchors extolled their virtues, Tuesday truly was a special night for the national team.

Yet moments such as that inevitably bring out the superlatives that are much too common in the modern 24-hour sports cycle. Was it the best match for the U.S.? Most important? Best win in U.S. history? As I have urged readers in past columns, knowing history allows us to have a better grasp of our soccer culture and properly evaluate the game we have today.

Thus I am sticking my neck out to rank the top 5 days in U.S. soccer history. This list will lay out for readers those dates in history that forever changes the trajectory of U.S. soccer, for better or worse, in reverse order of most importance. I skipped the very early days of the sport, as it is too easy to argue that the 1st professional soccer game or 1st club match are the most important; obviously they are. These are those dates in the modern game that put the U.S. sport where it is today:

5. Sept. 10, 2013 – United States defeats Mexico 2-0 in World Cup qualifying

Obviously the recency effect has its hold on me as I placed the most recent moment this high. However, there is something to the argument that Tuesday has a special place in history. The win cemented Columbus, a blue-collar town in Middle America, as a soccer haven for the U.S. The “dos a cero” score line became mythical as Clint Dempsey (intentionally?) missed a PK to preserve the final score for the 4th time in Columbus. The sold out stadium was joined by 2.2 million Americans via TV, making this one of the most watched World Cup qualifiers ever. On top of that, the U.S. sent archrivals Mexico into a spiral we’ll have to wait and see if they can rebound from to qualify for the World Cup.

4. July 10, 1999 – United States Women defeat China 0-0 (5-4 pk)

90,000 plus crowded into the Rose Bowl, America’s capital soccer stadium, to watch a close match that ultimately gave the U.S. an iconic soccer moment (shirtless Chastain). This win established in the soccer world and in the mainstream culture the dominance of the U.S. women’s soccer team and have placed them on a pedestal from which they have yet to descend. It also gave Americans the belief that maybe we could succeed at this foreign game. Lost in all this excitement, however, was that this was far from the 1st major tournament win for the U.S.

3. June 29, 1950 – United States defeats England 1-0 in the World Cup

Although age has taken the luster off this match, this is one of the greatest upsets in soccer history. England, the inventor of the sport (hush Scotland), was entering its 1st World Cup after having been too good for the tournament for so long. The U.S. team was composed mostly of part time players and ex-pats and was considered heavy underdogs. The result was so shocking the English papers intentionally misreported the score, thinking the final was a mistake. Obvious there was no carry-over effect as the U.S. struggled for decades in international soccer, but this is still the greatest win in terms of shock in U.S. soccer history.

2. July 4, 1998 – The United States is awarded the 1994 World Cup

By hosting the 1994 World Cup, the U.S. set the path for its modern success. Without this tournament, the establishment of MLS would have been near impossible and millions of Americans would not have been exposed to soccer at its highest level. The tournament still holds attendance records despite only having 24 teams and paved the way for modern non-soccer powerhouses to make the claim that they too can successfully host a World Cup. In this country, we showed the world that we too could be a soccer country, a vision that is now slowly being realized.

1.   Aug. 14, 1977 – New York Cosmos defeat Fort Lauderdale Strikers 2-0

Before David Beckham and Thierry Henry, there was Pele. In his article for ESPN, then guest-writer David Hirshey described what it was like at this match:

“When the Cosmos' playoff match against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers drew 77,691, as opposed to the paltry 21,472 who turned out to watch the Yankees, it was as if a seismic shift had occurred in American sports. Soccer, the game once reserved for "commie pansies," had become the chic sport to be seen at.”

The New York Cosmos brought money and star power into U.S. soccer, and although ultimately you could argue that was NASL’s downfall, this match is still the gold standard in U.S. professional soccer. The attendance, the play, the stars are still revered as unmatched in U.S. soccer but showed the nation could have an all-star team that people would watch. Never before has U.S. soccer seen a day like that one in the club sports, and it has yet to be surpassed.

Robert HAY

Club Domestic:
DC United
Club Foreign:
Arsenal & Bari
By day, saving the world in Washington D.C. By night, morphing into a soccer writer & podcaster. Serie A & MLS fan that writes about the intersection of soccer & American culture & how the two influence each other in politics, media & pop culture.