First Cap: USA vs. Venezuela
A good place to start is my first camp and cap with the National Team when Bruce Arena invited me to be a guest player with the final 23-man roster for the 2006 FIFA World Cup camp. The opportunity to be in that camp before the World Cup was incredible and totally unexpected. I had gone to Holland in January of 2006, started playing more with the reserve team and at the end of the season got a good run of games. I can remember sitting on the bus coming back from one of the last games and hearing I was going to have the opportunity to go into camp before the World Cup. It felt surreal.
I got to Cary and there were Bruce, “Mooch” Myernick and Pierre [Barrieu] and so many guys that I’d watched on TV for such a long time. We worked incredibly hard. Pierre had us running quite a bit – it was hot, it was humid, but for me it was incredible to be a part of it.
We were there for two weeks and at the end, I just assumed they’d go to play the Send Off games and I’d head home for a little bit of summer vacation before going back to Holland for preseason. One day after lunch, Bruce pulled me aside and said in a casual way that he thought I’d done well and he wanted to bring me along for the three Send Off games. Again, it was totally unexpected, but as an 18-year-old at that time, I certainly wasn’t turning down the opportunity. The first game was in Nashville against Morocco and just to be on the bench for that, to feel the atmosphere and be a part of it was special. The second game was in Cleveland against Venezuela and towards the end of the game, Mooch came down and told me to get ready.
“There might be a chance to get you on for a few minutes,” he told me.
It was only a few minutes, but here I was thinking that I was just going to be around as an extra number for training and it turned into my first cap. The team won 2-0 and it was certainly a night I’d never forget. Beyond all that, the opportunity to be on the field with these guys, experience everything that they were going through in terms of preparing for the World Cup was incredible.
2009 Confederations Cup
When you talk about what it means to be on a team, to be able to close the door and close off the group from every distraction, our run at the 2009 Confederations Cup was an incredible moment of uniting as one.
The tournament actually started well. We imposed ourselves on Italy in a good way, but then Ricardo Clark is sent off about a half hour in. Even though we’re down a man, we get a penalty and Landon scored to put us up 1-0 just before halftime. We’re down a man, but still hanging in pretty good early in the second half, but then all three goals come. Giuseppe Rossi scored two around Daniele De Rossi’s goal from distance. It was a strange one because we started well and we were getting after them, but we got a tough red card. We lost a tough game 3-1, undeservedly so in a lot of ways.
We followed that up against Brazil where we didn’t have a great start and ended up playing the last 30 minutes of that game down a man when Sacha Kljestan was sent off and we lose 3-0. After two games I can remember feeling hard done by. There had been good moments throughout both games, but obviously through 180 minutes we had played almost 90 down a man. Certainly when you play games at that level you get punished for every little mistake, and as always the vultures started to circle a little bit. It’s easy for everybody to look and say, “This is a big tournament -- the U.S. loses the first game 3-1 and the second game 3-0. What’s going on here?”
It would have been very easy for us to start feeling sorry for ourselves or making excuses. It was the end of the European season and guys were coming off long years, but that wasn’t us. On the inside, there was the ability to look hard at ourselves, look hard at each other and still understand that however small a possibility, there still was a chance to go through. Until someone told us mathematically that we were done, we were going to go down fighting.
On the way to the stadium in Rustenburg for the Egypt game, I looked around and felt like this might have the makings of a special night. We’re playing well and just before halftime Charlie Davies got sort of a scrappy goal to make it 1-0. At halftime, we see Brazil is beating Italy 3-0 already and we’re looking around at each other and saying, “This is there for us. We get the second goal and it’s game on.”
By the way, it wouldn’t have mattered when that goal came. It could come in the 89th minute and we would have given ourselves a few minutes to throw it all in to get the third. We got the second – we went on a counter, I slipped the ball to Landon, he cut a great ball and I was able to score. Not too long after, Clint scored on a great header. I remember looking over to the bench, trying to make sure the other game was still 3-0. Pierre and Mike Sorber kept us informed in terms of what was going on with that and at that point it was adrenaline, just finishing the job and hoping the other score stayed the same.
When the whistle blew it was just an incredible night and the culmination of an incredible few days. You go from starting the tournament in a positive way to two tough losses and as a group we started to take some criticism. In a real difficult moment, we managed to look at each other, push ourselves, play for each other and turn things around in an incredible way – in a moment when nobody in the world would have given us a chance in hell.
You ride this high, thinking you’re headed home after three games to then doing something that everyone thought was impossible and you get rewarded with a semifinal against Spain. They’re European champions and they’re on a 35-game unbeaten streak. In the build up, we felt like if we did the things that had gotten us there – closing opponents down, playing together, and being mobile and dynamic – we had a chance. We always talk about our blend of work, commitment, athleticism, physicality and mobility and how when we get that part right, there’s not a team in the world that enjoys playing against us. From the beginning that night, that was the case. We closed down, we did it together, and the next guy was always ready. When we won balls, we played forward quickly. When we were mobile we caused them trouble. Jozy got us the first goal to go up 1-0 in the first half, in the second half Benny Feilhaber comes on and makes a great play and Clint is there to score.
I can remember thinking, “We’re doing this -- we’re getting ourselves to a final.”
At that point you’re trying to just finish the game off – everybody had put so much into it. We had really taken care of the game in an incredible way and the focus and commitment from every guy was just to finish it off. I remember towards the end the ball popping loose and not even thinking twice about going for it. There was a ball not too far away from me and I needed to win it so we could finish things off. I went to the ground, getting some of Xabi Alonso as well. Still to this day I think he laid on the ground a little too long. The referee decides to give me a red card, and I went from this feeling of excitement and pure joy to walking off the field realizing I’m going to miss the final. After everything we’d been through the previous few weeks, I’m not going to be on the field for the final.
I was emotional after the game and if I could do it again certainly wouldn’t choose to handle things the way I did. That said, the feeling of being robbed of the chance to play in one of the biggest games of my life – that part wasn’t going away. When I think back on my career to this point, that is certainly one of the lowest points: being in training for the next few days, watching guys prepare, but knowing I was going to play any part. You wouldn’t wish that on anybody.
I realized in that moment something my dad always told me was, “It’s a man’s game.” It’s a cruel game at times, but the strongest, the bravest players don’t let that part stop them. I did my best to help in any way I could to get us ready for the final. Obviously watching from up in the stands, we started really well in the first half with two incredible goals from Clint and Landon, but we allowed them to get back to 2-1 too early in the second half. The rest is history.
2010 World Cup
World Cups are incredible, really. You spend years trying to get there, years preparing, years imagining what it’ll be like. You spend years trying to fine tune every little part of your team to make sure that when you get to the World Cup, you give yourself the best chance. When you get close, for months you prepare for that first game. After the draw you know your group, but you prep for that first game. In our case our first game was England and all things considered, the 1-1 draw was a great result. You know that your chances to advance from the group at the World Cup go way up or way down depending on whether or not you can get points from that first game and we felt good like we’d put ourselves in a good position to do that.
Game two comes and before you could even blink, we’re down 2-0 and in the locker room at halftime. Of all the years I’ve played in the national team, of all the games I’ve played, that might have been the most emotional I’ve seen a locker room. There were a number of us who basically looked around and said, “Not today. This isn’t how this ends. We’re not going home today.”
We went back out on the field in the second half and we played like it. There was a feeling amongst every guy on the field and on the bench that we were going to give everything we had to get back in the game. If the whistle blew before we were fully back in it, then they were going to have to drag us off the field. We’d given too much and worked too hard to have it go like that.
The second half was a great example for any team in terms of how to play from behind: how to chase, how to close down, play balls forward, move together, change tempo and keep going. Landon scored a great goal and we were able to continue to press and get after them.
I was able to get the second when Stevie Cherundolo played a great ball forward. Jozy was strong and headed it down well for me. I remember just trying to keep my legs moving as fast as I could to get there before the goalkeeper. Even after bringing it to 2-2, that didn’t slow us down because we scored a third and should have won. Maurice Edu scored a header and to this day, I don’t think anyone knows what the ref was calling to disallow it.
When I think about what it means to play on the National Team and what it means to be a part of something different and special, these are the kind of days that I think of. You walk into the locker room after the game, look around and every guy knows that in that moment, this is different than everything else we’re a part of. Whether anyone else on the outside notices or not, those are special days.It’s not to say yelling and screaming is always the answer, but on that day that’s the way it went. From the second we walked into that locker room at halftime, there was only one way that game was going and we set ourselves up for the dramatic win against Algeria a few days later to win the group.
Scoring two goals against Mexico in 2010 World Cup Qualifying
Mexico is the game that’s different. For all of us as fans, players and competitors, there’s no other way to describe it. Part of the reason that the National Team means so much to me is because in a lot of ways this is the team I grew up supporting. MLS was just getting going when I was real young. You could watch games from Europe and I did, but I can remember putting ESPN on to watch the National Team. I remember watching games and thinking to myself, “I’d give anything to have one chance to play for that team one day. For me, to this day it’s a dream come true. I’m playing for the team I watched and supported as a little boy.
I remember watching the first USA-Mexico qualifier in Columbus in 2001. My dad was coaching in Chicago at the time and Chris Armas and Josh Wolff played. Wolff came on as a sub and scored the first goal. In 2002, I woke up in the middle of the night to watch the World Cup Quarterfinal and you could just tell those games were just different and there was something more to it. I watched in awe at what it meant to play for the National Team and especially what it meant to play against Mexico.
Like in 2001, the first game of the 2009 hexagonal was against them and I thought to myself that it was surreal. At that point I’d played a friendly against Mexico in Houston, but it wasn’t the same. This is the real deal. I’m getting a chance to play in a qualifier against Mexico in Columbus and everything that means. In the build-up, I thought to myself that I wanted to make an impact. I wanted to make a difference in a game that I had watched on TV so many times.
To be able to win a game and get off on the right foot in the hexagonal and to get two goals against our biggest rivals in a game like that is unforgettable.
Costa Rica/Mexico in 2013 Final Round Qualifying
Unlike how we began the 2009 hexagonal, we didn’t start 2013’s very well, losing away to Honduras 2-1. I remember sitting on the plane on the way home back to Miami and thinking that our next two games are Costa Rica home and Mexico away. You get to the hex and you realize there’s not much room for error -- you have to win your home games and then you’ve got to still find days where you can take points on the road and it’s not crazy to think you lose in Mexico or against Costa Rica. If you push those two games aside, you really need points in the other games.
We come into camp in Denver before the Costa Rica game and this article comes out with anonymous sources talking about the team and not being happy with the way things are done and thinking this isn’t ideal in any way. We’re getting ready for the biggest game we’ve played in a few years and we’ve got all sorts of this stuff flying around. Like I’ve touched on with a lot of these other moments, the thing that always makes me most proud to be a part of this group is when things really get tough, we have always found a way to close the door and look at each other and find the right way to push each other, not let anything bother us and simply take care of business.
We really embraced the idea that the World Cup was our dream and we weren’t going to let anybody or anything throw us off track. The days leading up had been good. We were ready to play a big game in front of an American crowd in Denver. We get to the stadium, walk out on the field and it’s snowing, but it’s really not that bad. From the time we went back to the locker room and back out for warm ups, it was a complete whiteout. We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy night. The Costa Rican players didn’t want to play and at a certain points they were begging the ref to stop the game as we were encouraging him to keep things going.
Days like that are less about soccer and more about who can find the right ways to take care of things in the game. On a night with miserable conditions, we found a way to take care of business and get the points we needed.
A few days later, we are away in Azteca, and for anyone who follows us or soccer in our region, you know how difficult a job that is: to go to Azteca in a qualifier and take points. We were able to keep a strong mentality and played in all ways a really good game. We gave very little away and maybe had an opportunity ourselves, but in a real professional way we were able to take care of business and walk out of there with a point. That week was a real turning point for us. You start in a poor way in Honduras and come back home knowing the pressure is on and that you need points.
Against the other two best teams in our region, we were able to take four points and that really set us up for a good summer and helped us qualify for the World Cup in Brazil.