Hosting the 1994 FIFA World Cup was a significant event for soccer in the United States, and while the side reached the last 16 on home soil, it was in 2002 that they achieved what remains their highest-ever finish in the tournament as Bruce Arena's side made to the quarter-finals before being knocked-out by eventual finalists Germany. Michael Ballack scoring the only goal in the 1-0 defeat in the South Korean city of Ulsan.
Placed in Group D alongside Portugal, South Korea and Poland, the United States opened the tournament in style with a 3-2 victory over a Portugal team that included the likes of Vítor Baía, Rui Costa and the great Luis Figo. John O'Brien handed the side a dream start when he opened the scoring inside the opening five minutes, and the advantage was doubled through an own goal from Jorge Costa. Incredibly, the United States went three goals ahead on 36 minutes through Brian McBride, but a goal from Beto before half-time offered hope for António Oliveira's side. Despite an own goal from Jeff Agoos on 71 minutes causing a nervy finish, Arena's side held on for a famous win.
The United States then headed to Daegu to take on joint-hosts South Korea and their experienced Dutch manager Guus Hiddink, and opened the scoring midway through the opening half through Clint Mathis. South Korea responded through substitute Ahn Jung-hwan in the final stages of the match and it ended in a draw. Despite a 3-1 defeat to Poland in the final group match, Landon Donovan scoring the consolation, the United States had already qualified for the knockout stages as group runners-up.
With Mexico awaiting in the last 16, there was a huge anticipation about the contest that would take place in the city of Jeonju. It was the United States that handled the situation better than their opponents, and goals from McBride and Donovan not only increased their own personal tallies for the tournament but ensured their side would claim a memorable 2-0 win. In a match where ten yellow cards were shown, it was no surprise to see Mexican captain Rafael Márquez sent off in the final exchanges as the frustration became too much for the defeated side.
Although the tournament came to an end against Germany, Arena regards the victory over Portugal in the opening match as one of the most significant in the history of the national team. “I just remember crying,” he explained when reflecting on the win years later. “Jogging over to our fans and just cheering with them for the next 10 minutes, and I just remember throwing out my shirt, sharing this moment with all these people that came over to support us, and just being able to share in this amazing accomplishment. From that moment on, we were no longer considered one of these countries whose expectations were fairly low.”