Updated: June 23, 2014 at 10:05 pm
COMMERCE CITY — If there were ghosts in soccer, there are certain matches they would haunt. The cleated banshees of this one — United States 3, Portugal 2 — still tickle the tattooed biceps of Pablo Mastroeni, a dozen years after World Cup shock.
"I get goose bumps just thinking about it," he says, rubbing his arm. Time has passed, if it feels to Mastroeni like yesterday. The U.S. side entered group play as the 2002 World Cup equivalent of a field mouse against Portugal's streak of Bengal tigers.
"That Portugal team had stars at every position. I mean, stars," Mastroeni says. "We knew we were up against giants."
Sunday's game between the U.S. and Portugal is not that. U.S. soccer hit a growth spurt, in depth and respect. But mostly, the chasm between the U.S. and a European power is narrower because Portugal appears a shadow of the juggernaut it was then.
Can the U.S. upset Portugal again?
Mastroeni, who now coaches the Rapids, was a member of the '02 World Cup team. In many ways, he personified what that team was about; the 23rd and final player named to the roster, a relative afterthought, who became a key player in a memorable run.
How did those Americans pull it off?
"Honestly," he says, "I still don't know."
But there was a loose formula for their success. Most important, he says, they knew who they were: a clan of survivalists, not a series of stars. On a flat pitch where the talent wasn't level, they didn't out-soccer the mighty opposition; they outworked it.
"I just remember afterward thinking, I feel truly American. People did not think we could win that game," Mastroeni says. "That was about the guy next to you, pulling him along, not giving in, staying in these trenches until you get the result."
On a leather couch in his office at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, Mastroeni says certain things must happen for the U.S. to win in Manaus on Sunday. None are predictable.
The U.S. must shadow Portugal superstar Cristiano Ronaldo as if the FIFA World Player of the Year has three legs, not an injured one. The U.S. again must outwork Portugal, Mastroeni says. He believes Kyle Beckerman was the blue-collar star of the 2-1 win against Ghana. "He sets the tone, does all the dirty stuff," Mastroeni says.
And the 2012 formula must include bits and pieces from the 2002 blueprint. A dozen years ago, the U.S. jumped ahead with three goals in the first half of the 3-2 win.
On Sunday, an early goal by the U.S. would do wonders, Mastroeni says, both for the confidence of the Americans and the anxiety of the Portuguese.
"All of the pressure is on Portugal. Portugal has to win (having lost 4-0 to Germany in its opening match)," he says. "They have to go out and find the game. And that might expose them in the back end. We've got a little speed up front, so maybe we score a goal early. Then the frustration — the red cards, yellow cards — start coming out, and that game is done."
With a pause, Mastroeni adds: "It's harder when you are supposed to win."
The U.S. wouldn't know. Not yet. In the spectrum of international soccer, the U.S. is Butler in the NCAA basketball tournament. Does it have the talent to reach the final? No, but it can muck up the field just enough to upset a giant over 90 minutes.
"That's the thing about the World Cup," Mastroeni says. "If you have to play Brazil 10 times, you'll probably lose six of them. You'll tie a couple. And you'll probably win one or two. But in a tournament like this, you don't have to play Brazil 10 times. You play them once."
Mastroeni watched the Ghana match with family. As the superior athletes from Ghana dominated play, his grandmother-in-law posed a question for the Rapids coach:
"Pablo! How are we going to score if they have the ball the whole time?"
His response: "Grandma, we just have to wait for one opportunity. When we got that corner kick, I said this is the one."
John Brooks, a 21-year-old sub and likely one of the final additions to Jurgen Klinsmann's roster, headed in a goal that delivered the U.S. to victory.
Mastroeni felt the ghosts of his triumph against Portugal, which he ranks alongside the Rapids' title in the 2012 MLS Cup as the high point of his career.
He recalls the locker room after the win against Portugal: "So much disbelief. Disbelief, disbelief, disbelief. Not because we didn't believe we could win. But that it had actually happened."
The U.S. has played 18 World Cup matches against European teams. It has won three, including the 2002 game against Portugal. Will the ghosts awaken again?
"I think two things about this game. One, Portugal must win. They have to win," Mastroeni says. "The U.S. doesn't have to win the game. Is that a factor? Maybe.
"But I always say this: if the ball hits the post and goes in, we will win, or we will tie. If the ball hits the post and goes out, we will lose.
"We can go over all these other factors, but that's the difference."