When the United States U23 men’s national team kicked off in the Olympic qualifying tournament, it did so understanding that the only meaningful way to measure success would be simple: qualify. Anything short of securing a trip to the delayed Tokyo Games will be viewed as a failure, especially in the wake of the senior team’s collapse in 2018 World Cup qualifying and with the emergence of young Americans like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Sergino Dest playing at high levels in Europe.
With most of those high-profile, age-eligible stars unavailable for the under-23 event — clubs are not required to release players for qualifying, nor the Olympics — coach Jason Kreis is relying on a group of mostly domestic-based players. After beating the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica, the U.S. will advance to the semifinals regardless of the outcome of its group-stage finale against Mexico. Those semifinals, where the Americans will meet one of Honduras, Canada, El Salvador or Haiti, will determine which countries will advance to the final and susequently the Olympics in Japan.
The thin margin for error and roster rules are contributing factors in why the U.S. men have missed out on three of the past four Olympics, but it doesn’t change the fact that U.S. Soccer missed out on three key events in the past two decades and the wide-ranging benefits that would have come along with them. Before that disappointing period, however, the U.S. qualified for five straight Olympics, a stretch that was capped by a magical run in 2000 that saw the Americans make an unlikely trip to the medal rounds — by far its best-ever performance in an Olympic tournament.
The 2000 team featured several players who went on to become — and in many cases remain — some of the most influential figures in American soccer. This is the story of that team’s pursuit of Olympic glory, in their own words.
Individuals are identified by their position, age and club team or role at the time of the 2000 Olympics, and their current or a recent professional role. Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.
In 1996, Clive Charles was named the U.S. U23 coach with an eye toward the 2000 Sydney Games. At the time, he was a well-respected coach of both the men’s and women’s teams at the University of Portland, and also served as an assistant to Steve Sampson, then the head coach of the United States men’s national team. An Englishman who started his career playing for West Ham United in 1970, Charles moved to the United States to play for the Portland Timbers in the North American Soccer League in 1978.
Charles hired John Ellinger as his assistant coach, Peter Mellor as his goalkeeper coach and spent the years leading up to the Olympics taking various groups to train and compete all around the world. By the time qualifying arrived in April 2000, the core group of the team had been playing together for years. Confidence was high.
CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament
John Ellinger, assistant coach | Technical director, Soccer Association of Columbia: We went into qualifying with what we thought was an awesome roster and it was in Hershey, Pennsylvania, of all places. We knew that we had to get to the final to to get to the Olympics. Christian Pulisic’s dad, Mark, was the coach at Lebanon Valley College nearby, and that’s where we did our training.
Ben Olsen, midfielder, 23, D.C. United | Former head coach, D.C. United (2010-20): I couldn’t believe it when I heard. What do you mean the Olympic qualifiers are in Hershey? That’s 10 minutes from my house. This doesn’t make any sense. So with that, personally, came a lot of hoopla and a lot of extra layers to what was already an intense event.
Chris Albright, forward, 21, D.C. United | Technical director, Philadelphia Union: So that whole tournament was outrageous because I had my family driving an hour and a half from Philly out to Hershey. I might have had 100 people there myself. We were in Ben’s backyard. The whole hometown feel around what was an international event was a really wild dynamic.
In the opening match, the United States beat Honduras, 3-0, with goals from Albright (2) and John Thorrington. In the second match, Tim Howard kept a clean sheet in a goalless draw against Canada to advance to the semifinal against Guatemala, where a win would secure a berth in the Olympics.
Chad McCarty, center-back, 22, Tampa Bay Mutiny | Head men’s soccer coach, Clovis (Calif.) Community College: We didn’t really have pro soccer growing up. It wasn’t a goal of mine. I got into playing competitive soccer in ODP (Olympic Development Program) with the idea of representing our country in the Olympics. For me, personally, I remember just being so excited and so anxious, but also confident and happy that we were right here, we had to just get over this last hurdle and unbelievably, we were going to qualify for the Olympics.
John O’Brien, midfielder, 23, Ajax | Clinical psychologist: The other semifinal with Mexico was going on before ours and that went to extra time. We’re just really nervous because I remember Mexico lost to Honduras and they were that close to the Olympics, but it’s just one game. They should be going. So I remember that we had to wait in the locker room longer. So we’re all pent up and just like super energized and nervous.
Albright: It was over in the first 12 minutes.
O’Brien: I scored the first goal (46 seconds into the game). The ball got knocked out and bounced up nicely around the 18-yard line for me. I just crushed it with my left foot. Smashed it. And I remember (then-full U.S. men’s national team coach) Bruce Arena was right behind the goal and I talked to Bruce about it afterwards. He’s like, “I saw that bouncing for you.”
Landon Donovan, forward, 18, Bayer Leverkusen | Head coach, San Diego Loyal: This was a real challenge for me. Playing with real pros who were pros every day, it was a big step up. I had a number of great experiences with the team and probably the best was — or the one that solidified really my chance to go — was in qualifying in Hershey. In the game that we qualified, I scored two goals against Guatemala and I think that helped push my standing not only with the coaches, but with the group. They could trust that I could contribute.
The United States beat Guatemala 4-0 to punch their ticket to Australia. “We owe this win to MLS,” Charles said at the time. “I don’t coach this team, I manage this team. They already know how to play.” A 2-1 loss to Honduras followed in the championship, but with the berth already secure and nothing of consequence at stake, Charles rotated the squad.
With four and a half months before the Olympics, players went back to their respective clubs knowing their form would play a role in what the final 18-man roster would look like. The core group didn’t figure to change, but Olympic rules allow for three overage players to be used in the tournament, which would alter the makeup of the team. Injuries to defenders Thorrington and Steve Cherundolo kept them out of contention.
On Aug. 15, about a month before the team was scheduled to open the Olympics, the roster was released. Charles used the overage slots to select defenders Frankie Hejduk (Bayer Leverkusen) and Jeff Agoos (D.C. United), and midfielder Chris Armas (Chicago Fire). At 18 years old, Donovan was the youngest player named to the squad, while Conor Casey, who played for Charles at the University of Portland, was the only player yet to make a professional debut. DaMarcus Beasley, 18, was one of the final cuts and designated as an alternate.
After the roster was announced, Armas and Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Adin Brown suffered injuries that took them out of the mix, leading Charles to call in Liverpool goalkeeper Brad Freidel and LA Galaxy rookie midfielder Sasha Victorine, who won the MAC Award as the National College Player of the Year for UCLA in 1999.
Brad Friedel, goalkeeper, 29, Liverpool | Sports agent, PromoEsport USA: I got home from going out in my boat one day in Bonita Bay, Florida, and there was a message from [U.S. Soccer national team coordinator] Craig Blazer. I didn’t even respond to it at first. The next day, Clive calls and says, “Freid, are you ever gonna pick up the phone?” I was at Liverpool at the time and I just got through the season — I was on my break. He goes, “Didn’t you get Blaze’s message?” I said, “Oh, yeah. But he didn’t say much. He said just to give him a call.” And he goes, “I need you to play in the Olympics. Do you want to play in the Olympics?” I said I’m gonna have to call over to Liverpool and see if they’ll release me. And we called Liverpool and they released me and I flew out to San Diego the next day, or something like that.
Sasha Victorine, midfielder, 22, LA Galaxy | Chief Solution Officer, FanThreeSixty: Clive gave me a call, and it’s one of those things where you’re devastated because you don’t make the initial run at it and then you get a fortunate kind of break in some ways. Obviously, [others] got hurt, which is unfortunate — but you get a call and it’s just like, wow, pretty exciting.
Donovan: I do remember a period of time when I was back home during the offseason and I was literally going running at 7:00 a.m. every morning and in my head going, “You’re going to the Olympics, you are going to go to the Olympics.” That was such a big deal for me. It was such a source of pride to make an Olympic roster.
O’Brien: In my myth of athletic culture and sport culture, the Olympics lived more than the World Cup. I grew up in LA and we had the Olympics in 1984, we went to some events. And that made an impression on me at a young age; the World Cup came later.
Pete Vagenas, midfielder, 22, LA Galaxy | Assistant coach/technical director, Shijiazhuang Ever Bright (China): The theme that sort of carried from Hershey to Australia was sort of the man behind the scenes pulling the strings. And that’s Clive Charles.
All 13 people interviewed for this story spoke glowingly, at length, about what Charles did for them individually and collectively. By all accounts, he struck a near-perfect balance for when to be serious and when to keep things light. He was a mentor and a father figure, but also a friend, and is remembered as one of the most respected, influential figures in U.S. Soccer history. Before the tournament began, Charles received devastating news.
Dunseth: He found out that he had terminal cancer before we went to the Olympics, and didn’t tell anybody. Only his family knew. He was the best coach I’d ever had. I actually named my second boy Micah Clive after him, because that’s how important he was.
Friedel: I was aware, but it was because we were working with the senior national team. So it was not something that was ever said to any of the other players. Never. Maybe I was one of one, I don’t know. I can’t remember. But I was asked not to say a word and I did not say a word.
Jeff Agoos, defender, 32, D.C. United | Vice President of Competition, MLS: I did not find that out until well after the tournament. And when I did find out, a lot of things just started to click in terms of understanding some of the things that Clive did.
Vagenas: That’s as big, if not bigger, than anything that happened on the field … we were so young. It’s even more remarkable now to think back in terms of what Clive was going through and his family. I don’t know how we would have processed that as kids with our coach.
O’Brien: Just a legend, man. For me as a young pro in Europe, there was a way he approached me that I could kind of connect with him having a pro career in England. So, for me, there was something that felt understood. And I wonder if more people just felt this from him. He could feel and just understood people. So that was just really, really nice and appreciated. I think he made me feel like I could kind of be me and do my thing.
Donovan: He was really special. As a manager of a team now, if I can have that kind of impact on a player, none of the other s— matters. The results don’t matter. The way he impacted people was truly special.
Alexi Lalas, NBC Sports Olympics TV analyst | Soccer analyst, Fox Sports: That’s perfect Clive for you, and whatever he may have been going through, he recognized that this was the moment for these players. And he didn’t want to do anything that would take anything away from that. And the man was humble to the end.
Charles fought prostate cancer until his death in 2003, and in his final season, he coached the University of Portland women’s team to the NCAA title in 2002.
The 16-team Olympic soccer tournament format doesn’t fit in the window between the opening and closing ceremonies and requires more large venues than existed in Sydney, where the games were based. As a result, the men’s soccer tournament started on Sept. 13, two days before the opening ceremony, and the U.S. team began in Canberra, roughly 175 miles from Sydney.
Dunseth: So we landed in Sydney, we got on a three-hour bus ride to Canberra, which is the capital and we went to the U.S. Embassy. Jackie Chan’s parents used to work there, so the employees took us upstairs and Jackie Chan had his little karate workout room. So we got to see that, that was incredible.
Olsen: What I remember about Canberra is there was a casino. We just couldn’t believe that we were at the Olympics and that they were going to put us up at a hotel with a casino on the first floor. I think it took about 20 minutes for us to throw down our first $100 on the roulette table. We popped our bags up in the rooms and we went right down to it and started gambling. It was that type of crew.
Josh Wolff, forward, 23, Chicago Fire | Head coach, Austin FC: You’re enjoying yourself off the field and you work on the field. And the casino is just a whole other level of entertainment because who doesn’t enjoy a casino?
Agoos: Josh had this very interesting theory about how to play roulette. His theory was that if he loses, he just doubled down until he wins. And then over time, because of that theory, he would win more than he lost.
Albright: It was a significant amount of us, like half the Olympic team or more. I think we were getting per diem at the time or something, so we had cash. We’re all professionals, right? And plus, we were in Australia at the Olympics and were kind of like, “Yeah, whatever.” And we’d be like, “OK, $25 on red.” If it hit black, we’d go $50 on red. And if it hit black, we’d go $100 on red, and we just stuck to this theory.
Olsen: A lot of us, we were just following Wolfie. He’s always had real real guts with that stuff.
Donovan: It was epic. It was so eye-opening for me, because here I am, this 18-year-old kid, and I think pros go to bed early, they’re preparing or whatever. Guys were up so late playing roulette. And the last thing, they were doing like five tables at a time. Walk over to that one and the next one was over and that one would hit so you pull your money off that one and put it on the next one. Guys were just cleaning up.
Olsen: We all started to win. We all seemed to be just looking at ourselves like, “What is this? Why are we winning?” You never win at casinos, let alone all of us winning. In fact, there were a lot of parents that came on the trip and they were all scheduled to go home right after the first round, but then we advanced. So everyone was rebooking their flights and trying to find hotels to keep on staying and follow this circus that we were on. So anyways, a lot of us paid for our parents to stay. I was like, “Hey, Mom, I just made $1,000, stay a little bit, rebook your flight, I don’t care.” So that casino paid for many extended stays for our families.
Wolff: That’s 100% true and that was the case for many of us. Absolutely, the money we made helped keep the party going so to speak for the rest of the family. No doubt about it.
Dunseth: I still have the watch that I bought after turning $20 into $4,000.
Albright: We all made multiple thousands of dollars staying in Canberra. And we literally did that for like 10 days. Every day, here’s the U.S. Olympic team running around like degenerate gamblers. It could have been very easy for Clive to be like, “We shouldn’t be doing that. That’s a bad look,” even though it was legal. But he just let us kind of be ourselves and have fun.
The United States was placed into Group C, with the Czech Republic, the European runner-up at the 2000 UEFA European Under-21 Championships; Cameroon, one of four African teams; and Kuwait, one of three teams from the Asian Football Confederation. Kickoff against the Czech Republic was carried on tape-delay by MSNBC.
Game 1: United States 2, Czech Republic 2
The Czech Republic didn’t bring any overage players, but had multiple players in the German Bundesliga, and featured Marek Jankulovski, who would later win the Champions League with AC Milan. The U.S. went up 1-0 in the 21st minute on a goal from Albright and led 2-1 at halftime after Wolff scored in the 44th. A penalty for the Czech Republic early in the second half leveled the score and the U.S. settled for a point, despite outplaying their European counterparts for the bulk of the game.
Wolff: I remember breaking down the left side and slipping a ball in front to Albright, and I scored one in a very similar fashion at the back post. The first games of tournaments are critical. You can put a point on the board and, not that it takes away the pressure of the next two games, but you put yourself in a position where you understand what’s ahead of you, and you can kind of control your destiny. They were a very good opponent and we probably could have won that game. We came up with points and we felt good about it.
Albright: I remember back in D.C., the front cover of the Washington Post was me like, elated, running to the corner flag big, blown up. It was the Olympics, it showed the gravity of the event.
Donovan: What I remember most is Conor Casey absolutely destroying the Czech Republic in every way, but he couldn’t score. He was in this run of form where he was so good, but he was having trouble hitting the net and there was real competition in that team to get on the field when you had Wolfie, Albright, myself. There was real competition in that team so that that game stood out to me because I know Conor was also on the verge of going to Europe at that time, and there’s a lot of talk about him. And so I just remember thinking, “Holy s—, he is dominating this game.”
Game 2: United States 1, Cameroon 1
Cameroon was undoubtedly one of the most talented teams in the tournament and would go on to win the gold medal. It featured 19-year-old striker Samuel Eto’o, a few years shy from joining Barcelona, and Real Madrid defender Geremi, who was nominated for the Ballon d’Or that year. Overage attacker Patrick M’Boma opened the scoring in the 16th minute and Vagenas answered with a penalty in the second half, one of four he would convert in the tournament.
McCarty: They had a handful of players playing in [top European leagues] already. Noted players like guys who were already playing in the biggest turn to the biggest leagues in the world. But again, we had a really good team, organized defensively, and we had some explosive players in the attack. I do think we caught them off guard, I think they underestimated us as did most teams during that time.
Agoos: I remember the Cameroonian team was very loud, wearing all sorts of bright colors, when we sat across from them in the cafeteria. They loved being part of this experience, and they were great to be around. We felt sort of a kindred feeling with Cameroon in terms of how they were approaching the tournament.
Albright: It should have been 4-1. We just couldn’t finish our chances.
O’Brien: I remember the ref actually coming over to us right next to Pete and he said, “You guys better score, otherwise you’re gonna lose this game.”
Vagenas: I don’t think Clive ever designated who was going to take penalties. I do remember when the penalty kick was called, I was close to John, and we have a unique history. Because John and I had known each other since we were probably 15, 16 years old. … The only person I spoke to was John and I think I asked him, “You want it?” And I think he said, “No, you got it.” And that was that. Then from there on out, it was sort of an unspoken agreement within the team that I would be the one taking them so long as I made them, I guess.
With two points from two games and Kuwait up next, there was a clear path for the U.S. men to advance in the Olympics for the first time since 1924, when the tournament was a straight knockout competition. To this point in the tournament, Donovan, already viewed as a future star for the national team, had yet to make an appearance.
Dunseth: His dad went on Big Soccer (an online message board) and I just remember his dad fileted Clive and the coaching staff for not playing Landon. It kind of became this thing like, “What the f—, man? Why is your dad posing this s—?” It was a little subplot that was happening. But we all knew that he was special. He was just young and, physically, it was a huge jump.
Ellinger: I’ve known Landon since he was 15. He was really troubled by [not playing] because we had just played our world championships in New Zealand [with the U17s]. And then he’s still in the midst of trying to earn playing time at Bayer Leverkusen. Then this happens to him at the Olympics. And so he was definitely a little embarrassed, and a little miffed by it. We had numerous conversations about this.
Donovan: Personally, I remember being very frustrated, because I was watching not just Conor — I was watching our team play well — but I also felt I could contribute. So I was really trying hard to get on the field. Now in retrospect, I was just this punk 18-year-old who was just — my ego was taking over. But I wanted to get on the field and help the team because it’s also my dream to play in the Olympics. For some soccer players around the country, the Olympics are an afterthought. But for me, it was absolutely a dream to get on the field and play.
O’Brien: I felt like in practice, [Landon] would come after me, come after players and try to kind of make a difference, make a mark. I felt like at times he was trying to put pressure on me just because I was one of the better players on the team. And so there did feel like there was an element of like, well, keep your place, stay in your place. There’s a pecking order here. He’d later blow that out of the water.
Agoos: I give [Donovan] a lot of credit in the sense that he wanted to push to go through that because as a young player, you kind of just sit and you do what you’re told. So you could see that he was very motivated to move into a different space, but you have to be able to manage that. I think Clive and the technical staff handled it absolutely perfectly. They were able to get him to do things coming off the bench and become an important part of the team by the end of the tournament.
Game 3: United States 3, Kuwait 1
Danny Califf headed in a corner kick from Agoos in the first half and Albright slotted in a second to put the Americans up 2-0 in the 63rd minute, but Kuwait scored one of their own in the 83rd. In the final minutes of the game, Donovan, who came off the bench, played Wolff into space down the right side to set up a two on one, before Wolff rolled it back across for Donovan to bury it in an open net. The goal not only sealed passage to the next round, but the U.S. would finish ahead of Cameroon on goal differential and top their group. “This game had Landon Donovan written all over it,” Charles said afterward.
Wolff: It proved to be an important goal because we didn’t we didn’t face Brazil in the next game. We got Japan instead.
Ellinger: After the game, [the Kuwaiti] guys are hugging all our players (because of the United States’ role defending Kuwait during the Gulf War). It was quite a sight, actually. They were thanking them, thanking these guys. It was crazy. I mean, they just lost but they were just overwhelmed with emotion with what the U.S. had done. I hate to bring politics into it, but it happened. I was there. I saw it.
Albright: Then we went back to the hotel and we were sharing the hotel with the Spanish team. I remember going back to the lobby and we’re kind of celebrating on one side of the lobby with our parents and I just remember looking over at the other side and all the Spanish dudes are in killer long Gucci trench coats. Xavi (then early in his legendary career with Barcelona) is in a long trench coat with some bombshell on his arm. … To us, [advancing in the Olympics] was the most amazing achievement and they were probably like, “We got Champions League when we get home.”
I just remember looking — it was like in Karate Kid. The first time Daniel-san looks over and sees like the real karate guys. You’re like, “Oh s—.” It was like we were just a bunch of ragtag college kids trying to take down like Xavi and [Carles] Puyol. I’ll never forget that.
Vagenas: That would explain [Albright’s] eclectic fashion choices. I think at one point, he was rocking a mink coat. Maybe that’s where he got it from.
Quarterfinals: United States 2 (5), Japan 2 (4)
Japan was led by Hidetoshi Nakata, who had just secured a transfer to AS Roma in Italy‘s Serie A. It was an evenly matched game and Japan took the lead in the 30th minute before Wolff tied it in the 68th. Japan answered quickly and the match went to extra time after Vagenas scored from the penalty spot in the 90th minute.
O’Brien: I remember talking to Tim Howard about this. Before the game, we were watching the finals of the 100-meter race — there’s a TV in our locker room. That’s just like, “Go America, go.” So there was definitely a pride thing.
Wolff: [On my goal], it fell to me and I took it well — it might have been slightly deflected — but wiggled its way and we gave it a little roll the dice in the corner and because we were all playing in the casinos. A pretty logical celebration after that goal.
Vagenas: Brad Friedel was Superman in goal. I was a first-year professional at the LA Galaxy. I had just left UCLA, a cocky young kid, I didn’t realize what world class really meant until I saw Brad day in and day out and his performances in those matches. He made some incredible saves during that game that kept us alive.
Albright: If you ask all those guys, the fact that Pete — and Pete is one of my good buddies — was our designated penalty taker on that team is hilarious. If you listed all those names, you’d be like, “OK, well, Donovan’s gonna hit it or Wolff’s gonna hit it or O’Brien’s gonna hit it.” Oh, Pete’s gonna hit it? This diminutive defensive midfielder is your penalty-kick taker? But he was ice, man. He was ice.
The game went to penalties and both sides converted their first three shots, with Vagenas, Agoos and Donovan scoring for the U.S. Nakata missed for Japan, Wolff gave the U.S. a 4-3 lead and Victorine went fifth with it tied, 4-4.
Victorine: Clive gets everybody together, and he’s like, “Guys, great performance. I trust every single one of you guys and you guys tell me who are the five who want to take the penalties?” Guys raise hands. Pete goes first to get us started, and he reached out to me to say, “Hey, Sash, you should do it.” And I’m like, “All right.” So I raised my hand and they put me as the fifth kicker.
I think I played like 30 minutes so far in the Olympics, and you get this moment and to this day, I think I remember every second of that moment, from the point where I get a chance to walk up to win the game.
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McCarty: I was actually going to be the sixth kicker [if it had gone to sudden death], I was next, and nobody was happier in the stadium than me when Sasha put it away for the victory. Even to think about it now sitting here talking with you, man. The nerves in my body, the excitement, there’s an uptick. We all sprinted [to join him in the celebration]. I sprinted 50 yards as fast as I could, I think we caught Sasha on the side of the six-yard box, and it was mayhem. It was a dog pile. Probably the best soccer experience I’ve ever had in my life.
Victorine: My wife — at the time, she was my girlfriend — had traveled out there to Australia. And she had been at all the games: she was in the games in Canberra, and then she was in the games in Melbourne. And we were going to Adelaide for this quarterfinal game. She’s like, “Should we go?” I’m like, “No, I haven’t really played yet. You go to Sydney, enjoy the Olympics.” So they go to Sydney, we go to Adelaide and this game happens. I was literally calling my wife after the game telling her and she was so upset because I’d told her not to go.
Donovan: I just remember people were starting to realize we were moving through the tournament a little bit and then when Sasha scored, it was a huge deal. So I just remember hearing that back home, there was like some real traction being gained.
The win also meant for the first time in the tournament, the U.S. team was headed to Sydney, where the rest of the Olympics were being held. The team had been staying in luxury hotels to that point, but stayed in the Olympic Village in Sydney. The consensus was that it was fun to experience the village, but the dorm-style accommodations weren’t ideal.
Donovan: That was cool for me, because I’m so awed by athletes and what they do. And so when you’re walking through there, you are literally looking at the best athletes in the world in every sport walking through there. It was just sensory overload because you just couldn’t believe that you’re in the presence of these people: nobody knew who they were, but in rowing or badminton or whatever they did, they were the best in the world.
McCarty: It was chaotic. The village is wild. And for the majority of the athletes, getting to the Olympics is the goal. When they get there, they’re enjoying themselves.
Wolff: It’s a pretty wild scene to begin with. Then it’s rooms of six, seven, eight people and it’s not really one room, but it’s a small area. We were only there one night. When Clive saw that he was like, “This isn’t for us.” We had to find new lodging because again, we kept progressing [through the tournament] and didn’t really have plans yet. So we stayed there a night and then we moved into a hotel and got back to work.
Semifinal: Spain 3, United States 1
Reaching the semifinals assured the U.S. of two chances at securing a medal, but the Americans were heavy underdogs against a Spanish team that featured players primarily playing first-team soccer in La Liga. Three members of the squad, Barcelona midfielder Xavi, Barca defender Carles Puyol and Deportivo La Coruna defender Joan Capdevila would later start for Spain in their win against the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup final. Vagenas scored a second-half penalty, but the U.S. team didn’t register a shot on goal from open play.
McCarty: I think we went into the game thinking that over 90 minutes, anything can happen. And then the whistle blew.
Agoos: Years later, everybody would understand “tiki-taka” and the possession piece, but nobody really knew that about Spain at that time in 2000. It was just absolutely one of the most frustrating 90 minutes that I will remember and as I look back, I do look back on that with a little bit of fondness because knowing now who was in that game and what they were doing, this was really the beginning of the surge of Spanish soccer for the next two decades.
Albright: I remember playing against Puyol because I think he was playing left-back and it was like playing against your dad when you were 11. I had never been around something like that. He was just manhandling me.
Donovan: They were just at a different level. It wasn’t even close. We were pros, we weren’t a college team anymore [like previous U.S. teams at the Olympics] and so we felt like we could compete, but they had guys playing at some of the best clubs in the world, and starting and playing all the time for their teams.
Bronze medal match: Chile 2, United States 0
For most of the team, losing to Spain was easy to move past because the team still had an opportunity to win an Olympic medal against Chile, which was led by striker Ivan Zamorano. Zamorano was arguably the most accomplished player in the tournament, having completed a prolific goal-scoring stretch for Real Madrid (1992-96) and was then at Internazionale. The U.S. outplayed Chile for long stretches and had two good chances in the second half — Casey had a shot saved and Dunseth hit the crossbar — before a needless challenge from Califf sent Zamorano to the penalty spot in the 70th minute. He buried it and added a second to keep the U.S. off the medal stand. “The second half, we played the best soccer we played in this tournament,” Charles said. “And all of a sudden, we’re giving away a penalty and the whole game changed.”
Donovan: That was disappointing because I accomplished a lot in my career. I was very fortunate to be a part of some really great teams, but that is one regret. I wish I could have walked away with an Olympic medal, that would have been so special.
Wolff: To this day, it’s one of the most frustrating things to not come up with a medal. The whole experience was phenomenal, but to come away with — I have that sheet of paper they sent. Congratulations on being part of the Olympics and your fourth-place finish.
Olsen: It was an incredible feat, but one that comes with a little bitterness that we weren’t able to hold the medal because you get that close. It hurts a little bit, at least personally. But the Olympics, from an enjoyment standpoint, it was the best soccer trip I’ve ever been involved in. The best tournament and the best experience I ever had as a soccer player.
Agoos: It’s one of the most important events I’ve played in with the federation. It’s different from a World Cup. It’s different from anything in CONCACAF. You’re around other athletes; you represent your country. When I tell my neighbors today that I play in the Olympics, they can’t believe it. But if I tell them I played in the World Cup, they’re like, “Oh, that’s nice.”
Vagenas: It’s funny, because I have a 12-year-old son, who was not alive then, but does know that his dad played in the Olympics and was an Olympian. But whenever it’s brought up or mentioned to him, that’s definitely the bomb. That’s the measuring stick for him. “You didn’t win a medal so it doesn’t really count,” is what I hear from him.
Ellinger: To this day, most of those guys feel that’s the best soccer experience of their life. I feel the same way and I’ve been to the World Championships with the U17s three times.
The performance stands as one of best ever by American men at any level and helped propel several members of the team forward with the national team. In the first game of the 2002 World Cup against Portugal, six members of the group — Agoos, Friedel, Hejduk, Donovan, O’Brien and Beasley, an alternate who participated in Olympic qualifying — started. Of the 18 players that went to Australia, 16 earned at least one cap for the full national team in their careers and nine made final World Cup rosters.