South Korea had one of the stingiest defenses in the 2002 World Cup. The co-host reached the semi-finals, and before the third place game, conceded to only Clint Mathis, Christian Vieri, and Michael Ballack. Among those goal-scorers, Mathis scored with the most style.
Mathis remains revered by US fans for his attacking mentality, something that flourished in New York with the MetroStars. He recovered from a June 2001 ACL injury and emerged with a flurry of goals in the pre-World Cup friendlies: two against Honduras; two against Germany; one against Mexico; one against Jamaica. Such exploits led to a Sports Illustrated cover story, but a slight injury prevented Mathis from starting against Portugal in the US’ World Cup opener. Fortunately, his World Cup debut was worth the wait.
In the 24th minute, John O’Brien attempts to play a pass to DaMarcus Beasley at midfield. A defender deflects the pass, but Beasley recovers the loose ball and touches back to O’Brien. After settling the ball, O’Brien finds an unsettled South Korean midfield practically inviting him to advance into space. O’Brien uses his trademark vision and technical ability to find Mathis making a run behind two defenders. With his right foot, a leaping Mathis settles the ball to the ground; with his left foot, he strikes the ball off a bounce and blasts the ball in to the goal.
It may not have made Sports Illustrated’s list of most significant US goals, but it’s certainly one of the most elegant. The goal silenced the 60,000+ home fans and enabled the US to play with a lead, vital in a game where South Korea had the run of play. The US would hang on for a 1-1 draw, the point enabling the US to advance from Group D.