After coming from behind to blast Paraguay in their opener, the States stumbled against Germany conceding three goals in 16 second-half minutes. But since the setback, the North Americans look to have settled into their rhythm. With coach Thomas Rongen pushing them into attack at all times, the States have not conceded a single goal in a fine run of form. Goal-scorer from the Round of Sixteen match with Côte d’Ivoire Justin Mapp sat down for a chat with FIFA.com ahead of their quarter-final with fancied holders Argentina on 12 December 2003.
Left-sided midfielder for the first-ever American side to win their group at a FIFA finals, Mapp is looking forward to a chance to take on the holders for a spot in the semi-finals on 12 December 2003 in Abu Dhabi. “They are defending champions so it will be a great test for us,” he said from the lobby of the team hotel on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. “We’ve seen them play and they are loaded with talent. But that’s what we’re here for – to take on the best teams. We’re looking forward to it and we’re going to give it all we’ve got.”
After losing to Germany in their second match, U.S. coach Rongen pointed to an overly cautious approach as the biggest problem. “American players are most comfortable playing an attacking, aggressive style…and that’s what we need to do,” he said after his side regained their formidable form with a 2-0 win over Korea Republic in their third and final group match.
“You know, we’re just looking forward to it,” Rongen told FIFA.com in the run-up to the Argentina quarter-final. “One of the great things about American athletes is they love to challenge themselves against the best. Argentina are a great team - the only team not to have lost a game at the finals. But we are completely confident that we can do well. We have respect for Argentina, but we do not fear them. We just need everyone to play at the top of their game, because if we have someone out there who’s not pulling their weight, we could be in for trouble.”
Mapp, who waltzed in as early as minute 7 to latch onto a Bobby Convey through ball and put Côte d’Ivoire on the back foot, also sees his team on the rise – improving with every match.
“With each victory and the more we play as a team the more our level of confidence goes up,” the Chicago Fire man and U.S. Olympic team member told FIFA.com. “I think with each game, we’ve played better. At this point we know that we can play with any of these teams. Our refuse-to-lose attitude is our biggest strength. Being down 0-1 against Paraguay, a really good opponent, hanging on to clean sheets the way we have really speaks to the spirit in the team.”
Learning lessons from the loss
Looking back on their only loss of the finals both Mapp and Rongen see it as a learning experience.
We have learned a great many things since then and turned it to our advantage,” said the Dutch-born coach who came up through the youth ranks as a player with Ajax Amsterdam. “We have drawn some conclusions and made a few changes as a result of the loss. Since then we’ve kept two clean sheets in a row (2-0 to Korea and 2-0 to Côte d’Ivoire) and I think we are a better team for it. Wins are great, but losses can teach you more about yourselves sometimes. The spirit in the camp is great right now - sky high.”
“It was still 0-0 at the half, and we came out a little flat,” added Mapp. “We know what we did wrong, and we will not repeat the same mistakes because Argentina are a good team and they would punish us the same way the Germans did.”
In the final minutes leading up to the crucial clash with holders Argentina, Rongen points to experience as a key factor. But still, he has every confidence in the ability of his North American side to rise to the challenge yet again.
The Argentines are wily veterans at this point, playing week in and week out for their club sides in the first division,” he said, “They know a lot more than we do about playing in a game this big and the pressure that comes with it. But we have shown a unique ability to rise to the occasion. We have a good chance in this one.”
Mapp is on the same page as his coach. “Any team that’s left can win it, or make it to the finals… If we play our game, there’s no reason it won’t be us.”