The first and only time the United States men’s national team defeated Brazil, the game itself nearly didn’t happen.
Torrential rain bombarded Southern California on Feb. 20, 1998, ahead of the Gold Cup semifinal, and U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller hoped it would be postponed. He had just flown to Los Angeles from Leicester, England, and was jetlagged. Gold Cups used to not fall on recognized FIFA dates, so Keller was only able to play in the semifinal and final. Given the task the U.S. were up against, though, he wasn’t sure even one extra day of rest would help.
Brazil entered as the reigning World Cup champions, a tournament they had won some 15 miles down the road at the Rose Bowl four years earlier. They were heading to France that summer as title contenders yet again and featured some of the game’s most talented players at every position, led by 1994 World Cup Golden Ball winner and FIFA Player of the Year Romario.
“I remember looking at the lineup that comes out against you,” Keller said. “Brazil is a world All-Star team, and you look at the team and the strike force that they have. You’re like, ‘Well, this could be a long day.’”
Keller’s teammate, Preki, remembers thinking the same thing. The 34-year-old forward had forged a great career in indoor soccer with the Tacoma Stars alongside Seattle Sounders Head Coach Brian Schmetzer, on multiple teams in Europe and back in MLS where he led the Kansas City Wizards to a championship with current Sounders Vice President of Soccer & Sporting Director Chris Henderson.
Preki was exactly the type of crafty player who could come on and provide an offensive spark, and he looked on anxiously as Brazil brought the house to the Americans.
“We were getting beat up by Brazil,” Preki said. “But I remember Kasey having one of those nights that comes once in your lifetime.”
The saves just kept coming. One after the next, a Brazilian barrage battered the United States’ back line, and one after the next, Keller turned them away. A diving save to his left. A reaction save to his right. High shots. Low shots. Each one destined for goal only to be snatched away at the last moment.
The U.S. survived the first 45 minutes, unscathed as they headed into the locker room.
“You still didn’t really think you had a chance,” Keller said. “You just thought that you were staying in this thing.”
Brazil’s best chance in the first half came on a cross to an open Romario at the far post. One of the world’s most lethal forwards had a free header from point-blank range, surely about to break the deadlock and open the floodgates, when Keller dove to his right and miraculously kept it out and smothered the rebound. Then, to Keller’s bewilderment, Romario stood over him and waited for him to get up.
When Keller rose to his feet, Romario extended his hand, shaking Keller’s in an act of respect.
“[Romario] was so frustrated, he just didn’t know what to do,” Keller recalled. “I never had it happen before and I never had it happen again where a player just shook my hand in the middle of the game. That gets replayed over and over, it’s a special moment.”
After the match, Romario made more headlines when he said, “That was the greatest performance by a goalkeeper I’ve ever seen.”
Despite Keller’s virtuoso performance, he never really believed the U.S. had a chance. He had had great games before, only to lose 1-0 or 2-1, unable to get the result, but he always judged his play on whether or not he was able to help his team earn points. Given the quality on the pitch, he didn’t think he’d be able to do anything but keep the scoreline respectable.
Brazil made some second-half adjustments, bringing on fresh legs and applying more pressure, tension growing the longer they went without finding the back of the net. Keller remembers one of his future club teammates at Borussia Monchengladbach, Giované Elber, a player who had a fantastic career at Bayern Munich, entering as a substitute and just how much depth they had.
“We were just hanging on for dear life from the beginning, getting the odd counter and getting the off clearance and trying to hold the ball higher up the field and relieve some pressure,” Keller said. “Then they’re bringing on players like this. You’re thinking one of these guys is going to do something special.”
But still nothing matriculated for Brazil. At one point Keller dove the wrong way on a shot that was deflected whence he came. He extended his leg at the last moment and dragged the ball with his toe around the post and out of danger.
“There’s still this thought that there’s so much talent on this [Brazil] team that somebody is going to do something that I can’t save,” Keller said. “But if I can dive the wrong way and still make the save, there’s a good chance that maybe we have something special going on here.”
With the match still scoreless on the hour mark, Preki checked in. He was still relatively new with the national team after becoming a naturalized citizen from the former Yugoslavia. He was good in possession and the hope was that he would be able to kill some clock and help the U.S. get more time on the ball.
“Honestly, if we would have lost that game 7-0, that would have probably been a fair result,” Preki said. “But that’s why this game is such a beautiful game because you never know what can happen, and I got that one moment.”
The best players in any sport all have one thing in common: They can beat their opponents even when they know what’s coming. Every player on Brazil knew what Preki wanted to do when he received the ball from Eric Wynalda at the top of the box in the 65th minute, and it didn’t matter.
“His left foot is incredible,” Keller said of Preki. “You know he’s going to chop you, you know he’s going to bring it back onto his left foot, and you can’t do anything about it. You know what he’s going to do, and it’s still so good and he still beats you. Preki did that at every level he played.”
Preki faked a shot, chopped the ball behind himself to the left, stutter stepped and then fired a left-footed howitzer into the near corner that goalkeeper Cláudio Taffarel could do nothing about.
Somehow, improbably, the U.S. were not only hanging with Brazil, they had taken the lead. But Keller had little time to celebrate.
“Oh boy, here really comes the onslaught,” Keller remembers thinking. “Here comes that real pressure.”
Wave after wave of Brazilian attacks came and went, but it wasn’t to be. For the first time in eight tries, the United States had knocked off Brazil, a feat they have not replicated in 10 tries since. Brazil is 17-1 all time against the Americans with a 39-12 goal differential, the only blemish that rainy February day 20 years ago.
“I remember after the game, it was hard to describe because we had just beaten Brazil after all those moments that they had,” Preki said. “Kasey put us in that position to make the moment that I had.”
Keller said the match didn’t sink in until he returned to England following the tournament. The U.S. fell 1-0 at the hands of Mexico in the final, a bitter ending to an underdog story the likes of which still hangs in the annals of U.S. Soccer.
“It was a FIFA event, it wasn’t a friendly,” Keller said. “It was a game against the No. 1 team in the world, a game against the previous Golden Boot winner, against European Golden Boot winners.
“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to finish that Gold Cup off…which brought us all back down to Earth a little bit. But nothing will take away the night that we were able to beat Brazil.”
Twenty years later, that match still resonates. Keller is now an ESPN and Sounders broadcaster after playing his final three years as a professional with Seattle from 2009-11. After stints as a head coach in MLS and USL, Preki enters his first season as an assistant with the Sounders, rejoining Schmetzer and Henderson.
“In some ways, it feels like it was yesterday, in some ways it feels like it was 20 years ago,” Keller said. “Retrospectively, to think that 20 years later people are still talking about it puts it more into perspective...With Preki scoring and the team holding on, that’s what makes it extremely special.”
Added Preki with a smile: “It was a great moment. It’s always going to be there.”