The first U.S. national soccer team was constituted in 1885, when it played Canada in the first international match held outside the United Kingdom. Canada defeated the U.S. 1–0 in Newark, New Jersey. The U.S. had its revenge the following year when it beat Canada 1–0, also in Newark, although neither match was officially recognized. The U.S. earned both silver and bronze medals in through Christian Brothers College and St. Rose Parish, though the tournament is declared official only by the IOC (FIFA doesn't endorse tournaments held before 1908). The U.S. played its first official international match under the auspices of U.S. Soccer on August 20, 1916, against in Stockholm, where the U.S. won 3–2.
The U.S. fielded a team in the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay, the first ever World Cup to be played. The U.S. began group play by beating 3–0. The U.S. then earned a 3–0 victory over Paraguay, with FIFA crediting Bert Patenaude with two of the goals. In November 2006, FIFA announced that it had accepted evidence that Patenaude scored all three goals against Paraguay, and was thus the first person to score a hat trick in a World Cup. In the semifinals, the U.S. lost to 6–1. There was no third place game. However, using the overall tournament records in 1986, FIFA credited the U.S. with a third-place finish ahead of fellow semi-finalist . This remains the U.S. team's best World Cup result, and is the highest finish of any team from outside of South America and Europe.
The U.S. qualified for the 1934 World Cup by defeating 4–2 in Italy a few days before the finals started. In a straight knock-out format, the team first played host Italy and lost 7–1, eliminating the U.S. from the tournament. At the in Berlin, the U.S. again lost to Italy in the first round and were eliminated, although this time with a score of 1-0.
The 1950 World Cup in Brazil was the next World Cup appearance for the U.S. as it withdrew in 1938 and the tournament wasn't held again until 1950. The U.S. lost its first match 3–1 against , but then won 1–0 against England at Independência Stadium in Belo Horizonte. Striker Joe Gaetjens was the goal scorer. Called "The Miracle on Grass", the result is considered one of the greatest upsets in the history of the World Cup. Months before the World Cup, England had beaten an all-star "rest of Europe" side 6–1 in an exhibition match. In their third game of the tournament, a 5-2 defeat by saw the U.S. eliminated from the tournament. It would be four decades before the U.S. would make another appearance in the World Cup finals.
The national team spent the mid-to-late 20th century in near complete irrelevance in both the international game and the domestic sporting scene. There was only one World Cup berth for CONCACAF during this period until 1982. The emergence of the North American Soccer League in the 1960s and 1970s raised hopes that the U.S. national team would soon improve and become a global force. However such hopes were not realized and by the 1980s the U.S. Soccer Federation found itself in serious financial struggles, with the national team playing only two matches from 1981 to 1983. U.S. Soccer targeted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and the 1986 World Cup as means of rebuilding the national team and its fan base. The International Olympic Committee declared that teams from outside Europe and South America could field full senior teams, including professionals (until then, the amateur-only rule had heavily favored socialist countries from Eastern Europe whose players were professionals in all but name). The U.S. had a very strong showing at the tournament, beating Costa Rica, tying Egypt, losing only to favorite Italy and but didn't make the second round, losing to Egypt on a tiebreaker (both had three points).
To provide a more stable national team program and renew interest in the NASL, U.S. Soccer entered the national team into the NASL league schedule for the 1983 season as Team America. This team lacked the continuity and regularity of training that conventional clubs enjoy, and many players were unwilling to play for the national team instead of their own clubs when conflicts arose. Team America finished the season at the bottom of the league, with U.S. Soccer canceling the experiment and withdrawing the national team from the NASL after one season. By the end of 1984, the NASL had folded, leaving the U.S. without a single professional-level outdoor soccer league.
The U.S. bid to host the 1986 World Cup after Colombia withdrew from contention due to economic concerns, but FIFA selected Mexico to host the tournament. In the last game of CONCACAF qualifying for the 1986 World Cup, the U.S. needed only a tie against Costa Rica to reach the final qualification group against Honduras and Canada. U.S. Soccer scheduled the game to be played in Torrance, California, an area with many Costa Rican expatriates, and marketed the game almost exclusively to the Costa Rican community. Costa Rica won the match 1–0, and kept the U.S. from reaching its fourth World Cup finals.
In 1988, U.S. Soccer attempted to re-implement its national-team-as-club concept, offering contracts to players to train with the national program full-time while occasionally loaning them to club teams as a revenue source for the federation. This brought many key veterans back into the program and allowed the team to begin playing more matches which, combined with an influx of talent from new youth clubs and leagues established across the nation in the wake of the NASL's popularity, allowed the national team to end the 1980s with optimism and higher hopes of qualifying for the 1990 World Cup than had existed for previous tournaments.
Rise in the U.S. (1990s)
In 1988, FIFA named the U.S. as the host of the 1994 World Cup (success of the 1984 Summer Olympics played the major role), but it did so under significant international criticism because of the perceived weakness of the national team and the lack of a professional outdoor league. This criticism diminished somewhat when a 1–0 win against Trinidad and Tobago, the U.S.'s first road win in nearly two years, in the last match of the 1989 CONCACAF Championship, earned the U.S. its first World Cup appearance in 40 years.
The team was managed by Bob Gansler in preparation for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, with two of the team's more experienced players, Rick Davis and Hugo Perez, recovering from serious injuries and unavailable for selection. Rather than fill out his team with veteran professionals from American indoor soccer leagues as suggested by some, Gansler and his assistant Stejem Mark chose to select many younger players with better conditioning for the outdoor game, including some amateurs playing for college teams. The U.S. entered the tournament as massive underdogs and suffered defeats in all three of its group games to Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Austria.
In a historic match, in 1993 U.S. Cup, U.S. beat England by 2–0.
After qualifying automatically as the host of the 1994 World Cup under Bora Milutinović, the U.S. opened its tournament schedule with a 1–1 tie against Switzerland in the Pontiac Silverdome in the suburbs of Detroit, the first World Cup game played indoors. In its second game, the U.S. faced , then ranked fourth in the world, at the Rose Bowl. Aided by an own goal from Andrés Escobar, the U.S. won 2–1. Escobar was later murdered in his home country, possibly in retaliation for this mistake. Despite a 1–0 loss to Romania in its final group game, the U.S. made it past the initial round for the first time since 1930. In the round of 16, the U.S. lost 1–0 to the eventual champion . Despite this success, the team fired Bora in 1995, reportedly because he was not interested in administrative duties.
In a 1995 friendly, the U.S. came back from 3–0 to win 4–3 against Saudi Arabia, the biggest comeback in the team's history.
In the 1998 World Cup in France, the team lost all three group matches, 2–0 to , 2–1 to , and 1–0 to Yugoslavia, finishing dead last in the field of 32. Head coach Steve Sampson received much of the blame for the performance as a result of abruptly cutting team captain John Harkes, whom Sampson had named "Captain for Life" shortly before, as well as several other players who were instrumental to the qualifying effort, from the squad. Thomas Dooley became the Captain at that point. It emerged in February 2010 that Sampson removed Harkes from the team due to Harkes allegedly having an affair with teammate Eric Wynalda's wife.
Success in the 2000s
In the 2002 World Cup under Bruce Arena, the U.S. reached the quarterfinals, its best finish in a World Cup since 1930. The team advanced in the group stage with a 1–1–1 record. The team started with a 3–2 upset win over , followed by a 1–1 tie with co-host and eventual semi-finalist, . The third and final match was lost 1–3 to Poland, but the team still got to the round of 16 when South Korea defeated Portugal. This set the stage for a face-off with continental rivals , the first time they met in a World Cup. The U.S. won the game 2–0. Brian McBride opened the scoring, and Landon Donovan scored the second goal. That victory advanced the team to the quarterfinals, where it met . The team lost 1–0 after being denied a penalty when Torsten Frings handled the ball to prevent a Gregg Berhalter goal. All of the U.S. games in the 2002 World Cup were played in South Korea and all their victories came wearing the white kit while their only defeats came while wearing the blue kit.
In the 2006 World Cup, after finishing top of the CONCACAF qualification tournament, the U.S. was drawn into Group E along with the , , and . The United States opened its tournament with a 3–0 loss to the Czech Republic. The team then tied 1–1 against Italy, who went on to win the World Cup. The U.S. was then knocked out of the tournament when beaten 2–1 by Ghana in its final group match, with Clint Dempsey scoring the U.S.'s only goal in the tournament – the goal against Italy had been an own goal by Italian defender Cristian Zaccardo. Following the tournament, Arena's contract was not renewed. After the national team remained dormant for the rest of 2006 while negotiating with various coaches, the federation hired former Chicago Fire, MetroStars and Chivas USA manager Bob Bradley in early 2007.
Bradley began his competitive career with the national team with the 2007 Gold Cup. In the final, the United States beat 2–1, which qualified it for the 2009 Confederations Cup.
The U.S. had a notable performance at the 2009 Confederations Cup. In the semifinals, the U.S. defeated Spain 2–0. At the time, Spain was atop the FIFA World Rankings and was on a run of 35 games undefeated. With the win, the United States advanced to its first-ever final in a men's FIFA tournament. The team lost 3–2 to Brazil after leading 2–0 at half time.
The United States then hosted the 2009 Gold Cup. In the final, the United States was beaten by Mexico 5–0. This defeat broke the U.S. team's 58-match home unbeaten streak against CONCACAF opponents, and was the first home loss to Mexico since 1999.
In the Fourth round of the 2010 World Cup qualification, the U.S. began by beating Mexico 2–0. The February 2009 loss extended Mexico's losing streak against America on U.S. soil to 11 matches. Jozy Altidore became the youngest U.S. player to score a hat-trick, in a 3–0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago. Near the end of the summer of 2009, the United States lost 2–1 to Mexico at Estadio Azteca. On October 10, the U.S. secured qualification to the 2010 World Cup with a 3–2 win over Honduras. Four days later, the U.S. finished in first place in the group with a 2–2 tie against Costa Rica.
In the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the U.S. team was drawn in Group C against England, and . After drawing against England (1–1) and Slovenia (2–2), the U.S. defeated Algeria 1–0 with a stoppage time goal from Landon Donovan, taking first place in a World Cup Finals group for the first time since 1930. In the round of 16, the U.S. was eliminated by , 2–1. On FIFA's ranking of World Cup teams the U.S. finished in 12th place out of the 32-team field.
The U.S. again hosted the Gold Cup in 2011. The U.S. advanced past the group stage, then defeated Jamaica 2–0 in the quarterfinals and Panama 1–0 in the semifinals before losing to Mexico 4–2 in the final. Later in the summer, Bob Bradley was relieved of his duties and former manager Jürgen Klinsmann was hired as head coach.
The U.S. had some success in friendlies in 2012 and 2013. The U.S. team won 1–0 in Italy on February 29, 2012, the team's first ever win over Italy. On June 2, 2013, the U.S. played a friendly against Germany at a sold out RFK Stadium in Washington D.C., with the U.S. winning 4–3. In July 2013, the U.S. hosted the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup where it went undefeated in the group stage and won with a 1–0 victory over Panama in the final, with Landon Donovan winning the tournament's golden ball award.
A 4–3 victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina in an international friendly match in Sarajevo represented the 12th straight win for the USMNT, the longest winning streak for any team in the world at that time. The 12 game winning streak ended September 6, 2013, when the U.S. lost to Costa Rica 3–1 in San José. In 2013 the national team played the final round of qualification, and by defeating Mexico in September, the U.S. clinched a spot in the 2014 World Cup.
For the 2014 World Cup, the U.S. was drawn into Group G, along with Ghana, Germany, and Portugal. The U.S. took revenge on the Ghanaians, winning 2–1. They tied their second group game against Portugal 2–2. In the final game of the group stage, the U.S. fell to Germany 1–0, but moved on to the knockout stage on goal difference. This was the first time that the team made two consecutive trips to the knockout stage of the FIFA World Cup. In the round of 16, the U.S. lost 2–1 to Belgium in extra time, despite goalkeeper Tim Howard making a World Cup record 15 saves[Note 1] during the match.
The national team's next tournament under Klinsmann was the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup. The U.S. were eliminated by Jamaica 2–1 in the semifinals, before losing to Panama on penalties in the third place match. The fourth-place finish was the worst Gold Cup performance by the national team since 2000, and the first time the team failed to make the tournament final since 2003. In the 2015 CONCACAF Cup playoff to determine the region's entry to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup, the U.S. were defeated 3–2 by Mexico at the Rose Bowl. In June 2016, the U.S. played as hosts of Copa América Centenario. The U.S. topped Group A on goal difference against Colombia. The U.S. beat 2–1 in the quarter-finals, but then fell to 4–0 and lost to Colombia again 1–0 in the third place match. They finished fourth at the Copa América, tying their best finish ever in 1995.
Following consecutive losses to Mexico and Costa Rica in the opening games of the final round of qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Klinsmann was removed as national team coach and technical director and replaced by previous U.S. manager Bruce Arena. World Cup qualification resumed on March 24, 2017, where Arena and his team had a record 6–0 win over . Four days later, the team traveled to Panama City, drawing 1–1. After beating Trinidad and Tobago 2–0, the U.S. got their third ever result in World Cup Qualification at the Estadio Azteca when they drew 1–1 against Mexico. In July 2017, the U.S. won their sixth CONCACAF Gold Cup with a 2–1 win over Jamaica in the final. Following an agonizing 2–1 defeat to Trinidad and Tobago on October 10, 2017, the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, missing the tournament for the first time since 1986. Many pundits and analysts called this the worst result and worst performance in the history of the national team.
Following Arena's resignation on October 13, 2017, assistant coach Dave Sarachan was named interim manager during the search for a permanent replacement. Sarachan fielded lineups of younger players, giving 18 players their international debuts, and included several veteran players to provide transitional stability. The team played a series of friendlies against European and South American opponents, drawing with Portugal and France and winning against Mexico.
The search for a permanent head coach was delayed by the USSF presidential election in February 2018 and the hiring of Earnie Stewart as general manager in June 2018. The selection process included consultation from USMNT alumni and was narrowed to a field of 11 candidates, including several foreign coaches, before two finalists emerged. Gregg Berhalter, coach of the Columbus Crew and a former USMNT defender, was announced as the team's new head coach on December 2, 2018. It is worth noting that Jay Berhalter, Gregg Berhalter's brother, was instrumental in the hiring of Earnie Stewart as the General Manager for US Soccer leaving many in the media and fans of US Soccer to wonder if nepotism had an impact on this hire.