My memories of October 7, 2001, fall into two distinct buckets. Some are so vivid, the sights and sounds so sharp, I’m sure they couldn’t possibly be from a New England afternoon now 20 years in the past. Still, others are so foggy it’s as if they must belong to another lifetime completely.
I know where I was that day, packed in with 40,000 fellow fans at Foxboro Stadium for a pivotal FIFA World Cup Qualifier between the U.S. Men’s National Team and Jamaica. I recently stumbled upon the ticket stub, tucked into an unmarked envelope with several other mementos from the early days of the New England Revolution and my (now defunct) hometown club, the Cape Cod Crusaders. I was sat in Section 218, Row 23, Seat 15. The game kicked off at 2 p.m.
Memories of that afternoon are likely to come flooding back on Thursday’s 20-year anniversary of the match, fittingly marked by another World Cup Qualifier between the U.S. and Jamaica, a sold-out showdown at Q2 Stadium in Austin, Texas. Twenty years ago, a place in the 2002 World Cup was on the line. Two decades have passed but the stakes remain the same, the countries now battling for a spot in the 2022 competition in Qatar.
That 2001 qualifier is now a part of USMNT lore, as two storylines merged to create the type of match you still talk about 20 years later. It was the day the U.S. Men’s National Team qualified for the 2002 World Cup, and it was also the first time a national team represented the United States following the attacks of September 11, which had shaken the world just four weeks earlier.
I was just 17 years old at the time – a senior in high school – so as we stood outside the Foxboro Stadium gates waiting to file into the building, I didn’t quite grasp the gravity of the fact that the United States had invaded Afghanistan hours before kickoff. What I did understand was the importance of that particular match being the first in which a team would represent the U.S. since 9/11. In my life I’ll likely never experience a greater sense of shared patriotism than I did that afternoon.
But there were reservations, as well. Was it wise to gather so many people together on such a patriotic occasion, so soon after the terrorist attacks? Was there a risk of another attack at the game? Clearly those concerns were shared on a grander scale, because my most vivid memory of that day is standing in a massive line outside the stadium gates waiting to get through. Security measures were so heightened that the process took much longer than it ever had previously, and the resulting lines meant much of the crowd missed the beginning of the game, myself included. I remember hearing the roar of the crowd that was inside as Joe-Max Moore opened the scoring with a fourth-minute header … I just didn’t see it.
Perhaps more poignantly on that particular afternoon, those security lines meant we also missed the playing of the national anthem. We could hear it, though, and I remember everyone in the security lines stopping, removing their hats, and placing their hands over their hearts to sing the anthem in unison. Sports generally elicit a sense of togetherness, but this was on another level entirely. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure whether I’ve completely fabricated that memory, but it’s one I hold onto regardless.
On some level the game itself felt secondary, but the fact is that it was a massive, massive match for the U.S. After a solid start to qualifying with four wins and a draw, the USMNT had lost three straight and was on the verge of missing out on the 2002 World Cup. A loss to Jamaica would’ve sealed that fate.
But in fitting fashion, Joe-Max Moore stepped up as the hero, scoring both goals in the Americans’ 2-1 win, including an 81st-minute penalty kick. Moore was with Everton at the time, but he had stints with the hometown Revolution both before and after that October 7, 2001, qualifier, and he was our guy, making it all the more special that he grabbed the headlines. I’m a Newcastle supporter, but I do own a “Moore #23” Everton jersey from the 1999-2000 season.
Despite their own victory, it was still a longshot for the U.S. to qualify that day, as they needed a specific set of results in the other matches to lock up their spot: a draw in Mexico-Costa Rica, and unfancied Trinidad & Tobago to win on the road in Honduras. Long before the days of smartphones, most in the stands – myself included – had no idea what was happening in the other games. I’m honestly not sure if I even knew exactly what needed to happen for the U.S. to qualify, or that they could qualify that day. We didn’t exactly have the coverage of the USMNT then that we do now.
But a few minutes after the final whistle of the U.S. game, as the players continued to mill around on the field and wave to the crowd, and as some fans filed out of the building, a PA announcement declared the other results final, and a message flashed on the video boards: “The U.S. has qualified for the 2002 World Cup.” The players reacted jubilantly, as you’d expect, and those in the stands followed. I was watching live at the exact moment the U.S. qualified for a World Cup. I’ll never forget that.
The legend of that afternoon has only grown since, as the following summer Bruce Arena led that American team on a magical run to the quarterfinals of the World Cup, where they so nearly took down the mighty Germans. That 2002 tournament will be remembered forever, and as such, the story of how the U.S. qualified – in the first national sporting event since 9/11 – is a significant part of the narrative.
That’s why it’s so special that the U.S. and Jamaica will meet again on Thursday night, 20 years to the day since that memorable meeting at Foxboro Stadium. And while some of my personal memories of that afternoon have faded slightly over the years, I’ll be forever grateful that I have them.