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Friday, 14 June, 2002, 20:05 GMT 21:05 UK

A hollow feeling

By Sean Wheelock

Perhaps the night was best summed up by United States midfielder John O'Brien.

Walking off the pitch following America's 3-1 loss to Poland, and fully aware of South Korea's 1-0 defeat of Portugal, O'Brien turned to the television camera and said: "We'll take it. Next round."

With that, he turned his back and headed towards the tunnel.

There was really nothing more that could be said.

The US had entered their final Group D match needing only a draw to advance to the round of 16.

But two goals by Poland in the opening five minutes suddenly brought the harsh reality that America may not make it that far.

That had been a strong possibility when the World Cup began.

Two matches on, after a stunning victory over Portugal and a hard-earned draw against South Korea, the unthinkable was almost a reality.

But all hope appeared lost after they shipped two early goals with Portugal aware they needed was a draw, barring a miraculous American comeback.

But in the 66th minute, when Marcin Zewlakow scored Poland's third goal to put the match out of reach in Daejeon, Beto was sent off in Incheon, reducing Portugal to only nine men.

Four minutes later as Park Ji-Sung scored for South Korea, those in the stadium witnessing the US being dismantled erupted.

The American players and coaching staff knew what had just occurred, and knew they had been given new hope.

When the day started, US manager Bruce Arena was aware his squad controlled their own fate and their match against Poland was all that mattered.

Now all that mattered was Portugal and South Korea - they were at the mercy of others.

In the last minute of second-half stoppage time the South Korean victory was announced, and the US knew they had survived.

At the final whistle, the American players seemed unsure as to how they should react.

Being simultaneously jubilant yet humiliated is an odd mixture of feelings.

It made for a strange scene as America left the pitch with exhausted smiles and winsome expressions on their faces.

Since their 3-2 win over Portugal, America has sat up and taken notice of the World Cup. Everyone loves a winner.

Football remains a minor sport supported and followed by a knowledgeable and passionate, yet relatively small percentage of the population.

However, since that opening win television ratings have surpassed all expectations, and media coverage has reached unprecedented heights.

The momentum continues to build, but had it not been for South Korea it would have come to an abrupt halt.

This US squad came perilously close to emulating the 1950 team who followed up their 1-0 win over England with a 5-2 defeat to Chile and elimination from the tournament.

However, 52 years on the US has lived to fight another day and the circumstance only add to the World Cup legend.

Now victory over their old foes Mexico would give the US an opportunity to advance further than they have since the inaugural 1930 tournament.

Victory would also help the growth of the sport among the general in America.

In virtually every sense, the pressure felt now by the US squad has never been more intense.

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