Sunday, July 19, 2009
Remembering US 2 - Espana 0
Even though USMNT didn't win the Confederation's Cup, they should be remembered for the big step they took that night against Spain. It should be seen as the game that gave us the confidence to absolutely believe that we can compete with the best teams in the world. No longer should we just settle for a "good performance". And while USMNT didn't win any trophies that night, the American public did award them with the most American of awards: Best Upset. For once, Americans could cheer for their very own underdog.
Donovan, Bocangra, Dempsey, Altidore, Clark, Spector, Bornstein, and Kljestan were on hand to accept the award. (Kljestan, of course, is the only one who didn't play vs Spain, thankfully). Landon had a memorable line in his acceptance speech when he said, "we are looking forward to the day that other teams are winning awards for upsetting us". Its a perfect quote that recognizes where we are now, what we accomplished and where we want to be.
Coming into the Confed Cup, Spain had taken the international soccer world by storm after dominating Euro 2008 and thrilling everyone with their aesthetically beautiful style of soccer. In addition, several of Spain's players including Xavi and Puyol had just propelled Barcelona to an unprecedented treble including the Champions League title (La Liga and Copa del Rey). Spain was on top of the soccer world and rightfully held the #1 FIFA ranking. They had not lost a single game since Fall of 2006, tying Brazil's world record of 35 straight games. They had won a world record 15 straight games. They had not lost to a non-European team since 1999. Coming into the match vs the US, they had held opponents scoreless through 400 plus minutes.
As for their Confed Cup personnel, I would rate Spain's forwards, Fernando Torres and David Villa among the top 5 forwards in the world. Spain's midfielders can easily claim the mantle as international football's best group, including the forementioned Xavi, Arsenal's Fabregas, and Liverpool's Alonso. Defensively, their back line all hail from Spain's elite clubs, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia and Villareal. Not to be forgotten, their goalkeeper, Madrid's Iker Casillas, is generally considered as 1st or 2nd best in the world.
In comparison, the US squad boasts no world class field players. Goalkeeper, Tim Howard, might be considered among the best, but our top field players competing in Europe are seen as role players, not stars, on their squads. Furthermore, the US team was in turmoil. Having been flogged 3-1 at Costa Rica and needing to stage a hard fought comeback vs Honduras to avoid full blown panic mode (in the 2 recent WC qualifiers), the US was in dire need of a good showing in the Confed Cup. The first two games were anything but. Against Italy, the worst case scenario occurred when American born and bred traitor, rossi, stuck 2 daggers into US soccer fan's hearts everywhere and won the game for Italia. In the next game vs Brazil, Coach Bradley inexplicably started two badly out of form players, Beasley and Kljestan, into the starting lineup and both contributed to the 3-0 disaster. US Soccer had reached rock bottom. Just 1 year before the World Cup, critics were questioning Bradley's tactics and player selections and calling for him to be replaced.
The last game vs Egypt was likely a mere formality and looked like a good opportunity to try out some of our younger players. To advance out of the group, the US needed a 3 goal victory AND they needed Brazil to beat Italy by the same margin. No problem, its just the same Italy that is renowned the world over for their defense. Oh and Egypt had scored 3 goals on Brazil (losing to a penalty in stoppage time) and actually beat Italy. Did I mention that the US hadn't scored a goal from the run of play (non penalty, non set piece) in 5 straight games? With seemingly little hope, Bradley stubbornly trotted out the "A" squad anyway (minus Howard who was probably scheduled to rest).
Brazil proceeds to drop 3 bombs in the first half against Italy and shuts them down in the 2nd half while the US frantically chases 2 more goals after Davies' opportunistic 1st half score. Donovan tees one up for Bradley (Happy Father's Day coach) and Spector sends in the most beautiful and pinpoint perfect cross I've ever seen from a US player, directly to Dempsey's head, who promptly bashes it home. After 2 straight dispiriting losses, the US actually make it out of the group? On 3 goals from the run of play? Miraculous, yes. But the best is yet to come.
The US effort vs Spain was one for the ages. Many would have assumed that the US would try to emulate what Chelsea did to Barcelona (to almost near perfection I might add had it not been for Iniesta wonderstrike) months before and play pure defensive soccer. However, the US did not, and actually attacked with much speed and numbers. Jozy's 1st half goal was a display of strength and speed. His shoulder turn threw Villareal teammate Capdevilla aside like a rag doll, and he powered a shot off Casillas for the shocking lead. As Spain displayed their typical flowing possession attack, the US responded with the type of scrappy effort that they are known for. They threw their bodies to block shots. They sprinted tirelessly on counters. Tim Howard did his best impression of a brick wall. (Fitness, workrate, and great goalkeeping are typical US qualities.) Eventually Feilhaber, who really is our best version of Xavi or Iniesta, set up a perfect ball to an open Donovan, who inexplicably crosses insteads of shoots. However, Sergio Ramos dallies a split second too long on the ball and Dempsey slots it home for the 2-0 lead. While the soccer world watches with mouths agape, the US finish off the incredible upset.
The US fairytale continues with a 2-0 lead vs Brazil at halftime, but precocious Brazil cannot be held down and answer with 3 (actually 4 but one was wrongfully called back) to win it. Heartbreaking yes, but its clear that beating Spain was the true story of the tournament.
As a result, ESPN and therefore the US sports world began to take notice of the US team. Not bad timing considering we're 1 year away from the big dance. Secondly, Bradley probably has a good idea of who can be relied upon and who still needs to prove himself. Lastly, and possibly most importantly, our players are starting to get more respect from clubs around the world. Defensive standout, Oguchi Onyewu was recently signed by AC Milan, which marks the first American to be signed by a top 10 club in the world on a free transfer. (Hopefully he gets to play alongside Italian stalwart Nesta to further his development.) So to be honored in front of the greatest American athletes with the ESPY as the best upset of this year is definitely icing on the cake. Hopefully with a little luck and a lot of effort, US Soccer can be honored in view of the world next summer. Okay, okay, its a little ambitious I know. But so was beating Espana...