There’s absolutely no way to make rational sense of it. The US men’s national football team, who looked so pathetic and shambolic in their first two matches of the FIFA Confederations Cup, will play the final Sunday against either Brazil or South Africa after handily defeating Spain in the semi, 2-0. Spain, as in the Euro 2008 champions, FIFA’s #1 ranked team in the world.
For those unfamiliar, the Confederations Cup brings together the national teams that win each of the six FIFA regional championships (Spain for Europe, USA for N. America, Brazil for S. America, Egypt for Africa, Iraq for Asia and New Zealand for Oceana) plus the defending World Cup champion (Italy) and the host of the next World Cup (South Africa). With the exception of Iraq and New Zealand, those are all good teams.
The Confederations Cup is clearly not the World Cup; it’s more like a super-charged friendly tournament, and primarily functions as a tune up for next year’s World Cup. Teams get to play in the same stadiums, stay in the same hotels, deal with the travel. So all the participating countries bring their best players, to get them accustomed to the conditions they will experience next June in the big show.
The USA was drawn into the group of death, with Italy, Brazil, and a very good Egypt team. Meanwhile, Spain got an easy draw, with an lucky-to-be-there Iraq, a New Zealand team that probably won’t make the World Cup, and the mediocre host South Africans. Spain predictably cruised through the group stage, winning all three matches by a combined 8-0.
The group of death lived up to its name. The USA played Italy pretty close for 45 minutes, but struggling for 65 minutes with 10 men after a harsh red card ultimately wore them down and they gave up 3 late goals, losing 3-1. Meanwhile, Brazil only barely edged Egypt 4-3 on a questionable late call. In the next round, Brazil obliterated the USA 3-0. As my friend Ben Jones wrote me, “They look like boys amongst men.” But in the other match, a tough Egypt scratched out a clutch 1-0 win over Italy, which set the stage for the insane third round in the groups.
The USA started the day dead last in the group, with zero points, a single goal for, and a -5 goal difference. They needed a 7 goal difference reversal vis-a-vis Italy and a win over Egypt, or a 6 goal reversal and more goals scored than Italy. I don’t know what the betting odds were in London for that result, but it had to be 1,000-1. Yet that’s precisely what happened.
The USA looked inspired against a fatigued Egypt, winning 3-0. And Brazil improbably defeated Italy by the same score. It was a nail-biter through injury time in both matches, as a consolation goal by either Italy or Egypt would have sent the USA packing. But the results held and the USA went through to the semi’s. To face Spain. By any argument, the best team in the world at the moment.
And so, when the USA took the field today for the national anthems, you could have excused them for feeling more than a little lucky to be on the field, and looking only for a little experience against a great opponent before settling for certain defeat and the consolation game against South Africa. After all, a Brazil-Spain final seemed inevitable given the USA’s earlier run of form.
Much to everyone’s surprise, it turned out to be a fabulous game. The USA came out with confidence and really pressured the Spaniards in the first ten minutes. Davies had a bicycle kick off a Dempsey cross go wide left, and then Dempsey himself went just wide a few minutes later. The USA gave Spanish defender Sergio Ramos a ton of space to run up the Spanish right wing, and when he did so, the American’s used their pace to counter-attack, often catching Spain with only three defenders.
Spain had chances, but the USA back four of Specter, DeMerit, Onyewu and Bocanegra, where huge. In the 27th minute, and not really against the run of play, Dempsey chipped a clever ball from the left wing to Altidore at the top of the box, who muscled an over-committed Capdevila, turned, and fired a rocket off the hand of Casillas, which deflected in off the post for 1-0.
The last 15 minutes of the first half and the first 15 minutes of the second were all Spain. The USA back four did what they could, but it came down to a heroic effort by Tim Howard, the USA keeper, who had, by my count, 6 great saves during that spell. Then, with about 20 minutes to go, the USA got a few good minutes of possession, and put a nice little sequence together when Feilhaber made a skillful run at the Spanish defense, played a nice ball out to Donovan on the right wing, who sent a dangerous cross square across the box. Sergio Ramos thought he had time for a touch before clearing the ball, but Dempsey pounced on his error and curled a low shot past Casillas for 2-0. Bradley got sent off on an idiotic straight red card a few minutes from time, but the 10-man USA held on for a famous win.
Why did Spain lose? For one, they simply had a bad day. They just didn’t play up to their Euro 2008 potential, and were particularly weak passing in the attacking half of midfield, where they are generally so dominant. Part of it was the lack of quality of their group stage opponents, too. While the USA had a trial by fire against the likes of Brazil and Italy, Spain had no world-class teams to deal with during their group stage, so they were a bit rusty.
But credit the USA — they really gutted it out and, as I said, had a great tactical plan. Old-fashioned American hustle. Played tenacious defense, got big-game goalkeeping (always an American characteristic), and took their chances despite being out-shot 29-9. The USA had only two shots on goal, and finished them both.
It was a thrilling match for fans of USA football. Can the USA win the whole enchilada? After this game, who can say?