The United States Men’s National Team needed an improbable 3-0 victory over Egypt and for Brazil to beat Italy 3-0 last Sunday afternoon. It happened. This time, all the US had to do was knock off #1 ranked Spain, who had not given up a goal all tournament, had won 15 games in a row, and had a 35 game unbeaten streak. They did that as well, beating the Spaniards 2-0 and advancing to the finals of the Confederations Cup.
In no way did the US outplay Spain. Spain had almost three times as many shots as the US (11-4) and had exactly three times as many corner kicks (9-3), but the US played the exact style necessary to win. Spain would have had 20 shots on goal, but the backline of Jay Demerit, Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, and Jonathan Spector blocked chance after chance to prevent Spain from scoring. Every cross into the box the US had marked perfectly. Spain never had an open header or wide open shot. Everything was covered. The midfield came back extremely well, with the US always seeming to have 7 or 8 guys behind the ball.
And they capitalized on their opportunities. After a nice passing sequence between Charlie Davies and Landon Donovan, Donovan got lucky on a bass that deflected to Jozy Altidore, who out-muscled his man to break in on Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas. Altidore struck his shot down the middle, but Casillas got just one hand on it and it bounced off the post and in. Later on, substitute Benny Feilhaber cut across the center of the field and gave the ball off to Donovan who was streaking to the net. Passing up the open shot, Donovan struck the ball across the box, which deflected off a defender and sat on the ground for a moment before Clint Dempsey tucked it into the back of the net and sent the US into the Finals.
Those were the US’s only two shots on goal and two of their four shots total. Yet, they were better chances than almost every chance for Spain. Everytime Cesc Fabregas or Fernando Torres snuckup the wing and tried to fire a cross across the mouth of the goal, Onyewu or Demerit cleared them immediately. For as many crosses as Spain made, not one hit the foot of a Spanish player. It was truly impeccable marking, the type of marking necessary to knock off the top ranked team in the world.
Then there was Tim Howard. Even with the blocks and great marking, Spain still had their chances, but Howard came up huge every time. He punched balls away and had a couple crucial kick saves to keep the clean sheet. He snagged balls out of the air and aggressivelycalled balls in the box. If there was going to be a Spanish goal, it was not going to be Howard’s fault. He played perfectly and combined with the exceptional defense, Spain never found the back of the net.
The one negative for the Americans came in the 86th minute when midfielder Michael Bradley was shown a red card for a slightly late challenge. The call is just another awful decision against the US in what has been a tournament filled with them. Bradley was just late on the tackle, but did not come in with his studs up and did not come high. A yellow card? Yes. But a red card? Not even close. Just like the red card against Ricardo Clark earlier in the tournament, this one wasn’t even borderline. It was just a horrible, horrible call. Now, the United States will be without their best midfielder in the Finals on Sunday, a harsh price to pay for a fairly innocent tackle.
Landon Donovan had another terrific game, holding possession well and applying pressure the entire game. On the other side of the field, Clint Dempsey struggled for most of the game (and the tournament) before being in the right spot to collect the goal. Dempsey did a good job getting back to protect the goal, but his touches and passes were sub-par, as they have been for most of the tournament and the US’s World Cup qualifying. Likewise, Ricardo Clark in the center seemed a bit slow and gave the ball up too easily. Feilhaber came on and held possession much better and may be a good replacement for Clark if he cannot cut it.
This truly is an amazing story and a huge step for a struggling United States’ team. On the brink of elimination, the US have pulled a couple miracles to reach the Confederations Cup Finals. They should be proud and confident entering the match. This isn’t the pushover weakling that showed up against Brazil and Italy in the first two matches of this tournament. This is a powerful, quick team that just knocked off the top team in the world. The US’s goal was to gain some confidence in this tournament and to show that they can play with the world’s best. Well, they have no doubt proven that not just to themselves, but to the entire world. One more win Sunday and everyone will be looking at the US as a contender in South Africa next year.