Landon Donovan, right, and fellow team members celebrate their victory over Spain.
June 25, 2009
Sports of The Times
U.S. Victory Was a Miracle on Grass
By GEORGE VECSEY
The stunning 2-0 victory by the United States over Spain — the best team in the world — is probably the greatest victory by the men’s national soccer team.
And when you think of it, the victory Wednesday is probably the second-biggest upset by an American team, behind only the 1980 Miracle on Ice by the hockey team over the Soviet Union in the Olympics.
Those Soviets were state-supported professionals, beaten by amateurs from the United States. On the field in South Africa on Wednesday, everybody was a professional, although just about every Spanish player is employed at a higher level than his American counterpart.
This shocking match in the Confederations Cup in Bloemfontein was the equivalent of those one-off thrillers, like Gonzaga or Davidson beating one of the giants of American college basketball. Compelling? Sure. Significant? Not necessarily.
Coming from essentially nowhere, after weeks of ragged play, the upset was exciting to watch, for Americans and presumably for the South African fans, all bundled up in winter gear, and for fans rooting for the underdog in climates and time zones all over the world.
The United States did not suddenly become a powerhouse because Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey scored hard-earned, opportunistic goals in each half against Spain, winner of last year’s European championship and undefeated since 2006.
The inequity is what made this match such a spectacle. The Spanish players are regulars for Barcelona and Liverpool in the richest leagues of Europe. The Americans play in the earnest Major League Soccer or are mostly role players and reserves in Europe.
But for these 90 minutes on Wednesday, the Americans were better than the Spaniards — brave and smart and lucky, too — and they will always have this result, like the Americans who shocked England in the 1950 World Cup, a simpler time, and the Americans who demoralized Mexico and then nearly beat Germany in the giddy quarterfinal in the World Cup in 2002.
“Most teams respect them a little too much and back off of them,” Landon Donovan said of the Spanish players after the game. “I think we did a good job being harder and more aggressive than most teams.”
The most immediate benefit to American soccer is not even the result of the Confederations Cup final on Sunday, when the United States team will play the winner of Thursday’s Brazil-South Africa match. That one is gravy.
The real boon to the American team will come on Dec. 4, at the World Cup draw in Cape Town, when the ayatollahs of FIFA divide the 32 qualifiers into four ranks of eight. In recent draws, the United States was seeded below its regional rival Mexico, which effectively meant the Americans would have to face two tiers of tough opponents.
Now that the Americans have held off the quick and talented Spaniards, FIFA will have to remember that the United States has moved ahead of Mexico and is the best team in its region.
Nobody in the American soccer federation will dare to claim that this was the day the country came of age in the world’s most important sport. Not until American boys and girls play feral soccer on their own, for the love of the sport, will the nation develop its own Jordan, its own Pujols, its own Crosby or Malkin, its own Maradona.
But this was a step, the product of many intricate changes, some of them made by Bob Bradley, the American coach who was under attack in blogs in recent weeks. (Yapping about the coach is a great step forward for the United States.)
Among the reasons the United States beat Spain was that Altidore finally played himself into shape after rusting on the sideline for his club in Spain. He looked trimmer and more alert than he did in recent weeks.
Other changes were: The captain Carlos Bocanegra returned from injury to stabilize the defense; Tim Howard played a marvelous match in goal after getting a day off against Egypt last Sunday; Bradley had to stop using DaMarcus Beasley, not the player he used to be; the makeshift back line had to knit in the absence of three seasoned defenders; and Donovan had to dig in for the grittiest match of his national team career, much the way Claudio Reyna did against Mexico in 2002.
This was not the World Cup, but it was an important tournament in the march toward 2010. This victory needs to be savored on its own by the players and their loyal fans.
To be fair, American men and women have come up with other great victories in soccer, basketball, softball and ice hockey, most notably the memorable 1996 Summer Olympics and the 1999 Women’s World Cup in the United States. But most of the time these American teams were expected to dominate, to be a factor. The Yanks of Bloemfontein were not even expected to be in the semifinals. The No. 14 team in the world — a rating that looked quite generous — has now beaten the No. 1 team in the world. For loyal American fans, it feels so good precisely because it was an upset.