U.S. Stuns Spain in soccer

Grahame L. Jones

Now, President Obama has more reason than ever to visit South Africa.

Having agreed to attend the opening game of soccer’s 2010 World Cup, if possible, Obama might want to consider a much earlier trip.

Say on Sunday, for instance.

That’s when the United States will play in the final of the FIFA Confederations Cup in Johannesburg, the U.S. having reached the championship game by scoring one of international soccer’s all-time upsets Wednesday night.

Goals by Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey and a defense that bordered on the miraculous earned the Americans a 2-0 victory over European champion Spain in front of 35,369 at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein.


That’s the same Spain that is ranked No. 1 in the world, the same Spain that had been unbeaten in a world-record-tying 35 games, the same Spain that had won a world-record 15 games in a row.

It was a watershed moment for the U.S., signaling the team’s true arrival on the world stage.

In Sunday’s final, the suddenly high-flying Americans will play the winner of today’s semifinal game between Brazil and South Africa in Johannesburg.

In the afterglow of an epic victory, even one of the players who made it possible was nonplused.

“I can’t explain it any more than you can,” goalkeeper Tim Howard told reporters. “Sports is funny sometimes, but when you put your mind to something, you can achieve it.”

The U.S. put mind, body and everything else into the game. Word of the colossal upset reverberated around the soccer world.


“To beat an amazing team like Spain and make the final, it’s big,” Coach Bob Bradley said in the postgame news conference. “We played as hard as we could and that’s what it took. Every guy contributed.”

The game was played in near-freezing conditions but the U.S. players came out flying, still on the high generated by a 3-0 victory over Egypt on Sunday that earned Bradley’s team an unlikely place in the semifinals after lopsided losses to Italy and Brazil.

The opening goal Wednesday came in the 27th minute when Altidore, still only 19, used his strength to hold off the challenge of defender Joan Capdevila, turned and fired a shot at the Spanish net.

Goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who was wrong-footed on the play, managed to get a hand to the ball, but succeeded only in turning it against the left post and it rebounded into the net.

Spain, led by David Villa and Fernando Torres, two of the most lethal forwards in the world, mounted wave after wave of attacks, but the U.S. packed its defense and held firm. Time and again, shots were saved by Howard or blocked by defenders and midfielders hustling back to help out.

Spain outshot the U.S., 18-9, including 8-2 in shots on target, and also had 17 corner kicks to three for the U.S., but it was thwarted by a resistance seldom seen from an American team.


The killer blow came in the 74th minute. Benny Feilhaber sent a through ball to Landon Donovan, who cut a pass back across the face of Spain’s goal. The ball deflected off the ankle of defender Gerard Pique and fell to teammate Sergio Ramos, but before Ramos could control it, Dempsey came in from his blind side and swept the ball into the net.

Try as it might, Spain could not break through the American defense, even after a red card to midfielder Michael Bradley, the coach’s son, left the U.S. short-handed.

“They had huge energy, were very quick in attack and caught us by surprise,” Coach Vicente del Bosque said. “We played a very difficult rival who took us head on.

“We cannot be unhappy with our effort. We tried everything to win. Today, we missed that final touch. We had many opportunities, but they really closed the door for us.”

Del Bosque must have sensed something because he had come close to predicting an upset.

“In any game of football you have to fight to win and can always lose,” he told earlier in the week, “and our semifinal against the U.S. will be no exception.

“That’s why I don’t want to hear any talk of a Spain-Brazil final. We’ve got to be very careful with this notion that we’re unbeatable . . . every game is a potential banana skin.”


No Confederations Cup winner has gone on to win the World Cup the next year, but that will not deter the U.S. from trying. It has two third-place finishes in the Confederations Cup -- in Saudi Arabia in 1992 and in Mexico in 1999 -- and first place now beckons.

“Three games ago, I think it would have been impossible to think about a night like this,” Howard said.

Jones reported from Los Angeles



Memorable U.S. victories

The United States men’s soccer team upset Spain on Wednesday in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup. Here, in order of significance, are the top half a dozen all-time victories for the U.S.

1. June 29, 1950 -- United States 1, England 0: Nearly 60 years later, this victory at the World Cup in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, still ranks as the greatest achievement. Joe Gaetjens scored the goal.

2. June 22, 1994 -- United States 2, Colombia 1: A Rose Bowl crowd of 93,689 saw Earnie Stewart score in this World Cup upset. Andres Escobar scored an own goal that led to his murder in Colombia.


3. June 17, 2002 -- United States 2, Mexico 0: The regional rivals met at the World Cup in Jeonju, South Korea, where goals by Landon Donovan and Brian McBride put the U.S. into the quarterfinals.

4. June 24, 2009 -- United States 2, Spain 0: Superb defense and goals by Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey knocked out the world’s No. 1 team in Bloemfontein, South Africa, as the U.S. reached the Confederations Cup final.

5. July 14, 1995 -- United States 3, Argentina 0: Kasey Keller got the shutout and Alexi Lalas, Frank Klopas and Eric Wynalda scored as the U.S. romped to victory at the Copa America at Paysandu, Uruguay.

6. Feb. 10, 1998 -- United States 1, Brazil 0: Keller’s heroics and Preki’s goal in the Gold Cup at the Los Angeles Coliseum brought about the first and only U.S. victory over Brazil.

-- Grahame L. Jones