The U.S. soccer team is in the final of the Confederations Cup, beating mighty Spain 2-0.
Even more stunning, the Americans were on the verge of elimination and ready to head home last weekend before a reversal of fortune. On Wednesday, goals by Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey led to an upset of the planet’s top-ranked team.
Call it a miracle on grass—maybe not the World Cup, but still an American soccer echo of the U.S. hockey team’s upset of the Soviet Union at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.
By winning, the maligned United States advanced to its first men’s FIFA final since starting play in 1916.
Altidore scored in the 27th minute and Dempsey added a goal in the 74th as the Americans became the first team to defeat Spain since Romania in November 2006.
“It goes to show what hard work and commitment to each other can bring,” said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, who made eight saves as he frustrated David Villa and Fernando Torres. “Sometimes football is a funny thing.”
Now the U.S. will play defending champion Brazil or host South Africa in Sunday’s final, which concludes a two-week tournament designed to prepare the organizers of next year’s World Cup.
“Regardless of whether we play Brazil or the Bafana Bafana, the challenge will be great,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said.
Midfielder Michael Bradley, son of the U.S. coach, will miss the final. He received a red card for a late challenge in the 87th minute, the third American ejection of the tournament.
Still, American players had much to celebrate, given how slim the chances of such a U.S. victory seemed just a few days ago. Or any victory, for that matter. The 14th-ranked Americans were soundly defeated in their first two games in this event.
“I think it just shows that we can compete with the best. Now we need to do it on a consistent basis,” U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said.
Spain, the European champion, had set an international record with 15 straight victories and had tied Brazil’s record unbeaten streak of 35 games from December 1993 to January 1996.
The United States had been 1-7-1 against No. 1 teams, beating Brazil in the 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cup and tying Argentina last summer in an exhibition at Giants Stadium.
“This is an accident, a little step backward,” Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said. “We have to look forward with optimism.”
Altidore got the first goal when he outmuscled Joan Capdevila, his teammate on Spain’s Villarreal, to send an 18-yard shot in off the hand of goalkeeper Iker Casillas. Capdevila thought he was fouled by Altidore, who had engaged in some trash texting a few days ago.
“I told him, ‘Be careful of the USA.’ And he tried to say I didn’t understand Spanish, so it was just all fun and games,” Altidore said. “We’re teammates and we were just messing around with each other a little bit, but in the end we had the last laugh.”
Altidore, a 19-year-old forward from New Jersey, was so excited after he scored that he took off his jersey as he ran toward the stands in celebration, drawing a yellow card. It was the first goal against Spain in 451 minutes, since Turkey’s Semih Senturk scored on April 1, and just the third goal the Spaniards allowed in 17 games dating to last summer’s European Championship.
Dempsey sealed the victory, scoring from 6 yards when he pounced on Landon Donovan’s cross, which had bounced off Gerard Pique and the foot of Sergio Ramos.
“There will ups and downs in any cycle,” U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said. “I think this tournament makes that point very clearly. Tonight was a very big up.”
The U.S. opened the tournament with a 3-1 loss to world champion Italy, then was outclassed by South American champ Brazil in a 3-0 defeat. The Americans advanced over the Italians on the second tiebreaker—total goals—only by beating Egypt 3-0 on Sunday as Brazil defeated the Azzurri by the same score.
“Three games ago I think it would have been impossible to think about a night like tonight,” Howard said. “We’ve had our fair share of critics, but we stood up and took it on the chin and kept going.”
While the U.S. women have won two world championships, the men have long been outsiders and didn’t even qualify for the showcase event between 1950 and ’90. This ranked alongside the upset of Brazil as one of their top wins, just below victories over England in the 1950 World Cup, Portugal and Mexico in the 2002 World Cup and Colombia in the 1994 World Cup.
Spain outshot the U.S. 29-9 in near-freezing conditions at the Free State Stadium, but Howard came up big every time he was needed.
“We knew we had to pick and choose our moments to go forward,” Dempsey said. “We’re happy with the result and we know we’re going to have our work cut out to get anything out of the final.”
The United States had lost its three previous matches against Spain, including 1-0 in an exhibition on June 4 last year at Santander. But the Americans were boosted by Bocanegra, who had been sidelined since injuring a hamstring during a World Cup qualifier on June 6. He played left back instead of central defense.
On this night, everything came together.
“This win is huge for American soccer,” Dempsey said. “This one is much sweeter because we were down and out, came back fighting.”