Americans' upset win vs. Spain creates excitement about sport

Friday, June 26, 2009
* RECROPPED VERSION ** USA's Jozy Altidore takes of his jersey as he reacts after scoring a goal during their Confederations Cup semifinal soccer match against Spain at Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein, South Africa, Wednesday, June 24, 2009. The USA won 2-0. (AP Photo/Paul Thomas)

There had not been much reason to celebrate recently.

BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa -- A week ago, the U.S. men's soccer team was barely an afterthought, its struggles hardly stealing the spotlight from golf, baseball or "Jon & Kate."

Well, well, well, look who has America's attention now.

There's nothing like a big win to get the fans back home excited, and the U.S. team's upset of top-ranked Spain at the Confederations Cup on Wednesday night certainly qualified. The game was replayed on ESPN2 a few hours later, an honor reserved for "instant classics," and the Chicago Tribune ran a banner listing the top five U.S. upsets across the top of Thursday's sports page.

Even the snarky New York Post gave the team a shoutout -- "SOCCER SHOCKER!" -- on its back page.

U.S. players celebrate after their victory against Spain on Wednesday in Bloemfontein, South Africa. (REBECCA BLACKWELL ~ Associated Press)

"This win is huge for American soccer," said Clint Dempsey, whose second-half goal sealed the 2-0 victory and brought a screeching halt to Spain's record 15-game winning streak. "I'm excited about the result, and think all the fans back at home will be excited as well."

The American men, who play Brazil on Sunday in their first-ever FIFA final, took the day off from training Thursday, traveling to Johahnnesburg.

U.S. interest in the world's favorite game has been building slowly, and a surprise run to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup had Americans dreaming of the day when their team would equal the likes of Brazil, Italy, Germany, Argentina, England and Spain.

Since then, however, the Americans have struggled -- on the field, and to gain attention. Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride, two of their best-known players, retired from international play following the three-and-out, first-round exit from the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

In qualifying for next year's event in South Africa, the Americans needed to rally from a two-goal deficit for a 2-2 tie at El Salvador, lost 3-1 at Costa Rica and needed to rally to beat Honduras at home -- the first come-from-behind U.S. victory in a qualifier since 1985.

Coach Bob Bradley has taken much of the heat. Bradley was successful in Major League Soccer -- he led the Chicago Fire to the league title in its first season -- but isn't fiery like predecessor Bruce Arena or charismatic like Juergen Klinsmann, the first choice to replace Arena.

"The press was hard on us, maybe rightfully so, but it never fazed him, it never took its toll on him," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "He continued to prepare the team as though he believed we could do something like we did [against Spain], and that was infectious."

Like Arena, Bradley knows the U.S. team's growth is a work in progress. MLS has done wonders for the development of young players, but the league isn't even 15 years old. More and more Americans are playing in Europe, but too many still are parked on benches.

Jozy Altidore, for example, who outmuscled Spain defender Joan Capdevila for the first goal Wednesday, was sold to Villarreal of the Spanish league last summer. After making just two starts and four substitute appearances during the first half of the season, he was loaned to second division leader Xerez on Jan. 30. He never got in a game there.

"As [MLS] keeps improving, as we have more and more players playing on big teams, we continue to have success as a national team playing against top teams. This is the way something grows," Bradley said. "There's so many countries in soccer that want to get to the top, but there's no way to skip steps. You learn at each step."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: