There is an old and rather clichéd saying, coined by George Santayana, that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. What the Madrid-born, Harvard-educated philosopher didn’t cover in his oft-quoted phrase is what about when the past is something desirable, the kind of moment that many often spent years fruitlessly trying to recapture? To turn Santayana’s words on their head, it may be specifically the knowledge of this idyllic past moment that makes recapturing it so difficult.
Yet, it was Tab Ramos who hoped the hope that knowledge and repeating past glory are intrinsically linked. For that reason, the US U20 coach made sure to show his charges the USMNT’s shock 2-0 victory over Spain from four years ago. It was a move meant to instill confidence, to show that La Rojita can be beat, to hammer home the point that putting your peers on a pedestal is path to quick defeat.
Whether the move was a prayer-filled toss of a coin into the fountain that made that June 2009 game so magical or simply a way to show that the defending U19 European Champions — and feeder squad for quite possibly the greatest collection of talent in international soccer history — were no more than flesh and bone, it didn’t work, as Spain marched to a 4-1 victory in Istanbul, Turkey. Guile and philosophy simply couldn’t overthrow talent and the past triumph was just what it had been the day before: History.
When the US upset Spain in 2009, there was a world-beating quality about it. Part shock and awe, part smash and grab. In 2013, the youngsters version of the games felt the exact opposite. If anything, the US felt too good to do that to Spain again. This time, the Spanish would not be caught napping.
It took just five minutes for Spain to strike through Jesé, but after that the tone took an unfamiliar feel. It was the United States in the ascendancy. Luis Gil was the conductor, but the entire midfield orchestra came to play for long streches as the Yanks looked the more dangerous side. In fact, for much of the game it was actually the US that held an advantage in the possession battle. To note, the full Spanish side have yet to hold the ball under 50 percent of the time in a single games since Vicente del Bosque took the helm.
While possession usually leads to a air of control, it wasn’t so for the United States, as Spain always seemed to have its hands on the throttle. Sure, the US led plenty of attacks, but the last ball was never there and Spain would break out of the gates with a deadly counter. It was the same simple idea Bob Bradley used to his advantage in 2009 but oh so different. With Jesé and Gerard Deluofeu charging forward, Spain had a mix of speed, skill and width that made the counterattack a majestic spectacle that few other teams could produce. Usually a tactic reserved for the underdog, Spain made it a tool of the dominant, leaving the Americans all but powerless to stop it with a thin back four — made worse by the suspension of Shane O’Neill. It was quick and deadly punishment for the assumption that the US belonged in the game at all.
Deluefeu curled one home and Jesé struck again in quick succession right before the break, taking a spell that looked to give the US hope and flipping it upside down. Gil showed his quality with a beautifully taken goal late in a game that had long been decided, providing some semblance of a moral victory, but the aura that the US could summon the genie from 2009 was lost much earlier.
The past that Tab Ramos sought to ignore turned out to be that which is inescapable. For that one glorious US victory there were dozen’s Spanish victories. That was the history that repeated itself in Istanbul and will keep doing so. Again and again.