June 24, 2009: United States 2, Spain 0. A win that sent shockwaves throughout the soccer world. And to think, it almost never happened.
After losing their first two matches to start off the 2009 Confederations Cup to Brazil and Italy, the United States needed a miracle to advance out of the group stage. As luck would have it, the Americans were able to defeat Egypt handily, winning 3-0 and, after receiving help from Brazil, tie the World Cup Champion Italians on points and goal differential. The United States scored one more total goal than the Azzurri, and based on this tie-breaker, somehow were through to the semi-finals.
The American’s present — a date with Spain, the defending European champions, ranked No. 1 in the world, and who, unbeknownst to all, had just started one of the most dominant runs in the history of international football. That day in Bloemfontein, South Africa, the United States would be matched up against an all-star squad. Competing against the likes of Casillas, Puyol, Pique, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Fabregas, Torres, Villa and friends, no one in their right mind would give the Americans a chance against the mighty Spaniards.
Then, the game started and shockingly, was fairly even. Both teams traded corners and chances in the first ten minutes, before Spain started to take control of the ball. In the 27th minute, that all meant nothing. American midfielder Clint Dempsey found striker Jozy Altidore, who, after out-muscling Xavi, scored past Spain’s legendary goalkeeper Iker Casillas. After grabbing a shock lead, the Americans fought hard and were able to deny Spain an equalizer heading into halftime.
The Spanish came out firing to start the second , but the defending of Oguchi Onyewu and stellar play of Tim Howard in net were just enough to contain the Spanish attack. Then, in the 74th minute, a shocker: American winger Landon Donovan’s weak cross in the box was poorly handled by Spanish defender Sergio Ramos, who inadvertently played the ball directly to Dempsey, who finished, as he so often does. USA 2. Spain 0.
The remainder of the game is a blur. I vaguely remember Michael Bradley’s 86th minute red card and the admirable performances of Howard, Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra, Jonathan Spector and Jay Demerit to preserve the stunning victory. I distinctly remember the joy and elation of those walking down College Ave. in State College, Pennsylvania all asking each other, “Did you hear? We beat Spain!” I also remember pundits talking on Fox Soccer and even on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption” — where hearing anything related to soccer is a shocker — trying and failing to put this game in perspective.
The 2009 Confederations Cup Final was a disappointing 3-2 loss to Brazil, in which the United States once again held a 2-0 lead, only this time were unable to finish the job. It almost didn’t matter because the United States Men’s National Team stunned the sports world and achieved their best ever finish in a major international competition, reentering the American sports consciousness in the process.
Heading into the 2009 Confederations Cup, it was not exactly the greatest time to be an American soccer fan. Gold Cup victories were nice, but the bitter disappointment of the 2006 World Cup was still fresh in fans’ minds. The losses to Italy and Brazil in the group stage were disheartening, and, despite ultimately advancing from the group stage, prospects looked bleak against Spain. In fact, ESPN.com’s running commentary of the game featured this interesting note before kickoff, “Hello and welcome to Spain’s thrashing of the US.” Three years of frustration with the national side turned to pure elation after defeating La Roja. A hard-fought defeat to an ultra-talented Brazil squad did nothing to damper the emotion and pride that fans felt in the Red, White and Blue.
On that day, a college kid from Long Island, New York, three days shy of his 20th birthday, sat in his sweltering dorm room and spent his last Wednesday of summer session at Pennsylvania State University expecting to seeing a team he casually rooted for annihilated by the European Champions. Instead, over the course of two hours he felt all the emotions that all diehard fans go through. Joy, shock, hysteria, panic and when it was all said and done, relief. The disappointment of 2006 was long forgotten, and the USMNT had a fan for life.