The US script at international tournaments often includes moments of triumph and tragedy, luck and misfortune. World Cups generally regarded as successful required an 88th minute South Korean post in 2002 and a Landon Donovan miracle goal in 2010 just to escape group play. A poor tournament, like 2006, still featured a point off of eventual winners Italy. 2014 illustrated how quickly a narrative could shift with the right results: the US were a last-minute Portugal goal from six points in the group stage, and nearly stole the Belgium game against the run of play.
No tournament exemplified this capacity better than the 2009 Confederations Cup. It’s the US’ South African road trip film: hijinks, half-baked plans, serendipity, a triumphant turning point, and despite the odds, arriving at the destination.
The US often experiences the misfortune of the group of death, but it’s worth remembering the strength of opposition in this Confederations Cup:
Yes, Group B included two of the top five teams in the world, and the results went as expected. The opener against Italy featured the US in a 3-man central midfield behind Jozy Altidore, Landon Donovan, and Clint Dempsey. It’s an idea that worked poorly against Costa Rica two weeks prior, so why not try it again against the reigning World Cup holders? A soft red card on Ricardo Clark in the 33rd minute increased the difficulty, but the US found itself up 1-0 on a penalty won by Altidore and converted by Donovan. Substitute Giuseppe Rossi equalized in the 58th minute – a minute after entering the game – and Daniele De Rossi hit an similarly speculative efforts midway through the half. An elegant piece of skill from Andrea Pirlo allowed Rossi to tap home the final goal in a 3-1 Italy win, and wasteful finishing from the Italian strikers prevented a harsher scoreline.
The second game against Brazil was the lowest point of Bob Bradley’s US tenure. The 3-man midfield persisted, with the suspended Clark and Benny Feilhaber dropped for Sacha Kljestan and, unexpectedly, DaMarcus Beasley. Even in 2009, the occasional flirtation with Beasley as an interior player appeared. A Felipe Melo header in the 6th minute opened the scoring, and a ruthless 20th minute counter-attack following Beasley’s missed trap put Brazil up 2-0. US showed signs of life after Conor Casey replaced Beasley at half and switched to a 4-4-2, but an ugly Kljestan red card placed the US at an insurmountable disadvantage. Five minutes later, Maicon made it 3-0 Brazil with a great finish after an intricate build-up. Casey and Feilhaber both hit the crossbar late, but it was all academic. In the waning minutes of the capitulation, Dempsey proceeded to unleash every 1 v. 1 trick he knew to varying effect, and Bradley neglected to use his final sub.
It seemed that Bradley had lost the plot. Two losses and a -5 goal differential meant the US entered the game against Egypt without pressure. The 4-4-2 returned, featuring Michael Bradley and Clark in central midfield, a duo that attracted criticism in the past. However, Charlie Davies joined Altidore up front, with Donovan and Dempsey behind the strikers as dual attacking-mids. Davies scored a gritty goal in the 21st minute to provide hope. In the second half, Bradley – in a trademark delayed run into the box – slotted home from a Donovan assist. Dempsey followed with a header from Jonathan Spector’s penetrating cross in the 72nd minute, and the US won 3-0. Miraculously, Brazil beat Italy by the same margin; the US had just 3 points, but advanced with the more goals scored than Italy or Egypt. The reward: a semifinal match with Spain.
It’s easy to forget a time when Spain – a team that’s inspired books about its success – were considered the great underachievers of international soccer. The Euro 2008 win launched jubilant celebrations, shed the underachiever label, and signified Spain’s transition from talented team to juggernaut. The US played Spain just before this triumphant moment, traveling to Santander in the final friendly before Euro 2008. Eddie Johnson nearly gave the US the lead in the second half, but his header from an Eddie Lewis cross went wide. It was a decent defensive effort from the US, as Spain needed a moment of magic from Xavi to seal the 1-0 win.
For the Confederations Cup semifinal, Bradley retained the 4-4-2 shape from the Egypt game. The front six remained the same, but Carlos Bocanegra returned from injury to start at left back. Bocanegra, Howard, Dempsey, Bradley, and Onyewu were the five players who also started in the 2008 game.
Eight Spanish players participated in both US encounters. However, Spain found itself utilizing a contingency plan in central midfield. With future New York Cosmos player Marcos Senna not selected for the squad, the brilliant Andres Iniesta injured, and Sergio Busquets not yet a regular starter, Vicente Del Bosque opted for an attacking 4-4-2 diamond. Xabi Alonso anchored the midfield, with Albert Riera, Xavi, and Cesc Fabregas ahead of him.
The game started brightly. Befitting of a team with no pressure, Dempsey attempted a spinning side-foot volley pass to Altidore within the opening seconds. By the 5th minute, Spain and the US traded corner kicks, Davies nearly beat Iker Casillas to a searching pass from Onyewu, and Donovan picked up a yellow card for a foul on Xabi Alonso high up the field. It was a harsh yellow, but reflective of the US’ energy in the opening minutes.
The US created the game’s first chance with an atypical sequence in the 7th minute. Altidore wins a free kick at midfield on the far right side, and plays an immediate re-start to Dempsey. Dempsey eludes Joan Capdevila with a single touch and races down the flank. After exchanging a pass with Altidore, Dempsey plays a cross to an unmarked Davies. Davies’ bicycle attempt goes well wide, but it was a clever warning shot, particularly for a player Spain knew nothing about.
Emboldened, the US continues to press high. Bocanegra wins the ball from Carles Puyol’s attempted clearance, and hits a cross that Davies can’t redirect. Donovan follows a minute later from the same wing, and finds Dempsey just outside the box. Dempsey’s shot goes narrowly wide at the left post, and Casillas delays the goal kick, imploring his team to calm down.
Spain heeds his advice, and the game drops in tempo. In the 11th minute, Fabregas hits a terrific pass to Fernando Torres at the far post behind Bocanegra, but Torres couldn’t stretch enough to connect. Surprisingly, Spain doesn’t benefit from the slower pace. Spain usually embraced the Johan Cryuff axiom that possession means never running far in recovery. Here, though, the Torres-David Villa frontline and narrow midfield played into the hands of the deep 4-4-2, particularly with the defensive commitment from Donovan and Dempsey. They didn’t sacrifice their attacking commitments either, with Donovan creating a half-chance on a counter in the 21st minute.
Midway through the first half, Spain had the bulk of possession, and much of it in the attacking third. Riera and Sergio Ramos venture forward on the left and right with increasing frequency. Aside from a Villa scuffed shot in the box, though, Spain failed to create promising chances. Then, from a seemingly innocuous build-up, the game fundamentally changed.
Onyewu recovers a deflected ball, and slides a pass out to Bocanegra. He searches for Dempsey, but an advanced Ramos breaks-up the play. Bocanegra instead connects with Bradley, who then plays a long ball to Davies on the left flank in the space vacated by Ramos. Davies directs the ball out of the air to Dempsey, and the two casually exchange one-touch passes around Xabi Alonso. Suddenly, Dempsey is with the ball facing goal 35 yards away, and he slips a pass forward to Altidore. Gerard Pique gets a foot on the pass, and Altidore receives the ball perpendicular to goal. He does a tremendous job utilizing his body positioning to discard Capdevila’s challenge, and fires away from 18 yards. Altidore’s shot fortuitously ricochets off of Casillas’ hands – the keeper leaned left, but the ball goes right, and the US takes a 1-0 lead.
Spain responds to the goal by proceeding with the same approach. Xabi Alonso rhythmic distribution to the flanks progresses the attack, but the US defenders repeatedly extinguish the attempts to get behind the backline. Onyewu and Jay DeMerit win virtually every header, while Spector and Bocanegra – two players with extensive experience in central positions – assume narrow positions to deny space. In the 32nd minute, Riera hits a long, speculative shot that deflects off of Torres and falls straight to Villa inside the box. Bocanegra is already tucked-in, though, and does well to deny Villa a clean look at goal, forcing the shot wide.
It’s not until the 38th minute that Spain would create their best sequence of the first half. Ramos finds Xabi Alonso unmarked at midfield, and he splits Clark and Bradley vertically with a precision pass to Xavi The midfielder shrugs off Bradley’s challenge, then feeds Villa just outside the 18. Four US defenders converge, and with his back to goal, Villa fends off Demerit to slide the ball Fabregas, unmarked on the right side. Fabregas touches into the box, but his pass doesn’t connect with Torres in-stride, allowing Onyewu to clear for a corner.
Spain continues with the run of play. In the 42nd minute, Xavi collects on the right flank, and rather than send yet another diagonal ball in to the box, he locates Villa sprinting between DeMerit and Bocanegra. Villa sends a low cross to Ramos at the near post, but Demerit recovers to clears again. Just before halftime, Torres finally attacks in a 1 v. 1 situation. He opens his hips and beats Bocanegra outside with pace, cuts back sharply at the end line, and fires low at the near post. Howard makes the save, and the US thankfully enters halftime with the goal advantage.
At Euro 2008, Guus Hiddink received plaudits for leading Russia to victory over Holland in the quarter-final. In the pre-game build-up, he said, “I’m scared as hell – that’s why we have to attack.”
Spain would dismantle that Russian side 3-0 in the semi-final, scoring all their goals in a masterful second half display. Nine of the Spanish players about to take the field in South Africa played in that game.
The US may not have been scared, but their attacking intent surprised Spain, and the goal was just reward for positive play. However, the last 10 minutes served as a precursor for the next 45 minutes. The US, operating on one fewer day of rest than Spain, immediately discovered it would need physical strength and mental concentration to survive the onslaught from a rejuvenated Spain.
Signs of the US fatigue appeared as early as the 48th minute. Riera quickly throws-in to Xavi, and arguably the world’s best passer is 30 yards from goal with minimal pressure. He threads a pass to a streaking Fabregas, who then one-touches a bouncing ball to Villa. The striker laces a shifting, one-touch shot to the far post from 18 yards out, but Howard extends fully to force the ball wide. Spain quickly re-starts on a short corner with the US still assigning marks, but Xabi Alonso shoots high from outside the box. A minute later, Onyewu recovers a loose ball, but attempts to dribble out of the back. Not surprisingly, he’s dispossessed at midfield, and a mere two passes later, Xavi finds Villa in the box. DeMerit is there to cover, but these opening moments highlight the arduous task ahead for the US.
Aside from Donovan and Dempsey swapping sides, there were no changes to either side. It quickly becomes evident that the US’ inability to retain possession enables wave after wave of Spanish attacks. Villa flicks over Clark to attempt another shot from 6 yards away, but Howard is up to the task. Fabregas then chips to an onrushing Xavi in the box. Donovan – on a yellow – makes contact and floors Xavi, but the ref sees nothing.
It’s not until the 54th minute that the US displays something more than a long ball to Altidore or Davies. Clark reads space well with a great first touch around Xabi Alonso, and marauds forward 50 yards with no resistance. Davies thinks “check to” just as Clark thinks “through ball”, and the first US attack with numbers in the half ends harmlessly in Casillas’ hands.
It’s a brief respite from the one-way traffic. Riera goes 1 v. 1 against Spector, cutting back on his right foot but shooting wide at the near post. Villa once again shoots a minute later, but Spector deflects the shot and the ball bounces softly to Howard. Purely from the shot volume, there’s a sense that it’s not if, but when Spain will equalize.
Altidore wins a corner for the US in the 58th minute, the 3rd to Spain’s 10 at this juncture. The US fail to capitalize, though, and Spain proceeds to split lines and advance into the final third with ease. Tactically, Spain persists with the same game plan, but done better and with more aggressiveness than in the first half.
Despite this pressure, the US prevents Spain from generating clear-cut chances. In the 64th minute, Xavi distributes wide to Ramos, who’s essentially playing as a right wing at this point. Despite the seven US players in the box, Villa receives the cross and lays-off for Riera. He lines up a shot, but DeMerit – the closest defender to Villa – dives and blocks the shot. It’s yet another example of the exceptionally deep US defense defusing the situation.
In what seems like a prelude to his record-setting performance against Belgium, Howard denies yet another shot by saving a near-post Ramos shot. Ramos has another chance, but Clark sacrifices his body to block it. Del Bosque has seen enough, and Santi Cazorla replaces Fabregas in midfield. The US counters immediately, as Benny Feilhaber replaces Davies. Whereas Cazorla fulfills the same role as Fabregas, the US adjusts its shape to a 4-4-1-1, with Dempsey underneath Altidore and Feilhaber at left mid.
This US change would prove monumentally effective minutes later. The US abandons all pretense of possession, and Howard sends another goal kick long that’s cleared by Pique. Spector’s throw-in leads to a turnover, but Dempsey deflects a backpass from Capdavila intended for Xabi Alonso. Bradley presses the result, and his tackle ends up at the feet of Feilhaber. Befitting of the guy who was subbed on for his passing and retention, he blows past Ramos with one touch and engages three defenders at the top of the box before pushing wide for Donovan at the 18. Donovan seeks Dempsey at the far post, but Pique deflects the cross. However, the ball rolls past Casillas, who already committed to containing the cross, and ends up under the foot of Ramos. Unaware of the looming danger, Ramos takes a touch to control the ball, enabling Dempsey to recover and use a single touch to knock the ball home at the near post. It’s a goal that highlighted Dempsey’s most differentiated skills in the US player pool: constant motion in the box, and an insatiable desire to score.
In the stunned aftermath of the goal, Altidore wins a free-kick by standing motionless, allowing Ramos to knock him over. It’s a smart play for a team that has created nothing in the half but the critical second goal.
Finally, some tactical variation from Spain. Juan Mata replaces Riera, and Mata plays as a true left wing, with Villa and Torres grouped tighter in the middle. Mata’s wide positioning stretches the US defense horizontally, opening up new angles for Spain. Xabi Alonso drills a powerful shot with pace in the 81st minute, but Howard punches away. Donovan anticipates the next ball to Mata brilliantly, and intercepts to initiate a rare spell of possession from the US. Feilhaber pivots and tries to find Altidore making a run, but the striker is erroneously called offside, denying a breakaway.
Conor Casey replaces Altidore in the 84th minute, solidifying the US’ intention to play long to preserve the victory. Playing the clock as well as the opponent, the US’ bunkers deep, with all 10 men behind the ball. The exuberance that prevents each Spanish shot on goal would have harsh consequences in the 86th minute. Ricardo Clark makes yet another diving tackle, knocking the ball loose from Xavi. Bradley slides in to win the result, but makes contact with Xabi Alonso and receives a harsh red card. Bradley is distraught; remarkably, it’s the third red card in four games for the US.
Incredibly, Spain can’t capitalize on the man advantage, and they stubbornly send cross after cross into the box. Clark makes another block, Onyewu clears away with a header, Feilhaber blasts a ball into the stands – it’s the type of last-stand, committed defending one envisions when an underdog topples a giant.
Bradley makes one more adjustment, as Jonathan Bornstein replaces Dempsey in the 88th minute, taking the field at left mid while Feilhaber joins Clark in the middle to form a 4-4-1. It’s a wise sub; though there are just minutes remaining, it keeps the back 4 intact with a familiar shape in front of them.
There is no final flurry from Spain. Mata plays a give-and-go with Villa in the box, but Howard pounces off the line. The US snuffs out each attack in quick succession: Onyewu clears a Xavi cross; Bornstein blocks a Cazorla cross; the tireless Donovan tracks back deep and interrupts a Villa shot…and that’s it. A jubilant US bench sprints on to the field. Torres and Onyewu swap shirts, as do Xabi Alonso and DeMerit. It’s the first loss for Spain in 35 games, a stretch spanning two-and-a-half years.
After winning the Confederations Cup 2009 third place game, Spain resumed its march of dominance. It strung together another 12-game winning streak, going undefeated in World Cup 2010 qualifying. The echoes of this win would reverberate a year later, though, as Switzerland shockingly upset Spain 1-0 in the World Cup 2010 group stage. Swiss coach Ottmar Hitzfeld revealed he utilized the US win over Spain as a template for his gameplan. Del Bosque led Spain to World Cup and Euro trophies, but this shocking US result still appeared as a notable moment of his eight-year tenure.
The US endured a heartbreaking loss to Brazil in the Confederation Cup final, where a 2-0 lead from excellent Dempsey and Donovan goals evaporated in the second half. Despite stumbling at the last hurdle, Bradley embraced the tactical shape from the victory over Spain. A 4-2-2-2 with Donovan and Dempsey in the second attacking band became the default US formation, with the 4-4-1-1 the primary Plan B. However, a brutal injury toll would hinder the effectiveness of these tactics. Davies, Onyewu, Stuart Holden, and Jermaine Jones either missed the World Cup or were half-fit at the tournament. The 2010 World Cup was a case study of the friction between tactical plans and personnel. In each game, the US fell behind while in the 4-2-2-2, ultimately looking more dangerous when making a change in the second half. The US advanced to the knock-out stage, but a loss in extra-time to Ghana left a minor feeling that this team could have advanced further.
As a US soccer fan, it’s always tempting to look for a signature turning point, one result that signifies the US’ progression in the sport. Instead of associating larger meaning to the win over Spain, it’s time to appreciate the victory on its individual merit. For one game, the US solved the Spanish puzzle that had stumped the world.