Yes, yes, yes. Spain had an off night. It has been a long season and their players may have been tired. And so on. Let’s drop the excuses, here. Spain, the European champions and, if you read the print media in much of Europe, already the World Cup winners a year before the tournament, were beaten by a better team on this extraordinary evening in Bloemfontein. This evening, the USA were better organised, more committed and took their chances when they were presented to them. The question now is whether they can translate a result like this into something more concrete. It’s the biggest surprise in the latter stages of an international competition since Croatia dumped Germany so royally out of the 1998 World Cup. The USA team’s next job is to work towards this sort of a result not being a surprise any more.
For the first couple of minutes Spain swarmed forward, but the pace of the game was soon being dictated by the Americans. They had wondered aloud what may happen if Spain didn’t properly turn up for this match, and the game plan was clear. Run, chase, tackle. Don’t give them time or space to stop and think. It was as much as they could do, but it was enough. This wasn’t the blanket defence of the minnow playing the major nation, it was deep defending, absorption and playing on the counter attack. Within ten minutes, Charlie Davies had bicycle kicked wide and Clint Dempsey had shot narrowly wide. All they needed to do was maintain the momentum and convert it into something more meaningful and the surprise result could be on.
After twenty-six minutes, the goal game. Jozy Altidore’s shot wasn’t the best placed in the world, and if Iker Casillas wants to be considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world he can’t afford to let through too many more like that, but it went in and America had the lead. Spain’s response was laboured. The huffing and puffing of a team which, one suspected, wasn’t as used to being made to really work for it as they should have been. Every time they attacked, the final ball was not quite right, or the critical tackle came flying in. Half time came with the USA leading by a single goal and thoroughly deserving it.
One might have expected Spain to shuffle the pack at half-time, but the European champions came out for the second half largely offering more of the same. Alonso shot over from just outside the penalty area and Xavi cost his side a penalty by diving when he didn’t need to after being barged in the back by Clint Dempsey. Still, though, the majority of the chances falling to Spain were coming from a comparatively safe distance from the goal or swatted away before they fell to one of the strikers. Then, with sixteen minutes to play, the killer blow. Landon Donovan’s low cross from the right wasn’t a great one, but Sergio Ramos, instead of doing the sensible thing and lumping the ball as hard as he could out of the ground, tried to control the ball on the edge of the six yard area without noticing that Clint Dempsey was behind him and Dempsey stole the ball from him and rolled it in.
Spain had nothing left to give. They dominated the final fifteen minutes but there was no point at which one felt as if the favourites were going to claw their way back into the match. There was one black mark for the USA – manager Bob Bradley’s son Michael was sent off for a high challenge on Xavi, but the anticipated tense finish simply never materialised. The two goals both had an element of fortune to them, but the defensive display from the USA had been magnificent. Spain couldn’t manage a clear goalscoring opportunity in the last twenty minutes. It was this above anything else which merited their passage through to the final of this competition.
Brazil or South Africa await in the final. From a broader perspective, however, the question remains: Europe has been fearing a strong American side since they hosted the World Cup in 1994, but the story of the American team since then has been a story of false dawns. A creditable performance as hosts in 1994 was followed by a disastrous World Cup in 1998 which ended with them losing to Iran. Another good performance in 2002 (during which they beat Portugal and Mexico before being edged out in the quarter-finals by Germany) was followed by another flaccid tournament in Germany.
This result will undoubtedly raise the profile in the game in the USA, but we will have to wait and see whether this incarnation of the new world can overhaul the old. Tonight may yet turn out to be another false dawn for the USA, but it is worth wondering whether a football nation that is one of the few that still has to win over a significant proportion of its domestic poulation might at least turn another corner at home with this win. For a team that looked dead and buried in the Confederations Cup this time last week, that in itself would be a significant achievement. No matter what happens on Sunday, the soccer evangelists have had more than one victory tonight.