Finally, the U.S. men's national team's long-standing advertising slogan titled "Don't Tread On Me" can be worn proudly – and accurately.
After all too often curling up into a ball and pleading for mercy against world powers, Bob Bradley's team threw off its shackles on Wednesday night to deliver one of the greatest results in U.S. soccer history.
Written off going into the Confederations Cup and ridiculed after blowout losses in their first two games, somehow Bradley's players found the will and the way to defeat Spain 2-0 on Wednesday and clinch a place in Sunday's championship game of South Africa's 2010 World Cup warmup event.
Somewhere in that wondrous and diverse land, this collection of players from clubs all around Europe and North America found a common understanding. Out of the ashes of a 3-0 defeat to Brazil that resembled champions against children came the most improbable of revivals. Last Sunday's 3-0 victory over Egypt sparked some confidence, but even that improved performance gave little indication of what was to come.
Virtually the same group of players was dreadful against Brazil and outclassed by Italy. The tactics were not drastically different, either. But the mindset was a world apart. From the outset, the U.S. proved to Spain that it would not be bowed, even against a team ranked the best on the planet. The Americans attacked hard and early and set some seeds of doubt into the minds of an opponent that could have been forgiven for expecting an easy ride.
Now, the USA is not suddenly a world beater. It should not be expected to start conquering elite opponents with regularity. However, what this performance does is teach Bradley's men a vital lesson.
They don't need to be afraid anymore.
Whether it is Spain, Brazil, Germany or Argentina, they are playing against human beings. Just as importantly, beating Spain delivers a signal of intent to prospective World Cup rivals. Suddenly, other teams will sit up and take notice.
At this stage, it looks likely that the U.S. will be one of the third seeds going into the World Cup draw later this year – assuming, of course, that qualification is safely negotiated. Now, with some justification, the Americans can be seen as a dangerous opponent capable of springing a shock victory instead of merely a soft touch.
Fear was the biggest problem engulfing this side, not a chronic lack of ability. On this night, there was none of it. The reputation of Spain, with all of its superstars and a world-record 15-game win streak, counted for nothing.
For that, Bradley must be given credit. He not only had his players fired up to perform, but he also instilled in them the necessity for an aggressive start. Spain was surprised by the fluency and verve of the USA and had to be wondering what happened to the team that was so inept earlier in the tournament.
Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey were the goal scorers, but there were many heroes on this night of nights. Landon Donovan was inspired, orchestrating like the kind of leader USA fans have wanted him to be for years. Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark flung themselves into the fray against the awesome Spanish midfield.
Tim Howard stood tall in goal every time he was called upon, and the backline of Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit and Jonathan Spector resisted wave after wave from Spain's lethal strike duo of Fernando Torres and David Villa. The only lowlight was Michael Bradley's harsh red card for a late lunge, but by then, the result was already beyond doubt.
The Confederations Cup may not register at the top of the international soccer agenda, but don't think for a moment Spain didn't want to win it. The expressions carved into the faces of the Spanish players told a tale that will be treated with utter disbelief when the reigning European champions return home.
Sure, the World Cup is where the U.S. truly needs to show what it is capable of. And one upset victory does not make the Americans a world beater or a favorite to lift the ultimate prize in 12 months time. But the USA is a team to tread carefully in the presence of now. It's no longer an opponent to trample all over.
- Bob Bradley
- Michael Bradley