To Hell And Back

Against first-round competition even stiffer than they'll see at next year's World Cup, the U.S. men showed their worst side, then their best, in South Africa
June 28, 2009

The man in charge of American soccer says he's obsessive about returning every one of his e-mail messages, which made the miraculous events of Sunday night in South Africa even sweeter for Sunil Gulati, the mild-mannered Columbia economics professor and president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. By his own account Gulati had received some 200 e-mails from angry fans demanding that U.S. coach Bob Bradley be fired after the Americans' embarrassing 3--0 loss to Brazil on June 18 in the Confederations Cup, a dress rehearsal for next year's World Cup that includes the champions of each continent. The U.S.'s Hell Week had begun with a hard-fought 3--1 loss to Italy and figured only to continue against surging Egypt, the champion of Africa: To qualify for the semifinals the U.S. had to beat the Pharaohs by three goals and hope Brazil could do the same against Italy, the reigning World Cup champ.

Considering that the mighty Azzurri had lost by as many as three goals only once in a major tournament since 1970, the U.S.'s chances seemed as likely as the prospect of a UFO landing on the field at Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg. What were the odds—1,000 to 1? 10,000-to-1? Last Saturday a senior FIFA official asked Gulati if he planned to stay for the following weekend's final or go home with the U.S. team after Sunday's game.

And then, in one of the most remarkable nights in American soccer history, the astronomical long shot came through. Before halftime in Pretoria, Brazil poured in three goals in eight minutes against suddenly hapless Italy. At the same time in Rustenburg, the U.S. built a 1--0 halftime advantage after forward Charlie Davies struck a freakish goal off the face of Egypt keeper Essam El Hadary. According to media accounts, the Egyptians had pulled a Eugene Robinson three nights earlier when several players were allegedly robbed in their hotel rooms by prostitutes. The Americans, meanwhile, saved their scoring for the field. "We knew what the score was between Brazil and Italy," said U.S. midfielder Clint Dempsey, and so they pushed forward, going up 2--0 on a 63rd-minute goal by midfielder Michael Bradley, the coach's son. When Dempsey headed home an immaculate cross from defender Jonathan Spector eight minutes later, the unthinkable was real.

U.S. 3, Egypt 0.

Brazil 3, Italy 0.

Italy and Egypt were out. The U.S. was in. And no matter what would happen in Wednesday's semifinal between the U.S. and Spain—champion of Europe and the top-ranked team in the world—one thing at least was certain: On a cool winter's night in a dusty town in the southern reaches of Africa, American soccer had rediscovered its heart.

The Confederations Cup isn't as important as the World Cup, but it offered a rare chance for the U.S. to face several of the world's elite teams in competitive matches (not just friendlies) only 12 months before the main event. And for all the flaws that the Yanks displayed against Brazil last week, on Sunday they showed big league cojones. In a group that will surely be harder than the one the U.S. would face in South Africa next year, the Americans had somehow risen from the dead to advance. "I can't imagine many times that something like this has happened," said U.S. forward Landon Donovan. "When you think about it, to have advanced out of a group with Brazil, Italy and the African champions is phenomenal."

Or as defender Jonathan Bornstein said afterward, "It's like that quote from Dumb and Dumber [after Lauren Holly tells Jim Carrey he has a million-to-one shot of landing her]: 'So you're telling me there's a chance!' That's what we kept saying."

If one of the qualities of a true soccer country is facing harsh public criticism and responding with results on the global stage, last week showed that the U.S. may finally have arrived. "We had a lot of correspondence from fans who weren't happy, and in some ways that's a big positive, because they care enough," a beaming Gulati said afterward of the irate messages that had flooded his in-box. "I will respond to all of them. It'll be a little bit easier tonight."

The U.S.'s Hell Week had begun with a punch to the gut. It wasn't necessarily that the Americans played poorly in their 3--1 opening-game loss to Italy on June 15. They even took a 1--0 lead on Donovan's first-half penalty kick (despite being short a man after midfielder Ricardo Clark's red card) before the Azzurri eventually wore them down. The pain came from another source: Giuseppe Rossi, the dynamic 22-year-old midfielder whose two goals sank the Americans. Rossi, whose parents were born in Italy, spent the first 12 years of his life in Clifton, N.J., before moving to Europe to join the development program of Serie A club Parma. A kid who turned down the chance to play for the U.S. in 2005 now has the potential to become the first U.S.--born soccer superstar. The price tag for potential suitors to buy Rossi from Spain's Villarreal is an estimated $25 million.

The Italian media call Rossi's sports journey "the American dream," but his breakout performance against his birth country was an American nightmare, to say nothing of a reminder that the U.S., for all its potential, has yet to produce its own transcendent soccer player. The simple question—why not?—is confounding even to experts. Granted, the U.S. has a tradition of fine goalkeepers in the English Premier League (Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller, Tim Howard). But while the best American field players in European soccer have been respected pros (Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna, Dempsey, John Harkes, Eric Wynalda), none has achieved stardom, which could be defined as regularly starting for a top team in one of the Big Four leagues in Europe—England, Spain, Italy and Germany—and commanding worldwide attention.

Surely by now, after 13 years of Major League Soccer and nearly two decades of regular World Cup berths, there should have been an outlier, an American player who hit it big in Europe. After all, countries ranked below the U.S. have produced such players. South Korea's Park Ji-Sung started in the recent Champions League final for Manchester United. Mexico's Hugo Sànchez claimed five Spanish scoring crowns, four of them with Real Madrid. Even tiny Trinidad & Tobago's Dwight Yorke was the starting striker for Man U's greatest team, in 1998--99.

Rossi's big game raised the query: Where's Our Guy? In 1998 the U.S. Soccer Federation launched Project 2010, an audacious plan whose goal was to seriously contend for the World Cup title by next year. The real objective of Project 2010 was to win millions of investment dollars from Nike, and in that regard U.S. Soccer succeeded. The money kick-started the USSF's residency program for top teenagers in Bradenton, Fla., which has produced several players on the current U.S. senior team, none more recognized than Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Freddy Adu. But in his sixth year as a pro, Adu, 20, has yet to earn regular playing time on any of the four clubs he has played for, much less on the national team. (Though called to the Confederations Cup squad, he did not appear in any of the first three games.) At 27, Beasley is a shadow of the winger who showed so much potential at the 2002 World Cup. And while Donovan, 27, is arguably the finest player in U.S. history, having set the national team's alltime goal-scoring record, he's better known in Europe as a three-time flameout in the German Bundesliga.

The U.S. has had its moments, of course, reaching the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals and establishing regional dominance over archrival Mexico (which may not even qualify for World Cup 2010). The pool of national team players has deepened considerably, and more American players than ever are plying their trade in Europe, including 19-year-old forward Jozy Altidore, who was purchased by Rossi's Villarreal last year for a U.S.--record $10 million. (Altidore spent last season on loan to the Spanish second-division outfit Xerez, where he didn't get off the bench.) But the U.S.'s first-round exit at World Cup 2006 was a step backward from the adrenaline rush of '02, when the Yanks played with a cocky underdog's brashness against Portugal, Mexico and Germany.

"Progress is not linear and it's not an upward trend right through," says Gulati. "I don't think we have to apologize for the state of the game in the United States. We've come a long way, we've got a long way to go, and we're getting better. But that doesn't mean we're going to improve in every game or in every World Cup or in every six-month period. It's the same everywhere. Spain's on a phenomenal run; Argentina is not. England's on a good run; Mexico is not. These are the top teams in the world, and they go through cycles. The truth of where we are probably lies somewhere between [the results of] '02 and '06. That's the reality."

Reality is a word you hear a lot in American soccer circles, and for good reason. Winning a World Cup is possibly the hardest feat in sports, if only because of the truly global competition. Just ask Spain and the Netherlands, two soccer giants that have never raised the trophy. But the disturbing reality of the U.S. team against Brazil on June 18 was clear: The Americans turned in an amateur-hour display against the five-time World Cup champion, failing to complete simple passes and such rudimentary tasks as trapping the ball. The U.S. players looked "tentative" and "nervous," by the admission of their own coach, and the fire and balls-out swagger of the 2002 team was a distant memory. Goalkeeper Howard compared the U.S. and Brazil to David and Goliath, but wasn't that kind of characterization supposed to be consigned to the bad old days?

In the Brazil game it appeared that the team-first confidence that permeated the 1994 and 2002 World Cup squads ("that American thing," as Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson once called it) was nowhere near what it used to be. What had happened to the U.S.'s heart? "We have raised a generation of boys as opposed to men in U.S. soccer, and it is coming back to haunt us," says Alexi Lalas, the former U.S. World Cup defender who's still the only American in the modern era (other than Rossi) to have played in Italy's Serie A. "In our desire to identify the most talented players, we forgot the other part of the equation, which is a passion, a heart, a personality that combined with even mediocre ability can allow you to do some good things."

Indeed, the U.S. players and coaching staff endured all manner of brickbats from their fans and the media after the Brazil loss. It's part of the game in a genuine soccer culture, and to the U.S.'s credit the players responded in the most emphatic way against Egypt. The old American fire was suddenly as bright as ever. The Yanks could have wilted early in the second half after the referee failed to whistle an apparent hand-ball penalty on Egypt's Hani Said, but instead they kept pressing for the two decisive goals they needed. "I'm a very proud American, and this is one of the things that Americans are capable of," said Donovan. "We have a spirit that a lot of people don't have, and we showed it tonight."

If Lalas was looking for players with passion, he would have gotten some from Michael Bradley, who no doubt was aware of the message boards and Facebook pages calling for his father's dismissal. "All the f------ experts in America, everybody who thinks they know everything about soccer, they can all look at the score tonight, and let's see what they have to say now, all right?" said an emotional Bradley after the game. "Nobody has any respect for what we do, for what goes on on the inside [of the team], so let them all talk now."

It was a hard-earned moment of vindication for the U.S. players—and for their coach. Bob Bradley, a former player and coach at Princeton, has been criticized as an Ivy League technocrat who lacks the requisite bravado to coach on the world stage, but there Bradley was on the bench Sunday night, pumping his arms and exhorting his players to the most memorable U.S. victory since the 2002 World Cup. "It goes with the territory," Bradley said afterward of his critics. "I've coached long enough that my ways of doing things are set. You make sure the players understand that there will always be stuff that flies around on the outside, but none of it can come inside and affect what we're doing. The ability to put a hard shell around things, establish trust and stick to what we're doing—that's what the job is. That's what good teams are."

By the end of Hell Week, it was still fair to ask: Is the U.S. a good team? The Americans rekindled their old spirit against Egypt, but if the goal of the Confederations Cup was to measure themselves against the world's best, some of the concerns arising from the first two games still lingered. Wednesday's semifinal against Spain would be a perfect chance to provide more conclusive answers. One year away from World Cup 2010, much remains to be learned.

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Complete Confederations Cup coverage from Grant Wahl at SI.com/bonus

The criticism was harsh: Says Lalas, "We have raised a generation of boys as opposed to men in U.S. soccer."

"All the f------ experts in America," said Michael Bradley, "let's see what they have to say now, all right?"

PHOTOPhotograph by PAUL THOMAS/APPRIDE STILL MATTERS Their character questioned after the loss to Brazil, Donovan and company rediscovered their heart against Egypt. PHOTOKIM LUDBROOK/EPACONFED UP Donovan (10) and Benny Feilhaber (22) wrestled with Italy's attack as Howard (in green) tried to sort out his defense. PHOTOMIKE HEWITT/FIFA/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTOROBERT GHEMENT/EPA[See caption above] PHOTOVLADIMIR RYS/BONGARTS/GETTY IMAGESSAMBA LESSON Robinho (11) and Brazil left the Americans spinning in their shoes. PHOTOREBECCA BLACKWELL/APNET GAIN Davies stuck with the ball during a mad scramble to knock in the first against Egypt. PHOTOPAUL THOMAS/APTAKE THAT The final goal, from Dempsey (8), completed the miracle and pushed the U.S. into the semis.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)