Bob Bradley could have looked at the scenarios the United States needed to advance in the Confederations Cup and decided that Sunday's game against Egypt would be a game to rest veterans and give youngsters a look. He could have decided, as most might have in his position, that beating Egypt 3-0 and having Italy lose 3-0 was such an improbability that even planning for that possibility would be crazy.
Bradley ignored all that and instead showed confidence in his team when there were plenty of reasons not to have confidence. He gave Tim Howard a rest, starting the capable Brad Guzan instead, but the rest of his lineup was as strong as he could field. He selected a starting lineup and showed faith in a group that responded with a performance that won't soon be forgotten.
Bradley watched his own son deliver a Father's Day present in the form of a clutch goal, then struggling veteran Clint Dempsey repaid Bradley's faith in him with a vital goal that helped the United States pull off a 3-0 win and edge out Egypt and Italy for a berth in the Confederations Cup semifinals after Italy collapsed in a 3-0 loss to Brazil.
By putting together the type of gutsy and memorable match that had been lacking in their first two Confederations Cup matches, the Americans scored a victory that meant so much more than just a result, while also helping salvage a tournament that previously looked like a lost cause.
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As important as reaching the semifinals is, the story of the day is the U.S. team's ability to rebound and respond after its worst loss in recent memory, the 3-0 setback to Brazil on Thursday. The Americans looked to be in crisis mode, with few players stepping up their game and Bradley facing mounting pressure after three losses in four matches.
Whereas his moves had come up short in recent weeks, Bradley had the Midas touch with his tactics Sunday. He started young speedster Charlie Davies up top instead of veteran Conor Casey
or Landon Donovan
, and Davies repaid him with a gritty and effective performance capped by the first goal of the match. His tenacity in pouncing on a loose ball in the area resulted in the U.S. team's first goal and a boost of confidence the Americans desperately needed if they were going to pull off an improbable trip to the semifinals.
Bradley also turned to Ricardo Clark
instead of Benny Feilhaber, ignoring Clark's first-game red card and choosing Clark's midfield bite over Feilhaber's vision and passing touch. The result was a strong performance by Clark that helped neutralize Egyptian midfield ace Mohamed Aboutrika and allowed Michael Bradley the freedom to get forward and boost the U.S. attack.
Perhaps Bradley's most important move was the one he didn't make. Rather than benching an ineffective Dempsey for the Egypt match, he started the veteran, and when Dempsey struggled through 70 minutes, Bradley had another chance to bench the Fulham midfielder. Instead of replacing Dempsey, he moved Dempsey up to forward and close to goal, where he can be so dangerous. Dempsey responded with a perfect header off a pinpoint cross from Jonathan Spector to make the score 3-0 and give the Americans the goal they needed to advance to a semifinal meeting (Wednesday, 2:25 p.m. ET, ESPN) against Spain, the No. 1 team in the world.
In the end, it wasn't about Bradley's moves and decisions, but about the faith he showed in his players and his team, faith that was rewarded on Sunday. Faith that produced an unforgettable result that will only make the team stronger as it moves toward next year's World Cup.
Sunday's victory wasn't just about the surprising contributions, but also about the important performances from the top American players who are expected to deliver in these types of occasions. Landon Donovan once again showed that he can be dangerous operating out of the left wing spot, creating a handful of chances, and combining with Bradley on the sequence that led to Bradley's goal.
Oguchi Onyewu was a rock in central defense yet again, dominating the air and essentially eliminating Egypt's aerial assault. Helped by another steady performance from Jay DeMerit, Onyewu certainly improved his stock on the open club market and will now be rewarded with a chance to face the likes of Fernando Torres and David Villa.
Then there was Michael Bradley, who provided the attacking spark in central midfield that had been missing through the first two matches. While many critics were clamoring for Jose Francisco Torres or Freddy Adu to be played in order to give the U.S. attack a much-needed creative boost, Michael Bradley delivered just that, putting a handful of good shots on frame, laying off quality passes, and putting it all together on a highlight-reel sequence finished off by a classy goal.
It should not be forgotten that the Americans were facing a short-handed Egypt team playing without star striker Mohamed Zidan (as well as absent strikers Amr Zaki and Mido). However, the U.S. was due some breaks after having them go against it in its first two games -- the harsh red card on Clark in the Italy match and the phantom foul call that led to the first goal in Brazil's 3-0 romp.
Against the Pharaohs, the U.S. combined inspired play with some good luck to post Sunday's victory. From Zidan's absence, to the sequence on Davies' goal -- in which Egyptian defender Fathi accidentally kick his own goalkeeper, freeing up the ball for Davies to pounce on -- the Americans got a few breaks on this Father's Day, which was always going to be necessary if they were going to pull off the improbable.
When the United States won the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Bob Bradley spoke about the importance of winning that event and getting the chance to play in the 2009 Confederations Cup and having the U.S. team gain experience by testing itself in an international tournament. The tournament has provided every bit the test Bradley could have wanted, both for his team and for himself. While he and his team struggled through the first two matches, both passed a major test on Sunday and neither could have done it without the other.
Player grades (scale of 1-10)
GK, Brad Guzan, 6.5 -- Came out well on the crosses Onyewu didn't get to and showed very good hands. Steady throughout.
D, Jonathan Spector, 7 -- Rarely beaten, Spector was steady defensively and showed his crossing ability on Dempsey's goal, one of the best crosses by an American in recent memory.
D, Oguchi Onyewu, 7.5 -- One of the best -- if not the best -- performances of Onyewu's national team career. Won everything in the air and nobody could get around him.
D, Jay DeMerit, 7 -- Another good match for the Watford defender, who made timely tackles and stayed in good position at all times.
D, Jonathan Bornstein, 5.5 -- Caught out of position on a handful of occasions, Bornstein played a decent match, though his hold on the left-back spot isn't quite rock solid just yet.
M, Landon Donovan, 7.5 -- Was everywhere for the Americans, showing yet again that he works well attacking from the left wing. His combination play on Bradley's goal was special and only a few missed chances in the first half keeps Donovan from a higher rating.
M, Michael Bradley, 8 -- Needed to get more involved in the attack and responded with shots on goal, crisp passes and a great goal of his own. He did all that while still contributing his share of timely tackles.
M, Ricardo Clark, 7 -- Did the heavy lifting in central midfield, helping contain Aboutrika and giving Michael Bradley the freedom to get forward.
M, Clint Dempsey, 6.5 -- Started well, then faded badly for most of the match, but when he moved to forward he had new life and delivered the crucial third goal.
F, Charlie Davies, 7.5 -- The young speedster provided energy throughout and pestered the Egypt defense constantly. His goal came about through sheer hustle.
F, Jozy Altidore, 6 -- His sweet turn in the penalty area and cross led to Davies' goal, and he was robbed of a goal by a clear handball that wasn't called. Improved as the game went on, but he struggled at times with his passing and hold-up play.
M, Benny Feilhaber, 5 -- Didn't have much to do but helped keep the pressure on in midfield.
M, Conor Casey, 5.5 -- Nothing flashy but he did what he was brought on to do: receive passes and kill the clock with some strong possession. Even headed away an Egypt corner kick late.
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Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.