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Jun 21, 2009

U.S. team fires back at its critics with win over Egypt

RUSTENBURG, South Africa -- Bob Bradley rarely smiles. If he makes jokes, it's in private. His sideline demeanor is an audition tape for Mount Rushmore. And there are gigabytes of fan posts on soccer message boards ripping him for that, and for his U.S. national team's recent run of inconsistency. But on Sunday, while his squad pulled off one of the most unlikely comebacks in its history and qualified for the semifinals of the Confederations Cup, Bradley could be seen pumping clenched fists after goals, shouting in celebration, and in the end, walking off the pitch with a wry smile.

Bradley's emotional display was more than appropriate for the moment, a 3-0 victory over the African champion, Egypt. His side had been written off after losses to world powers Brazil and Italy earlier in the week. And a group of noisy cyberspace fans began clamoring for his scalp, even starting a Facebook page demanding his firing. But the national team's win over Egypt, the figurative, and perhaps literal, sweethearts of this tournament -- the Pharaohs managed to upset world champion Italy 1-0 AND be implicated in an alleged prostitution scandal in a 48-hour span -- should abate the baying. At least until Wednesday's semifinal against Spain.

Thing is, Bradley doesn't care. People can criticize all they want. "I don't pay any attention to it," he said after the match. "It goes with the territory." What major changes did he make after a difficult 3-1 loss to Italy where they controlled the match for the first 55 minutes, and a 3-0 drubbing against Brazil where they controlled the match for zero seconds. "There was nothing different," said Landon Donovan.

"My ways of doing things are set," Bradley said.

He tells his players there will always be things "flying around on the outside." His approach? Ignore it. Keep it "on the inside." And, as he put it, "Put a hard shell on it." So on the field, they did. All night, the players kept hustling and pressuring and clawing, until they broke two painful streaks with Charlie Davies' pure-persistence goal in the 21st minute. Until then, the Yanks had gone four straight matches without a goal from the run of play, and three of four without scoring first. They had also earned red cards in two straight games, and played Italy and Brazil a man down for 90 of 180 minutes.

All of that weight seemed to evaporate after Davies rattled the ball in off beleaguered Egyptian keeper Essam El Hadary. For once, the ball started rolling the Americans' way, and when the team learned at halftime that they'd finally caught a break in the tournament, with Brazil in the process of drubbing Italy 3-0 and opening the door to advance to the semis, the U.S. players kept it rolling.

Michael Bradley, the coach's son, completed a beautiful give-and-go with Landon Donovan to put the U.S. up 2-0 in the 63rd minute, sliding the ball past El Hadary, and all of a sudden the Yanks had a real chance. That's when Bradley the elder gave it a double Tiger Woods fist pump, his eyes ablaze.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Spain
Wednesday
Mangaung/Bloemfontein, South Africa
2:25 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN360

His second outburst came on Clint Dempsey's header from a perfect Jonathan Spector cross nine minutes later, another double fist pump that started to venture into Kirk Gibson World Series homer territory. And why not? The goal provided the U.S. with exactly what they needed to go through, winning the tiebreakers in margin of victory and goals scored.

The coach returned to his usual cool form in his postgame press conference. "We're excited to move on," he said, not sounding very excited at all. If Bradley didn't express what the team felt afterward, that was OK, too. The Yanks' next game is against the No.1-rated team in the world.

Anyway, his son Michael expressed more than enough emotion for the whole family, and for the whole team. "At the end of the night you walk into the locker room and to be able experience the feeling you have with your teammates, your coaches, with the trainers, that's why you play," the midfielder said. "To do something special like that, where everything is against you, everybody wants to say how bad you are, everybody wants to write you off, to leave all that bull s--- outside the locker room and just be committed to the team, to leave everything on the field, to run for each other, to fight for each other, that's what we did."

The younger Bradley's voice brimmed with emotion as he talked about the significance not of the victory, but of the effort. It was a direct kick at the critics who'd said the team lacked fire. "We played with 11 guys for 90 minutes," Michael Bradley said. "All the f------ experts in America, everybody who thinks they know about soccer, they can all look at the score tonight and let's see what they have to say now. Nobody has any respect for what we do, for what goes on on the inside, so let them all talk now."

Somebody started a question, telling him that nobody thought the U.S. could advance. "That's clear, nobody thought," he said. "We didn't for one second feel sorry for ourselves. We didn't give up. We kept running, we kept fighting, and we did the same thing tonight. Guys get ready for the game, guys believe in one another. Guys are ready for 90 minutes to go out and run and fight and give everything they have for the next guy."

You want fire? The U.S. soccer team last night had an answer: How ya like us now?

Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Mag.

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