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Jun 24, 2009

U.S. sends shockwaves across Europe with win against Spain

The United States' memorable bid for the ultimate tournament rally lives on. A night of stubborn, committed defending and opportunistic sniping saw the United States upend mighty Spain 2-0 in an absolute stunner.

Just a few days earlier, Bob Bradley's men had been written off as finished in the Confederations Cup. But a brave, highly improbable three-goal win over Egypt pushed the United States into the tournament semifinals and arranged the stage for Wednesday's shocker. Still, few gave the United States much of a chance against the world's No. 1 side, a fluid Spanish team blessed with elegant midfielders and prolific strikers.

Now a date with either Brazil or South Africa awaits on Sunday (the Brazilian giants and the Confederation Cup hosts meet on Thursday in the second semifinal). But Bradley's side, full of properly channeled fight and purpose in Wednesday's 2-0 win, has surely won some absolution after a spring of performances that ranged from OK to indifferent to fairly pitiful.

Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey supplied Wednesday's goals, but inspiring performances could be found all over the field in a result that's sure to make global headlines. It snapped the reigning European champions' 15-match winning streak and jaw-dropping 35-match unbeaten streak.

Tim Howard was a force in goal. His adamant stand will surely evoke comparisons to Kasey Keller's massive night in the U.S. net in a similarly stunning 1998 upset over Brazil in the Gold Cup final. In front of Howard, center backs Jay DeMerit and Oguchi Onyewu were shot-blocking giants, lunging, stretching and diving time and again to reach shots or poke balls from Spanish strikers David Villa and Fernando Torres before they could endanger the goal. Midfielder Ricardo Clark retreated into deep spots near the goal to provide more of the same.

Landon Donovan, supremely fit, covered honestly and reliably on defense and was always aggressive in sprinting forward on the attack. On one of those hard runs forward, Donovan and substitute Benny Feilhaber conspired to set up Dempsey for the late insurance goal. Dempsey had a hand in both U.S. goals, feeding Altidore on the critical first-half strike and exploiting Sergio Ramos' sloppy, thoughtless defense for the late goal. Dempsey started at a wide midfield spot but scored for the second consecutive game after, interestingly, he was shifted forward into a striker's position. Dempsey plays in the midfield for Fulham, but his latest pair of strikes will surely renew enduring debates about whether he's better when deployed closer to goal.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Brazil
Sunday
Ellis Park, Johannesburg, South Africa
2 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN360.com

In terms of magnitude, Wednesday's victory on a cold night in South Africa may not preside quite as sweetly as modern-era upsets over Portugal and Mexico in 2002, or a breakthrough result over Colombia in 1994, for those were meaningful World Cup triumphs. But in terms of perceived imbalance in talent, this one stands tall.

"It was a great team effort," Bradley told the world TV feed just minutes after the match. "To beat an amazing team like Spain and make the final, it's big. We played as hard as we could, and that's what it took. Every guy contributed, so it's a very good feeling."

Against all odds
• The U.S. had been 1-7-1, and winless (0-5-1) in its previous six matches, vs. top-ranked teams.

• Spain was on an international-record 15-match win streak, and was aiming to break Brazil's record of 35 matches without a loss.

• Spain was the only team yet to allow a goal in the tournament.

• The U.S. was 0-3-0 previously vs. Spain, getting outscored 6-1.

• The U.S. was 0-6-1 in its previous seven matches vs. top-5 opponents.

The night's only blemish was Michael Bradley's late red card, perhaps another harsh judgment as the United States can't seem to gain much benefit of the doubt from the men in the middle. Regardless, Bradley's aggressive, 86th-minute challenge will keep the American's best central midfielder out of Sunday's final.

Bob Bradley was able to squeeze a little more experience into the lineup as Carlos Bocanegra was finally adjudged fit enough to rejoin the starting bunch. While DeMerit did a respectable job partnering with Onyewu at center back, Bocanegra gave the Americans a better defensive presence at left back than the sometimes overmatched Jonathan Bornstein.

Altidore put all that young strength to work as he stubbornly held off Spanish fullback Joan Capdevila, then caught Spain's veteran goalkeeper Iker Casillas leaning the wrong way in the 27th minute. While Spain pushed the tempo following Altidore's strike and created more traffic near Howard's goal, the Americans weren't yet defensively bunkered. In fact, an unmarked Dempsey came close, but couldn't quite rise high enough to accurately steer in Donovan's well-hit free kick late in the first half.

Defensively, the United States surely took note of how Iraq frustrated the Spanish last week. So the Americans generally elected patience along the four-man line of midfielders, seeking to interrupt passing lanes rather than aggressively dive into the challenge. Donovan and Dempsey came inside liberally to keep the line compact, conceding some space on the wings, confident that Demerit and Onyewu could deal with the crosses -- which they did without fault.

Player ratings (scale of 1-10)

Next Level Analysis
U.S. Spain
Attacking third entries 22 51
Goal-scoring chances 6 15
Corner kicks 3 16
Effective crosses 3 6

GK, Tim Howard, 9 -- An absolute pillar, large and in charge with one big save after another. His best came on David Villa's bending ball early in the second half.

D, Carlos Bocanegra, 6 -- A little rusty early, and occasionally beaten for speed at his left fullback spot, but never put his team in a bind.

D, Oguchi Onyewu, 8 -- He's having a great tournament. Was always in the right spot Wednesday, sure-footed in all the plays that mattered. An absolute beast in terms of aerial dominance.

D, Jay DeMerit, 7 -- Engineered several important interventions near Howard's goal in another performance that will cement his place in the back line rotation going forward. Only flaw: His distribution was sometimes hurried.

D, Jonathan Spector, 7 -- He doesn't get forward like first-choice right back Steve Cherundolo, but his positioning, ball-winning and calm defending were never a worry. He's proven himself a reliable stand-in.

M, Landon Donovan, 8 -- Another energetic, dynamic performance from a wide midfield spot. Donovan was all over the place, always chasing back and pinching in on defense, always supporting or driving the attack. He also assisted on the second goal.

M, Michael Bradley, 6 -- He sat in a dual holding role with Clark and usually smartly picked his spots for the tackle -- until the late, perhaps harsh, red card. Was conservative in getting forward and usually kept things simple in possession,

ESPN360.com Replay

ESPN30 will feature the U.S. team's upset victory over Spain as a replay. Click here to watch it.

M, Ricardo Clark, 6 -- Needed every bit of his range and athleticism. Sometimes struggled to cope with Spain's movement in midfield, and his passing was just OK, but all in all a usefully workmanlike evening.

M, Clint Dempsey, 7 -- Yet another enigmatic night for the Fulham man. Fairly ordinary over much of the match, but commandeered two huge moments, scoring a goal and assisting on another.

F, Charlie Davies, 6 -- His speed and hustle troubled Spain early as he twice found space between defenders near Spanish goal. He did have trouble sustaining that level of early impact.

F, Jozy Altidore, 7 -- Not a landmark night, as he sometimes struggled to find the game. But he did turn the match with a massive first-half goal.

Substitutes

F, Conor Casey, 5 -- A late replacement for Altidore.

M, Benny Feilhaber, 7 -- Was a calming presence upon his 69th-minute introduction for Davies (Feilhaber played as a left midfielder, while Dempsey moved up to forward.) His patient possession in the offensive third led to the second goal.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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