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Jun 24, 2009

Bocanegra leads a defensive effort for the ages

BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa -- For the first time all night, Carlos Bocanegra looked dazed.

Speaking to reporters after the U.S. soccer squad's monumental 2-0 upset of No. 1 Spain in the Confederations Cup semifinal, Bocanegra stood perfectly still, his eyes a bit glazed. "I'm still a bit in disbelief, to be honest," the U.S. captain said. "I mean, we're in the finals of a major competition, you know? It hasn't really sunk in yet."

When it does, American soccer fans, and fans of great defense, will look to this match as a major achievement. The Yanks put up a clean sheet against a team that had won a record 15 straight international matches, stormed to the Euro 2008 title, and had scored eight goals in three games at this tournament. Though the defense was a team effort, Bocanegra and the other members of the U.S. back four were cornerstones. Not only did Bocanegra, Jonathan Spector, Jay DeMerit, and particularly Oguchi Onyewu, make spectacular blocks on the relentless Spaniards, they helped stall the Spanish offense by killing its engine: its deadly interior passing game.

"You have to pick your poison, don't you?" said U.S. goalie Tim Howard, who was his usual spectacular self with eight saves. "You're either going to seal up the middle or seal off the flanks, but you can't do both. Look at a team like ours. We've got some horses in the middle, and we're good at making teams go wide. If you let Spain go into the heart of your defense, they'll pick you apart."

So the U.S. closed the middle, both at midfield and near the goal. And Bocanegra was a key. The captain had missed all three Confed Cup matches with a hamstring injury he suffered after scoring the game-winning goal against Honduras, and watched as DeMerit made the most of his chance, playing impressively alongside Onyewu.

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

"It was very frustrating on a personal level," Bocanegra said. "This is a huge tournament. I was looking forward to it all season, and I had to sit and watch on the sidelines."

What he saw was a developing partnership between Onyewu and DeMerit. What head coach Bob Bradley saw was a chance to solve a recurring problem at left back, a position where Bocanegra starts for his club team in the French league, Rennes. "Bob and I spoke about this about a year ago, and he asked what I'd think about left back, if we need it, and I said I'm happy to do that," Bocanegra said.

"It was important in a game like this to have Carlos on the field," Bradley said. "We needed his leadership. We felt like he could play left back, and with he and Jay and Gooch in there, it gave us a lot of experience, and it gave us some strength."

Against all odds
• The U.S. had been 1-7-1, and winless (0-5-1) in its previous six matches, versus 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 versus Spain, getting outscored 6-1.

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

It gave Spain fits. With Bocanegra pinching in almost as a third center back, Spain found clogged passing lanes, relentless tackling, and soon, an offense as cold as the 35-degree African night. "Everyone was throwing their bodies into the line, everyone was making sure they weren't going to let the other guy down," DeMerit said. Howard said just as important as the "highlight-reel" headers and clearances (including a circus-like back heel from the 6-4 Onyewu) were the things most fans didn't see. "They did really well in standing people up and closing gaps," he said

With no room to operate in the middle, Spain started launching long shots and throwing crosses into the box, where Howard and the Americans' tall back line kicked, headed and punched them out. Spain's frustration built to the point where the Americans could see it. "Heads start to go down, they start to look at the sky, things like that," DeMerit said. "Those are really good signs that you're doing a good job of frustrating them. And we knew coming into the game that was the only way we had a chance. We needed to make sure that we not let them breathe."

Of course, getting the first goal helped, as did the efforts from the rest of the squad. "When you're talking about defense I don't think you're talking about just four defenders," Onyewu said. "I think today all 11 players played very strong. We were a difficult block to get through, to get around, definitely we were committed from all the players on the field."

ESPN360.com Replay

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

But it was nice to have one particular old friend back there manning the back line. "Carlos is our captain," Howard said. "He's our heartbeat, he's our leader."

And when Bocanegra's head clears, he'll realize he helped lead the U.S. into the history books.

Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Mag.

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