A great win over Spain … now can the U.S surprise some more?
The Confederations Cup, effectively a warm-up tournament for the World Cup, rarely captures the imagination but fans in the United States aren’t lacking enthusiasm for the tournament after their team produced a major upset by defeating European champions Spain 2-0.
Goals from Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey ended Spain’s world record run of 15 successive victories and their 35-match unbeaten sequence, a world record streak they share with Brazil. That run has taken Spain to world number one in FIFA’s global rankings.
So a major upset — but just how big a surprise was it?
Our man at the game, global soccer editor Mike Collett, poses the question by putting the U.S’s victory in historical context — North Korea beating Italy in the 1966 World Cup probably takes the prize for this reporter and the fact that the Confederations Cup is a lesser tournament than the World Cup probably weakens the case for this win being among the very greatest upset ever. But regardless of the global-historical rating there is less doubt that, as Mike argues, the win is the biggest for United States since the 1950 shock over England in the World Cup finals.
The U.S have pulled off a few surprises since then, though, and Kartik Krishnaiyer at MLS Talk lists the main triumphs. As Kartik notes, a 3-0 win over Argentina in the 1995 Copa America was a particularly impressive result for a team which had yet to make a real impact in a World Cup. But probably the best U.S result, up until Wednesday, taking into account the importance of the match, was the 3-2 win over Portugal in the 2002 World Cup.
The inevitable question then arises, could this result mark the turning point for soccer in the United States?
Certainly those sceptics who discount the United States as an emerging force in the game solely because they play most of their football against supposedly weak opposition in the CONCACAF region, will be given cause to think again. I’ve long argued that the U.S are at least on a level with the second tier nations in Europe — the Swiss, the Scandinavians, the Belgians, the Austrians and the most of the teams from Eastern Europe and results in friendly games back up that view.
It should also be pointed out that CONCACAF isn’t entirely made up of ‘minnows’ — the likes of Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica are, when things are together on and off the field, teams capable of holding their own against most international sides.
So in terms of the credibility and reputation of the U.S team, this win should earn some additional respect for Bob Bradley’s side — especially if it is followed by a decent display in Sunday’s final against Brazil or South Africa.
Whether there is any knock-on effect for the domestic game is another matter entirely. It will take more than a single surprise result to change the habits of American sports fans and people with no interest in the game aren’t suddenly going to start attending Major League Soccer matches because of a win over Spain.
But — and this is where the fortunes of the US national team and those of MLS do intertwine — the result could serve as a wake-up call to those thousands of fans of international soccer, living in the U.S but with little interest in the domestic game. I am talking primarily of the still largely untapped Latin American market which produces impressive television ratings for international games but also of those young fans of the English Premier League and Champions League who just haven’t been turned on to MLS or the US national team.
If Bob Bradley’s team can build on this result, complete their qualifying for the World Cup in style and then make an impact again next year in South Africa, those fans will be tempted to start following the domestic competition much more actively, especially if some of the best American players can be persuaded (financially of course) to return to or stay in MLS.
Until then, don’t bet against some more surprises from this American team. It may lack big names, outstanding talent and be a little short on flair but as they showed against the Spaniards they have determination, solid organisation and impressive fitness — all qualities ideally suited to the specific demands of tournament football.
PHOTO: Jozy Altidore (R) celebrates with team mate Charlie Davies after scoring for the U.S. against Spain in their Confederations Cup semi-final at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein, June 24, 2009. REUTERS/Jerry Lampen