Thursday, June 25, 2009

United States Meets Spain in a Confederations Cup Semi-Final

by Dick Mac

It's Winter in South Africa.

It was a chilly 37F last night. Not frigid, but certainly chilly.

At the Free State Stadium, in Mangaung/Bloemfontein, Spain was playing host to the United States Men's National Team.

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) is comprised of soccer federations from 202 nations around the world, and Spain is unanimously considered to be the best team in the world.

The players who make up the Spain team are household names everywhere in the world except the United States: goalkeeper Iker Casillas plays for Real Madrid, along with Sergio Ramos; Carles Puyol plays for Barcelona; David Villa plays for Valencia; Fernando Torres and Xabi Alonso play at English powerhouse Liverpool; Cesc Fabregas plays for my Arsenal; and Joan Capdevila plays for Villareal; and others.

Joining Capdevila at Villareal is 19-year-old American, Jozy Altidore, a big, skillful, hard-working striker who came out of my Red Bull New York organization and is part of the future of United States soccer.

Also playing for the USA (and barely known around the world) are Ricardo Clark, of the Houston Dynamo (also formerly of my RBNY), Michael Bradley (also formerly from New York), Landon Donovan, from the LA Galaxy, Clint Dempsey from Fulham FC in England, Tim Howard (also formerly of New York) from Everton in England, Carlos Bocanegra currently playing at Rennes and formerly of Fulham, Oguchi Onyewu currently at Newcastle in England (and one of the bright stars of American soccer), Jonathan Spector of West Ham United in England (a product of the formidable Manchester United academy), and others.

I prayed that my team didn't embarrass themselves against Spain. I told co-workers and friends that if we lose by less than three goals, we could hold our heads high. After all, Spain had not lost a match in 35 outings, dating back to 2006, and had won their previous fifteen.

Within minutes of kick-off, the USA was pressing hard on Spain goalkeeper Casillas (one of the best in the world) and Charlie Davies, who plays professionally with Hammarby Fotboll, in Sweden, repeatedly attacked from within the box, including a lovely bicycle kick that went just wide in the opening minutes. Clint Dempsey had a nice shot on goal in the ninth minute and Casillas found himself all over the penalty area, trying to keep the ball out of the netting. An early yellow card to Landon Donovan was not a bookable offense, and I became weary that referee Jorge Larrionda of Uruguay, who has always dealt harshly with the USA, would find a way (as he has in the past) to dismiss an American player or two.

Spain's attack was persistent, though, and only brilliant defending by the USA central defenders, most notably, Onyewu, and remarkable goalkeeping by Tim Howard, kept the score line at 0-0, until the 27th minute.

Charlie Davies got the ball to Clint Dempsey, who moved it to Jozy Altidore at the top of the box, and with Xavi pulling his shirt and crawling all over him, Jozy turned, broke away, met Casillas one-on-one and scored the first goal of the match.

Improbably, the score line read ESP 0 - 1 USA!

Although Spain controlled the ball most of the first half, USA continued to drive forward and Spain seemed to be back on their heels without a plan. After many corners taken short, Spain delivered a full cross from a corner kick in the 31st minute. Superior defending and goalkeeping by the USA kept the ball out of the netting. Spain was whistled for more offsides calls in the first half than I think they've seen in most entire matches.

Joan Capdevila saw a yellow card in the 36th minute for pulling on the shirt of Altidore, an offense that had been repeated over and over during the first half-hour, but had not been called. This led to a free kick just north of the box by Landon Donovan. The USA team charged forward, with Dempsey and Bocanegra attacking from Casillas' right. Dempsey, either not hearing or not knowing of Bocanegra's perfect positioning, attempted a header that missed the mark. This missed opportunity is a hallmark of American soccer: either plays do not take command (Bocanegra) and demand the ball; or players with massive egos (Dempsey) believe that they are the only players capable of scoring and ignore the cries of their teammates. I will never know which transpired last night, but we did not score when we should have. Either Bocanegra or Dempsey failed as a teammate and I fear that team leadership will never address this sort of lapse.

In the 38th minute, the brilliant, young Fernando Torres found himself in the position he loves: in the box, in front of the keeper, with a wide-open shot. He doesn't miss these. Just as he teed-up his sure goal, Onyewu flew in from his left and cleared the ball. Torres was left literally dumbfounded. I think the entire viewing audience was shocked that Torres, one of the finest strikers in the world, was denied what everyone assumed was a sure goal.

At the half, each team had had four goal scoring chances, and Spain had seven corner kicks to the USA's 1, and yet, USA led by one.

Early in the second half, Landon Donovan delivered a corner into the box and as Clint Dempsey made an attempt, he was kicked by Xabi Alonso, and there was no whistle. I sincerely believe that a yellow card and possibly a penalty kick would have been awarded if the players had been reversed.

Spain played much better than the USA in the first 20 minutes of the second half. They seemed destined to score as the USA was failing to close-down the midfield, playing sloppily and allowing Spain into their third of the field. Suddenly, when the USA was attacking, they seemed to be making cheap plays and lucky shots. If Spain was going to score, this was the time to do it.

A block by Rico Clark in the 66th minute seemed to turn the tide again. Although Spain continued to push hard and play solid, physical soccer, the USA seemed back on its feet.

Cesc Fabregas was taken out in the 68th minute, and the USA replaced Davies with Benny Feilhaber right afterwards.

By the 73rd minute, it became clear to me that Oguchi Onyewu was not the only defender doing a superb job. Jay DeMerit was all over the back of the field, defending well, and frustrating the Spanish superstars.

Next thing I knew, Feilhaber was passing to Landon Donovan who was stopped by the formidable Sergio Ramos, got the ball to Clint Dempsey who scored a second goal!

By the 78th minute, Spain looked very tired, and another substitution seemed to offer little relief to the frustrated Spanish players. Dirty play ensued, and tactics not fitting for the number one team in the world were employed to no fruitful end and a couple of cautions were issued. Even Carles Puyol, whom I admire and respect because of his tenacity and hard play seemed to be stooping to rough play tactics you would expect from lesser players, from lesser teams, in lesser matches.

Jozy Altidore was substituted for Connor Casey in the 84th, and shortly thereafter, Michael Bradley was dismissed with a red card for what was deemed a harsh tackle; but was hardly a dismissible offense. Perhaps he should have received a yellow card, but a straight red was uncalled for and the referee began to show his consistent inconsistency.

Dempsey was substituted in the 88th, and as regulation time drew to a close, the Spanish players showed their impatience with the situation. Three minutes of added time was insufficient for Spain to break through the brilliant USA defense, and the final scoreline was an improbable ESP 0 - 2 USA!

I didn't weep, although I thought I might; but, I couldn't really say anything aloud. My team beat the best team in the world, and we will play in the final match for the Confederations Cup against either Brazil or South Africa.

My man of the match was Tim Howard, the goalkeeper, but without the brilliant defending of DeMerit and Onyewu, he might have let in a goal or two.


Edited for typos and grammatical errors

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