"All the f---ing 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."
Michael Bradley's words after the U.S. team's win against Egypt on Sunday. While his passion was welcome, my first thought was that I hoped he and his teammates would see the win as a beginning, as opposed to some sort of conclusion. After all, as impressive as the Pharaohs were, they are ranked 26 spots below the U.S.
Back it up against Spain, I started to write in a blog piece that was set to run prior to Wednesday's game in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Turn in a performance to be proud of, I implored. That's how those "on the inside" would get respect, I wrote. And although I hoped for the best, at no point did I contemplate that the U.S. would beat Spain. I don't think many did.
The blog was held back as the U.S. moved forward Wednesday, defeating Spain 2-0. In light of what happened, and for an even greater effect, maybe Bradley should have waited to vent until after yesterday's game ...
So what now for the U.S.? After the semifinal dust settles, there is a tournament to win. And Brazil -- no disrespect to South Africa, but I don't see an upset in the second semifinal -- should hold no fear for a suddenly confident group of players who just a week ago were played off the park by the Selecao.
For the first time in modern history, the U.S. has made the rest of the soccer world sit up and take notice. It feels pretty good, doesn't it? Now the challenge is for this group to grow in strength with a view to peaking one year from now. As great as beating Spain was, if the U.S. doesn't make it out of the first round of the World Cup in 2010, Wednesday will be nothing more than a great one-off result.
In my opinion, the U.S. currently is in a group of 20-30 countries that, on days such as Wednesday, can upset the world's best, and the U.S. must consistently beat the world's best if it is to take the next step up the international ladder.
Chances are that in 2010, the U.S. will face at least one powerhouse in group play, as well as a pair of teams against which it is fairly evenly matched. To bring it into context, given what we have seen recently, to get a chance to beat an opponent like Spain in a World Cup knockout round, the U.S. will have to beat an opponent like Egypt in the group stage.
What we have seen the past two games are displays that have to be replicated more consistently against non-CONCACAF opposition. Against Egypt and Spain, by doing pretty much every little thing right, coach Bob Bradley's men achieved something exceptional.
As with most things in life, if you get the basics right, success will follow. Take the goals that were scored. Charlie Davies and Clint Dempsey benefited from hard work, persistence and a readiness to gamble on being in the right place while Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore showed what can be achieved by making precise passes and moving off the ball.
Defensively, the U.S. was solid and, for the most part, in control. Against Spain, Bob Bradley preached the importance of containing Xavi, and the Barcelona man was kept in check, at least until Michael Bradley caught him with a late challenge for which he was somewhat unfortunate to be sent off (although, had he replicated his work of the previous 85 minutes and stayed on his feet, he would not have given Jorge Larrionda any need to consider going to his top pocket).
Behind a tireless midfield was a defense that put in a spectacular shift. Interceptions were well-timed and communication was constant, ensuring Spain rarely got on the wrong side. When that did happen, bodies were laid out with Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit and Ricardo Clark to the fore. Due to that, although his goal often was under pressure, Tim Howard was forced to make just six saves.
The past two games have showed this is a team that has to get its tactics spot-on in order to pick up wins against nations from the upper echelons of the game. Plans have to executed properly, from who is marking who on a corner to when is the best time to make a substitution.
Another thing the Confederations Cup demonstrated clearly is the difference between how this team plays when it scores the first goal compared to its approach when trailing. While there still is work to do in this area, the increase in the depth of the player pool should give Bob Bradley more ability to change systems and styles if the original game plan is not effective.
This tournament provided a breakout showcase for DeMerit and Davies, while the likes of Maurice Edu, Frankie Hejduk and Brian Ching will offer much when they return from injury. If Altidore, Freddy Adu and Benny Feilhaber can get some consistent playing time with their clubs next season, a roster stacked with question marks should become a squad with players who offer more options if Plan A falters.
However, now comes the hard part. We will get more of an idea Sunday as to whether this team can continue to consistently compete in high-pressure environments against quality opposition. After the Gold Cup (which, while important, is firmly in the second division of international competitions) comes another true test, as the U.S. faces Mexico at the Azteca on Aug. 12.
While the glory of Wednesday will take some time to leave hearts and minds, fans and especially players now must demand more. Only if it proves to be a launching pad for further improvement will beating Spain come to be seen as some sort of watershed moment. If performances do not continue to get better, a glorious day will come to be recalled as another false dawn.
Well played, man of the match
From an early age, Clint Dempsey has had to fight against the odds to fulfill his dreams. The Texan's story is well-known, and he credits the life lessons he learned as a youngster with helping create the player he is today. Given that, it should come as no surprise to see what he has done in the past two games.
One week ago, the majority opinion among fans and pundits was that the best thing for Dempsey was to take him out of the line of fire. How wrong we were. After struggling against Italy and Brazil, Dempsey found some form against Egypt and capped his display with the goal that clinched a semifinal spot.
It also was a performance that saw him climb to eighth in the tournament's player rankings, a position that raised a few eyebrows given his underwhelming start to the tournament.
If his performance against Egypt was an improvement on what he had done before, his man of the match display against Spain was as good as he has ever played in national team colors. At times, Dempsey has tried almost too hard to be the main man for the U.S., especially in games in which offense has been a problem. On Wednesday, alongside in-form teammates, his effort was well-directed and fantastically rewarded.
A thing that made me go, "Hmmm"
What with all the fun and games going on in South Africa, it's hard to believe that six days after Sunday's final, the U.S.'s defense of the Gold Cup will begin against Grenada in Seattle.
While I have bagged the tournament as being substandard in terms of quality, compared to what the U.S. just competed against in South Africa, it is nevertheless another chance for Bob Bradley to run the ruler over a number of players who have put up their hands to be considered for a spot on the World Cup squad.
A preliminary Gold Cup roster released last week contained the names of 13 players who also were on the Confederations Cup squad. It is likely not all of those will accompany Bradley in hot-footing it from the Rainbow Nation to the Pacific Northwest, but hopefully those who do will include the attacking duo of Altidore and Davies, who should be given more chances to develop their promising partnership.
Adu also is likely to make the final roster, and this tournament could prove to be make-or-break for his immediate international future. Assuming he sees the field, he needs to show a more rounded game in order to get more chances. His talent is not in question, but his work ethic and maturity still are. If he does not take his chance, there could be few more pre-World Cup opportunities to impress.
Outside those who are doubling up in terms of tournaments this summer, I am keen for several members of the 2008 Olympic squad to be heavily involved in the Gold Cup. Among them, Michael Parkhurst deserves a chance to show, once again, that there is more than one way to play central defense, while Stuart Holden should win his first senior caps following his outstanding form for Houston.