Beyond the joys a U.S. win against Mexico brings or the chance to lift a trophy, the biggest prize in Saturday’s CONCACAF Cup match is claiming the region’s berth at the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia.
Having morphed over the years from a four-team competition to one that moved around the world, since 2005 the Confederations Cup has found its home as a World Cup curtain raiser played the year before in the host nation. It has become an important piece of the international soccer calendar, with the nations that play in it getting a better all-around view towards the country they’re hoping to return to the following year.
“It’s a dry run for the World Cup,” said MNT captain Michael Bradley. “You get to spend time in the country a year before, you play in the stadiums, you stay in the hotels, you get a feel for what the weather is like and the way things work.”
Bradley’s experience came with the MNT at the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa, where the team’s mettle was put to the test after opening losses to Italy and Brazil. Looking like they’d head home early, the U.S. defeated Egypt 3-0 in their final group match and Brazil did the same to Italy; an unlikely combination of results that advanced the United States to the semifinals. From there, the team pulled off a stunning 2-0 upset against world No. 1-ranked and defending European champions Spain in the semifinal, and even went up 2-0 on Brazil before losing 3-2 in the final.
USMNT striker Clint Dempsey scores the opening goal against Brazil in the 2009 Confederations Cup final.
“The biggest thing about the Confederations Cup is the competition you get to play against,” said forward Jozy Altidore, who scored the game-winning goal against Spain. “Those teams you play against are usually the ones in the World Cup.”
“I think it gives you confidence,” said Dempsey, who scored in the semifinal and final. “You get used to the facilities, you get used to the environment, the atmosphere. We were able to advance from our group that year, and we were in a tough group.”
In fact, during the tournament’s three-week span, the MNT played five matches – four of which came against teams ranked in the Top 10 in the world – all in a competitive environment.
“Given the region we play in, the opportunity to play games against the best teams in the world typically only comes in the form of friendlies,” added Bradley. “Obviously they are important moments for us, but friendlies aren’t the same as real games. They’re not the same as tournament games where teams are trying to advance and win. For us, the chance to play in a mini-World Cup against the best teams in the world is a huge thing for us to keep pushing ourselves forward.”
Jozy Altidore and strike partner Charlie Davies celebrate Altidore's game winning goal against Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal.
Ultimately, 15 of the 23 players that were on the 2009 Confederations Cup roster were part of the 2010 World Cup team which won its group for the first time since 1930.
“In South Africa we arrived for the World Cup feeling like we had been there before and we knew what to expect,” added Bradley. “You can’t understate how important that feeling is.”