During the last two weeks, teams representing the United States men at both the senior and youth national team levels have found themselves with their backs against the wall when the lights were shining brightest and the attention of the soccer world was focused on a single stage. Like in any good drama, it is in the moments of great adversity that champions rise to the occasion and demonstrate their will, strength and character in the face of staggering pressure. Here we present Anatomy of a Comeback, a three-act play where the protagonists overcome the hardship and stand triumphant when the final curtain falls.
The stage: United States vs. Mexico, CONCACAF Gold Cup Final
June 24, 2007 – Soldier Field – Chicago, Illinois, USA
The scene: With the U.S. seeking its fourth regional title, a goal by Andres Guardado just before halftime ended Mexico’s 797-minute goal drought on U.S. soil, igniting the pro-Mexican crowd and putting the hosts backs against the wall.
The defining moment: After a Landon Donovan penalty tied the match, midfielder Benny Feilhaber spun gold out of hay in the 73rd minute, taking a loose ball out of the air and unleashing a rocket volley that banged off the inside of the right post with a sound signaling the completion of the USA’s comeback.
The unsung hero: With a single digit left on the game clock, an improbable series of bounces put Mexican marksman Adolfo Bautista alone eight yards in front of the goal. Unloading a mighty shot that could have easily been the equalizer, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard proved even mightier, expertly parrying the ball over the bar to preserve the lead and ultimately the victory.
The outcome: The U.S. collected its fourth Gold Cup title and kept in tact an eight-year home unbeaten run against Mexico. More importantly, the win earned the USA a ticket to the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa, where they will face the world’s best in a crucial dry run before the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Memorable line: "I'm still in shock you know. It's just one of those things where you practice all the time, and sometimes it comes off for you. I saw the ball break through and I tried my best and today it was good enough. It's one I'll remember forever. Sometimes the team needs you to come up with a big save, and you know you can make a difference. I was elated." – U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, on his save in the 89th minute
The legacy: The come-from-behind victory marked the first time in the 73-year history of the rivalry that the U.S. defeated El Tri after trailing in a match.
The stage: United States Under-20 MNT vs. Poland
FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007 – Group D, Game Two
July 3, 2007 – The Olympic Stadium – Montreal, Quebec, Canada
The scene: After surviving a furious onslaught from South Korea and earning a point in game one, the U.S. needed a win against a confident Polish side to gain some breathing room in the fight to advance. Poland, coming off a shock 1-0 win against Brazil, jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the fifth minute, firmly putting the USA’s fortitude to the test.
The defining moment: Danny Szetela powered home a header four minutes later to level terms, setting the stage for a goal deserving of a spot on any highlight reel in the world. Then at the 20-minute mark, team captain Freddy Adu collected a cheeky pass from Sal Zizzo at the corner of the area. With a spin worthy of a virtuoso, he left a defender in his wake and zoned in on a spot at the far corner of the goal. With a surgeon’s precision, he deftly curled a shot past the helpless ‘keeper that serenely settled in the far-side netting.
The unsung hero: Everyone knows about Adu's wondergoal and his follow up finish on the stroke of halftime, but it was Sal Zizzo's tireless run, excellent vision and clever attack that made the second goal possible. On the play, Zizzo muscled a man off the ball ten yards inside his own half before embarking on a 60-yard streak down the right flank. Along the way he drew three defenders, nutmegging one in the box, before dropping a perfectly-located pass back to the trailing Adu.
The outcome: Adu’s hat trick paced the U.S. to the top of Group D with four points after two games. The USA would go on to finish first in their group for the second straight U-20 World Cup when they outclassed Brazil, 2-1.
Memorable line: “You want to start the game off in the right way. Today we made just one defensive mistake and that happened in the beginning of the game and we paid for it. It says a lot about the character of this team because we responded very well and we just kept fighting. That’s what I love about this team. We’re going to fight until the end.”
--U.S. captain Freddy Adu, on whether Poland’s goal was a wake-up call
The legacy: Adu became the first player ever to score a hat trick in both the Under-17 and Under-20 FIFA World Cups. He tallied three goals in the opening match of the 2003 FIFA Under-17 World Cup against South Korea, also a 6-1 win for the United States.
The stage: United States Under-20 MNT vs. Uruguay
FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007 – Round of 16, elimination game
July 11, 2007 – The National Stadium – Toronto, Ontario, Canada
The scene: The U.S. entered the first match of the knockout phase with a slight chink in their armor, having learned that one of the backbones of the squad, goalkeeper Chris Seitz, would not be available after suffering a bruised quad against Brazil. The deceptively strong Uruguayan side gave the U.S. all they could handle, and finally broke through in the 73rd minute to grab a seemingly insurmountable 1-0 lead. Further complicating the USA’s effort was the loss of star forward Josmer Altidore, who was forced off the field in the 51st minute after suffering a calf injury.
The defining moment: The U.S. relentlessly pressed for the tying goal, their labors finally rewarded in the 88th minute when a gritty struggle off an attacking corner forced a Uruguay defender into an unavoidable own goal that shifted the momentum towards a powerful climax. Just one minute into the second extra time period, Freddy Adu floated a corner to the top of the six. Uruguayan goalkeeper Yonaton Irrazabal’s attempt to punch clear lacked strength if not conviction, the ball landing at the feet of defender Julian Valentin. In a second that seemed to last days, Valentin let go a volley that had pace but seemed destined to disappoint with its direction. But there stood Michael Bradley, resolute and focused, and he expertly re-directed the half shot that suddenly soared into the roof of the net.
Unsung hero: Seventeen-year-old reserve ‘keeper Brian Perk found himself thrust into the spotlight when starter Chris Seitz was ruled out with a thigh injury, and the UCLA netminder held his own. Just 10 days shy of his 18th birthday and earning only his third cap for the U-20s, Perk made seven saves on the night and kept the area clean on several dangerous crosses.
The outcome: This is the second time that the United States advanced to the quarterfinals since the field was expanded to 24 teams in 1997. The team's previous trip also came under the leadership of Thomas Rongen, who guided the team to within seconds of the semifinals in United Arab Emirates in 2003 before falling to Argentina in the quarterfinals in overtime.
Memorable line: "We knew tonight's match was going to be tough and Uruguay made things very difficult for us throughout the match, but we showed some great mentality to come from behind. This was a total team effort with Brian Perk filling in for Chris Seitz, and all three of our substitutions coming in and making an impact. This is the kind of game where you find out what your players are made of and how good a team you actually have. It was just a great battle over 120 minutes and a fantastic result to move on to the final eight." -- U.S. head coach Thomas Rongen
The legacy: The U.S. earned a come-from-behind win in the knockout phase of a world youth championship for only the second time at any level since the competitions began in 1977. In 1999, the U-17s went down 1-0 to Mexico in the quarterfinals before scoring three unanswered goals en route to a 3-2 win and an eventual fourth-place finish in New Zealand.