Counting Down, But Not Out
That was the equation U.S. head coach Bob Bradley kept in mind heading into the team’s final group match against Egypt.
Three U.S. goals.
Three goals from Brazil.
If those events occurred, the United States could earn a place in the semifinals of the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. During the course of 95 minutes on Sunday night, Bradley kept an eye on all three, thanks to the work of assistant coach John Hackworth and a few others behind the scenes.
Here’s how it all went down:
U.S. assistant coach John Hackworth and the team press officer sit in the press tribune armed with a laptop, internet access and radios to communicate with assistant coach Mike Sorber on the bench. In addition to providing Sorber and the other coaches on the bench information to help make in-game adjustments, Hackworth planned to also report score updates as he followed the Brazil-Italy game on fifa.com.
The Brazil-Italy game kicks off about four minutes ahead of USA-Egypt.
Referee Michael Hester blows his whistle as the USA begins their final 90 minutes of group play.
Already action in the Brazil-Italy match as Ramires of Brazil hits the upper 90 iron in the sixth minute. The anxious moments begin.
Brazilian forward Robinho hits a stunner that Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon denies. Brazil is mounting the pressure, but no one knows if the goals will come.
Landon Donovan and Jozy Altidore nearly combine on a breakaway. Despite the missed chance, the U.S. has clearly snatched the initiative.
Charlie Davies combines balance and determination to put the U.S. up a goal. Sitting in the press tribune precludes any type of celebration, which only adds to Hackworth's tension. While there is a sense that there is more to come, the Brazil-Italy game remains frustratingly scoreless.
Landon blazes through the defense and tries to dribble around the 'keeper, only to have the ball picked off his foot and sit out teasingly in open space for a second or two before being gobbled up by goalkeeper Essam El Hadary.
Brazil finally breaks through on a great finish from Luis Fabiano. Hackworth happily makes the call down to the bench. Things are progressing, and the U.S. media sitting across the aisle are starting to add potential paragraphs to their stories. Yes, they write as they go.
Robinho and Kaka combine to set the table for a second strike from Luis Fabiano. Things are starting to get interesting and Hackworth is back on the radio to provide the update.
Almost as quickly as Hackworth can report the score, Italy's fortunes go from bad to worse as an own goal by Andrea Dossena at the stroke of halftime puts the first of Bradley's 3’s on the scoreboard. Another call to the bench, but this time let’s just say Hackworth is a little more excited. Sorber responds with: “They've done their part. Now we have to take care of ours.”
Charlie Davies and Jozy Altidore race in 2-v-1 to goal. The whole press tribune is on its feet as Davies elects to have a go. It feels like a huge missed opportunity, but clearly the momentum is in the USA's favor.
The halftime whistle blows. As the U.S. players enter the tunnel, the stadium announcer bellows out that the Brazil-Italy score is 3-0 at the interval. Just like that, the team knows advancement is now a very real possibility. Bradley addresses the players in the locker room. “Be aggressive in a smart way. They are going to come out more defensive, because at this point they are through. So keep pushing for the second goal early, and then the third will definitely come.”
"Houston, we have a problem." Hackworth didn’t call that on the radio, but he could have as the internet connection goes down in the press tribune. Thinking quickly, the team press officer grabs a second radio and gets in contact with the general manager, who moves into the locker room to watch the Brazil game and provide instant updates. Like the players, the staff is up for any challenge.
Jozy Altidore's shot is denied by a handball on the goal line. Two harsh red cards in the first two games, and now a clear goalscoring opportunity and potential red card denied. The memories of 2002 rush back…it's Torsten Frings all over again. The benefit of several replays proves to be a curse in the tribune, sending the blood pressure of the U.S. staff shooting up. With a look of resignation, Hackworth pushes the call button on the radio. “It’s 100 percent a penalty. But what can you do?”
Another snafu. With the internet still down, the general manager has to handle some duties to prepare for the doping control procedures and can’t stay in the locker room. Thinking quickly, one of the team's South African-based security detail is recruited to handle the important task of providing updates on the Brazil-Italy match. To avoid the suspense, the officer is asked only to update the minute of the game unless a goal is scored. Trust us, you don't want to be hearing "In the 77th minute, it's Brazil 3, Italy ..." That’s just torture.
A sublime counterattack combination between Bradley and Donovan starts at midfield and ends with Bradley tucking a back pass into the lower right corner of the net. The U.S. media is writing furiously. One more baby, one more.
Clint Dempsey gets on the end of a fantastic cross from Jonathan Spector and emphatically heads home the third goal. If no one sees you celebrate, did you? Sitting in Box 328, Row J, seat 36, Hackworth provides the answer as he lets out the loudest silent celebration you have ever heard. Two of Bradley's 3's are now complete. Despite their imposed impartiality, there is a look of amazement on everyone's face in the tribune. It’s reminiscent of Oct. 7., 2001, when the U.S. found themselves in the position of benefiting from the improbable Trinidad & Tobago victory in Honduras that allowed them to qualify that day for Korea/Japan.
The internet is restored, and the staff in the press tribune is once again receiving updates via instant message from three different places: the communications department back in Chicago, fifa.com and the locker room. Why? Hey, at this point, constant updates are critical and three is better than one. Remember, the U.S. needed to score three goals AND have Italy lose by at least three goals. If Italy scores at any point, the U.S. will have to press for a fourth goal.
Updates on the minutes remaining in the Brazil-Italy match are being communicated to the bench every two minutes. The staff is also quadruple checking the rules of competition regarding tie-breakers. In this case, being 100 percent certain didn't feel like it was good enough.
While the bench knows the score, there’s no great way to express it to the players on the field, but the captain does his best to find out. “I kept looking over [to the bench] at 3-0 to make sure the Brazil-Italy score was still the same,” said Donovan. “It would have thrown everything off if Italy had scored.”
Watching the updates on fifa.com is like getting down to the last two cases on Deal or No Deal, with one containing a million bucks and the other a single dollar. Could be the jackpot; could be total heartbreak.
The scoreboard on fifa.com mercifully declares the Brazil-Italy match final at 3-0. The Italians are as stunned as the press tribune, and are now forced to suffer the same agony of watching the final few minutes tick away in Rustenburg. Hackworth gives his final report to the bench, and the excitement starts to build as the improbable inches towards the inevitable. Even with three minutes to go, the look on his eyes sends a clear message – this is going to happen
Were they in the building, the Italians would have seen Wael Gomaa nearly become an Egyptian legend as large as King Tut, his header from six yards containing enough power but lacking in precision, rising above the crossbar minded by Brad Guzan.
Referee Michael Hester blows the final whistle, setting off a scene that is equal parts excitement and disbelief. Donovan: “My initial reaction was don't get too excited, because we don't know what happened. But I looked over at the bench and everybody was jumping up and down so I knew we could celebrate.”
“I was in awe,” said Jonathan Bornstein about that moment. “We went into the game knowing that we needed a six-goal swing. It’s like that quote from Dumb and Dumber: ‘So you’re telling me there is a chance.’”
Hackworth, who rode the roller coaster more than any other on the U.S. staff, is the last one down on the field to join the celebration. There’s a new match equation kids: 3+3+3 equals a place in the semifinals of the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup and a meeting with No. 1-ranked Spain.
Not too much later in the locker room, Bradley is working on the next equation.