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Roller Coaster Ride to the Semifinals: How the U.S. Overcame the Odds to Advance

Leading into the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup, the U.S. Men’s National Team knew it had a tough road ahead, slated to open against the reigning World Cup champions before matches against the always powerful Brazil and two-time defending Africa Cup of Nations champions Egypt. Before the tournament, no one gave the U.S. a chance, and those who did mostly changed their minds after the team got off to a rocky start. None of that matters now as the U.S. gets set to take on No. 1-ranked Spain in the tournament semifinals while several quality teams have departed, an opportunity that fans across the globe never thought the Americans would have.

June 15, 2009
Italy 3, USA 1
Not intimidated by the 2006 FIFA World Cup champions, the United States came out of the gate firing in its first FIFA Confederations Cup match since 2003. Landon Donovan, wearing the captain’s armband in place of an injured Carlos Bocanegra, led the American attack in creating numerous dangerous chances in the first half. Evenly matched with the Italians up until that point – and some would say tilted in the USA’s favor - midfielder Ricardo Clark received what appeared to be a harsh red card for a tough tackle in the 33rd minute that would completely change the face of the game.

With their strong will and determination on display, the U.S. players were able to finish the first half impressively, and took the lead despite playing a man down. Jozy Altidore earned a penalty kick that Donovan successfully converted to give the Americans a surprising 1-0 lead heading into the interval.

In the second half, it was clear that Italy had figured out a way to exploit its man-advantage. With the U.S. forced into a 4-4-1 formation, Italy took a more direct approach to its attack and brought on Guiseppe Rossi to create a spark. The Villarreal midfielder justified coach Marello Lippi’s confidence in him, scoring twice to lead Italy’s comeback. Despite weary legs after nearly an hour playing short-handed, the U.S. continued to press for the equalizer, surrendering a last-minute goal to add to the frustration. When the dust settled, Italy had a 3-1 victory and a hold on first place in Group B, while the U.S. was last in the group with zero points and a -2 goal differential. In the other group opener, Egypt had surprisingly pushed Brazil to the brink. Only a penalty in the final minute of regulation rescued all three points for Brazil in a 4-3 victory.

June 18, 2009
Brazil 3, USA 0
Though the U.S. was coming off of a tough loss to Italy, it was Brazil that started the second Group B game playing like they had something to prove after a narrow 4-3 escape against Egypt in their opener. The South Americans had the U.S. chasing from the first whistle, and were on the board in just the seventh minute after a phantom foul was called on Michael Bradley and Felipe Melo headed in a magically placed free kick from Maicon to put Brazil on the board. After shaking off the poor start and finally finding some rhythm, a DaMarcus Beasley miscue led to a trademark Brazilian counterattack that concluded with the U.S. heading into halftime down two goals against one of the world’s most lethal attacking teams.

In the 57th minute, the U.S. found itself on the receiving end of yet another controversial red card. Sacha Kljestan was whistled for a late tackle, and nearly two minutes passed before the referee dished out his sentence on the advice of the fourth official. It took only five minutes for Brazil to capitalize on the man advantage as Maicon potted a third goal on the increasingly weary U.S. team.

The result kept the U.S. at the bottom of the group with zero points, a -5 goal differential and only one game to play, but after Egypt shocked the soccer world with a 1-0 upset against Italy, the U.S. still had a chance – a slim one, but a chance nonetheless. The questions were asked: Could Bob Bradley’s team win big against a team that just took down the world champions after nearly outshining Brazil? Not only that, but would Brazil be able to score at least three against an Italian team that would be fighting for its tournament life?

June 21, 2009
USA 3, Egypt 0
It was a new game and a new opportunity for the U.S. MNT, knowing it had a major mountain to climb by winning by at least three goals against the African champions, who had captured the imagination of soccer fans around the world with their impressive play in the first two matches. The U.S. took a firm grip on the game from the onset, needing to control as much of its own destiny as possible, attacking and creating several dangerous chances in the first few minutes, but with none resulting in goals. Without getting frustrated by the missed opportunities, the Americans charged onward, and it was good build up and hard work that led to the first U.S. goal from Charlie Davies in the 21st minute. That type of effort would be the hallmark of things to come.

Meanwhile, Bradley’s squad needed help from Brazil, who were busy putting up a 3-0 halftime lead and clearly firing on all cylinders against the defending world champion. As the advancement scenario began to look more and more possible as both games wore on, the U.S. began the second half inspired and continued to control the run of play.

With the U.S. able to play with 11 men for an entire game for the first time in the tournament, the team put together a second half for the ages. A magnificent tandem run through midfield from Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan resulted in the USA’s second goal, setting the stage for Clint Dempsey’s dramatic header off a Jonathan Spector delivery that gave the United States the golden third goal. With the focus fixed as much on the Brazil-Italy score as the action at Royal Bafokeng Stadium, some nervous final moments from both games ensued. As the final seconds ticked off first in Tshwane/Pretoria and then Rustenburg, matching 3-0 scorelines meant the dream had become a reality for the USA.

The win vaulted the U.S. over Egypt in the standings based on goal differential, and over Italy, based on goals scored. In the span of two hours, the USA went from dead last in the group to second place, earning a semifinal berth in the process and the respect of the admiring fans in South Africa.

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