Major international tournament.
Against one of the world’s great teams.
As U.S. Soccer fans, we’ve been here before. And as the U.S. Men’s National Team prepares to take on No. 1-ranked Argentina in the semifinals of the 2016 Copa America Centenario, it’s worth hopping in the time machine and traveling back almost exactly seven years ago.
June 24, 2009 was a day to remember for U.S. Soccer as the USA met Spain in the semifinal of the Confederations Cup in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
Against a team that would go on to win the 2010 FIFA World Cup and a country riding a world record 15-game winning streak and 35-game unbeaten streak, the USA got goals from Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey to record one of the greatest victories in U.S. Soccer history.
Playing against one of the best teams of all time in the midst of its golden generation, a side that featured Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Carlos Puyol, Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso, Xavi Hernandez, David Villa and Fernando Torres, the USA played an inspired match. The USA put forth a tremendous defensive effort anchored by goalkeeper Tim Howard and a back line of Jonathan Spector, Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit and captain Carlos Bocanegra to keep Spain off the scoreboard on the way to a 2-0 win.
Spain for sure had its scoring chances, but the Americans were more efficient in front of goal and a total team effort – the likes of which U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann knows his team is capable of against Argentina -- contributed to the epic victory.
The U.S. was the first team to shut out Spain since Italy did so in the 2008 European Championships and the win was the first victory by a CONCACAF team against Spain. The match also marked the first time in 29 games Spain allowed two goals.
The first of those two goals came in the 27th minute as Bocanegra settled a blocked pass by Michael Bradley, and played it back to Bradley in the center of the field. The central midfielder curled a ball up the left sideline to Charlie Davies, who played the ball to Dempsey with his first touch. Dempsey played a one-two with Davies to get past his defender, and looked for Altidore who was posting up against his Villarreal teammate Joan Capdevila. Dempsey’s pass was deflected by Xabi Alonso who was tracking back, but still found Altidore, who held off Capdevila before hitting a strike that went off goalkeeper Casillas’ right hand and the inside the left post before hitting the back of the net.
Spain came out flying in the second half but Howard and the U.S. defense were up to the task, absorbing pressure that included four shots in the first 10 minutes. Just two minutes in, Howard came off his line to parry away a cross and a minute later pulled out a world-class save as Villa curled a shot that looked destined for the right side netting with the outside of his left foot from 16 yards.
Three more of Howard’s eight saves came soon after: in the 52nd minute (Villa after a corner kick), 56th minute (Villa shooting near post) and 64th minute (Ramos shooting near post). In the 65th minute, Ricardo Clark made the first of many great hustle plays by the U.S. down the stretch when he recovered on a ball switched to the far post to slide and deny Ramos a clear shot.
In the 69th minute, the U.S. went to the bench bringing on Benny Feilhaber for Davies. Dempsey moved to forward with Feilhaber stepping into Dempsey’s slot in the midfield and five minutes later, the move paid dividends as Dempsey scored one of many memorable goals in his career (the 15th of his now 52), turning a dream into a reality with a 74th minute strike.
The goal originated as Bradley switched the ball to Feilhaber, who came inside to keep Ramos from intercepting. Feilhaber dribbled to the top of the penalty area, and faked a shot to draw in defenders before playing an entry pass to Landon Donovan on the right. Donovan’s low cross to the back post deflected off the heel of Gerard Pique before Ramos settled it at the far post. Dempsey, unseen by Ramos, sneaked in from the defender’s goal side to turn and hit a sliding shot into the net before Ramos could recover and the USA was on to final against Brazil.
The Americans would fall 3-2 to Brazil in the championship game, but the victory against Spain remains one of the greatest in U.S. history, and U.S. head coach Bob Bradley’s words sound remarkably similar to the themes U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has been espousing this week heading into the Argentina game.
"For us it's a big night,” said Bradley after the game in 2009. “The players all work hard. We constantly talk about reaching higher and trying to accomplish new things. Spain is a team that we have the greatest respect for. They are a super team. Their ability to play, pass and move. We knew it was a challenge, but we felt that we would have a chance and that we could win this game.”
The USA will face an Argentina team featuring some of the world’s biggest stars including, of course, THE world’s biggest star, but to a man, the U.S. players are ready for the kind of game every professional dreams about.
“It’s a huge motivation for us to take on Argentina, one of the best sides in the world, but also to give them a real fight,” said Klinsmann two days before the 2016 Copa America semifinal. “We are not scared of them at all. We admire their players, but this a special moment. I told the players yesterday before we started training, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you now. You got into the semifinal, you made yourself proud, but not go for more. Be even hungrier, be more aggressive, more determined and add another 10% to what you’ve done already, and if everyone does that then we have a game with Argentina.”
Dempsey words after the victory against Spain perhaps preview the Argentina match as well: “No one expected us to win this game. We fought hard, showed a lot of heart playing compact defensively, picked our moments to go forward and got some goals.”
Klinsmann also can’t wait for this kind of challenge.
“We are ready to fight and chase them and be all over them,” he said. “And it’s going to be really fun.”
There will be one major difference between this game and the match in 2009. In Houston, the crowd will be more than twice as big as in Bloemfontein with 72,000 fans expected to fill NRG Stadium. Just four players – Bradley, Dempsey, Howard and Brad Guzan – who were on the U.S. team in 2009 are on this Copa America roster, and while they will lead the USA onto the pitch on Tuesday night, the current squad is infused with an American spirit and ready to do something special.
“A tournament writes its own story,” said Klinsmann. And whatever the result, a major chapter in U.S. Soccer history continues to be written.