In 1997, FIFA confirmed the Confederations Cup as the second biggest event on the organizations calendar. But the Confederations Cup has had an identity crisis thanks to shifting from every two years to every four years and the lack of interest in the English language media because England has never qualified.
England’s non participation and the summer time frame with which the event has taken place rendered the tournament useless to many a pundit for leading websites and TV networks. Frustration at finding the games and information about the tournament was apparent in 1999, when the US qualified after finishing 2nd in the previous year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. Gold Cup Winner Mexico had an automatic berth by virtue of hosting the event.
The USA was grouped with New Zealand, Brazil and Germany. A tough grouping no doubt but Bruce Arena had the Americans peaking in 1999, with friendly wins over Germany, Chile and Argentina in the first six months of the year. (I attended both the Germany and Chile matches which were held in Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale respectively.) Arena sent a top squad mixed with old vets recalled for the last time in a competitive tournament (John Harkes and Marcelo Balboa) as well as young starlets. Most notably absent was Claudio Reyna who had recently transferred from Wolfsburg to Rangers, and was training in Scotland. Jovan Kirovski slid into the playmakers role and was also given the #10 jersey usually worn by Reyna for this tournament.
US 2-1 New Zealand
The first match against New Zealand was available only to DishTV subscribers. I had to rely on highlights from ABC shown before the MLS match between the Metrostars and Miami Fusion to see Brian McBride and Jovan Kirovski’s goals. The match played at altitude in Estadio Jalisco confirmed some of the fitness woes the US had previously demonstrated on Mexican soil. The team literally stopped playing for the last 15 minutes and allowed the Kiwis a late goal which would factor into the equation later.
Here was the lineup the US fielded against New Zealand :
Keller-Agoos-Llamosa-Fraser-Williams-Harkes-Lewis(Hejduk)-Stewart(Olsen)-Kirovski-C. Jones(Max Moore)-McBride
US 0-1 Brazil
The second match again Brazil again was not available on regular TV but highlights were released right after the match. I followed the game on an internet match tracker and was devastated when Ronaldinho scored an early goal. But US kept Brazil off the board from that point on and had a chance to equalize when Joe Max Moore was taken down in the area. Moore took the PK but seemed hesitant as he stepped and struck it allowing an easy save for Dida. The US lost 1-0 and combined with Germany’s 2-0 win over the Kiwis, team USA had to get a victory in the final group game against the Germans. A draw would result in German advancement on goal difference.
Here was the US lineup versus Brazil:
Keller-Agoos-Llamosa (Lewis)-Fraser-Hejduk-Berhalter-Harkes (Max Moore)-Stewart-C. Jones-Kirovski-McBride
US 2-0 Germany
The US next faced Germany. With only a few days rest between matches, Arena had to shuffle his squad for this winner take all final group game. This game, which I have probably watched on tape a half dozen occasions, remains to this day one of the high points in recent US Soccer history. Germany like so many other European nations struggle outside the European continent and this match was dominated in every possible way by the US. Benny Olsen scored an early goal, but the highlight of the game was a swerving Robert Carlos caliber free kick by Joe Max Moore.
Scored in 55th minute, the free kick gave the US a 2-0 lead that would not be relinquished. Fielding a virtual “B plus” team the mighty Germans had been defeated. A year later Germany would finish last in its Euro 2000 group and would sack manager Errich Ribbeck replacing him with Rudi Voller a legendary player who quickly brought the Germans back to the heights of world football.
The lineup fielded against Germany:
Mexico 1-0 US AET
My twenty fifth birthday gift was a trip to local Mexican restaurant to watch the US play Mexico at Azteca in the semifinals of the FIFA Confederations Cup. Despite the eventual loss on a Golden Goal by the unsporting Cuauhtémoc Blanco, this match demonstrated the heroism and fighting spirit of the US team in the early Arena years (this spirit would too often be replaced by complacency and indifference in the later Arena years.) The US facing long odds, a hostile crowd and without several players due to injury and yellow card accumulation showed shrewd tactical discipline denying the Mexican several scoring chances while conceding the vast majority of possession to El Tri.
Blanco’s Golden Goal in extra time sealed the game, but the US could hang their heads high taking the eventual champions beyond 90 minutes at their national stadium.
Here was the lineup v Mexico:
Keller-Agoos-Berhalter Fraser-Hejduk-Williams -Harkes -Stewart-C. Jones-Kirovski-McBride (Lewis)
US 2-0 Saudi Arabia
The US returned to Guadalajara’s Jalisco Stadium for a somewhat anti climatic third place game against Asian Cup champion Saudi Arabia. Fielding a second string squad just two days after playing over 90 minutes in the sweltering smog and heat of Azteca, the US crushed the Saudis. I never saw the 2-0 victory, still smarting from playing so well and yet getting nothing at Azteca. Still the fighting spirit and pride this team demonstrated must have been on full display that day at Jalisco.
Paul Bravo and Brian McBride scored the US goals.
Here was the lineup v Saudi Arabia:
Freidel-Berhalter -Balboa-Brown-Hejduk-McKeon-Lewis-Olsen-Kirovski (Williams)-Bravo (C.Jones)-McBride
The lessons from 1999 should be apparent. When a soccer nation rallies around our national team and they believe they can achieve great things, they most certainly can. The three match gauntlet against Brazil, Germany, and Mexico resulted in two losses but showed that the US could play top level football in the toughest of circumstances. Playing without its captain for the entire tournament and several key parts against Germany and Mexico, the US excelled.
We have yet to see Bob Bradley’s US teams beat the likes of Germany or Argentina, whom Arena beat in his first nine months on the job. (He actually beat Germany twice.) Hopefully Confederations Cup 2009 will be the breakthrough for Bradley’s US team the way the 1999 Confederations Cup gave us a taste of what could happen at Korea/Japan 2002.