As both a fan and observer of American Soccer in general and the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) in particular, Confederations Cup 2009 has been a rollercoaster with amazing emotional highs and lows. As we all know, the US started this tournament with back to back losses, first losing to Italy, 3-1, and then Brazil, 3-0. While many were calling for the head of New Jersey born Giuseppe Rossi, who scored two goals for Italy, a sizable number, including myself, were calling for the firing of the team’s coach, Bob Bradley.
The amount and tone of criticism was not lost on the USMNT as they prepared for their final group stage match against Egypt. It was Father’s Day and the USMNT needed a 6 goal swing in order to advance to the semifinals, a scenario that seemed so unlikely that in its pregame show ESPN did not even bother to go into detail on how the scenario could play out. Egypt had hung close to Brazil, losing 4-3, and then had beat Italy, 1-0; therefore, few expected the USMNT to beat Egypt by at least 3 goals. But the unthinkable happened, the USMNT owned Egypt with a 3-0 scoreline that should have been 4-0, and Brazil beat Italy 3-0, giving the US the 6 goal swing it needed to advance out of the group stage and into a semifinal with number one ranked Spain.
The US team that showed up in what has been termed “The Father’s Day Miracle,” was unlike the team that showed up against Brazil and Italy. Last Sunday, all of the players looked interested, they all showed heart, and they displayed an attacking style that allowed them to control the match. No matter what we might think of Bob Bradley as a coach, there was joy in seeing his son, Michael Bradley, score a goal in the 63rd minute of the match; after all, what better gift could Michael have given his father for Father’s Day?
While USMNT fans properly celebrated this amazing feat of advancing to the semifinals of the Confederations Cup, some of us still wondered what team would show up on Wednesday against Spain. Was Father’s Day a fluke and would we see Bob Bradley and USMNT return to the same tactics and styles employed against Italy and Brazil?
Even for those of us who could sleep well on Tuesday night, Wednesday morning brought an overwhelming sense of anxious anticipation. Taking on Spain in the semifinal of the Confederations Cup was arguably the biggest match for the USMNT since facing Germany in the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup finals. After the weak showings against Italy and Brazil, it seemed unlikely that the USMNT would be able to defeat Spain, the number one ranked team in the world, a team that had not lost in 35 straight matches. But, the USMNT had played Spain last summer, and while Spain won that friendly, the USMNT had a respectable showing. Finally, in our hearts of hearts we knew that if the USMNT played with the intensity and emotion, yes emotion, they showed against Egypt, they had a good shot at pulling off the upset.
From the moment I woke up Wednesday morning, I knew I would be leaving my day job early, there was no question about that. While work kept me occupied for most of the morning, about two hours before first touch the anxious anticipation could no longer be ignored. I finally threw in the towel about 30 minutes before the start of the match and made my way to a nearby pub, the kind that opens at the crack of dawn on weekend mornings for the EPL junkies jonesing for their EPL fix. When the match started, it was hard to sit still. In the 27th minute, the pub erupted as Jozy Altidore put the USMNT on the scoreboard and ended Spain’s 451 minute shut-out streak. While the goal gave a brief sense of relief, there was also extra anxiety as to whether the USMNT could maintain their lead. Halftime came and went with the USMNT maintaining its lead, but Spain was looking dangerous. After several great early, second-half saves by Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey got the USMNT’s second goal in the 74th minute. Some folks might say that a two goal lead is the hardest lead to maintain, but the two goal lead allowed me to breathe easier. When the final whistle was blown by the referee the sense of joy and relief in the pub was palpable. I would be lying if I said my eyes were not a little damp after Wednesday’s match.
The USMNT had finally done it, they had advanced to the final of a major FIFA tournament. While the Confederations Cup is not the World Cup, it is the second most prestigious competition in which the USMNT is eligible to participate. So today, we once again wake up (those of us who could sleep that is) with that anxious anticipation as we await the rematch between USMNT and Brazil, who squeaked by South Africa on Thursday.
For me, today is not the day to opine on what this match means for soccer in the United States. Additionally, today is not a day for me to respond to the worn-out, tired criticism of ignorant hacks who do not and never will understand the Beautiful Game, if anything, this Confederations Cup with the serious criticism of tactics and squad decisions coming from members of both old and new media has shown those tired, soccer hating hacks are completely out of touch with the American soccer fan.
No, today is a day for me, and hopefully for you, to be a kid on Christmas morning again, to feel anxious, to feel anticipation, to feel excitement. Today is a day to live and die with every pass, every penalty, every tackle, and every goal. Today is a day to shut out the rest of the world, to be a fan, to open yourself completely to the joy of victory or the agony of defeat.
When the match is over and the dust has cleared, that will be the time to sit back and reflect on the bigger meaning, if any, of today’s Confederations Cup final. Until then though, I tip my hat and lift my glass to you Mr. and Ms. American Soccer fan, enjoy your day in the sun, enjoy rooting for the USMNT, and enjoy your love for the Beautiful Game.