By any standards, the Summer of 2009 will go down as one of the most memorable seasons in American Soccer history. Between the US Men's National Team's improbable run to the Confederations' Cup Final, the release of Grant Wahl's The Beckham Experiment" and the re-entry of David Beckham to the LA Galaxy, The Gold Cup, and the massive crowds that have attended top-notch Euro club friendlies, there was more buzz, more visibilty, and more soccer in America in the last few months than any other time is recent memory.
Over the next three days, I'll recap the season that brought soccer highlights and talk to the forefront of America's sports consciousness, which will culminate on Wednesday's afternoon, when Mexico and the US meet in a World Cup Qualifier at the Azteca in Mexico City.
Part 1: The US Makes its Mark on the World Stage
Pundits call the FIFA Confederations Cup the "world's third most important national team tournament" after the World Cup, of course, and the European Championships. For the US Men's National Team, the Confed Cup started horribly, with losses to Italy and Brazil that caused many to wonder if the Yanks truly belonged in a tournament of the Confed Cup's caliber, and whether Bob Bradley was fit to be the US coach.
The June 15th group stage opener vs. defending World Cup champion Italy started reasonably well for the US. The Yanks carried much of the play and had some quality chances before Ricardo Clark was ejected on a straight red card in the 33rd minute. A Donovan pk before halftime gave the US a surprising lead, but NJ native and burgeoning Italian star Giuseppi Rossi took over the match upon entering in the 57th minute. Rossi's two goals added insult to injury as the Yanks folded in the 2nd half and lost 1-3.
The Brazil match three days later did little to instill belief that the Yanks would extend their stay in South Africa past the group statge. The US played frightened and intimidated, and a horrendous giveaway by DeMarcus Beasley led to an end-to-end counterattack and goal by Robinho which put the Yanks in a 2-0 hole. Add another red card by Sacha Kljestan and a second half goal by Brazil, and the US had its collective head down, ready to head home with zero points and a -5 goal differential. Stateside, American pundits and fans had the pitchforks and torches out for Bob Bradley's head.
Say what you want about Bradley, but the US coach was able to remove any negativity from his squad's psyche ahead the Yanks' final group match with African Champ Egypt on June 21st. Needing help from the other group match, The US got goals from Charlie Davies, Michael Bradley, and the struggling Clint Dempsey... and NO red cards. The 3-0 win shocked Egypt, raised eyebrows across the soccer world, and when Brazil routed Italy, advanced the US to the tournament semifinals on the goals-scored tiebreaker.
Tournament broadcaster ESPN began to turn on its hype machine ahead of the US' David v Goliath matchup with European Champion Spain in the semis on June 24th, and with good reason. Spain hadn't lost a match in its last 35 outings, and was on a 14-match win streak. The newly invigorated Bradley created a masterful game plan, with teen phenom Jozy Altidore up top. Altidore's amazing goal off Casillas in the 27th minute not only won him a trip to the EPL, but gave the US the confidence to defend with gusto. Dempsey's punishing goal in the 72nd gave the US the unlikliest of victories against the number one team in the world, and the American Sports press took notice, comparing the win to the 1980 US Hockey "Miracle on Ice."
The Confed Cup final, against Brazil, had the benefit of being scheduled on a Sunday afternoon devoid of other sizeable sporting events in the US. ESPN was relentless in its promotion of the match, using all of its media forms (TV, radio, mobile, web) to attract viewership. On the field, the match was a dream start for the US, with Dempsey scoring early, and Charlie Davies and Landon Donovan executing a picture perfect counterattack to give the Yanks an early 2-0 lead. It'd be hard to imagine the tongue-lashing that the Brazil squad received by coach Dunga at halftime, and the 5-time World Cup champs started the 2nd half on fire, taking less than a minute to halve the US' lead. Brazil poured it on as the game wore on, getting the winner from Lucio just six minutes from time.
In addition to the Yanks' silver medals, Clint Dempsey took home the Bronze Ball awards for his three goals, and Tim Howard won the Gold Gloves award for his stellar play in the Egypt, Spain, and Brazil matches.
Despite the loss, the US' grit earned tons of respect around the soccer world, and viewers, too. the final against Brazil drew a 2.6 rating, translating into nearly 4 million viewers and made the match the most-watched non-World Cup match in ESPN history. SportsCenter presented the match as the number one story of the day, spending 7-8 minutes on match coverage.
The mainstream sports media picked up the story as well. Despite the obligatory "what does it mean?" articles and columns, some of the soccer-hatingest cronies begrudgingly gave US Soccer its props, and noted that perhaps the US was slowly turning on to soccer.
The US team's Confederation Cup performance elevated awareness of the sport among the general sports fan, but getting to the next level took one of the most famous names and faces in the world today.
Tomorrow I'll review Wahl's The Beckham Experiment, and look at the good, the bad, and the ugly (and very ugly) of David Beckham's return to MLS.