The Guadalajara cab driver would have none of it. "�Est�s bromeando!" he roared while speeding through this Mexican city last Friday night, his head swiveling toward his passenger in amazement. You're joking! Strange things happen in soccer, sure, but now some yanqui was telling him that the U.S. had just used its B team to beat Germany 2-0, eliminating the three-time world champions from the Confederations Cup. "You're sure that Germany didn't win 2-0?" he asked in Spanish, his head still turned, the cab swerving as wildly as a wayward corner kick.
S�, hombre, just as sure as we are that the U.S. men's soccer team last week went through the most mesmerizing five days in its history. Facing three world powers and brutal conditions—hostile crowds, lung-crushing altitude and only one day's rest between each game—the U.S. attacked Brazil as it never had before in an undeserved 1-0 loss and embarrassed Germany with its second string before it finally succumbed to Mexico, 1-0 in sudden-death overtime, in the semifinals in Mexico City on Sunday.
The win against Germany was only one of the remarkable developments for the U.S. last week. There was the fact that the Americans, missing five starters (including defender Eddie Pope and midfielders Chris Armas and Claudio Reyna) because of injuries or club commitments, even reached the semifinals of the eight-nation tournament. There was U.S. coach Bruce Arena, who had so much faith in his players that he used all 20 of them. And there was former captain John Harkes, who wore the national colors for the first time since being famously thrown off the team by then coach Steve Sampson shortly before last year's World Cup.
With a 6-3-1 record in 1999—including wins against Germany (two), Argentina and Chile—the Americans are the most improved team in the world this year, a unit that constantly applies pressure on offense and defense. After beating New Zealand 2-1 in its July 24 Confederation Cup opener, the U.S. outplayed Brazil, which was missing three of its stars, including Ronaldo, four days later. But Brazil won on a goal by its newest wonder child, 19-year-old Ronaldinho, who headed home a splendid cross off the right post in the 13th minute. Unable to otherwise crack the American defense, the Brazilians jumped offside 17 times and didn't take a single corner kick.
The Americans would almost certainly have earned a tie had midfielder Joe-Max Moore not scuffed a penalty kick that was easily saved by Brazilian goalkeeper Dida late in the second half. So impressed was Brazilian coach Wanderley Luxemburgo that he proclaimed the U.S. tougher than any opponent his team had faced in winning last month's South American championship. "They closed down space and pressured us defensively better than any of those teams," he said.
Such tight marking saps energy, a fact that prompted Arena to take a leap of faith in his bench against Germany, which also was without a couple of its top players, including star striker Oliver Bieroff. Having learned from last year's MLS Cup and this year's U.S. Cup that his players struggle whenever they don't get more than two or three days' rest, Arena chose to sit nine starters, hoping his reserves could get the necessary tie to eliminate the Germans and thereby keep the first string fresh for Sunday's semifinal.
The gamble worked. Despite some shaky defense in the opening 15 minutes, the Americans took the lead when midfielder Ben Olsen scored off a clever interior pass from forward Paul Bravo. Then early in the second half, Moore redeemed his blown opportunity against Brazil with a 22-yard free kick that swooped like a kingfisher into the German goal. The Americans won going away, establishing beyond a doubt that they possess their deepest talent pool ever.
Still, several U.S. players conceded afterward that they initially had been stunned by the boldness of Arena's decision. "You put in all those new guys, and to think it's going to work out is crazy," said defender Frankie Hejduk. "Now the coach looks like a genius."
When Arena took over the U.S. team last November, one of the biggest misconceptions about him was that he was rebuilding the roster by using only players in their early 20s. While it's true that Arena plans to build upon youth—most prominently midfielders Olsen, 22; Reyna, 26; and Jovan Kirovski, 23—it's also true that seven of the 20 men Arena took to Mexico were in their 30s. What's more, Arena has shown a keen eye for older players who are newcomers to the international level. Bravo, 31, and defenders Robin Fraser, 32, and Carlos Llamosa, 30, all contributed heavily last week, even though they entered the tournament with a mere 23 caps among them.
"We are starting over, but the idea is that we're balanced," says Arena, who also took over-30 veterans Harkes, Jeff Agoos, Marcelo Balboa and Ernie Stewart to Mexico. "You can still play soccer at 30. What you have to look at is whether the player can help you win now, next year and the year after."