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To Hell And Back
June 29, 2009
Against first-round competition even stiffer than they'll see at next year's World Cup, the U.S. men showed their worst side, then their best, in South Africa
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June 29, 2009

To Hell And Back

Against first-round competition even stiffer than they'll see at next year's World Cup, the U.S. men showed their worst side, then their best, in South Africa

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The man in charge of American soccer says he's obsessive about returning every one of his e-mail messages, which made the miraculous events of Sunday night in South Africa even sweeter for Sunil Gulati, the mild-mannered Columbia economics professor and president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. By his own account Gulati had received some 200 e-mails from angry fans demanding that U.S. coach Bob Bradley be fired after the Americans' embarrassing 3--0 loss to Brazil on June 18 in the Confederations Cup, a dress rehearsal for next year's World Cup that includes the champions of each continent. The U.S.'s Hell Week had begun with a hard-fought 3--1 loss to Italy and figured only to continue against surging Egypt, the champion of Africa: To qualify for the semifinals the U.S. had to beat the Pharaohs by three goals and hope Brazil could do the same against Italy, the reigning World Cup champ.

Considering that the mighty Azzurri had lost by as many as three goals only once in a major tournament since 1970, the U.S.'s chances seemed as likely as the prospect of a UFO landing on the field at Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg. What were the odds—1,000 to 1? 10,000-to-1? Last Saturday a senior FIFA official asked Gulati if he planned to stay for the following weekend's final or go home with the U.S. team after Sunday's game.

And then, in one of the most remarkable nights in American soccer history, the astronomical long shot came through. Before halftime in Pretoria, Brazil poured in three goals in eight minutes against suddenly hapless Italy. At the same time in Rustenburg, the U.S. built a 1--0 halftime advantage after forward Charlie Davies struck a freakish goal off the face of Egypt keeper Essam El Hadary. According to media accounts, the Egyptians had pulled a Eugene Robinson three nights earlier when several players were allegedly robbed in their hotel rooms by prostitutes. The Americans, meanwhile, saved their scoring for the field. "We knew what the score was between Brazil and Italy," said U.S. midfielder Clint Dempsey, and so they pushed forward, going up 2--0 on a 63rd-minute goal by midfielder Michael Bradley, the coach's son. When Dempsey headed home an immaculate cross from defender Jonathan Spector eight minutes later, the unthinkable was real.

U.S. 3, Egypt 0.

Brazil 3, Italy 0.

Italy and Egypt were out. The U.S. was in. And no matter what would happen in Wednesday's semifinal between the U.S. and Spain—champion of Europe and the top-ranked team in the world—one thing at least was certain: On a cool winter's night in a dusty town in the southern reaches of Africa, American soccer had rediscovered its heart.

The Confederations Cup isn't as important as the World Cup, but it offered a rare chance for the U.S. to face several of the world's elite teams in competitive matches (not just friendlies) only 12 months before the main event. And for all the flaws that the Yanks displayed against Brazil last week, on Sunday they showed big league cojones. In a group that will surely be harder than the one the U.S. would face in South Africa next year, the Americans had somehow risen from the dead to advance. "I can't imagine many times that something like this has happened," said U.S. forward Landon Donovan. "When you think about it, to have advanced out of a group with Brazil, Italy and the African champions is phenomenal."

Or as defender Jonathan Bornstein said afterward, "It's like that quote from Dumb and Dumber [after Lauren Holly tells Jim Carrey he has a million-to-one shot of landing her]: 'So you're telling me there's a chance!' That's what we kept saying."

If one of the qualities of a true soccer country is facing harsh public criticism and responding with results on the global stage, last week showed that the U.S. may finally have arrived. "We had a lot of correspondence from fans who weren't happy, and in some ways that's a big positive, because they care enough," a beaming Gulati said afterward of the irate messages that had flooded his in-box. "I will respond to all of them. It'll be a little bit easier tonight."

The U.S.'s Hell Week had begun with a punch to the gut. It wasn't necessarily that the Americans played poorly in their 3--1 opening-game loss to Italy on June 15. They even took a 1--0 lead on Donovan's first-half penalty kick (despite being short a man after midfielder Ricardo Clark's red card) before the Azzurri eventually wore them down. The pain came from another source: Giuseppe Rossi, the dynamic 22-year-old midfielder whose two goals sank the Americans. Rossi, whose parents were born in Italy, spent the first 12 years of his life in Clifton, N.J., before moving to Europe to join the development program of Serie A club Parma. A kid who turned down the chance to play for the U.S. in 2005 now has the potential to become the first U.S.--born soccer superstar. The price tag for potential suitors to buy Rossi from Spain's Villarreal is an estimated $25 million.

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