- No USA men's national team had ever reached the final of a senior FIFA competition before the 2009 Confederations Cup
- They led Brazil 2-0 at the midway point of the final before eventually losing 3-2 to Robinho, Kaka and Co
- Captain Carlos Bocanegra calls the semi-final win over Spain at South Africa 2009 'one of the biggest moments in American soccer history'
The date was 28 June 2009. USA were in the final of a major global competition for the first time, and 2-0 up against mighty Brazil with half the game gone. They were on track to win the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa and it must have felt like a dream for players and fans both.
“It was probably the biggest day for me in the national team and for sure it was one of the biggest moments in our history,” captain Carlos Bocanegra, now sporting director for debutant Major League Soccer outfit Atlanta United, told FIFA.com.
The Stars and Stripes, led by veteran coach Bob Bradley, were lucky not to tumble out before the first hurdle of the 2009 event, the first Confederations Cup help on African soil. They were pitiful in a 3-1 loss to Italy and worse when they went down 3-0 to Brazil. All looked lost after just two group games. But a 3-0 win against Egypt in their third, combined with an Italian meltdown, rescued the North Americans from an early exit.
Shock for Spain
Something clicked in the knockout rounds for the USA. Buoyed by their upswing in fortunes, as well as a few key changes in the line-up, the underdogs began to play with style and panache. Their semi-final against Spain – then European kings and soon-to-be world champions – will go down in history as perhaps the biggest win in American soccer since they beat England at the 1950 FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil.
“We shocked everyone,” said Tim Howard, years after the 2-0 result against a La Furia Roja side boasting Carles Puyol, Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso, Iker Casillas and David Villa. “I remember myself and the defenders had a lot of hard work to do that day,” said Howard of the contest in which the Spaniards took eight shots on goal and scored none, while USA scored with both of their efforts. “To get a result like that, an upset like that, you have to defend like your life depends on it. We had a lot to prove. We were the underdogs and we pulled off something great.”
“We had a lot of defending to do on that day – a lot of sliding blocks and last-second stuff,” added Bocanegra, now 37, thinking back on that great day with a chuckle. “It was a heroic moment and one that none of us will ever forget.”
The win, which was comprised of one part grit and two parts self-belief, is one that USA fans will never forget. After the game, the Spaniards - the best team in the world at that time - wandered the bowels of the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein in stunned disbelief. Xavi, Barcelona legend and best player at UEFA EURO 2008, uncharacteristically cursed reporters looking for reasons and answers. But for the Americans it was glory time. “No one thought we could do what we did that day,” said hulking striker, Jozy Altidore, still a key member of the USA line-up to this day.
New-found belief rocks Brazil
The Americans took that massive wave of momentum into the final against Brazil in Johannesburg and for the first 45 minutes, their speed and balance, the elegance of Landon Donovan, the tenacity of Clint Dempsey and guile of newcomer Charlie Davies, pushed the vaunted and fancied Brazilians back on their heels.
At the interval, a Brazil team led by icons in every position were having their own dream. But this one was a nightmare, 2-0 down to the unfancied USA in a major final. Both sides awoke from their slumber in the second half, and the thud of reality was restored. Brazil stormed back to win 3-2, collecting a third Confederations Cup crown. The Americans, unable to hold the lead in their first major final, learned a lesson that will serve them well when they reach a second.