BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa -- On the day the United States stunned the soccer world, forward Landon Donovan awoke to a vision of the future, courtesy of a picture from the past.
It came in an e-mail from his father, Tim. The son opened the attachment, and on his laptop screen there appeared a photograph of the 1980 U.S. ice hockey team celebrating their gold medal at the Lake Placid Olympics.
"It was cool," Donovan said. "He had a premonition."
The Spanish soccer team may not be as villainous as the Cold War-era Russians, but the world's No. 1-ranked fútbol outfit was a more fearsome athletic foe for the U.S. in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup here on Wednesday. Think about it: Spain came into the game as the European champion, a team that had a perfect record in World Cup 2010 qualifying, to say nothing of a 15-game winning streak and a world-record-tying 35-game streak without a loss.
All of which made the Americans' 2-0 upset even more remarkable. The same U.S. team that got outscored a combined 6-1 by Brazil and Italy just a week ago played like men possessed, and the result is something that would have been unthinkable just a few days ago: On Sunday, these upstart Yanks will meet Brazil or South Africa in the first final of a major FIFA tournament in the history of U.S. men's soccer.
Granted, the Confederations Cup is not the World Cup, but it is a competitive tournament featuring some of the world's best teams with all (or nearly all) of their top players. In the annals of American men's soccer, I would rank this victory in the all-time top five:
1. USA beats Mexico 2-0 in second round of 2002 World Cup.
2. USA beats England 1-0 in first round of 1950 World Cup.
3. USA beats Portugal 3-2 in first round of 2002 World Cup.
4. USA beats Colombia 2-1 in first round of 1994 World Cup.
5. USA beats Spain 2-0 in semifinal of 2009 Confederations Cup.
How did the U.S. pull off this historic win? By combining a smart game plan with nearly flawless execution. The Yanks kept Xavi, Spain's peerless playmaker, from sending his usual devastating passes through the U.S. defense. And the U.S. stayed compact defensively, daring the Spaniards to beat them with crosses from the flanks. Meanwhile, the speedy American attackers took their chances with confidence, pushing upfield when they could to keep Spain on its heels.
"We made a special point of trying to close down Xavi as best as we could," said U.S. coach Bob Bradley, "knowing that he gets the ball all the time, and trying to make him play the ball square and backward as much as possible so he couldn't be playing all penetrating passes. We really felt strongly that when we got the ball we needed to be aggressive … We needed to have he confidence that we could keep the ball and move it."
"We did do a very good job of sealing down the middle of the field," Bradley continued. "Most of what they could get would then come through the flanks, but I thought our back line did very well in the center."
Spain had more scoring chances on the night, but it was forward Jozy Altidore who gave the U.S. a 1-0 lead in the 24th minute, taking a pass from Man of the Match Clint Dempsey and beating Joan Capdevila (his teammate at Villarreal) before shooting past goalkeeper Iker Casillas.
Altidore has Haitian roots, and it was hard not to see a parallel with a historic goal scored by another Haitian-American, Joe Gaetjens, whose goal sunk England 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup--a game still viewed as one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history.
"I know that he was a dishwasher and he was going to school part-time, just trying to make it," said Altidore when asked if he knew anything about Gaetjens. "Those are my roots right there."
The U.S. kept its composure after Altidore's strike, too, holding Spain's attack at bay while angling for a second goal. It finally came in the 74th minute, when Dempsey outhustled Sergio Ramos to a ball in the penalty box and put the U.S. up 2-0.
Dempsey had looked exhausted at the start of this tournament and in the Americans' two recent World Cup qualifiers, but in the past two games he has discovered a second wind. And when Dempsey is in form, the U.S. is far more dangerous going forward.
"My body has been a little bit tired since I came back," Dempsey said, "but I'm just trying to fight through it. Now we have a chance to do something special, so you've got to suck it up and dig deep."
"He's been fantastic," Donovan said of Dempsey. "In the two qualifiers he looked a little worn down, and getting here and having some time to rest and not be playing a game for a few days helped him a lot."
At the same time, the U.S. defense was sensational. In his first game of the tournament after recovering from a hamstring injury, Carlos Bocanegra played all 90 minutes at left back. Right back Jonathan Spector had another solid game, and centerbacks Jay DeMerit and Oguchi Onyewu were a tower of strength. Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark played their best games of the tournament, clogging the central midfield, even though Bradley's late red card means he'll be out for Sunday's final.
"Their defense was fantastic," said Spain's Fernando Torres. "But we created a lot of chances. The difference between them and Spain is they scored two goals and Spain couldn't score with 10 shots on target. So congratulations to them, and we hope the best for them in the final."
Torres acted classier than the rest most of his Spanish teammates did on the field after the final whistle. None Few of the Spanish players stuck around to trade jerseys afterward. "They just walked off the field," said Donovan, who's used to such displays from Mexico. "Whatever. It's not my worry. They're upset. They're going to the third-place game, and they're not used to losing. So I can see why they would be frustrated, but I lose a little respect for them for that."
The question now is whether the U.S. takedown of the world's top-ranked team might cause expectations to change for next year's World Cup. This is the kind of victory, after all, that will draw the attention of mainstream U.S. sports fans, not just soccer fans.
At the same time, don't look for the U.S. players to change the way they view themselves. Not long after he took over the team in 2006, Bob Bradley talked to his players privately about the 1980 U.S. hockey team, noting that none of them were superstars before they made sports history in the Olympics.
It's the kind of approach that Bradley hopes his players will take to the 2010 World Cup. For now, though, it looks like they got a one-year head start. On Sunday, the U.S. has a chance to raise a big golden trophy in a major FIFA final--and to provide its own lasting images of a championship against all the odds.
Why stop with Spain?