BOSTON — It is little remembered, except by hockey buffs and sports trivia enthusiasts, that after the “Miracle on Ice” — the U.S. upset of the Soviet Union hockey juggernaut at the 1980 Olympics — the Americans still had to win another game to secure the gold medal. Had the U.S. team not beaten Finland, that miracle would have had all the lasting power of slush.
The American soccer team is in a slightly different position in the Confederations Cup after Thursday’s 2-0 victory — the “miracle on turf,” the New York Times proclaimed — over Spain, the No. 1-ranked team in the world, unbeaten in 35 games since the fall of 2006.
The victory, just like the hockey team’s almost 30 years ago, only propelled the U.S. to the Sunday finals. This time, however, it will require a second equally unlikely miracle for the Yanks to beat soccer superpower Brazil and walk off the field with the gold medal.
While the American coach and players would never admit to being thrilled with a silver medal, American soccer fans are delirious with the turn of events at this tournament in South Africa, a trial run for World Cup 2010, which will be held there next June. After its two opening games — weak, in a 3-1 loss to Italy, and weaker, in a 3-0 loss to Brazil — the U.S. team appeared ticketed home after one final game last weekend.
Some writers — I see one of them every day in the mirror — suggested that the U.S. team appeared so inept that it might not even earn a return trip to South Africa next year. The phone rang off the hook at U.S. Soccer headquarters in Chicago, with angry callers demanding the dismissal of American coach Bob Bradley. (Some writers, like the New York Times’ George Vecsey, consider the hue and cry here over soccer results to be a healthy development — reflecting America’s growing passion for, as well as coming of age in, the game.)
The ax was unlikely to fall on the coach. But before it might even be considered, the U.S. team scored an improbable parlay — a 3-0 victory over Egypt combined with Italy’s 3-0 loss to Brazil — to advance to the semi-finals (on a tiebreaker) and to the apparent mismatch with Spain. And now with Spain dispatched, it’s on to the finals against Brazil, perhaps the most unlikely tournament rematch in soccer history.
While a win would be strictly gravy, that isn’t the same thing as having nothing to lose in this contest. The U.S. is hoping to emerge from South Africa viewed as not just a power in a weak soccer region, but as a legitimate challenger on the world stage. And while the team played a smart, tough and opportunistic soccer game against Spain, it only outscored the Spanish — it certainly didn’t outplay them. Nor did it eradicate the memory of last week’s flop against Brazil when the visibly nervous Americans watched as Brazil ran by them, around them and over them in a game that was never competitive.
South Africa, in its 1-0 semifinal loss to Brazil (on a free kick in the final minutes), demonstrated that the feared Brazilian attack can be contained by an aggressive rather than passive approach. And it exposed some weaknesses, though it never capitalized on them, in Brazil’s defensive back line. If the American team can’t deliver at least a competitive game against Brazil, its miracle will be consigned to the fluke pile along with some past upsets that never really propelled the team anywhere.
Regardless of the result Sunday, South Africa looks like the big winner at the Confederations Cup. Its soccer team, the only one in the 32-nation World Cup draw that doesn’t have to qualify on the field, proved itself worthy of a place in the big tournament. And while the myriad concerns about the capabilities of South Africa to host the World Cup may not have been totally assuaged, it is certainly a very successful tourney when the biggest complaint is the irritating buzz of the vuvuzela, the air horn played continuously by exuberant South African fans.
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