It may have only been half-time in their second outing, but USA were already resigned to an early flight home. Having lost their opener 3-1 to Italy, Bob Bradley's team trailed Brazil 2-0 en route to a 3-0 defeat that left the door seemingly padlocked on their chances of reaching the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009 semi-finals.
Their third game, against in-form Egypt, seemed a mere formality and prelude to a long voyage home. Frown lines were showing on the players' faces and talk had turned, somberly, to the hard lessons learned at the competition.
It was this feeling of resignation that made the scenes at the final whistle of the 3-0 win in Rustenburg on Sunday all the more meaningful. "People had written us off, they didn't believe in us," Clint Dempsey, Budweiser Man of the Match and scorer of the crucial third goal that took USA, against all the odds, through to the last four, told FIFA.com. "That's the way football is, though, things can change completely in the blink of an eye or with the kick of a ball."
The Americans' fate was not entirely in their own hands. Up after 21 minutes, courtesy of a goal by new forward Charlie Davies, they found out about Brazil's big 3-0 lead over Italy in Tshwane/Pretoria at the interval. If they put two more past the Egyptians and managed to keep them from scoring - something no other team at these finals could manage - it might just be enough to see them advance at the expense of the reigning world champions.
"We knew Brazil were up by three with 45 minutes to go, so if we got two more goals then we'd be in good shape," said Landon Donovan, who deputised as catpain for the injured Carlos Bocanegra. "But when the final whistle went we [on the field] didn't know if Italy had scored or not.
"I was getting signals, thumbs-up and stuff, as the second half wore on, but I had to keep focused on what I was doing. Then, when it ended, that's when I knew we'd done it. The guys from the sidelines ran on the field all crazy and we knew we'd done it."
Clint Dempsey, of English Premier League outfit Fulham, is one of only a handful of American players holding down a regular starting spot in a major European top flight. Accustomed to big occasions at places like Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge, the Nacogdoches, Texas native was at a loss after the famous turnaround in Rustenburg, which must now go down in the lore and legend of US soccer.
"When I heard the ref's whistles at the end of the game, I turned to the bench and it looked like someone had a lit a firecracker under it," Dempsey said with a smile, before calling his third goal, the one that sent them through to an unlikely semi-final with European champions Spain, the second-most important of his international career [the first, he admits, was scoring for USA against Ghana at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™]. "I knew then that we had done it. Now we have a second chance here in South Africa and we're aiming to make the most of it."
Holding midfielder Michael Bradley, who gave coach Bob the perfect Father's Day gift by sliding through to score the second goal, was shaking with emotion after the final whistle. "These are the kinds of nights you remember when your career's over," he enthused, before hailing the team's fighting qualities. "We keep going at the other guy, we keep grinding it out, keep fighting and never giving up. We believe in what we're doing and all of us left everything he had out there on the field."
Donovan, the team's creator-in-chief and all-time top scorer, could not help but smirk when thinking of his team's reward for their heroics: a semi-final with Group A winners Spain, who took nine points from their three games, have not lost in 35 competitive outings and recently broke Brazil's long-standing record of consecutive international wins. "It's not going to be easy," the Los Angeles Galaxy man admitted to FIFA.com.
"I don't think many teams go into a game against Spain thinking they'll win. But we thought we were out ten minutes after our second game here, so it just goes to show that soccer is a crazy game and anything can happen. We've proved that."