The USA pulled off arguably its most historic win in Bloemfontein on Wednesday, getting the better of a Spain team comprised of some of the biggest names in world football. The semi-final victory was vindication for many of the US players, who defended manfully against the world's top-ranked team. As Europe's finest charged, an American rearguard, largely unknown and unsung, held firm. FIFA.com caught up with some of the humble heroes after the final whistle.
"If you're not ready to defend for your life against a team like Spain, then you're in big trouble," Jay Demerit, who after one year in the English Premier League is now back down in the second tier with Watford, told FIFA.com. The centre-back helped repel wave after wave of attacks from the likes of Liverpool's Fernando Torres, Valencia's David Villa and Xavi, who was named top player at last year's UEFA EURO 2008. "We knew we couldn't let them breathe, that we'd have to get in their faces."
The Americans began the game against the European champions, on a record run of 15 consecutive wins stretching back to 2006, in an audacious attacking formation, young Sweden-based speed merchant Charlie Davies led the way. After a goal in the 27th minute from Jozy Altidore, whose move to Spanish football last year saw him loaned out to second tier side Xerex, the game became largely about digging in and holding the line.
"Our defence was amazing," shouted exuberant young midfielder Ricardo Clark, who was sent off in the USA's first game against Italy and plies his trade in Major League Soccer with Houston Dynamo. His lunging blocks and last-ditch tackles were emblematic of the collective US resistance. "Gooch (Oguchi Onyewu) was amazing, (Jay) Demerit, (Carlos)cBocanegra, everyone in the team really, was defending for their lives and trying to not let a special moment slip away."
Captain Bocanegra, back in the starting line-up after a hamstring injury, was in a state of shock at the final whistle. "It's a big day for us and one of the biggest moments in our history," he told FIFA.com, giggling under his breath almost deliriously. "It's hard to believe right now; it hasn't really sunk in." Lining up at left back for the first time since 2007, the Rennes defender proved to be equal to the task against Spain's wide raiders, especially Real Madrid star Sergio Ramos. "There were a lot of acrobatic, sliding blocks," he said. "One guy would be sliding in to clear the shot away, and another guy would come in behind to clean it up. The defence was amazing, but it wasn't just the defenders - the whole team worked the slam the door shut."
Oguchi Onyewu was perhaps the most impressive among a number of outstanding performers at the back, the giant central defender, rumoured to heading for Turkey from Belgian champions Standard Liege, towered above Spain's renowned and celebrated frontline. "Everyone was focused on defending," he said, pointing out playmaker Landon Donovan's dogged display and striker Clint Dempsey's willingness to get stuck in for the cause. "You're always nervous when you're protecting a lead, that the other team might get through, but we really believed in ourselves and in what we were doing."
What the US was doing, whether they knew it or not at the time, was working toward the country's biggest win since they famously beat England in Belo Horizonte at the 1950 FIFA World Cup. The battle in Bloemfontein was a similar game to that iconic triumph, with effort, luck, pride and spirit trumping superior technique and pedigree in a classic tale of American enterprise and belief. Clint Dempsey, one of few USA players getting regular playing time overseas, with Fulham in England's top-flight, helped ease the tension with an opportunistic second goal with 16 minutes to go. From there on out it was a matter of holding on against some final frenzied attacks by Spain's stung stable of shining stars.
"We knew we were going to have to defend for our lives," added Everton's No1 Tim Howard, knowing they will face either Brazil or South Africa in their historic final in Johannesburg. "To pull off a shock win like this you have to defend like your life actually depends on it." Demerit, tall, muscular and earnest, seemed to put the whole effort into perspective best. Every time we come out in games like this we have a lot to prove," he said. "We were always going to be underdogs. But it shows that when we come together and do our best, we can do great things. We wanted to prove to Spain that we could stand with them, and that we have some talent in the States too. We may not be the biggest or best-known players in the world, but when we come together it's not about that."