They roared through the group stages with style and grace, bagging a tournament-high nine goals, besting Brazil and routing Poland. Freddy Adu was in sparkling form and living up to his much-lauded potential and life was all right for the USA. But storm clouds gathered ahead of a Round of 16 clash in Toronto on Wednesday that was always going to be more about guts and endeavour than style and wit.
According to head coach Thomas Rongen, the 2-1 come-from-behind extra time win against Uruguay was a matter of "playing with big balls". Michael Bradley - son of US senior boss Bob - scored the winner two minutes into the second period of extra time (the win was the US's first in extra time at any FIFA finals) and knows the contest, which ended with frayed tempers and fisticuffs at the final whistle, was about heart, determination and teeth gnashing.
"Everybody all over the field got involved, winning battles. Freddy (Adu), and the wingers too - guys who like to go forward and create - all did their part," said Bradley whose star is rising with Dutch side Heerenveen. "It wasn't the easiest day at the office, but we all fought hard for the team, did all the little things and never stopped running."
Battling middle men
Goal aside, Bradley's contributions in the holding midfield role, combined with those of grafter extraordinaire Danny Szetela, helped see the Americans past a difficult Uruguay side when Freddy Adu looked out of ideas and out of his depth early on. "Americans teams have heart, American players have heart," Szetela, the side's ball winner and unlikely three-goal scorer in the group stages, told FIFA.com. "You need to play with guts sometimes and find a way to win that isn't pretty. They (Uruguay) didn't back us off we weren't going to be intimidated."
Bradley picked up right where his brother in arms left off, and a wry smile spread across his face when he talked about the difficult victory. "The teams that only play pretty, attacking football usually don't end up winning championships - it doesn't always work out," said Bradley, who was sent off in the senior USA's Gold Cup semi-final against Canada before arriving in the Great White North. "You need to have the guts and strength to fight out a win that maybe you don't deserve. Playing attacking football all the time doesn't get you where you need to be sometimes."
Adu too, who engaged in the contest more in the second half and went on to set up the winner, sees the team's spirit as the hallmark of a champion. "A championship team needs to win games like that, grinding it out against the odds." he told FIFA.com.
Josmer Altidore bore the burden of the rough-and-tumble contest harder than anyone, being carried off the pitch after absorbing a painful calf injury. Limping out of the stadium with his mates, he was all smiles. "We deserve some credit," he said. "We are a bunch of hard men," he half-laughed. The hard man who replaced him and played a crucial role in the creation of the own-goal equaliser with only three minutes to go in regular time, Andre Akpan of Harvard University, was in full agreement.
"You can't play at your best, entertaining style in every game," the brainy super-sub told FIFA.com. "There are going to be games where you just have to grind it out and get the goals no matter how ugly they are."
Ugly or pretty, every player in the US camp and their gritty boss Rongen will take a win as it comes. One more victory against Austria in Toronto on Saturday and they will find themselves equalling their best-ever finish when, led by Kasey Keller nearly 20 years ago, the USA reached the semi-final of Saudi Arabia 1989.