Seven years ago today, USA made an emphatic statement in South Africa. The Stars and Stripes, coached by Bob Bradley, stormed into the final of the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup by beating a seemingly invincible Spain side 2-0.
This wholly unexpected victory for a relatively young and inexperienced USA side was hailed by The New York Times as a 'Miracle on Grass', alluding to America’s equally improbable ice hockey victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics - immortalised as the 'Miracle on Ice'. Such grand comparisons rang true. The US had, after all, been facing a Spain side just approaching their peerless peak, having embarked the year before on an unprecedented run of three successive European and world titles. La Roja also went into the match on a 35-match unbeaten run, dating back to November 2006, and protecting a world-record sequence of 15 straight wins.
Of course, Vicente Del Bosque’s squad would ultimately overcome and learn from this Confederations Cup setback, going on to win 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ and EURO 2012, losing only once more in the process. As further proof of their consistent dominance, from 2008 to 2013, Spain ended each year atop the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
But on that day in Bloemfontein, Bradley’s men had their own moment in the sun. Goals from Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey put the Stars and Stripes ahead, and an astounding team effort to defend an onslaught from Spain’s all-star attack, which included David Villa, Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas and Xavi, set the Americans on course for a historic victory.
"We were always going to be underdogs,” USA defender Jay Demerit told FIFA.com after the match. “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."
Spain, meanwhile, were left to lick their wounds. Torres, one of the attackers stymied by the Stars and Stripes’ backline, reflected on La Roja’s impressive unbeaten run after the final whistle.
"We knew that we couldn't possibly win every single game from now to the end of our careers and that the run would have to come to an end some day,” Torres told FIFA.com. “We just didn't expect it to be here in South Africa, but that's the way it is.
“When you lose a game and you've got a lot of players who can barely remember the last time it happened, then it shows that you're on the right track. In fact, I'd rather this happen now than at the 2010 World Cup. I don't think anyone can say we ever showed a lack of respect to our opponents. USA were the better side because they coped with the pressure we put on them and scored the goals.”
Tim Howard, who famously fought off Belgium in the Round of 16 at Brazil 2014 before finally conceding, had a similarly impressive evening in goal for the Americans back in that 2009 encounter. "We knew we were going to have to defend for our lives," the goalkeeper said. "To pull off a shock like this you have to defend like your life actually depends on it."
And while they were disappointed to leave South Africa in 2009 without the Confederations Cup, one of the only trophies La Roja have yet to win, players later reflected on this surprise loss as having helped shape their victorious World Cup run a year later.
Fernando Hierro, Spain's then sporting director, summed up the mood with words that proved to be prophetic. “An experience like this one will strengthen the group and their desire to win," he said. "I am sad for the players, they so much wanted to reach the final and play Brazil. However, they have known how to accept defeat and how to react to it.
"We will be back here in one year," he added, "and we will come to win.”