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Rain on Spain: U.S. Reaches 1st FIFA Tourney Final

RAF CASERT | 6/25/2009, 2:34 p.m.

BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa (AP) -- Talk about a full reversal of fortunes.

On the verge of elimination from the Confederations Cup a few days ago, the United States finds itself in the final of the World Cup test event thanks to a stunning 2-0 victory over top-ranked Spain.

Goals by Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey, and superb goalkeeping by Tim Howard on Wednesday lifted the Americans into their first FIFA tournament final since starting play in 1916.
The shocking turnaround from first-round losses to Italy and Brazil has the United States contemplating a championship game matchup with either the mighty Brazilians or host South Africa.

"Three games ago I think it would have been impossible to think about a night like tonight," Howard said. "We've had our fair share of critics, but we stood up and took it on the chin and kept going."

And after grabbing the 2-0 lead, they held on in the face of European champion Spain's surge. The American team most everyone counted out before a win over Egypt and an edge in tiebreakers got it into the semifinals just might come home with a prestigious trophy.

"This win is huge for American soccer," Dempsey said. "This one is much sweeter because we were down and out, came back fighting."

Altidore scored in the 27th minute and Dempsey added a goal in the 74th as the Americans became the first team to defeat Spain since Romania in November 2006.

"It goes to show what hard work and commitment to each other can bring," said Howard, who made eight saves as he frustrated David Villa and Fernando Torres. "Sometimes football is a funny thing."

While the Spaniards could find nothing comical or comforting about their performance, the 14th-ranked Americans showed they can outplay and even outthink the world's best.

"We had a real confidence that we could try to make it harder for them than some of the other teams they have played against," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said, "and we had the weapons that could cause them some trouble."

Spain had set an international record with 15 straight victories and tied Brazil's record unbeaten streak of 35 games from December 1993 to January 1996. Meanwhile, the United States had been 1-7-1 against No. 1 teams, beating Brazil in the 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cup and tying Argentina last summer in an exhibition at Giants Stadium.

The numbers hardly mattered.

"I think it just shows that we can compete with the best. Now we need to do it on a consistent basis," U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said.

Midfielder Michael Bradley, son of the U.S. coach, will miss the final. He received a red card for a late challenge in the 87th minute, the third American ejection of the tournament.

Still, American players had much to celebrate.

Altidore got the first goal when he outmuscled Joan Capdevila, his teammate on Spain's Villarreal, to send an 18-yard shot in off the hand of goalkeeper Iker Casillas. Capdevila thought he was fouled by Altidore, who had engaged in some trash texting a few days ago.

"I told him, 'Be careful of the USA.' And he tried to say I didn't understand Spanish, so it was just all fun and games," Altidore said. "We're teammates and we were just messing around with each other a little bit, but in the end we had the last laugh."

That wasn't secured until Dempsey's goal from 6 yards when he pounced on Landon Donovan's cross, which had bounced off Gerard Pique and the foot of Sergio Ramos.

"There will be ups and downs in any cycle," U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said. "I think this tournament makes that point very clearly. Tonight was a very big up."

But not such a big downer for Spain, according to its coach.

"This is an accident, a little step backward. We have to look forward with optimism," Vicente del Bosque said.

"A streak is over, and we have to start from zero," Capdevilla added. "This sobers us up."

Optimism hardly was a buzzword for the U.S. team when it opened the tournament with a 3-1 loss to world champion Italy, then was outclassed by South American champ Brazil in a 3-0 defeat. The Americans advanced over the Italians on the second tiebreaker - total goals - by beating Egypt 3-0 on Sunday as Brazil defeated the Azzurri by the same score.

The United States had lost its three previous matches against Spain, including 1-0 in an exhibition on June 4 last year.

And now, it is a finalist.

"We just beat the best team in the world," Donovan said. "Emotionally we're on a bit of a high. We might be a little tired physically but we'll be ready for it. We don't play in a lot of finals."

While the U.S. women have won two world championships, the men have long been outsiders and didn't even qualify for the showcase event between 1950 and '90. This ranked alongside the upset of Brazil as one of their top wins, just below World Cup victories over England in 1950, Portugal and Mexico in 2002 and Colombia in 1994.

"I think it's always important to look and see all the different victories along the way that have helped elevate U.S. Soccer," Bob Bradley said. "It began with the famous one against England, but there's been many since. I think we are fortunate tonight that we can add it to the list."