U.S. upset of Spain becomes a family affair

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Phil Sheridan
Thursday, June 25, 2009
— Scott Bradley was behind the plate in 1990, when Seattle Mariners teammate Randy Johnson pitched his first no-hitter. Johnson endured the tense ninth inning, when he faced Detroit’s fourth, fifth, and sixth hitters—Cecil Fielder, Chet Lemon, Mike Heath—to complete the feat.

Compared to Wednesday afternoon, sitting in front of his TV in Pennington, N.J.? That was nothing.

“It’s different when you’re participating,” Bradley said by phone. “This was much, much worse.”

“This was the stunning upset pulled by the U.S. men’s national soccer team over No. 1-ranked Spain in the Confederations Cup tournament in South Africa. Bradley, now Princeton’s baseball coach, could only hold his breath while the 14th-ranked squad coached by his brother Bob (and featuring Bob’s midfielder son Michael) clung to a 1-0 first-half lead.

It was personal for Scott Bradley and for his parents, who were watching at their home in Bay Head, N.J. But the Bradleys’ experience wasn’t far from any in the larger-than-you-think American soccer fan base.

“The clock,” Scott Bradley said, “just didn’t seem to want to move forward.”

The Americans’ 2-0 win was one of the great upsets in the history of the sport, certainly among the greatest international victories ever for the United States. It would be tough to top the 1950 World Cup victory over England for sheer impact, but this one belongs on the same metaphorical pitch.

Spain had not lost a match since November 2006, a 35-game unbeaten streak.

Spain had not allowed a goal in almost five games’ worth of action, 451 minutes.

Spain is, well, Spain. Soccer is American football and baseball combined there. The United States still is viewed as the Country That Doesn’t Get It when it comes to the world’s most popular sport.

There was nothing to get about this game. It was high drama from the moment Jozy Altidore’s perfect shot ricocheted into Spain’s net in the first half. The United States had no business taking the lead against this team, and now it had to endure 63 minutes of Spain’s increasingly frenetic attempts to correct this cosmic error.

But the players were participating. Like most American fans, all Scott Bradley could do was white-knuckle it.

“That last eight minutes of the first half, the ball was in front of our goal the whole time,” Bradley said. “The defenders were diving in front of balls, getting their legs out at the last moment.”

It was excruciating, over an hour of that same feeling you get when the potential buzzer-beating game-winning jump shot is in the air, or when a closer fires a 3-2 pitch with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth. Clint Dempsey’s insurance goal only seemed to make Spain more determined.

Another Jersey guy, Tim Howard of North Brunswick, was flawless in goal, and the U.S. team held on.

So the inevitable question that accompanies every major American soccer achievement: Has the United States finally arrived as an elite international team? Or, like the 2002 World Cup win over Mexico, is it a stand-alone achievement with limited carryover?

Take it from someone who has been hearing that soccer would be huge in the United States since I was the 11th-best player on an undefeated Liberty Bell Youth Organization squad in 1973: This probably won’t catapult the sport past the NFL.

But it comes at an interesting time, especially here. A strong showing by the United States in next year’s World Cup would keep the momentum.

That will come in time. For now, this was a career-making win for Bob Bradley—who cut his coaching teeth at Princeton before embarking on an MLS career. Just a few days ago, after his team took beatings in the first two rounds of this tournament, there were calls for Bradley’s job.

“My brother is the most calculating person,” Scott Bradley said. “He’s looking to build something, to find out which players are up to the task. When he took the job (in 2006), it was about building something for 2010.”

The three Bradley brothers grew up in the North Jersey town of Montclair, which Scott described as “a soccer town.” A high school coach inspired Bob to play soccer. Scott played nine years in the major leagues with the Yankees, Mariners, Reds, and White Sox. Jeff is a well-respected writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Normally, when Scott watches Bob coach, he sees that analytical mind at work.

“He’s focused on building, not necessarily on that game’s result,” Scott Bradley said. “After this game, though, I could see that he was really happy.”

He had a proud family, and an underrated nation of soccer fans, for company.

Last updated: 10:35 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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