US soccer beats Spain! Now let's relax.

Every major US win is hailed as the best ever. But really, it's just part of 59 years of progress.

Paul Thomas/AP
USA's Clint Dempsey (r.) scores the team's second goal past Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas during their Confederations Cup semifinal soccer match in Bloemfontein, South Africa, Wednesday. The US beat No. 1-ranked Spain, 2-0.

Here’s an idea. Let’s take a deep breath.

In the afterglow of the US’ 2-0 Confederations Cup win over Spain, unquestionably the best soccer team in the world, let’s refrain from deciding whether the win was No. 25 or 26 on the list of the 236 most galactically mind-boggling things ever to happen in American sports.

For once, let’s not trot out the most tiresome question in the history of sports journalism: Does this mean the US has finally arrived as a Legitimate World Soccer Power?

If a big tree (named Spain) falls in a moderately important World Cup warm-up tournament in South Africa, will anyone in America care? Will soccer suddenly become something other than a Saturday afternoon release-valve for the pent-up energy of shin-guarded six year olds?

Probably not.

But on the upward arc of American soccer, it is a fingerpost of progress. That the United States can beat a country that had won 32 of its last 35 matches – and tied the other three, tying a record for the longest international soccer unbeaten streak in the history of the known universe – means something.

In short, it means that on a good day, the US can beat a team that is historically good – one whose style is so lovely to behold that soccer journalists channel their inner Shakespeare simply to chronicle it.

The US has done this twice before.

In the 1950 World Cup, it defeated England, 1-0, and journalists abed in England, not yet having the benefit of ESPN360, reported the score as 10-1 to England, thinking a mistake had been made.

This has been called the greatest upset in the history of sport. A team that included a gym teacher, a bricklayer, a dishwasher and two mailmen beat a team guided by a man who would later become the first man ever knighted for his soccer prowess.

Impressive, but hardly was something to build upon. The US did not qualify for the World Cup for another 40 years.

In 1998, the US beat Brazil, again 1-0, in a C-list regional tournament. But Brazil is Brazil, and the world oohed. The thing is, goalkeeper Kasey Keller essentially had to perform an entire Cirque du Soleil act simply to keep the Brazilians off the scoreboard, and the winning goal was scored by Predrag Radosavljevich, a red-blooded American from the Main Street, USA, town of Belgrade, Yugoslavia. (Is that Iowa or Nebraska?)

A step forward, yes. But the victory still has the unmistakable scent of an anomaly – a butterfly had beat its wings off Cape Verde and this was the incomprehensible result.

The thing about Wednesday is that the US looked – dare I say it? – comfortable. That’s not to say they were the better team. But that’s not necessarily the most important thing in soccer. As usual, Spain put the soccer ball on its passing carousel, but rarely was there a moment when the Americans’ fingernails were all that separated them from defeat.

There were many close calls, as there are bound to be with a team of Spain’s quality, yet the American defense coped, and admirably. It was, it must be said, negative soccer – the very thing that infuriates American sports fans about the sport.

But taken more as tactics than as spectacle, it was effective. Many if not most of the 35 teams Spain played before Wednesday would have tried to employ the same game plan. Yet it was the US that succeeded.

These are the measures by which progress is gauged.

For the first time, the US beat the best in the world – and deserved it.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.