The United States’ victory over #1 ranked Spain, a team on a 35 match winning streak, is one of the most significant victories for the US in their soccer history. It can’t be counted as among the best overall victories simply because it didn’t take place on the biggest stage (the World Cup). But it is, without a doubt, one of the most important victories.

The US came into the Confederations Cup hoping to see how it measured up against the world’s best. After 3 consecutive concerning outings in World Cup qualifying, Sam’s Army was ready to hit the panic button after consecutive demoralizing defeats to Italy and Brazil. It was the performance against Brazil that was especially troubling. While the US might be able to blame the result against Italy on a game-changing call by the referee to send off Ricardo Clark in the 34th minute, no one could argue that the US looked timid, poorly organized and played with a lack of heart against Brazil. There were serious reasons to believe that the US’ hopes in the 2010 World Cup were doomed to repeat the failure of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. As a matter of fact, it appeared that the US team was getting worse rather than better.

After soundly defeating a good Egyptian team no one expected the US to put up much of a fight against mighty Spain. I honestly would have taken a 2-o loss to the Spainards, who are clearly a better team from a talent perspective, as long as the US played with more courage and heart. But what the US did was nothing short of remarkable. Spain was clearly the better team, but the US victory was not a fluke. They took advantage of their scoring opportunities and played remarkably disciplined defense. The US was the best team in the stadium on this night.

What does this mean for the US’ fortunes in the 2010 World Cup? The defeat of Spain will certainly raise expectations domestically, but those expectations must be tempered. This team still shows signs of weaknesses, including their inability to eliminate the space in midfield in their defensive third. The US must also show an ability to put together better performances in World Cup qualifying. They must play well against Mexico in Azteca Stadium and against Costa Rica at home and Honduras on the road. The US should win each of those matches. Bob Bradley must also find a way to harness the recklessness with which Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark play. The US received red cards in 3 of 4 matches. But even with these glaring deficiencies,  there is reason for hope.

It appears that Coach Bob Bradley has figured out how best to utilize both Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. Donovan’s play, while often too unselfish, has been remarkably consistent this tournament. He is beginning to show both consistency and leadership. Dempsey still lags too much defensively, but the decisions to start Dempsey wide and move him forward late in the match have paid off as a stroke of genuis, since Dempsey scored in the 74th minute against both Egypt and Spain. Bradley has also found a solid RB in Jonathan Spector, an area of weakness prior to this tournament. The emergence of Jay DeMerit gives Bradley the option of using Carlos Bocanegra at LB, and the US still have Steve Cherundolo due back from injury next month.

There are still questions at midfield. Ricardo Clark has been solid the past two matches but he is an ejection waiting to happen. It will be interesting to see what Jermaine Jones brings to the table in the near future. It is clear that Benny Feilhaber has the confidence of Bradley, and he has played well overall. However, Feilhaber forces Michael Bradley to play more of a defensive role, though he is better suited as an attacking midfielder. This also doesn’t take into account that there seems to be no place for Jose Francisco Torres, and it is a shame that he can’t seem to find a place in Bradley’s rotation because he is talented and composed on the ball. It will be interesting to see how Bradley chooses to use Feilhaber, Torres and Freddy Adu at the Gold Cup next month.

The victory over Spain demonstrates that the US can compete with the world’s best. If these two teams played 10 times Spain would probably win 7-8 times. But talent doesn’t always equal victory, and the US demonstrated that when they play with heart and determination they can be a formidable, and sometimes victorious, opponent against the best of the best.

Player Rankings

Tim Howard (GK): 10 Howard was stellar.

Carlos Bocanegra (LB): 6 Good to have the captain back on the field. He missed a golden opportunity in the first half to put the US up 2-0 but miscommunication with Dempsey wasted the opportunity.

Oguchi Oneywu (CB): 10 Has been fantastic the entire tournament.

Jay DeMerit (CB): 9 DeMerit’s emergence may solidfy a defensive that has been shaky on the flanks.

Jonathan Spector (RB): 8 Did nothing to hurt his chances of solidfying the hold on the RB position.

Clint Dempsey (LM): 7 One of Dempsey’s better games in the tournament. He still needs to work harder defensively and continues to be soft on the ball when challenged. But his goal sealed the deal versus Spain.

Ricardo Clark (CM): 5  Made some very solid tackles defensively. Shows himself to be a liability offensively. He is limited creatively, but his most glaring weakness is that he often makes a “hopeful” pass rather than maintaining possession for the US, especially when it is needed.

Michael Bradley (CM): 4 Whether or not Bradley deserved the red card, you have to play smarter. Solid defensively prior to his ejection.

Landon Donovan (RM): 7 Continues to show himself to be dangerous. Made several excellent runs that were ignored by teammates. On one in particular in the 2nd half Charlie Davies was too selfish. Had he dumped it to Donovan he probably would have buried it into the net. Set up the 2nd goal to Dempsey.

Jose Altidore (F): 7 Excellent game. Showed himself to be strong on the ball, especially on the game-winning goal. Needs to work on his ability to hold the ball until he gets help, but he is progressing nicely.

Charlie Davies (F): 7 Worked very hard and put constant pressure on the Spanish defenders.

Hopefully we’ll get a rematch with Brazil with a different result. If the US plays Brazil the way they played Spain, this could be a turning point confidence wise in US soccer history.