- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 28, 2009

The effect of the big, eye-catching upset in sports is twofold. First is the immediate jolt, the unexpected shock of an underdog knocking off a heavily favored opponent in a prominent competition. Then comes the noisy aftermath - the reaction, the chatter and the attempt to put it into perspective and explain what it all means.

That scenario played out again when the U.S. men’s national soccer team stunned Spain and the rest of the world with its 2-0 victory in the FIFA Confederations Cup semifinals Wednesday in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

As with every huge upset, no one saw it coming except those who pulled it off. And given the team’s spotty performance in the buildup to the event, even the players’ visionary status is less than certain. The Spaniards were supposed to win big, and the Americans were supposed to return home quietly, happy to have been there. What followed, said former U.S. soccer standout and ESPN commentator Alexi Lalas, was “the storm after the calm.”

Amid Wimbledon, baseball’s Manny Ramirez returning from his drug suspension and the NBA Draft (plenty of chatter there), soccer, of all things, has grabbed considerable media space and dominated much of the conversation. The U.S. still has one more game Sunday against mighty Brazil for the tournament championship.

“It’s nice to see the traditional media and those who aren’t necessarily that excited about soccer give it the proper respect,” said Mr. Lalas, who has been getting some unexpected face time. “The underdog factor and the improbability certainly is on a par with some of the great upsets in sports history.”

Sasho Cirovski, the coach of Maryland’s NCAA champion men’s soccer team, showed up for work Thursday morning at the Comcast Center, and “everybody was talking about it,” he said. “It’s such a great source of national pride.”

Not to mention a source of debate. Where does the victory rank in the annals of notable soccer upsets or upsets period? Some observers went so far as to compare it to the “Miracle on Ice,” the U.S. hockey team’s upset of the Soviet Union on the way to beating Finland for the gold medal in the 1980 Winter Olympics.

Not quite, Mr. Lalas said.

“To be fair, you have to put it in context and what the 1980 Games meant to the country and all the social and political implications,” he said. “Had this happened at the World Cup, it would have been viewed very, very differently. It would have had much more impact.”

But the impact still was enormous, likely superseded only by the improbable U.S. World Cup victories over England (1950), Colombia (1994) and Portugal and Mexico (2002). In non-World Cup competition, Cirovski said, the victory stands just behind the win over Trinidad and Tobago in 1989, which put the U.S. into World Cup play for the first time in almost 40 years.

“This certainly ranks as a major, major upset on the world stage,” soccer commentator Tommy Smyth said.

The top-ranked team in the world, Spain had a record-tying, 35-game unbeaten streak.

“On one day, the U.S. was better,” Mr. Smyth said. “They played very smart. They caught Spain by surprise and came away with a fantastic result. You don’t have to be the best team in the world as long as you’re the best team on the field. And the U.S. was the best team on the field.”

Added Mr. Lalas: “They played with an American heart and spirit, combined with a discipline and tactical awareness that should be respected by everyone around the world. Having said that, we could go out and play Spain again today and lose 5-0. Spain is still a better team than us. But not on this day.”

D.C. United veteran Ben Olsen - who played for the U.S. team in the 2006 World Cup - said that because he still plays the game, his reaction to the upset might be more tempered than most.

“I’m not as dramatic as everyone else,” he said. “I’ve played soccer for a while. Anything can happen. … Saying that, it’s a huge win for the exposure of the sport. It’s very, very impressive.”

How that exposure might translate into increasing interest in the United States is unknown. Every time something big happens with U.S. soccer, many predict it will be a turning point. But that largely has not been the case.

“I’ve been around long enough to know soccer in this country,” Olsen said. “The popularity of soccer isn’t going to be changed by one game or one win or a series of wins. It’s a process. We’re getting there. We’re making progress, making strides. If we win the Confederations Cup, is D.C. United going to get 45,000 next week? Probably not. But for those of us in the soccer community, this is a great next step.”

Cirovski said the “eye-opening result” reinforces the notion that soccer in the U.S. is on the right track.

“We have a uniquely different setup from the rest of the world in terms of how our youth is organized and with the college system and trying to become the fifth major sport in this country and trying to fight for the best athletes,” he said.

“I think we’re getting better athletes … but we still have a long way to go. I think it takes a long time to build a culture of soccer. It’s evolutionary. But this game is proof we can play with the big boys and that the American developmental system is working.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. will try to pull off another big upset. If Spain was considered the world’s best team according to the FIFA rankings, Brazil - which dominated the Americans in an earlier tournament victory and is expected to win Sunday - remains the gold standard, the marquee name in international soccer.

“It’s a little gem [for fans] to watch the United States play the greatest powerhouse in the world,” Mr. Smyth said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

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