But by pressuring the European champions at key moments as well as absorbing waves of their impetus in the second half, the Americans posted a spectacular 2-0 victory in a Confederations Cup semifinal that has already taken its place among the nation's greatest triumphs of all time.
Jozy Altidore scored in the first half following sustained waves of American attacks, and Clint Dempsey added a clinching goal with 16 minutes to play following a quick series of forward passes that broke up the Spanish resistance. Though the Spaniards held a huge edge in shots - U.S. Soccer's statistics tallied it 18-9 in their favor; FIFA reported it as 29-9 - an incredible array of blocked shots and clearances from a half-dozen players, and some remarkable saves by keeper Tim Howard, brought the U.S. a grand victory.
When most fans and pundits talk about tactics, they refer to systems of play, formations, and so forth. All those played into the game plan, but more important than the 4-4-2 was a mindset to go-for-it, all over the field. "I thought we did a very good job of making it hard on them," said Landon Donovan, a constant menace with his sharp cuts and knifing dribbles, and valuable defensively as well ball-hunting on the flanks.
"Most teams against them respect them a little too much and back off. We did a good job of being harder and more aggressive than most teams are against them. We had our chances, we took them and that was important too."
As they had done against Egypt in a shocking 3-0 win that landed the semifinal berth when Brazil downed Italy by the same score, the Americans poured forward from the kickoff, getting numbers forward without being caught short, playing one- and two-touch whenever possible, and always looking for a lane to goal.
In the first 20 minutes, forward Charlie Davies threatened several times, and Dempsey drilled a low effort just wide with a slick trap and quick shot while pivoting suddenly. Taken somewhat back, and pushed back, by this arrogant approach, Spain's forays over the midfield line ran aground as crosses and diagonal balls came flying back from the head of Oguchi Onyewu or were swallowed up by his teammates.
An early goal for either team might have settled the nerves a bit and Spain did get chances. Its attacking trio of Fernando Torres, David Villa and Cesc Fabregas found space, especially on whichever flank Dempsey was supposed to help defend. Fabregas volleyed over the crossbar and a minute later delivered a low ball that Torres shot high under pressure from Carlos Bocanegra, a theme that was to be repeated throughout the 90 minutes.
Seldom did the Spanish players have the time and space to pick their spots; they were harassed, chased and pursued, and numerous blocked shots added to their anxiety, forcing poorly-hit efforts that Howard covered, or flat-out misses. Twice they tested Howard severely, and both times he broke their hearts.
The defenders, too, were flustered, as Donovan scythed through and around them, Davies motored after everything, Dempsey ran at them, and Altidore banged them around.
Altidore jangled their nerves again in the 27th minute when he casually rode Joan Capdevila over his shoulder to control a deflected pass from Dempsey, and with time and a clean look at goal, struck a right-footed shot that seemed to fool goalie Iker Casillas. Instead of diving, he stuck out his right glove, and the ball flicked off its fingertips and into the net off the post. The goal capped off a string of crisp, incisive passes, with the Spanish a step behind every touch.
Spain stepped up its pressure after the goal but couldn't break through. Jay DeMerit snuffed a shot by Sergio Ramos and Howard bailed out Bocanegra, who'd let Torres burst past him, by kicking away Torres' close-range shot.
Blocks and saves fended off Spain at the start of the second half, as the incredible range and workrate of Ricardo Clark broke up numerous attacks. In the 69th minute, Benny Feilhaber replaced Davies and took Dempsey's wide midfield spot, replicating a move in the Egypt game that pushed Dempsey up top with Altidore. It paid dividends soon enough.
Another run of passes prompted Feilhaber to play a ball wide right for Donovan, who cruised into the penalty area to play a pass that deflected off Gerard Pique and ran to the far post, where right back Sergio Ramos, off-balance, stopped it with his right foot. Dempsey pounced to drill the ball past Casillas.
A final quarter of an hour produced two more saves for Howard and a half-dozen blocks from as many players. A harsh red card to Michael Bradley on a somewhat awkward tackle that won the ball rather cleanly takes him out of the final Sunday against either Brazil or host South Africa.
"Any time a player pours his heart into a game, to see a player lose a chance to play in the final, I think players all around the world understand what that means," said his head coach and father. "That's as difficult as it gets."
Yet regardless of foe or circumstance, the most difficult part is past. Losses to Brazil and Italy in the first two games were marred by red cards, and not even the unfortunate ejection of a stalwart player could spoil the taste of a courageous victory earned by getting forward, and getting stuck in.
"I think we were very unlucky [against Italy and Brazil] and playing two great teams with 10 men," said Onyewu. "The main thing is that we stuck to our tactics, and we didn't try and change anything. We knew that if we stuck to our game plan and stuck it out things might change for us and they did."
June 24 in Bloemfontein, South Africa
USA 2 Spain 0.
Goals: Altidore (Dempsey) 27, Dempsey 74.
USA - Howard, Spector, Onyewu, DeMerit, Bocanegra, Donovan, Clark, Bradley, Dempsey (Bornstein, 88, Davies (Feilhaber, 69), Altidore (Casey, 84).
Spain - Casillas, Ramos, Pique, Puyol, Capdevila, Fabregas (Cazorla, 68), Xabi Alonso, Xavi Hernandez, Riera (Mata, 77), Villa, Torres.
Shots on Goal: 2/8
Corner Kicks: 3/17
Yellow cards: USA -- Donovan 5, Altidore 28; Spain -- Capdevila 36, Pique (caution) 89
Red cards: USA -- Bradley 86.
Referee: Jorge Larrionda (Uruguay)