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A Banner Day for U.S. Soccer

There are few dates that stand out as memorable in the history of American soccer. The date June 29, 1950, for example, is the day the United States stunned England 1-0 at the World Cup. To this day, it remains one of the biggest upsets any team has ever put together in the tournament’s 80-year history. Another date, July 10, 1999, is when the USA downed China in a penalty shootout to win the Women's World Cup at the Rose Bowl. A third date, Feb. 29, 2012, will also go down as one of the best in the history of soccer in this country. 

Last Wednesday was not just notable for the fact that it was Leap Day, something that comes around every four years, but also because it saw three different US national teams (the men, women and men’s Under-23) record victories. The historic trifecta was rarer than Leap Day and illustrated just how much progress the Americans have made – across both genders and age groups – over the past 25 years.  

Let’s start with the day’s biggest shocker – the U.S.’s win against four-time World Cup champion Italy in Genoa. A second-half goal by Clint Dempsey was the difference as the tenacious Americans stunned the Italians on their home soil. The Americans looked the part of former World Cup champion as the Italians sleepwalked their way through much of the match. The victory also broke U.S.'s 10-game losing streak against Italy that had dated back to the 1934 World Cup.  

“We are really pleased with the game and with the result,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann told reporters after the game. “If you beat Italy on its own soil, then that means a lot. For us, the goal was to come here to learn. The challenge that this game gave us, especially on the tactical side – to read the game ahead, to think one step ahead – for our players, it was big. It was a big step for them to be constantly on high alert for 90 minutes.” 

It's clear that the Americans downed an Italy team that was having an off-day. No matter. Similar to its semifinal victory over Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup, the Americans were able to put together a scrappy performance and down a powerful team that was either having a bad day or underestimating what they may still perceive as a non-soccer nation. In the end, Klinsmann justly called the victory “a big step” for his team and the program as a whole. 

“I think they’ve done an awesome job,” he said. “I think they take a lot from the game, not only because they won the game, but from an experience point of view because we said months ago we want to play the biggest teams we can so we can improve ourselves. I think if you saw the players, they were trying to give everything they had and they were trying hard to make that happen.

“Obviously as a coach you’re pleased because you see them progressing. You see young players stepping up and playing against these amazing, experienced Italian players who have won the World Cup and played big tournaments year in and year out.”   

At almost the same time, the U.S. women’s team, a two-time World Cup champion and runners-up at last year’s tournament, also recorded a win – routing Denmark 5-0 at the prestigious Algarve Cup in Portugal. Striker Alex Morgan tallied twice, while Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd and Sydney Leroux also scored to grab the win. The Americans, who recently qualified for this summer's Olympic Games in London, made it look easy (as they often do) against the Danish women. Like the men, they used tenacity and offense to emerge victorious.  

“I really like the fact that although late in the first half we struggled – and I think Denmark did a good job and keeping possession in front of our back line – that instead of talking too much about defending, we talked about the attack," said U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. 

As if two great wins wasn’t enough in a day, the U.S. men’s Under-23 team, who will be looking to represent the United States at the men’s Olympic soccer tournament this summer, should they qualify later this month, also grabbed an important victory. Showing that the future is bright, Juan Agudelo and Mix Diskerud scored back-to-back first-half goals in a span of a little more than two minutes to help the United States down Mexico 2-0 in Dallas. The game marked the first time the U.S. U-23 squad had played a game since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. 

“We knew this match would be a challenge and we have much respect for Mexico as a soccer-playing country,” said U.S. coach Caleb Porter. “One of the reasons we wanted to play this game prior to qualifying was to get some questions answered and measure ourselves.” 

Certainly, all three wins bode well. The senior men’s side will embark on qualifying for the 2014 World Cup this summer. A victory against Italy is certainly a great way to energize the players and build confidence. As for the women, they have a great shot at repeating as gold medalists and enter the Olympics as favorites. The men’s U-23 team, on the other hand, first need to qualify for London but can certainly contend for a spot on the podium once they get there. 

Clemente Lisi writes a monthly soccer column for RealClearSports, appearing the first Monday of each month. 

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