BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa -- A week ago, the U.S. men's soccer team was barely an afterthought, its struggles hardly stealing the spotlight from golf, baseball or "Jon & Kate."
Well, well, well, look who has America's attention now.
There's nothing like a big win to get the fans back home excited, and the U.S. team's upset of top-ranked Spain at the Confederations Cup on Wednesday night certainly qualified. The game was replayed on ESPN2 a few hours later, an honor reserved for "instant classics," and the Chicago Tribune ran a banner listing the top five U.S. upsets across the top of Thursday's sports page.
Even the snarky New York Post gave the team a shoutout -- "SOCCER SHOCKER!" -- on its back page.
"This win is huge for American soccer," said Clint Dempsey, whose second-half goal sealed the 2-0 victory and brought a screeching halt to Spain's record 15-game winning streak. "I'm excited about the result, and think all the fans back at home will be excited as well."
The American men, who play Brazil on Sunday in their first-ever FIFA final, took the day off from training Thursday, traveling to Johahnnesburg.
U.S. interest in the world's favorite game has been building slowly, and a surprise run to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup had Americans dreaming of the day when their team would equal the likes of Brazil, Italy, Germany, Argentina, England and Spain.
Since then, however, the Americans have struggled -- on the field, and to gain attention. Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride, two of their best-known players, retired from international play following the three-and-out, first-round exit from the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
In qualifying for next year's event in South Africa, the Americans needed to rally from a two-goal deficit for a 2-2 tie at El Salvador, lost 3-1 at Costa Rica and needed to rally to beat Honduras at home -- the first come-from-behind U.S. victory in a qualifier since 1985.
Coach Bob Bradley has taken much of the heat. Bradley was successful in Major League Soccer -- he led the Chicago Fire to the league title in its first season -- but isn't fiery like predecessor Bruce Arena or charismatic like Juergen Klinsmann, the first choice to replace Arena.
"The press was hard on us, maybe rightfully so, but it never fazed him, it never took its toll on him," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "He continued to prepare the team as though he believed we could do something like we did [against Spain], and that was infectious."
Like Arena, Bradley knows the U.S. team's growth is a work in progress. MLS has done wonders for the development of young players, but the league isn't even 15 years old. More and more Americans are playing in Europe, but too many are still parked on benches.
Jozy Altidore, for example, who outmuscled Spain defender Joan Capdevila for the first goal Wednesday, was sold to Villarreal of the Spanish league last summer. After making just two starts and four substitute appearances during the first half of the season, he was loaned to second division leader Xerez on Jan. 30. He never got in a single match there.
"As [MLS] keeps improving, as we have more and more players playing on big teams, we continue to have success as a national team playing against top teams. This is the way something grows," Bradley said. "There's so many countries in soccer that want to get to the top, but there's no way to skip steps. You learn at each step.
"We understand that, and we're proud that we're moving forward."
A victory like the one over Spain, however, is the kind that can pay dividends for years and years to come.
Whether it does will be up to the Americans.
They will almost certainly qualify for next year's World Cup. The United States is only two points behind group leader Costa Rica, with the top three teams in the North and Central American and Caribbean region earning trips to South Africa.
Part of their success will hinge on what group they're drawn into; playing eventual winner Italy, the Czech Republic and Ghana in 2006 was about as bad as it could get. But make a deep run next year in South Africa, and the big, happy bandwagon they have this week will look like a Smart car.
"We need to expect to be able to compete that way all the time with these teams," Landon Donovan said after beating Spain. "That was huge tonight, and you see when you compete like that you have a chance to win."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press