Spain, the European champion juggernaut on the 35-game unbeaten streak, awaits on Wednesday. But let concern over that Herculean task wait until Monday. For the first time since the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup final, Bob Bradley and the U.S. national team rose to the occasion and, on this day, certainly deserve passage.
Bradley continued to go with experience at the start, preferring not to give either Freddy Adu or Jose Francisco Torres a run and choosing instead to leave the attack in the hands (at the feet) of Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore. Charlie Davies partnered with Altidore up top and Ricardo Clark returned to center midfield after his one-game suspension. The back four of Jonathan Bornstein, Jay DeMerit, Oguchi Onyewu and Jonathan Spector remained intact while Aston Villa reserve Brad Guzan replaced Tim Howard in goal.
After 10 minutes, the score was still 0-0, and the U.S. looked composed. Then the chances started coming. Dempsey's through ball to Michael Bradley in the 13th minute resulted in a shot that was well saved by Egypt's Essam El Hadary. Two minutes later Dempsey found Donovan, who tore in on the left only to be smitten by an unfortunate moment of unselfishness that prompted him to attempt a pass to Altidore when a shot clearly was the right choice.
The Americans were stuck in and clearly not playing with the same tentativeness and lack of discipline that proved their undoing in the first two games. At 21 minutes the first goal came from an outstanding individual effort from Davies. Altidore hit a cross that El Hadary lunged for and missed, and Davies outfought the goalkeeper and two Egyptian defenders at the near post and chipped the ball home for his second international goal.
The goal only increased the Americans' confidence, and Donovan finally seems to have realized that he is most effective when taking space on the dribble and confronting defenders. He beat several players on a slaloming 29th-minute run that was stifled by El Hadary and set Dempsey up for a header that went just wide two minutes later.
There were a few problems during the half, most notably a swath of space on the U.S. left that the Egyptians continued to exploit and a bit of uncomfortable miscommunication between players deciding who should go forward. But for the most part the performance was much improved, and something the Americans could feel better about as they faced inevitable elimination.
Meanwhile, Brazil was doing its part to help make the improbable probable. In the seven minutes before half they tallied three goals, two from Luis Fabiano and an own goal off the foot of Andrea Dossena. And like that, the Americans were two goals away from advancing.
Altidore nearly got one of them in the 51st minute, but his low shot was cleared from the line by Hani Said, who appeared to use every part of his body to make the save. Michael Bradley and Donovan would make no mistake 12 minutes later, knifing through the Egyptian defense with some strong dribbling and two passes that ended with a perfectly placed Father's Day present inside the right post.
Realizing that Dempsey was tiring but preferring him to leave him on the field for an offensive spark, the under-fire coach made his best decision of the tournament, bringing Benny Feilhaber in for Altidore and pushing Dempsey up front with Davies. Two minutes later, he was rewarded as Spector's well-hit cross from the right was headed in by the Fulham man for the 3-0 margin the Americans needed to progress.
Then it was nervy waiting. Would Giuseppe Rossi score a garbage time goal for Italy to knock the U.S. out? Would Wael Gomaa's 90th-minute header stay down and give the 3-1 losers a semifinal berth at both the Americans' and Italians' expense? The Pharaohs held the ball, but the U.S. held firm and escaped with the clean sheet. Italy, Egypt and the U.S. each finished 1-2-0, with the Americans edging Egypt on goal difference and Italy on the number of goals scored.
It marks the first time the U.S. has advanced past the first round of a non-CONCACAF tournament since 2002. It failed at the 2003 Confederations Cup, the 2006 World Cup and the 2007 Copa America. It also proves that the team has what it takes to play on the big stage -- Egypt is a good team that defeated Italy and has won two consecutive African Nations Cups. Whether Bradley, Donovan and the rest can replicate Sunday's effort is a critical question that must be answered. But not now. Tonight is for celebration, then the tired but worthy Americans face their biggest test in years against the world's best team on Wednesday.