By Andrea Canales
The idea behind the project was never to win the World Cup. It was to arrive to the ultimate party of the sport as something other than the punchline.
Yet it was too easy to look at the title of Project 2010 and ridicule the ambitions of the United States.
After all, since the plan was instituted in 1998, when did the U.S. strike fear or anything other than annoyance in the world's top teams?
A win here or there versus Poland was respectable, but far too often, the U.S. fell short on the world's stage.
Who could take the Americans seriously? Who was their best player - that undersized attacking midfielder playing in Major League Soccer for David Beckham's team? Wasn't their beast of a central defender performing for a team in the tiny country of Belgium? Others like Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu, took chances on their careers abroad and met with varying degrees of succes in the search for playing time. Hadn't the U.S. backed into advancing in the 2002 World Cup and fallen on its face in 2006 in the group stages? How could the country that many assumed never took the sport seriously really compete at the top level?
Overlooked by many was how a scrappy U.S. team fought hard against Germany in the 2002 quarterfinals, or held Italy to a draw in 2006. Many didn't bother to notice that the Los Angeles Galaxy depended far more on Donovan than Beckham. Some didn't note that through coaching changes and roster switches, Dempsey kept proving himself anew for Fulham.
It was easy to forget those positive signs when again and again, the U.S. faltered while facing a top squad, be in Spain in a 2008 friendly, or Brazil and England that same year. Even when the squad put together a valiant defensive effort versus Argentina, the scoring touch was lacking in a 0-0 draw.
But the rumblings that the U.S. could make some noise at the Confederations Cup lasted only a little longer than Ricardo Clark's time on the field in the first match against Italy, which ultimately wound up a demoralizing 3-1 defeat. To add insult to that injury, the player deliriously celebrating his brace against the U.S. was none other than Italian-American Giuseppe Rossi.
Again the U.S. was a punchline -"Hey, the Americans finally have a world-class player! Too bad he plays for Italy."
In comment after comment defending Rossi's move to play with Italy, Goal.com readers pointed out the quality of the Italy squad versus that of the U.S. It's true that technically, the Americans are far out-paced by the likes of Italy and Spain.
But hustle and heart also count on the field, and after another humiliating defeat, this time to Brazil, the U.S. players, who are the youngest squad in the competition, dug down deep and found the strength to overcome incredibly steep odds.
Yes, Egypt was tired - all players are for the final group game. No one expected a 3-0 scoreline, though. However, that's what the U.S. needed and that's exactly what they got.
Now come the biggest upset of all; a defeat of Spain. It was not a 1-0 result off a deflection, but a carefully executed team performance.
What does this mean for 2010?
It doesn't mean the U.S. will win in 2010. I don't see anyone picking them as one of the favorites anytime soon, either. However, ladies and gentlemen, I think we can say this: the U.S can now be a contender.
Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of Goal.com North America.