COLUMBIA, S.C. - Former Furman soccer player Clint Hill smiles when thinking about the U.S. team's stunning turnaround at the Confederations Cup - and how a few of his old teammates and rivals made it happen.
Hill played college soccer with American starters Clint Dempsey and Ricardo Clark at Furman. The Paladins regularly faced nearby Clemson, which featured U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu.
"It's pretty spectacular to think that those three were running around," Hill said Thursday of the trio that played at Furman's Eugene Stone Stadium.
And don't forget the U.S. game-changer in goal, ex-South Carolina keeper Brad Guzan who starred in the Americans' 3-0 win over Egypt last Sunday to reach the tournament semifinals.
Dempsey, Clark and Onyewu then helped U.S. soccer tally one of its biggest upsets, a 2-0 win over powerhouse Spain on Wednesday.
"What's that, four of the 11 (starters) from South Carolina schools?" Gamecocks longtime soccer coach Mark Berson said. "If this were the NBA, we wouldn't stop talking about it."
For such a small state, South Carolina has had a major impact on U.S. fortunes at the eight-team preview for next year's World Cup.
Dempsey, who scored goals against Egypt and Spain, started at midfield and forward for the Paladins from 2001-2003. He scored 17 goals and helped Furman to two Southern Conference titles and two NCAA tournament appearances. Alongside him the first two years was Clark, a quick, strong performer who helped the Paladins go 19-3-1 in 2002 and set an NCAA mark with 11 consecutive shutouts.
The 6-foot-6 defender Onyewu, known as "Gooch," played at Clemson in 2000 and 2001 before turning pro.
Guzan spent two years at South Carolina (2003, 2004) and was taken second overall in the MLS draft. In 2007, he was the league's goalkeeper of the year.
"I know everyone here is so proud of all of them," Furman soccer coach Doug Allison said.
Things didn't look so good last week with the United States reeling from two awful performances, a 3-1 loss to world champion Italy and a 3-0 defeat to South American champion Brazil.
Clark drew a red card and was sent off against the Italians, and Allison grew tired hearing commentators call for Dempsey to be taken out.
"Soccer is such a mercurial game," Berson said. "It can change so fast."
It sure did for the Americans.
U.S. Coach Bob Bradley inserted Guzan in goal for starter Tim Howard against the Egyptians. The Americans responded with their liveliest performance in weeks in the 3-0 victory. Guzan held the Egypt off the board, Clark was back and active in the midfield while Dempsey's goal put the team on top in terms of goal differential.
On Wednesday, the Americans surprising run broke Spain's record 15-game international win streak. Now, the Palmetto State stars are on the way to their first FIFA final.
"That's been so much fun to watch," Hill said.
Hill was an upperclassman during their college years, and noticed the younger players' drive to excel.
"You could tell Rico was such a good athlete," Hill recalled. "But he was real laid back. He showed his skill mostly on the field."
Dempsey also deferred to the Paladins older players. Still, he was always early to practices, running sprints during the state's sticky, steamy summers and putting in extra drill times.
"The guy didn't want anybody to be better than he was," Hill said. "He put in the work."
Guzan is the latest national star to emerge from the Gamecocks program, which produced former World Cup U.S. team Josh Wolff (2002, 2006) and flamboyant Clint Mathis (2002).
Guzan was a heady, athletic keeper with good decison-making skills, Berson said. As a freshman, he posted eight shutouts. Guzan was selected No. 2 overall in the MLS draft after his second college season and was off to the pros.
Berson remembers watching Clemson's Onyewu display his speed, agility and smarts in the annual rivalry games between the Tigers and the Gamecocks. He saw similar features in Dempsey and Clark when they played the college game.
"Sometimes, there's never any question" if a player has the talent for bigger things, Berson said.
Furman coach Allison is running his yearly summer soccer camps. He'll make sure his former players are remembered back home.
"We'll get the U-S-A chants going," he said with a laugh. "This is just great to see."