The heartbreaking Confederations Cup final, in which the tenacious but ultimately over-matched USA team went down 3-2 in the 84th minute to a fantastic Brazil side, made me realize that America has actually become a footballing nation. The collective anguish of hardcore football fans and bandwagoneers alike put us in an elite group of disappointed bridesmaid nations who get close but fail to lift silverware: the Portuguese of Figo’s golden generation; the Spaniards who, prior to Euro 2008, were legendary big-game choke artists; and, frankly, the English, who’ve consistently underachieved on the big stage since 1966. Great.
We also join that short list of “teams who lost to Brazil in a final”: Argentina (4-1) and Australia (6-0) in the Confederations Cup; Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Germany and Italy (twice) in the World Cup.
What a match — and what a great advertisement for international football and next year’s World Cup. The USA came to play, and after absorbing a few minutes of pressure, found some space on the right wing for Specter to launch a Beckham-worthy cross into the box, which Dempsey nudged into the net at the far post. It was a perfect start for the USA, up 1-0 after ten minutes. Fifteen minutes later, again under a lot of Brazilian pressure, Ricardo Clark pounced on a lazy pass around the American eighteen yard box and played an incredible through ball to a breaking Donovan, who played an equally perfect ball to Davies on the left, got it back and calmly beat the last defender and then the keeper for 2-0. And that was the halftime score.
The USA succeeded with a high-energy attack and aggressive defending. Again, they completely conceded the right wing to Maicon, as they did with Sergio Ramos in the Spain match, but that spacing hurt them much worse in this match. Fabiano’s first goal was a great turn from a combination on the wide-open right side just 46 seconds into the second half. That Brazil goal, scored so quickly after a halftime where Bradley surely told his team to hang on for as long as possible, pulled the thread that unravelled the USA’s dream start.
Specter actually did a decent job in the first half controlling Robinho, but in the second half Dunga made some tactical changes on the left, where Kaka abused Specter to create the second goal. By the 75th minute, the USA looked completely wiped and Kaka was rampant. Lucio won it with his late header, but Brazil had a half-dozen other opportunities turned away, and Kaka probably scored a goal that was not allowed, as well.
Brazil’s comeback was both predictable and excruciating. It wasn’t total dominance — the USA had some good chances in the second half, including two nice strikes by Donovan and Dempsey around the 65th minute, two good but fruitless runs by Davies, and a couple of decent set pieces. But Bradley’s second half plan was lame. He was slow to react to Dunga’s changes, he made poor substitutions that were poorly timed, and he relied too much on deep defending and goalkeeping. His luck ran out.
The top USA players — Howard, Dempsey, Donovan, Onyewu — proved that they are legitimate international talents. The FIFA technical team named Dempsey the 3rd best player in the tournament, and Howard won the best keeper honors. On the other hand, DeMeritt, Bocanegra and Specter looked ordinary in the final. Altidore was utterly missing in action. Davies showed his inexperience. There was no depth in the squad, particularly with Bradley junior out of the final on a red card.
It’s pathetic to point to the USA’s brave and skillful performance in the final and say they won the first half, and won honor by improving from the previous 3-0 humiliation at Brazil’s hands in the group stage. As Donovan aptly put it post-match, the USA doesn’t need respect, they need to win big games when they get the chance.
It’s equally pathetic to chalk a collapse in a winnable final up to experience, but I can’t help but think that this was great learning for the team and coach. Four out of five matches against teams ranked in the FIFA top 5 (Italy, Spain, and Brazil twice), the fifth against the African champions in Africa. Including World Cup qualifiers, they had to play 7 matches in 25 days. If they can go to the nightmare of Azteca Stadium in August and get a draw or win against Mexico on the road, we’ll see if this was truly transformative.
The good news is that the USA has a lot to build on. They were the youngest team in the Confederations Cup, with an average age of just 25.
The other good news is that we are certainly in for some great entertainment in next year’s World Cup. The European powerhouses will be vulnerable, because they always struggle outside Europe (as we saw with Spain and Italy in this tournament). The Egypt and Spain wins, and the positive performance in the final against Brazil, will put the USA in good standing with FIFA for the all-important World Cup draw in December. Our crap seeding in 2006 got us drawn into a death group with Italy, the Czech Republic and an excellent Ghana. In 1998 we got Germany, Yugoslavia and Iran. We need a seeding where we are not the 3rd or 4th best team in the group.