When Ronaldinho and Kakà walk onto the grass at Soldier Field to face the United States on Sunday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN2) there will be two types of fans there to watch. There will be the thousands of fans in attendance to see Brazil's high-flying offense and its two top players. Then there will be thousands of U.S. national team fans who are eager to see how well their team matches up against the world's most dangerous attack, if the squad can match up at all.
Less than three months ago, this match would have had American fans far more excited and optimistic, but the feeling is a bit different heading into the contest. A winless showing at Copa America, albeit by a U.S. "C" team, coupled with a recent loss to Sweden has American fans struggling to remember the high point of the summer, when the United States left Soldier Field with a Gold Cup title and a thoroughly impressive victory against Mexico on June 24.
Brazil isn't exactly the prescription for busting a slump, but it is the type of opponent you want if you're trying to gauge the strength of your first team and you're not afraid of a tough challenge. The U.S. federation could have found a weaker opponent to fill out the schedule once plans for a rematch with Mexico fell through, but the USSF saw a chance to test its team -- and tested the Americans will be.
As tough a challenge as Sweden presented in its 1-0 victory against the Americans last month, Brazil offers up an obstacle unlike any other team in the world. The speed, precision and creativity of players such as Ronaldinho, Kakà and Robinho will test a U.S. defense not exactly known for its pace and quickness. You need only recall the trouble the Americans had with Mexican speedsters Nery Castillo and Andres Guardado to realize just how difficult things could be this Sunday.
This is precisely why Bradley wanted this matchup. He wants to test his defenders against every type of quality opponent, from the strong and technically sharp Swedes to the quick and skillful Brazilians.
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Will Oguchi Onyewu be able to control his physical play and avoid being carded as the likes of Robinho and Vagner Love attempt to dance around and run past him? Will Steve Cherundolo be able to show that his subpar performance against Sweden was an aberration? Will Heath Pearce and/or Jonathan Spector take a step toward pushing aside Jonathan Bornstein as Bradley's first-choice left back? We should get some answers Sunday.
Things won't be much easier for the Americans on the attacking side of the ball. If you watched Brazil's Copa America triumph this summer you saw a team that has adopted the characteristics of its head coach Dunga -- a skillful but uncompromising defensive midfielder during his playing days as Brazil captain. Brazil beat up and frustrated a loaded Argentina squad in the Copa America final with heavy pressure and a lightning-fast counterattack the Argentines could not answer.
Dunga likely will forgo that type of approach against the Americans in order to incorporate Ronaldinho and Kakà into the starting lineup, which should mean more room to operate for the U.S. attack. Can the American capitalize on what should be a wide-open game? Can they create chances as they did against the Swedes? More importantly, will they be able to finish any chances that come or will they miss badly as they did in Sweden?
The U.S. team should be bolstered by Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley, who have followed up solid Gold Cup performances with good starts to their club campaigns. If Landon Donovan can shake off his recent struggles with the Galaxy the Americans could surprise the Brazilian back line, which is vulnerable to faster attacks.
The current American squad is familiar with facing Brazil's firepower. Five of the U.S. team's top players were in the starting lineup the last time these teams met, more than four years ago. Tim Howard, Carlos Bocanegra, Cherundolo, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley were on the field when the U.S. dropped a 1-0 decision to Brazil in the 2003 Confederations Cup in France.
The scoreline of that last encounter was close but there was little disputing that Brazil deserved the victory on the day. Howard was strong in goal, making five saves including a diving stop on a Ronaldinho free kick. However, it was mostly the Brazil show that day unfortunately, as Adriano's memorable strip of Gregg Berhalter provided the only goal against an American team that managed just one shot on goal that day.
The Americans will be looking for more bright spots on Sunday than they were able to garner that day. The same quintet that played Brazil in 2003 has far more experience than it did then and should provide the foundation for a much more confident and respectable challenge to the Brazilians.
Will that be enough to win? Perhaps not, but the Americans won't have any excuses for delivering a poor performance, not on home soil with a close to full-strength squad. There is no shame in losing to Brazil, but there is shame in playing badly. The Americans need to deliver a good performance, not only restore some of the confidence gained from this summer's Gold Cup triumph, but also to help the program establish some sort of momentum as it moves toward 2008.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.