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Sep 10, 2007

U.S. delivers strong performance against Brazil

CHICAGO -- Robinho danced beautifully, Kaká galloped effortlessly and Ronaldinho controlled the ball magically, but the Brazilians weren't the only ones who showed that they can play some quality soccer Sunday in Chicago.

The U.S. men's national team wasn't given much of a chance against a full-strength Brazil squad, but that didn't stop the Americans from delivering one of their best performances of the year, despite a 4-2 loss. They played without fear, created chances, finished some chances, defended well (yes, even after surrendering four goals) and gave American fans some clear signs that progress has been made in the year following the 2006 World Cup.

You had Clint Dempsey delivering a clutch goal and reminding us that he is unquestionably the U.S. team's best attacking threat. You had Michael Bradley silencing critics with the best national team performance of his young career. And you had Carlos Bocanegra delivering a goal and rock-solid defending that made it clear why he wears the captain's armband these days.

Yes, there were disappointing points too, such as Oguchi Onyewu's miscues, Benny Feilhaber's rustiness and Josh Wolff's poor touch, but the collective effort of the American team was still a promising display for a team that needed a good performance after a series of bad ones.

"We were pleased with our performance but not satisfied with the result," U.S.coach Bob Bradley said. "We are continuing to make progress as a team, and I felt like over 90 minutes we did a much more solid job tonight.

"When you play against the best teams and the best players, the ability to keep raising your level to make all the plays is what makes the difference," Bradley said. "The package is good, but it has to keep getting better."

Sunday's performance was a clear improvement on the team's 1-0 loss to Sweden in August, from the ability to finish some chances to the ability to win a number of battles in the midfield. The final score makes it easy to write off the U.S. team's defending as atrocious, but the fact that only one of the four Brazil goals came in the run of play (with the lone exception being Onyewu's own goal) should not be overlooked.

Onyewu's showing on Sunday may have been the most disconcerting. He was unlucky on his own goal, but it was his shaky form against Brazil's speedy attackers and his lapse on Lucio's second-half header that gave his detractors more ammunition and increased the calls for the likes of Jay DeMerit and Jonathan Spector to replace him as Bocanegra's central defense partner.

Ultimately, the U.S. team can walk away from Sunday's match confident in their ability to play well against top competition, as well as encouraged by the continued development of players like Bradley and Dempsey. The Americans pushed Brazil and found themselves tied 2-2 before a phantom foul call in the 75th minute and unfortunate penalty in stoppage time. Those moments should not overshadow the clear signs of progress the American team can take away from the game.

"I think we opened a lot of eyes," U.S. midfielder DaMarcus Beasley said. "We can be proud of the performance we had. We're disappointed that we lost because I think we could have gotten something out of the game today.

"It could have gone either way. We fought back pretty well. We didn't sit back and just let them play. We actually went at them."

Yes, it could have gone either way, but ultimately Brazil walked away the deserved winner. There is no shame in that for the Americans, or for any team in the world for that matter. The only shame would be if the U.S. team's performance were overlooked in light of a misleading final score.

Player Grades (scale of 1-10):

Clint Dempsey, 7 -- Clutch goal and active presence all match. Struggled to connect with Wolff up top, but continues to establish himself as the best forward in the U.S. pool.

Josh Wolff, 4.5 -- Poor touch let him down repeatedly, but he put himself in good positions all game (including the play in which he should have earned a penalty) and his speed and ability to get into dangerous spots was promising.

Michael Bradley, 6.5 -- Easily the U.S. team's best midfielder for most of the match. The number of attacks he broke up was impressive and his passing was sharper than it has ever been for the national team. Only his foul on Brazil's last-minute penalty prevented him from having a higher grade.

Landon Donovan, 6 -- Did not impose his will on the match, but still helped set up both U.S. goals. His defensive work was also impressive, but his crossing was terrible and he didn't play as well as you would want in a game of this magnitude.

DaMarcus Beasley, 5.5 -- His ability to cover ground defensively and go at defenders in the attack was impressive, but he didn't have much of a real impact offensively.

Benny Feilhaber, 4.5 -- Worked hard to stay with Brazil's dynamic playmakers, but his lack of playing time in recent months showed. He will need to get regular playing time with Derby or risk losing his first-team place for the United States.

Carlos Bocanegra, 6.5 -- The U.S. team's best defender. He scored the match's first goal and broke up one Brazil attack after another. His alleged foul on Daniel Alves late was actually a dive by Alves and shouldn't be held against Bocanegra.

Steve Cherundolo, 6.5 -- Rebounded nicely from his performance against Sweden with a solid all-around effort against Brazil. He showed good speed and grit to break up several Brazilian sequences and set up Dempsey's goal with a pinpoint pass.

Heath Pearce, 5.5 -- Brazil picked on him early and often, but Pearce held his own, though his work on the sequence leading to Brazil's first goal was terrible. A great shot on goal late and enough to warrant more serious looks from Bob Bradley.

Oguchi Onyewu, 4.5 -- Unlucky on the own goal, beaten for Brazil's second goal and an uneven overall performance. He has yet to show his 2005 form, but Onyewu is still the team's best option alongside Bocanegra.

Tim Howard, 5.5 -- Made some good saves, including a top-notch save on Kaká that was spoiled by an own goal. He had little chance on Ronaldinho's game-winner, having been screened out, and gave the U.S. a boost by staying in the match despite a dislocated finger.

Eddie Johnson, 5 -- Showed his speed and some patience on the ball, even lending a hand on the sequence that led to Dempsey's goal.

Bobby Convey, 3 -- He is still too rusty to offer much in the attack and he deserves blame on Ronaldinho's game-winning goal for taking up position on the end of the U.S. wall only to move his head out of the way of Ronaldinho's kick.

Davy Arnaud, NR -- Played just four minutes but did show some quality in his brief appearance.

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.