PRETORIA, South Africa -- What originally were considered slim hopes of advancing to the semifinal round at the Confederations Cup likely ended for the United States on Thursday after just two matches.
Normally, the search for lessons from sound defeats at the hands of Italy and Brazil would begin now.
Still, coming off a thorough 3-0 loss to Brazil in which the South Americans dominated every aspect of the match, Bob Bradley's squad has little choice but to go back to the drawing board and try to extract the upside from the daunting assignment that was its group at the 2009 Confederations Cup.
"You have to try to find the positives," midfielder Clint Dempsey said after the game. "You look forward to the next game, try to get something out of the tournament and get a win, and prepare ourselves the best we can, and then come back next year and try to redeem ourselves."
Undoubtedly, the U.S. has faced top-quality competition in the past two matches. To make matters much more difficult, the team was forced to play exactly half the combined 180 minutes of those games short a man, after the ejections of Ricardo Clark against Italy and Sacha Kljestan against Brazil. Complicating the task even further, the Americans failed to finish several good chances along the way, while their opponents made no such mistake.
That litany of potentially extenuating circumstances aside, it was understandably difficult for players to immediately identify specific benefits from two losses that ended up being less than competitive, after the U.S. began well against Italy. And the team is no more anxious to continue to expound upon the virtues of hard-fought losses and close calls than the average American fan.
"Talking about it and applying it and doing it are two different things," goalkeeper Tim Howard said about whether the team could benefit from this experience in next year's World Cup. "We still have a year before now and then, and there's no question we need to get better and grow as a team. We need to stop talking about learning lessons and actually learn them, and if we can do that, we'll see."
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Whether the lessons to be learned from this year's Confederations Cup are indeed the same ones as always is up for debate. Scratching a little deeper below the surface, Bradley was able to pick out some positives after Thursday's loss that sound as though they might be helpful should the U.S. qualify for next year's World Cup.
"By the way we started the game tonight, that is one of the most important lessons," Bradley said. "You can qualify for the World Cup, you can work hard and do all the right preparation, but that doesn't guarantee that that first game is going to go your way. And at that moment, you need to have that experience of understanding how to keep going. We will need to look at this and use it in the right way."
The team dug itself a deep hole Thursday night, falling behind after only seven minutes, when Felipe Melo powered home a header off a precise Maicon set piece from the left wing. The Brazilians doubled their lead in the 20th minute when Robinho made a simple finish off a long breakaway, following a soft giveaway by DaMarcus Beasley on a short corner.
The Americans looked better briefly at the onset of the second half, when substitute Conor Casey combined with Jozy Altidore to put some pressure on the Brazilian goal, but Sacha Kljestan was sent off for a late tackle minutes later, and the Brazilians cruised from there.
"They took advantage of their chances, and we, again, did not," said defender Jonathan Spector, who fed Benny Feilhaber in the box for a late shot that banged off the crossbar and proved to be the Americans' closest call all night. "But I'm not sure that's a lesson we can learn. Some of that is natural. It's about talent."
It won't be a surprise if, at the World Cup next year, the United States finds itself drawn against one or two opponents of similar caliber to those it has come across here. It might take that long to find out whether the Confederations Cup in fact offered valuable lessons for Bradley's team or just more frustration against some of the world's best sides.
Brent Latham covers U.S. soccer for ESPNsoccernet. Based in Dakar, Senegal, he also covers West Africa for Voice of America radio and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.