PRETORIA, South Africa -- Turns out the 2009 Confederations Cup wasn't an opportunity for the U.S. to show it can consistently play with the world's elite. The Yanks' timorous, mistake-filled 3-0 loss to Brazil proved that. In its dry run for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the U.S. was all wet.
In contrast to Monday's 3-1 loss to Italy, in which the U.S. performed valiantly, leading at halftime despite playing a man down from the 33rd minute, the Brazil match turned into an exhibition of what not to do against the best teams in the world. Outclassed from the outset, the Americans put themselves in a hole, and then continued shoveling dirt. "We didn't do ourselves any favors," said forward Landon Donovan. Um, no they didn't.
Where to begin? At the beginning. Because from the kickoff the U.S. played tentatively, scared even, and immediately found itself on its heels. "We didn't play quick enough, we didn't pressure them quick enough," midfielder Sacha Kljestan said. Told to avoid early fouls by head coach Bob Bradley, the U.S. found themselves chasing Brazil -- slowly -- and fouling the Selecao, giving up set pieces and, soon, its first goal.
A Michael Bradley foul in the seventh minute led to a free kick for Brazilian defender Maicon. The Inter Milan veteran launched a splendid cross into the box from about 30 yards out, toward the far post, where Felipe Melo powered through U.S. defender Jonathan Spector for a perfect header and a 1-0 lead.
U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said a few of the early set pieces may have come off soft fouls, but that's always a risk when playing the Brazilians. "When they create opportunities on the flanks, and they keep you off balance, sometimes you have to throw in a foul," he said. "Maicon put up an unbelievable ball, it was very flat, had a lot of pace on it, and if the attacker gets one step on you, it's very tough to react if the ball's as good as it was."
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If the first goal was understandable -- Brazil is among the world's best at set pieces -- the next one was unbelievable. The U.S. found itself with a set piece of its own, a corner for Landon Donovan 20 minutes into the game. Instead of throwing one into the mixer in front of the goal, Donovan made a "safe" pass to DaMarcus Beasley -- who missed it. "The ball ran off my foot," Beasley said. "There's no other way I can say it."
The ball rolled onto the foot of Brazilian midfielder Ramires, who began a jailbreak the other way for Brazil and an easy Robinho goal. "Everybody was kinda stunned," Beasley said, "because that's never happened to me before. And they ran 90 yards and they scored. It was my mistake and my fault."
Down 2-0 at halftime, the game felt over. But the U.S. found a spark early in the second half, as Beasley's replacement, Conor Casey, linked up with striker Jozy Altidore for a nice 1-2 attack and a near-goal. The partnership was doomed, of course. In the 57th minute, U.S. midfielder Kljestan coughed up the ball, overpursued it and made a dumb tackle on Ramires. Red card. For the second time in two games, the Americans had to play a man down. "I lost the ball in a bad spot and I tried to win it back right away," Kljestan said. "They played the ball off before I got there and I hit him in the foot. I don't know if it's a red or not, but I let my team down today."
Maicon's goal five minutes later was a formality, and the rest of the match was an exercise in futility -- make that more futility, with the Americans twice denied even a consolation goal by the woodwork. But therein lay another reason the Yanks tanked. They couldn't finish at the net, continuing a run of four games in which the U.S. has failed to score in the run of play.
The U.S. still isn't able to hang with Italy and Brazil back-to-back. "There's some reality to why they're the two best teams in the world," Donovan said. "We had to play two pretty perfect games to get results against these two teams, and we didn't do that." There's still a year left before the World Cup to discover what works. On Thursday, the U.S. found out what doesn't. "I don't know why, but we've started off bad the last four games we've played," Beasley said. "It's something we've gotta shake. Teams go through cycles like this, you know. It can only get better. It can't be any worse."
Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Mag.