The U.S. men's national team spent its first two games at the Confederations Cup absorbing some harsh lessons. In the following two games -- and for the first 45 minutes of Sunday's final -- it dished out some of its own. But in the end, the U.S. was given a master class in finishing off a game by Brazil. As a result, a gallant American effort fell just short as they were unable to hold a two-goal lead, and dropped a pulsating 3-2 match.
It's a result that will no doubt stick in the craw of the entire U.S. team, simply because the Americans came so close to claiming victory, and their play in the first half was downright breathtaking at times. Taking a page right out of Brazil's counterattacking playbook, the Americans looked threatening nearly every time they had the ball. Landon Donovan, in a sign of just how much he has grown as one of the team's leaders, showed the kind of have-no-fear attacking swagger that has long been expected of him, and the same was true for Clint Dempsey. Goals from both players put the U.S. up 2-0 at halftime.
But as good as the U.S. looked in the opening 45 minutes, there were some ominous warning signs that hinted at a Brazilian revival. Simply put, the U.S. never did figure out a way to nullify the Selecao's flank play. Brazilian right back Maicon delivered so many crosses into the box that he'll likely be suffering from patellar tendinitis for the next month. On the opposite wing, Andre Santos and substitute Dani Alves were almost as threatening, especially when nominal forward Robinho drifted out wide to overload that side.
As long as central defenders Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit, along with goalkeeper Tim Howard, were in scintillating form, the U.S. looked capable of weathering the storm, which is exactly what it did in the first half. But the Americans' continued penchant for conceding set pieces, a lack of possession, as well as some withering Brazilian pressure eventually wore them down, especially with Dempsey and Donovan providing little in the way of defensive help out wide.
Once Luis Fabiano pulled Brazil within a goal just 37 seconds into the second half, the Brazilians were running downhill, while the Americans must have felt like they were climbing Everest. Fabiano eventually equalized with 16 minutes remaining, and Lucio's powerful header from Elano's corner five minutes from time provided the winning margin, breaking American hearts.
Yet in the middle of this disappointment, the U.S. players can take comfort in perhaps their biggest achievement over the past 10 days, which provides some hope that this team is capable of bigger things than simply CONCACAF dominance.
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Given the way the team has struggled in its recent World Cup qualifiers, as well as its first two Confederations Cup games against Italy and Brazil, there was little to suggest that the U.S. could hang with the world's best. It was a team low on confidence on both sides of the ball. But the past three games against Egypt, Spain and Brazil showed that by being aggressive at the right times, and defending tenaciously, the Americans have hit upon a recipe for possible success.
The challenge now, of course, is to replicate such an attitude during the rest of World Cup qualifying. But given the progress that has been made down in South Africa, there's more of a reason to think that in a year's time, perhaps it will be the U.S. doling out a bigger share of the soccer lessons.
Player ratings: (scale of 1-10)
GK, Tim Howard, 9 -- Trying to pick his best save is like trying to pick the prettiest diamond. If pressed, his 13th-minute parry of a Robinho shot was probably the best. Couldn't be blamed for any of the goals.
D, Carlos Bocanegra, 4 -- Often called upon to help inside, but Maicon found space constantly down the U.S. captain's side; Bocanegra needed to close him down quicker.
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D, Oguchi Onyewu, 6 -- Dominant in the air again, and his reading of the game was excellent. Got caught ball watching a bit on Fabiano's second tally.
D, Jay DeMerit, 6 -- Gave Onyewu plenty of help, but was beaten on the turn by Fabiano. Still, his stock has risen considerably in this tournament.
D, Jonathan Spector, 5 -- Robinho was a handful on his side, and while Spector held up well for a while, Brazil began to find more joy on his side as the game went on. His brilliant ball to Dempsey put the U.S. in front, though.
M, Landon Donovan, 6.5 -- Deadly going forward, and scored the Americans' second with a cool finish. Only nit was his inability to help blunt the influence of Maicon.
M, Ricardo Clark, 6 -- Covered massive amounts of ground, per usual. His incisive pass out of the back sprung the counter that led to Donovan's goal.
M, Benny Feilhaber, 6.5 -- Lacked the bite of the suspended Michael Bradley, but effectively clogged the passing lanes. With few exceptions, was pretty tidy on the ball as well.
M, Clint Dempsey, 6 -- Was caught napping a couple of times defensively, and was beaten on Lucio's game winner. But his nose for goal has been unrivaled over the past 10 days.
F, Charlie Davies, 6 -- Kept things simple, and his centering feed for Donovan's goal was pure magic. Needed to be cleaner on the ball in the second half, but was pretty threatening in one-on-one situations.
F, Jozy Altidore, 5.5 -- Is learning to use his considerable frame to good effect, winning several free kicks that augmented the U.S. attack. Looked gassed at the end.
M, Sacha Kljestan, 4 -- Needed to keep the ball better.
M, Jonathan Bornstein, 4.5 -- Threatened late with a shot from distance, but was otherwise quiet.
F, Conor Casey, N/A -- Casey came on as a late sub, but didn't have an opportunity to impact the game.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.