JOHANNESBURG -- In a Confederations Cup tournament full of firsts for U.S. soccer, the Americans claimed everything but first place.
The Americans cruised, yes, cruised, to a 2-0 lead over Brazil, the first time in their history they'd scored two goals in the first half against the world power. But they saw a chance for their first-ever international title slip away after intermission, when they were outgunned and outmanned by a better team.
"We just ran outta gas," said captain Carlos Bocanegra, part of a U.S. defense that faced an onslaught of 31 shots from the Brazilians, 13 of them shots on goal.
"It wasn't a lack of effort. They just have too many game-changers, and it showed today," said coach Bob Bradley. "That's what makes Brazil, Brazil." If the Yanks' improbable advance out of group play and their stunning 2-0 victory over No. 1 Spain in the semifinal Wednesday showed how far they've come, the second half against Brazil showed how far they still have to go.
"We were talking in the locker room about how, if Italy or Spain or Brazil or Argentina are up 2-0 at halftime, they're not losing. Period," said Landon Donovan. "That's where we need to get to." The difference between the U.S. and Brazil became apparent right after intermission. After holding off Brazil's relentless offense and making the Selecao pay with punishing counterattacks, the U.S. confidence was shaken less than a minute into the second half.
Brazilian striker Luis Fabiano, guarded closely by U.S. defender Jay DeMerit, took a pass from Maicon, turned and fired. The ball went through DeMerit's legs and into the goal. "It's just one of those things," said DeMerit, part of a U.S. first-half defense that duplicated a superb effort against Spain. "You put yourself in front of the ball. You put your body on the line and sometimes the ball goes under your feet."
Suddenly, Brazil took hold of the match, launching attack after attack on the U.S. "We were a bit unlucky," Bocanegra said, "and that helped them with their confidence." Worse, the U.S. counterattack fizzled. "Unfortunately, that goal really took a lot out of us," Donovan said. "We didn¹t always make the right pass out of the back, we didn't always hold the ball well when it got there, and it's unfortunate, because if we'd have been a little sharper we'd have gotten the third goal."
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The U.S. couldn't maintain possession, and eventually, the dam that is U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard sprang a leak. Kaka made a brilliant run to set up Luis Fabiano's second goal, which came in the 74th minute, and the beleaguered U.S. defense, scrambling in front of its net in the 84th minute, gave up a corner kick that led to Lucio's game-winning header.
The fatigue of chasing around a more experienced, sublimely skilled team for the second straight game proved too much. "It hurts the lungs, put it that way," DeMerit said. "We knew they'd come back at us, and they'd pull out all the stops. I thought we weathered the storm for the most part. It's just those key plays that end up hurting you. There ended up being three of them.
"We did the same thing against Spain, but their shots didn't fall."
Brazil's shots did, and with them fell the U.S. hopes of pulling off two of the greatest upsets in its soccer history in a single week. The Brazilians simply had more depth, more experience, and far more individual brilliance.
"We've got the potential to be at this level," Donovan said. "The difference is, Brazil's been there before. A lot of their players have been in games like this and they knew how to finish and how to win. We need that."
The Americans? They weren't good enough, long enough. "We gave as much as we could," Bocanegra said. "We were absorbing so much pressure, it was very difficult to counter in the second half because we were so tired from defending." The question coming into the match was whether the U.S. could muster the consistency necessary to beat world powers back to back.
On Sunday night, the Americans showed they're a little more than halfway there.
Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Mag.