With apologies to Charles Dickens, the Confederations Cup performance of the U.S. men's national team can be neatly described as "A Tale of Two Teams," because without question, the Americans' South African sojourn saw them experience the best of times and the worst of times. The question now is, which team will show up during the rest of World Cup qualifying, as well as in South Africa next summer? Will it be the side that struggled early during the tournament or the one that finished with a flourish, even in losing a heartbreaking final to Brazil?
But perhaps the biggest reason for optimism is that during the Confederations Cup, the U.S. attack showed it can threaten the world's best teams from open play, a trait that had been sorely lacking for much of Bradley's tenure. The performances of Clint Dempsey, Charlie Davies, Jozy Altidore and Landon Donovan revealed that the Americans now have several quality attacking options. In particular, Dempsey's play during the last three games of the tournament took some of the creative load off Donovan and allowed both players to shine.
"Most of the time, we've expected Landon to be the leader, expected him to be the guy who dictates the rhythm," said former U.S. international player Eric Wynalda. "We've had a lot of expectations on Landon. Now, the fact that we're able to put expectations on four or five new guys is what makes this a stronger team. So it's not just, 'If Landon doesn't show up, we're not going to play well today.' We're at a point now where Bradley realizes that not every game is going to be a game for Landon Donovan. That's a good thing."
Individual performances aside, the Americans' newfound attacking verve was also due to attitude, which counts as both good news and bad news. It's now clear that the U.S. plays much better when there is a chip on its collective shoulder, and Bradley deserves immense credit for being able to rally his troops when elimination stares them in the face.
But this mindset showed itself consistently only after the U.S. looked as though it had nothing to lose. It gives rise to the notion that when burdened with high expectations, the U.S. team is less willing to take risks in the attacking half, and its play suffers as a result.
"Playing Spain, and then Brazil, [the U.S.] was the team with no pressure," said former U.S. international and current New York Red Bulls sporting director Jeff Agoos. "When they went into the game against Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifying game, and then had some difficulties in the first half against Honduras, they had a lot of pressure and didn't deal with it well. That's going to be something they need to understand how to deal with better going into the future."
With the second half of the final round of World Cup qualifying set to commence in August, it's safe to say that the heightened expectations the U.S. found so onerous will be present once again. But having had a taste of success, the players are bound to demand more of themselves as well, and the hope is that the tournament's lessons still can be drawn upon later in qualifying.
"If we put [a lot of] pressure on this group, I think they can handle it," Wynalda said. "I think this group is much different from groups in the past. I think mainly that's due to guys who earn their paychecks in Europe, who deal with pressure week in, week out."
The Americans certainly have earned themselves a bit of respect with their performances down in South Africa and can expect opponents to change their tactical approaches as a result. Teams will be less willing to leave gaps at the back as Spain and Brazil did, meaning the counterattacking strategy that worked so well during the past two games will be less of an option.
Such tactics will put a greater emphasis on ball possession, a facet of the Americans' game that still needs plenty of work. Granted, teams such as Spain and Brazil always will have more of the ball, and their ability to squeeze space defensively and move the ball quickly can make even great teams look ordinary. But a greater ability to keep possession would have served the U.S. well in its past two games and might have allowed it to escape Sunday's final with a priceless victory instead of a laundry list of what-ifs.
That will no doubt be on the mind of Bradley, who scored points during the tournament for benching DaMarcus Beasley and giving playing time to the likes of Davies and Feilhaber, although why Jose Torres didn't see the field is still a mystery. It seems almost unfair for the Pachuca midfielder to be punished for his stint against Costa Rica while other players continue to earn chances. The U.S. coach also could have been quicker to pull the trigger on some substitutions the past two matches, especially given the counterattacking style adopted by the Americans.
But overall, the U.S. can count its Confederations Cup experience as a success. And the determination to see it pay off down the road appears to be there.
"If we're smart and we take what we should from this game, we can progress," said Donovan, who in talking about the final could have been summarizing the entire tournament. "And that's what we're trying to do."
That way, the best of times just might stick around for a while longer.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at email@example.com.