With much huffing and puffing and groaning and grimacing the old order of world soccer was restored in South Africa over the weekend. In the Confederations Cup, Spain put down the upstarts from South Africa, while Brazil took care of the even more uppity United States.
But the restoration of the old status quo was not easy. Spain needed overtime, while Brazil had to fight like the dickens for a three-goal comeback to see off the Yanks.
On top of that, I do not think for one moment that we're back where we started. The USA has made its point. It got to its first-ever FIFA final, and it played well enough to take a 2-0 lead against Brazil. That was a formidable achievement and yes, of course, it will leave its mark. The results and the scorelines, I mean.
Coach Bob Bradley managed to take the excitement out of the achievement with his usual platitudes -- try this for a soporific: "Progress involves understanding how you play in harder games when [you] have to play against the best teams ... It's not that we learned it today but I think we get confidence that we are able to go up against big teams and create chances and make it harder for them in terms of when they have the ball."
That is a typical Banality Bob analysis. A banalysis. Boring as all hell -- but with plenty of truth in it. The thread that runs through all of Bradley's droning statements about his team's achievements in South Africa, is that of confidence. Bradley is absolutely right to stress that. Confidence and experience. How else to explain the quite remarkable difference in the USA's tournament play in its first meeting with Brazil and this second one, only 10 days later?
Obviously, self-belief. There can be no other explanation. And no other is needed. The danger comes from assuming that the secret to future success has been discovered. That a barrier has now been overcome -- the one that somehow prevented American teams from showing their full worth against the world's top teams -- and that the next stage up from being in a FIFA final -- actually winning one -- is just around the corner.
Bradley's team has taken a huge step forward for the U.S. national team. But that huge step contains within its stride the possibility of its own negation. Can anyone doubt that a substantial factor in the U.S. success at the Confederations Cup has been that it was not expected to do particularly well? Certainly nowhere near as well as it did -- in other words, it was seriously under-rated.
Even in the final. Coach Dunga had certainly seen what the USA had done to Spain -- yet Brazil still played a lack-luster first half. The USA, to its credit, knew how to take advantage of the situation. An early goal, and then a superb counterattack goal put the USA into what ought to have been an impregnable position. The USA could now defend en bloc, which it did very well, and scare the pants off Brazil with its rapid, incisive counterattacks.
That worked well against Spain, but not against Brazil. Possibly there was a Dunga halftime rant, for there was to be nothing lethargic about the second-half Brazilians. Their pressure amounted almost to a fury, relentless attacking waves that forced plenty of panic moments in the U.S. defense. The quick score at the beginning of the second half could have surprised no one.
Now the game was even more about confidence -- but it was Brazilian confidence that was in full flight. Soon came an almost arrogant moment of confidence on the part of the Brazilians as they refused to be upset when an obvious goal was ruled out by the referee who refused to acknowledge that the ball had crossed the goal line.
The Brazilians had every reason to go ape over such an awful call, but they just got on with it and settled matters with two headed goals.
And between those goals and all the Brazilian pressure -- what was the USA up to apart from defending desperately? Not too much. There were a couple of useful -- actually dangerous -- counterattacks. Not much more. And before the USA (I don't necessarily mean Bradley and his players, I think they're a bit more aware of reality) starts celebrating the birth of world-class American soccer, there is this awkward fact to face.
This team -- and American national teams in general -- have no real game. There is no style, no pace, no rhythm, no cohesion, no harmony. Every so often, on Bradley's team, there is the suggestion that an attacking movement is moving with style, that things are beginning to flow. And the wonderful truth of those moments is that they -- all of them -- revolve around the skills and the movement and the thinking of Landon Donovan.
What a good player he is. If Donovan could do it all by himself, the USA would be a worldbeater. But he needs a strong supporting cast, and he doesn't have that. Clint Dempsey shows some promise, as does Charlie Davies and maybe Benny Feilhaber. Otherwise, we have hard workers and runners and lion-hearts -- and that is not good enough. Nowhere near good enough, in fact. Those who think it is can only maintain their illusion by imagining that other countries -- Brazil, for instance -- do not possess those qualities. What nonsense.
Burgeoning confidence took the USA far further in this tournament than most people -- certainly including me -- would have thought possible. But the very success of this team will provoke a stern reaction among future opponents. Things will get more difficult. Confidence alone will not do it. The next big step forward is to up the skill level of the individual players.
Admittedly, I could hardly expect Bob Bradley, in his banalysis, to say that he needs better players. But that is the truth -- he needs more players like Landon Donovan -- real soccer players, with smooth soccer movement and quick soccer brains -- defense-Donovans, midfield-Donovans and striker-Donovans. When those players start to arrive, then will the USA have the consistency to become a mover and shaker in the world order of soccer.