The vanquished Americans, on the world's stage of a global final for the first time, stared into space or glared at the ground, shrouded in bitter disappointment. A great first half and 2-0 lead hadn't been enough, for while they had controlled the match playing in their rhythm and at their pace, they staggered and stumbled when Brazil quickened the tempo and intensity. Tired legs and jaded minds fell further and further behind, and no moments of magic from Landon Donovan or heroic clearances by Jay DeMerit or Oguchi Onyewu could carry them to the finish line in front.
The suspension of Michael Bradley necessitated the insertion of Benny Feilhaber into the first XI, and though both he and central partner Ricardo Clark started brightly, they still spent much of the first half adjusting their spacing and timing. Brazil didn't seem all that interested in tackling or tracking, and twice Clark played early balls that caught Brazil by surprise and led to goals.
The quick strikes unsettled Brazil several times and exposed its somewhat lackluster defensive discipline.
Less stylish were the U.S. attempts to connect passes and retain possession, once Brazil stepped up its intensity and aggressiveness. Fearful of being overrun if they strayed too far forward, outside backs Jonathan Spector and Carlos Bocanegra stayed back often when the USA won possession, and without those options the Americans had trouble playing the ball from deep positions.
Spector took a ball up the right flank to launch a driven, diagonal cross that Clint Dempsey turned into the net for a 1-0 lead, reprising their combination play on the vital third goal against Egypt in the first round.
The U.S. struck again after repelling a Brazilian attack; Clark, without pressure, looked up and played the ball straight ahead into the path of a breaking Donovan, and he zipped straight upfield with Charlie Davies to exchange passes and drill in a second goal.
Yet already Brazil had found space along the U.S. back line. Robinho floated to both sides but soon concentrated on his left flank, where dribbles and runs by Kaka and left back Andre Santos often found right back Spector shorthanded on support. All three tested keeper Tim Howard as Brazil, rather than bombarding the middle with crosses as Spain had done in its semifinal loss to the U.S., instead cut inside to find shooting lanes or play balls to feet.
A lightning start to the second half doomed the Americans, who conceded a goal after just 38 seconds. Maicon came down the right side to clip a ball to Luis Fabiano, whose sharp turn and shot were a hair too quick for DeMerit's attempted block and flashed past Howard into the side netting.
Donovan set several attacks in motion and accompanied by Davies and Dempsey, moved the ball upfield. But their only two shots came under pressure and from some distance, while nearly every Brazil raid forced desperation clearances or flailing saves by Howard on balls played from the left flank. Howard pushed out a header from Lucio and two minutes later did the same on an effort by Santos, deflecting it up onto the underside of the crossbar from inside the goal.
Another brief U.S. offensive spurt generated a save by keeper Julio Cesar but did nothing to slow down Brazil, which brought on Elano and Dani Alves midway through the half. Jonathan Bornstein and Sacha Kljestan came on as midfield substitutes with 15 minutes to play and struggled to contain waves of Brazilian thrusts.
Another attack down the left and low cross by Kaka ran for Robinho to nail off the crossbar and Luis Fabiano to head in from close range. Again, the Americans couldn't prevent the service from Kaka and didn't get a second lucky bounce after Robinho hit the bar. With the fresh Bornstein at left mid running to plug up holes, Brazil simply went down the opposite side.
Spector managed to deflect a subsequent Kaka cross and Robinho shot high as overtime drew closer. Yet another attack carved open a chance; DeMerit blocked Luis Fabiano's shot but from the ensuing corner kick, Lucio outjumped Dempsey for Elano's outswinger and powered a header off the inside of the post, which wasn't occupied by a U.S. defender.
A set play offered a late U.S. chance for an equalizer in the final two minutes and Donovan's corner swerved nicely for Onyewu at the edge of the goal area but his header blazed a yard too high.
Golden Shoe winner (top scorer with five goals) Luis Fabiano danced up to the stage to accept his hardware, and so did his teammates to pick up their winners' medals. Howard could barely flash a smile when handed the Golden Glove as best goalkeeper of the tournament, Dempsey teared up while holding his Bronze Ball trophy.
Those faces of elation showed the joy and relief felt by Brazilians in Johannesburg and all over the world. Those looks of despair revealed the pain of coming very, very close to a very, very memorable victory.
June 28, 2009 in Johannesburg
Brazil 3 USA 2.
Goals: Luis Fabiano (Ramires) 46, Luis Fabiano 74, Lucio (Elano) 84; Dempsey (Spector) 10, Donovan (Davies) 27.
Brazil -- Julio Cesar, Maicon, Lucio, Luisao, Andre Santos (Dani Alves, 66), Ramires (Elano, 67), Gilberto Silva, Kaka, Felipe Melo, Luis Fabiano, Robinho.
USA -- Howard, Spector, Onyewu, DeMerit, Bocanegra, Donovan, Feilhaber (Bornstein, 75), Clark (Casey, 88), Dempsey, Davies, Altidore (Kljestan, 75).
Shots on Goal: 13/4
Corner Kicks: 10/5
Yellow cards: Brazil -- Melo 25, Santos 36, Lucio 70; Bocanegra 19.
Referee: Martin Hansson (SWE).