The USA restored some spirit and pride by beating Egypt and Spain and losing narrowly to Brazil to finish second at the Confederations Cup, the World Cup 2010 dress rehearsal in South Africa.
In early June, a fair number of American soccer fans and just about anyone else marginally interested in the sport knew little of the Confederations Cup other than the U.S. was heading to South Africa to play in it.
A pair of depressing defeats and two exhilarating wins later, much of America - or at least so it seemed to the soccer cognoscenti - buzzed about the U.S. chances of repeating its spectacular 2-0 semifinal defeat of Euro 2008 champion Spain against Brazil in the final. Newspapers splashed photos and stories on their lead sports pages, the game was discussed on sports talk radio on stations around the country, and many of the ESPN talking heads weighed in with their views, astute and otherwise.
Giddy expectations gave way to sobering reality once Brazil had rallied to wipe a 2-0 halftime deficit to win the Confederations Cup for a third time, but no U.S. men's team at any level had ever finished second in a FIFA competition.
"It's disappointing because we started the game really well and put them on their heels which most teams don't do against Brazil," said Landon Donovan, whose energy and creativity through the five games marked his best performance in such a run of games since debuting for the national team in October 2000. "Though they had some chances, we went into the half at 2-0 and felt good about it. Then, a series of good plays by them - maybe we fell a little bit asleep - and a good goal and they're right back in the game. So from that point on it was going to be tough. They put us under a lot of pressure and eventually they just wore us down. "
In one sense, the Confederations Cup and the World Cup are the same in that the world powers usually win. But by finishing second, the USA attained the goal that prompted FIFA to start up a competition that would match regional champions every few years in a sanctioned competition - and as it turned out sowed at least some of the seeds for the Americans to reach the second round of the 1994 World Cup.
In one of its most positive results in the lead-up to the 1994 World Cup, the USA beat Ivory Coast, 5-2, for third place at the Intercontinental Championship, also known as the King Fahd Cup, played in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The four-team event also included the host nation and 1991 Copa America winner Argentina, but not 1990 World Cup winner Germany, which declined an invitation to participate.
For the Europeans and South Americans, the Confederations Cup is a bothersome annoyance, reinvented several times, most recently as a dress rehearsal for the upcoming World Cup. Otherwise, why would Mexico - not anywhere in the rotation for future World Cups - have hosted a 1999 Confederations Cup and France, which had hosted the 1998 World Cup, organize the tournament in 2003?
At the 1999 Confederations Cup, the USA reached the semifinals, where it lost narrowly to Mexico, 1-0, in overtime at the Estadio Azteca despite a heroic display by Kasey Keller. In group play, the Americans beat Germany, 2-0, marking only the third time up until then that the USA had beaten a European team in official competition at the senior level. Burning up the right flank in that competition was Frankie Hejduk, who is still going strong.
Since his days as FIFA secretary general, before succeeding his former boss, Joao Havelange, as president, Sepp Blatter has acceded to requests, if not demands, to expand competitive opportunities for members outside of Europe and South America. The Confederations Cup is a method by which the regional champions of Asia, Africa, Oceania and yes, Concacaf, can take on the big boys in games that may mean less than a World Cup match, but are far more intense than a friendly.
WORLD CUP PREP. Since the day he took over as U.S. national team coach, Bob Bradley stressed the importance of winning the 2007 Gold Cup, for that earned a spot in the 2009 Confederations Cup. He chose to field his best team for that Gold Cup and took a "B" team to the Copa America - a decision that angered numerous contingents of U.S. fans as well as Conmebol, yet proved to be a choice not only successful, but in some ways predicative of what might occur two years later.
It was at the 2007 Gold Cup that Benny Feilhaber, Ricardo Clark and Jonathan Spector, among others, made their first significant contributions to the U.S. team. Feilhaber, Clark, Spector and Jay DeMerit, who played one game at the 2007 Gold Cup, strengthened their claims to a place on the 2010 World Cup team - assuming it qualifies - by standing tall at the Confederations Cup. Forward Charlie Davies and defender Oguchi Onyewu earned new European contracts by their performances. Faltering performances by DaMarcus Beasley and Sacha Kljestan clouded their chances to make the 2010 team.
Without naming it as such, Bradley named his strongest available squad for the Confederations Cup, summoning Beasley, Freddy Adu and Jozy Altidore despite a lack of playing time for their European clubs. Brian Ching, Steve Cherundolo and Maurice Edu missed out because of injuries.
As a team, the Americans broke through a barrier of failing to score during the run of play and suffering catastrophic breakdowns to post two of their more impressive wins in recent memory. Feilhaber installed himself as an offensive catalyst, Clark displayed his amazing range against an excellent team, and DeMerit stood up strong against the likes of Fernando Torres and Xabi Alonso.
"I thought we did a very good job of making it hard on them," said Donovan. "Most teams against them respect them a little too much and back off. We did a good job of being harder and more aggressive than most teams are against them. We had our chances, we took them and that was important too."
Defender Carlos Bocanegra believed a more aggressive approach than what the team displayed last year losing to Spain, 1-0 in Santander gave the USA an edge.
"We played them last summer, and we thought we were a bit tentative when we started that game," he said. "So, we wanted to make sure we got after them and pressured them and make sure they didn't have the ball the whole time. I thought we did well with that."
By beating Egypt, 3-0, and stunning Spain in South Africa, the Americans rebounded from a 3-1 loss to Costa Rica in the Hexagonal and defeats in the first two games of the Confederations Cup. It went down a man against Italy (Clark) and Brazil (Kljestan) in losing, 3-1, and 3-0, respectively.
"I don't think too many things changed," said Onyewu, who parlayed his astute, rugged defending and free-agent status to leave Standard Liege for AC Milan after the tournament. "I think we were very unlucky [against Italy and Brazil] and playing two great teams with 10 men. The main thing is that we stuck to our tactics, and we didn't try and change anything. We knew that if we stuck to our game plan and stuck it out, things might change for us and they did."
OFFENSIVE AWAKENING. Clint Dempsey hit three goals in consecutive games against Egypt, Spain and Brazil to win the Bronze Ball as third in MVP voting, restore his place in the national team and trigger transfer inquiries directed to his English club, Fulham. With just a year to go on his contract, his Confederations Cup performance - though sometimes marred by listless play and suspect positioning - pushed up his value internationally. Still to be resolved is if he's better as an outside mid or as a second forward, a position more suited to his propensity to run at defenders with and without the ball.
Dempsey steered in a diagonal ball from Spector to provide a 1-0 U.S. lead in the final against Brazil 10 minutes after kickoff. Donovan doubled the lead with a low shot after he and Davies broke away on a two-man counterattack, but Brazil rallied with three second-half goals to win, 3-2.
"Everything doesn't always work out how you want it to, but no matter what I'm proud of what these guys accomplished and it was great to be a part of it," said Dempsey.
Davies, who spurned a multi-year contract worth more than $1 million from MLS to sign with Swedish club Hammarby IF out of Boston College two years ago, parlayed his play at the Confederations Cup into a transfer to French club Sochaux. His speed and tenacity broke open the tournament for the Americans in the third game against Egypt. Needing a big win to advance, the USA jumped on top when Davies hunted down a throw-in collected near the goal line by Altidore and forced a loose ball into the Egyptian goal.
Michael Bradley got the second goal when he and Donovan skated right up the middle and Bradley put away the final pass to make it 2-0; Dempsey scored the vital third goal when he got his head on a Spector cross. After struggling to score goals during the run of play in Hexagonal qualifying, the Americans scored three against Egypt - which proved to be just enough to nick second place in the group on goal difference when Brazil beat Italy by the same margin.
"We've had our share of critics and I think everyone, including the coaching staff, stood up and took it on the chin," said keeper Tim Howard, who also picked up an award as the tournament's top goalkeeper. "We just kept going. The press was hard on us, maybe rightfully so, but it never fazed [Bob Bradley], it never took its toll on him and he continued to prepare the team as though he believed we could do something like we did tonight, and that was infectious."
It may be far too trite to say their passage to the Confederations Cup semifinals typifies the American spirit, yet it did, and also vividly displayed how often that persona had been missing during the Hexagonal, particularly in the road games at El Salvador and Costa Rica, but also the home match with Honduras, when a blunder led to a goal conceded in the fifth minute.
"We played Brazil twice, Italy, Spain," added Howard. "Next year's World Cup is going to get much harder than that, and if it does, then we've upset somebody. It was really tough on us, but we fought through it. We hope that the experiences that we got from the last three weeks down here, particularly on the field, will carry over next year if and when we get down here."
(This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)