The education of the U.S. national team under Jurgen Klinsmann moves to its toughest test with a match against the very best: five-time World Cup champion Brazil.
Many of the names and faces will be the same from two years ago when the USA renews its series against Brazil Wednesday in Landover, Md. (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2, TeleFutura), yet the trajectories of the teams have changed.
As it did when the nations met to resume competitive play following the 2010 World Cup, Brazil has brought a lot of young players. It is using a series of four games -- this is No. 2 -- as preparation for the Olympic soccer tournament, a U-23 competition. Though many of the players are based domestically, teams such as AC Milan, FC Porto, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur are among those attached to names on the roster.
Its brightest star, Neymar, scored one of the goals when Brazil beat the USA, 2-0, in the Meadowlands in August of 2010. The other goalscorer that day, Alexandre Pato, is on the current team as well, as is prolific Porto striker Hulk, who scored twice Saturday as Brazil kicked off its quartet of matches by beating Denmark, 3-1, in Germany.
Thus the U.S. back line that cruised through a 5-1 pasting of Scotland Saturday isn’t likely to experience many leisurely moments. Nor will it face an opponent as inexplicably patient as Italy, which in losing to the U.S., 1-0, in February rarely cranked up its attacking tempo until it fell behind in the 55th minute, and despite its rich attacking talent failed to score.
Apparently the Italians believed their class would eventually prevail, but by playing a cultured yet determined game of their own, the Americans persevered. To cope with Brazil, they’ll need ample doses of the same patience, intelligence, and spirit that edged them past Italy, and a great game from goalkeeper Tim Howard wouldn’t hurt the cause.
One vital facet of that victory over Italy is how well and how often the Americans were able to control the ball when they got it, and though their possession game will need to be much sharper and quicker against Brazil, the confidence borne of outlasting one of the world’s great soccer nations can inspire them against the five-time World Cup champion.
However, while Brazil’s breathtaking magic in attack is its most revered trait, it is also renowned for long, seemingly languid periods of possession that suddenly erupt into a scoring chance. Neymar’s pace can burn the best defender yet the Americans also have to be wary that the next touch can be the one that springs him or Hulk or any one of several other players. Brazil preys on lapses in concentration, which inevitably occur as opponents grow weary of chasing shadows in what former U.S. coach Bob Bradley called the “shell game” Brazil plays so well.
As if trying to contain Brazil’s mesmerizing array of midfielders and forwards isn’t a daunting enough task, the defenders can play, too. While there’s not a comparable marauding outside back a la Roberto Carlos or Cafu, centerback David Luiz – who just helped Chelsea win the UEFA Champions League – is a superb passer who is very difficult to effectively press. Stifling balls out of the back is another in a long list of U.S. objectives.
Klinsmann has a few more players available then he did against Scotland, though Clint Dempsey’s groin injury seems likely to keep him out of the starting lineup and Jozy Altidore only arrived in camp Monday. Terence Boyd got the job done carving out space as a lone forward against the Scots, but a more mobile and experienced Herculez Gomez could get the nod versus Brazil if Altidore is deemed unready. The addition of a second forward is another option, though getting caught short in midfield against Brazil is usually costly.
The coach also has alternatives in the middle should he want to test out different partnerships in midfield and in the back, though Brazil is not the ideal component for extensive tinkering. Oguchi Onyewu, who came on as a sub against Scotland, could be paired with Carlos Bocanegra to give the Americans their most experienced centerback pairing. The ball skills of Michael Parkhurst would be valuable as well.
Eight of the men who played against Brazil under Bradley two years ago are on the current roster. There are also several returnees from the 2009 Confederation Cup final in which the U.S. jumped out to a 2-0 lead before succumbing to a 3-2 defeat.
Regardless of personnel, Klinsmann will want the same level of confidence and poise his players have shown in the past few games. Those are essential elements against players of greater class and skill, which the Americans have already proven can be dealt with.