Poor mexico. Themost soccer-crazed country in North America is blessed with a thriving league,a rich talent base and such passionate national-team fans that they turn NFLstadiums into sold-out green-and-white fiestas. But no matter how often theMexicans claim style-point superiority, they just can't beat the U.S. north ofthe border. Nine times this decade the teams have squared off on Uncle Sam'ssoil. Not once has El Tri prevailed. "This time I thought we had them,"muttered Mexican forward Jared Borgetti after his team squandered the lead andlost 2-1 in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final at Chicago's Soldier Field on Sunday."I thought we had them."
The U.S.'s repeattriumph in the biennial regional championship did more than just give theAmericans an 8-0-1 home record (along with a 15-1 goal differential) againstMexico in the 21st century. It also ratified the approach of first-year U.S.coach Bob Bradley, whose 10-0-1 start and bold youth movement have helped theYanks rebound from last year's bitter first-round World Cup exit. It continuedthe post-World Cup revival of midfielder Landon Donovan, whose 62nd-minutepenalty kick tied him (with 34 at the ripe age of 25) with Eric Wynalda as theU.S.'s career leader in goals. And it heralded the arrival of 22-year-oldmidfielder Benny Feilhaber, the Brad Pitt look-alike whose looping second-halfwonderstrike silenced a crowd that was 90% pro-Mexican.
You might as wellget a head start on the 2010 World Cup and learn how to pronounce his name now:It's FAIL-hah-ber, with the emphasis on exactly what Feilhaber thought he woulddo as the ball fell to his right foot at the top of the box in the 73rd minute.In a similar situation during a first-round game against El Salvador, Feilhaberhad shanked an ugly scud into the stands. "To tell you the truth, I wasthinking about that when the ball was coming down," he said afterward. Butthis time he caught it pure, whistling an angry 20-yard volley past Mexicangoalie Oswaldo Sànchez for the game-winner. "As soon as it left my foot Iknew it was going in," said Feilhaber of the blast that Donovan admiringlycalled a "one-in-a-thousand" shot.
Born in Braziland of Austrian descent, Feilhaber moved with his family to the United Stateswhen he was six. He walked on at UCLA and turned heads with his attackingskills at the 2005 Under-20 World Cup, prompting Germany's HSV Hamburg to signhim. As Hamburg struggled last season, Feilhaber yo-yoed from starting aChampions League game--he was the only U.S. team player to appear in theworld's premier club tournament--to playing with Hamburg's reserves. "Youlearn so much," he says of the move to Germany. "You're living byyourself, your family's not around, you don't have many friends, and thepractices are so intense. It's really helped me become a stronger playerphysically and mentally."
Feilhaber wasn'tthe only U.S. youngster to grow up during the Gold Cup. Also gaining valuablenational-team experience were left back Jonathan Bornstein (22), right backsFrank Simek (22) and Jonathan Spector (21), center back Michael Parkhurst (23),and midfielders Ricardo Clark (24) and Michael Bradley (19), the coach's son,whose solid performance in a 2-1 win over Canada in the semis was marred by alate red card that kept him out of Sunday's final.
Granted, thenew-look Yanks are still a work in progress. During the six-game Gold Cup theback line often looked shaky, the forwards (Brian Ching, Eddie Johnson, TaylorTwellman) struggled to finish, and the midfield, against Mexico in particular,committed too many unforced errors. Yet the U.S.'s most consistent problem wasa failure to drop the hammer in each of the three elimination games, wastingclear chances and causing far more tension over the final minutes than wasnecessary. In the Canada match Donovan whiffed on a second-half sitter thatwould have made it 3-0; the Yanks were saved when a botched offside callnullified the Maple Leafs' last-minute equalizer. And on Sunday both Ching andmidfielder DaMarcus Beasley hit the woodwork on late empty-netters, forcinggoalkeeper Tim Howard to preserve the win with a reflex save on AdolfoBautista's point-blank shot in the 89th minute.
In the end thenear misses couldn't mask an undeniably positive development: The U.S. wasactually creating chances, something that hadn't happened often in 2006."We're not perfect, as you can see," Donovan said afterward. "We'renot there yet, but a lot of young guys played, and I think this was a greatstepping-stone for us."
Even a fewveterans needed a kick start heading into 2007, none more so than Donovan, whoscored zero goals in 11 appearances last year. Under Bradley he hasrediscovered his scoring touch, threatening defenses from all over the field asa forward and as a central and right-sided midfielder. The result: nine goalsin 10 games this year, to say nothing of a sustained focus evident in his5-for-5 strike rate on penalty kicks. "I haven't necessarily played my besttechnically, but every game I've been into mentally, and that's my goal,"Donovan says. "I don't have to be perfect. I know I can still make playsthroughout a game that will help."
"We havechallenged him to understand what it means to take a bigger role," saysBradley. "The opportunity to play a huge role on a national team issomething that very few players ever experience. To be one of the players whohas that responsibility is a new challenge for him."
Despite his youthmovement, Bradley doesn't accept the notion that last year's World Cup flopjustified turning the team upside down--which is what U.S. Soccer's firstchoice as coach, J√ºrgen Klinsmann, would have done if he hadn't left the Yanksat the altar last December. Instead Bradley argues that the U.S.'s quarterfinalrun in 2002 "showed how much progress we've made as a country, howimportant MLS has been for the development of soccer in the U.S. If 2002 showedwhat we're capable of when a team is committed in the right way, 2006 showedthat success is never guaranteed."
Bradley was anassistant to his U.S. predecessor, Bruce Arena, on three teams (Virginia, D.CUnited and the 1996 Olympic team) before winning more games than any coach inMLS history. Yet their styles aren't much alike. For better or for worse, Arenawas always the biggest personality on his national teams. "I'm not,"Bradley says. "There's no two ways about it." Cerebral barely begins todescribe Bradley, a Princeton grad with a history degree who measures his wordsas if they were food rations during a famine, sometimes pausing 20 secondsbefore replying to a question. Bradley would rather do his work quietly,"on the inside"--his all-purpose expression for his daily interactionswith the players that set a tone of mutual respect. "My favorite expressionis blood brothers," says Bradley, 49. "You want to make sure that's howthey feel about each other within the group."
And so, one dayearlier this year, the new coach used the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team as amotivating tool. Considering that half his team wasn't born yet in 1980,"you do it a little bit as a joke because you're dating yourself," saysBradley, who started by telling his players that most of them would only knowthe hockey team from the movie Miracle. "But the point I made was they weretogether literally a year before the Olympics, there were no guarantees who wasgoing to make the final team, and unless you were a real college hockey guy,you didn't know the names of many of those players. Ultimately when the teamwas successful, that's when everybody learned their names."
Scoring thewinning goal in the Gold Cup isn't the same thing as earning an Olympic goldmedal, but by Sunday afternoon a lot more people knew the name Benny Feilhaber.Within hours he was being asked if he was proud to be the latest Jewish sportsstar (for the record, he said yes), and he was preparing to jet off toVenezuela for the next challenge: opening the Copa América, the South Americanchampionship, this Thursday as part of a young U.S. squad against full-strengthArgentina. "We're not bringing our best team," Feilhaber says, "butwe'll be out there fighting."
Sounds like thecasting call for a band of blood brothers.
Copa América analysis from Grant Wahl, Tom Vickery,Gregory Sica and Luis Bueno.
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The near misses couldn't mask an undeniably positivedevelopment: The U.S. was actually CREATING CHANCES.
Photographs by John Biever
With his play during the tournament, Feilhaber has completed his transformationfrom UCLA walk-on to mainstay for Bradley (opposite).
Beasley (7) missed a chance at an open goal late in the game, but the U.S. wasstill able to celebrate.