Landon Donovan couldn't help it. When his blistering counterattack goal gave the U.S. a 2--0 lead over Brazil in the final of the Confederations Cup on Sunday, he had visions of raising the first major international trophy in the history of U.S. men's soccer. The Americans had already upset world No. 1 Spain 2--0 in the semis, ending its 35-game unbeaten streak, and now they were on the verge of their second historic victory in five days. For Donovan, the U.S.'s bellwether player, the vibe on the field felt right. "It wasn't this moment of, Oh my God, we're beating Brazil," he said afterward. "It was like, O.K., we're playing well. Let's keep this going."
Alas, they could not. On a cold winter night in Johannesburg's Ellis Park, Brazil scored three times in the second half to win 3--2 and snatch the trophy from the Americans. It was one of the most crushing losses in the annals of U.S. soccer—gritty midfielder Clint Dempsey wept during the postgame ceremonies. "We've shown we can play with these teams," said goalkeeper Tim Howard, whose acrobatic saves kept the Brazilians from taking the lead until L√∫cio's header off an 84th-minute corner kick. "But I keep going back to, If they're winning 2--0, we don't have a prayer to get back in the game. So how do we get to that level?"
The U.S. is on track to return to South Africa in 11 months for the 2010 World Cup, and its run in the Confederations Cup—the world's third-most important tournament for national teams after the World Cup and the European championship—helped to build confidence, accustom the players to South Africa and raise excitement back home. But to make an even bigger mark next summer, the Americans would be wise to heed three important lessons.
Discipline matters. Of the four red cards issued at the Confederations Cup, three went to U.S. players. The expulsions may have been harsh, but the Americans can't put themselves in that position at the World Cup, since they won't beat elite teams playing 10 on 11. In particular Michael Bradley—a rising star in the central midfield—must avoid the card suspensions that kept him from playing in decisive games at last year's Olympics and in Sunday's final; his ball-winning and possession were sorely missed during Brazil's second-half onslaught. "We're constantly working with all our players to play aggressively but also to be disciplined," said coach Bob Bradley, Michael's father. The Americans can't find that balance soon enough.
These new guys can play. Three U.S. players moved seamlessly into the starting lineup and deserve the chance to continue. Jay DeMerit was a tower of strength alongside Oguchi Onyewu in the central defense, as Carlos Bocanegra moved from the center to left back. Speedy forward Charlie Davies started the U.S.'s remarkable run to the tournament final with a hard-earned goal against Egypt and combined with Donovan on the latter's strike against Brazil. And right back Jonathan Spector mixed mostly solid defending with strong attacking forays, including goal-producing crosses to Dempsey against both Egypt and Brazil. When the U.S. takes the field in its next big game—a World Cup qualifier at archrival Mexico on Aug. 12—all three Confed Cup revelations should be in the lineup.
U.S. players need to get on the field with their clubs next season. Because of injuries or coaching decisions, three U.S. starters against Brazil played sparingly for their European teams last season: Spector, midfielder Benny Feilhaber and forward Jozy Altidore. "We can't have guys come in who haven't played, like myself and other guys," said Altidore, who scored against Spain but admitted it took him too long to adjust to the tournament's level of play. Altidore says if he can't get off the bench next season for Spain's Villarreal, which owns his contract, he hopes to go on loan to a team that will use him.
Of course, it was hard for the Americans to look ahead to 2010 after Sunday's game, the most painful of gut punches with a championship on the line. "We're at the point where we don't want respect," said Donovan afterward. "We want to win." But on a memorable night in the City of Gold, the U.S. appeared closer than ever to that elusive goal of an international title. When the Americans returned to their hotel, they saw giant billboards featuring Spain's Fernando Torres and Brazil's Kakà—two superstars who no longer seemed larger than life. "They're human," said DeMerit. "They may be on billboards and in Samsung commercials, but they're men just like me. And if I can make their lives difficult, who says we can't win?"
File that thought for 2010.
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Ready For the World
No World Cup host has been scrutinized as closely as South Africa, but the Confederations Cup was a successful dress rehearsal for the event's first-ever staging in Africa. There had been rumblings that FIFA would move the 2010 event over such concerns as construction delays and South Africa's high crime rate. But barring a natural disaster, there is zero chance that will happen. The venues were ready, the infrastructure was well-organized and security wasn't a major issue. What didn't work? Reliance on car travel and spotty park-and-ride shuttle buses meant transport for fans was nowhere as efficient as the extensive rail networks at the 2002 Cup in Japan and Korea and the '06 Cup in Germany.
Photograph by JASPER JUINEN/GETTY IMAGES
HARD KNOCK When Fabiano headed past Howard for Brazil's second goal, hopes of a first international title for Bob Bradley (above, right) and the U.S. men began to fade.
ANTONIO CALANNI/AP (BRADLEY)
[See caption above]
ANTONIO CALANNI/AP (FAN)
MARTIN MEISSNER/AP PHOTO
SHAPING UP DeMerit (15) solidified the central defense, while Bocanegra (3) thrived out wide.