Monday, June 29, 2009

ATH: US-Brazil Analyses

From Johannesburg To Johannesburg
By Clemente Lisi - NEW YORK, NY, U.S. National Team Players Association, ConfedCup, 11Jun09

Heartbreaking, upsetting, maybe even sad. There’s no shortage of adjectives to describe the United States’ 3-2 loss to Brazil on Sunday in the Confederations Cup final. The US, on the verge of making history in Johannesburg, playing a flawless first half – but broke down in the second – to lose its first-ever shot at winning a FIFA men’s tournament.

“Obviously, a good first half, but we give up the first goal so early in the second half that we put ourselves in a tough spot,” coach Bob Bradley told reporters afterwards.

Amid the incessant buzzing of the ever-annoying vuvuzela horns at Ellis Park Stadium, the Americans were all about teamwork during the first 45 minutes, displaying a tenacious defensive effort and outplaying the mighty Brazilians in every part of the field to take a 2-0 lead at halftime on goals from Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan.

Tim Howard was fantastic in net Oguchi Onyewu put in a solid defensive effort, and Dempsey used all his skill and experience to spearhead the attack.

The fun ended there for the US and its fans.

The miracle-wrecking Brazilians turned the pressure on early and were back in the game after just a minute in the second-half when Fabiano booted in the ball past Howard.

It was the beginning of the end for the American chances.

Brazil would go on to score two more goals – with captain Lucio heading in the game-winner with six minutes left to play – to win its third Confederations Cup title.

If the Americans did one thing wrong it was to underestimate how powerful the Brazilian offense could be once they got their act together. The US needed to move the ball forward – even use the counterattack like they did in the first half on Donovan’s goal – instead of trying to absorb the pressure.

That understandable criticism notwithstanding, the Americans put on a valiant effort. For once, US fans dared to dream. A win over Brazil in a major tournament appeared possible at halftime – something unthinkable even just a few years ago. They also gave the fans that 2-0 win over Spain.

The US had originally traveled to South Africa two weeks ago with a humble goal: get some experience ahead of next year’s World Cup. Instead, they became protagonists, defeating Egypt after going 0-2 in the first round, stunning top-ranked Spain in the semifinals and then barely losing to Brazil.

From Howard’s agility to Dempsey’s clinical finishing, the US has a lot to be proud of. Sure, there are no moral victories, but this was a great achievement just the same. The defense showed it could keep up with some of the world’s greatest strikers (just ask Spain’s Fernando Torres) and the offense got things done when they needed to.

“I think people around the world see that we have a good team, we have good players and hopefully we can continue to step forward,” Bradley said.

The US still has a long road ahead of it. The Gold Cup is just a week away and World Cup qualifying – with a key game in Mexico at the Azteca Stadium – picking up again in August.

The Americans showed the World it could play with the best of them. It's disappointing to see your team be the ones having to watch the other squad celebrate, but the US had to get there in the first place. Let’s be proud of this team and dare to dream of reaching another FIFA final in the not-so-distant future.

Brazil 3, U.S. 2
One giant leap for U.S.
Despite losing 2-0 lead, Americans make strides
By Mark Zeigler, 2:00 a.m. June 29, 2009

Parents will tell you that children don't gradually learn how to walk. They stand up, and fall down. Stand up again, fall down again.

Until one day, suddenly, magically, they walk.

And that's what happened with the U.S. men's national soccer team over the past fortnight at the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, where it lost 3-2 to Brazil in yesterday's final after leading 2-0 at halftime. It walked.

It arrived.

There may be bigger single moments in the annals of American soccer – the 1-0 World Cup shocker against England in 1950, the 1-0 win at Trinidad and Tobago in 1989 that ended a 40-year qualification drought, the 2-0 win against Mexico to reach the 2002 quarterfinals – but never has there been a better eight days.

A 3-0 victory against a capable Egypt team, followed by a 2-0 triumph against No. 1-ranked Spain that ended a record 15-game win streak, followed by a 2-0 halftime lead against the boys from Brazil before the carriage turned into a pumpkin.

It was a lead forged by goals by Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, plus a defensive organization and frenetic work rate that never let Brazil establish any sort of rhythm – a formula used so successfully four days earlier against Spain. But Brazil's Luis Fabiano found the net twice in the second half to tie it, and Lucio headed in the winner off a corner kick in the 84th minute when the exhausted Americans failed to mark him.

“The feeling is a mix of great disappointment but also great pride,” said U.S. coach Bob Bradley, whose job appeared in jeopardy after opening the eight-team tournament with 3-1 and 3-0 losses. “When we get past the disappointment, we know that we are making progress . . . I think people around the world see that we have a good team, we have good players.”

Added captain Carlos Bocanegra: “What we can take away from this is the confidence that we played so well against the big teams here. This is a difficult tournament, we did well here and got to the finals and we showed that we belong. We're not just going to be a pushover in the World Cup.”

It is a respect, a recognition, they have been craving for years, even decades. At the 2006 World Cup, the Italian players were asked what they knew about the U.S. team. Blank stares. They knew niente about the Americans. Most couldn't name a single player on the roster, much less the name of any team in Major League Soccer.

It's hard to blame the Italians. Many American sports fans couldn't, either.

But beat the No. 1 team in the world in the Confederation Cup semifinals, and people turn on the television to watch you play Brazil in the final. Take a 2-0 lead against the five-time world champions, and people go online at halftime to order a No. 10 Donovan jersey.

That's a good thing, certainly.

That's also a dangerous thing.

Both edges of the sword were sharpened in South Africa. Rising from the ashes of embarrassing group-play losses to knocking off Spain and taking Brazil to the brink certainly gives American players priceless confidence that they can compete with anyone, anywhere, anytime. But it also forced people to take notice, Americans and foreigners alike.

That means two things: The days of other nations taking the U.S. team lightly are probably over. And American fans, the consummate front-runners, will expect big things at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa from a team that might be ill-equipped to deliver – a team, remember, that has no field players currently playing for a top team in any of the world's top leagues.

And expectation has never been kind to the U.S. men, either because other teams started taking them seriously or because they took themselves too seriously.

They beat England in the 1950 World Cup, still regarded as one of sport's great upsets, and didn't quality for another for four decades.

Their lone victory in 15 attempts against Brazil came at the CONCACAF Gold Cup in February 1998. Four months later, they went 0-3 in the World Cup in France. Finished 32nd out of 32 teams.

After the thrilling quarterfinal run of 2002, they climbed to No. 5 in the FIFA world rankings a month before the 2006 World Cup. Where they went three and out.

Even yesterday, they took a 2-0 lead against a Brazilian team that was playing on a day's less rest and had looked lackluster against South Africa in the semifinals. They were 45 minutes from the first U.S. men's title in a major international tournament.

Their all-time record when leading by two goals at halftime: 47-0-1.

Then Brazil scored three times in the next 39 minutes and probably should have had a fourth if officials had seen, as replays indicated, Kaka's header cross the goal line before U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard batted it out.

“It's one thing to see the promise land, it's another to get there,” said ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas, who knows, having been part of good (1994) and bad (1998) World Cup teams.

“But at least they can saw it.”

Baby steps.

Soccer in the U.S. Is Still Waiting for Its Moment
By WILLIAM C. RHODEN, The New York Times, Published: June 28, 2009

This is the epitaph in the wake of a heartbreaking loss in Sunday’s Confederations Cup championship game.

Too harsh? Perhaps, considering the United States was facing a great Brazilian team. On the other hand, there must come a point in the discussion of soccer in the United States when the training wheels must be removed. Either this is youth soccer, in which the goal is to let everyone play, or this is the big time, in which second or third place is no longer acceptable.

There was so much momentum heading into Sunday’s game, so much enthusiasm after the United States’ stunning victory over Spain on Wednesday.

That victory became the talk from Johannesburg to New York.

Over coffee one morning, Irv Smalls, the executive director of Harlem Youth Soccer, spoke about the implications of a strong showing by the United States on the continuing initiative to bring soccer to the underserved.

“It definitely will get kids excited,” said Smalls, a former Penn State football player.

Speaking from Johannesburg before Sunday’s match, Sunil Gulati, the president of the United States Soccer Federation, cautioned against placing too much weight on one result.

At the same time, Gulati conceded that back-to-back, high-profile victories over Spain and Brazil in the Confederations Cup would give a much-needed jolt to a sport that continues to make inroads in the minds and hearts of the American audience.

“Anytime you’re playing for the championship against a team generally considered the best team in the world for the last 75 years, it’s a great chance to get a lot of people who are part of the soccer community in the United States interested in the national team and excited to be part of an international game,” Gulati said.

The United States carried a 2-0 lead over Brazil into halftime Sunday, and suddenly, a universe of possibilities emerged. This was the great American sports story. Finally, a breakthrough on the international championship stage. Finally, long-sought respect for United States soccer.

Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, spoke of the United States’ victory over Spain and reaching the championship game.

“We’ve always believed we deserved more respect than we receive,” he said. “In sports, you’ve got to earn respect, you can’t just ask for it, and we’ve earned some respect this past week.”

Then the roof caved in: Brazil scored three unanswered goals in the second half. And just like that, the United States was back to being the little engine that could someday win on the world stage.

“Of course it’s disappointing, especially when we were up, 2-0,” Gulati said after the match Sunday. “On the positive side, we made progress at this tournament and are proud of reaching the final.”

Nice try, good effort. For the rest of us, it’s back to baseball until next summer’s run to the World Cup.

Garber was far from discouraged.

“Today, we proved that we can compete at the highest level,” he said. “For 45 minutes, we had one of the best teams in the world shocked and on their heels. Our guys weren’t happy to just play in the final, they wanted to win. And for a time, I thought we would.

“Over all, this was a great day for U.S. soccer that will go down in history as one of the truly great moments for our sport.”

Still, instead of talking about a great triumph, we’re back to talking about what United States soccer needs to break through at home.

Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, the sport faces two major challenges in the United States. The first is how to continue to attract great athletes.

Gulati said that a high-profile championship by the United States national team would, and still could, inspire young athletes to cast their lot with soccer.

“There are so many cases along the way in all sports when professional athletes say, ‘I was turned on because I saw this moment,’ whether it was Hank Aaron’s home run or Pelé’s bicycle kick,” Gulati said.

American soccer’s struggle to attract great talent is baffling because there are so many young people looking for something to do. The United States is one of the most powerful nations, one with phenomenal human resources.

The sprawling soccer federations reflect the nation: some have a lot, some have very little. The leadership must find the will — and a way — to redistribute resources. This is crucial for the long-term goal of having a great national team, year in and year out.

The more difficult challenge is to cultivate a broader consumer appetite for soccer in the United States. Debates continue about changing the nature of the sport to fit the American mind-set.

Please, no.

Soccer does not need to be dumbed down to accommodate our Twittered attention span. The sport does not need more scoring or more commercial timeouts.

“People don’t need the sport to be different,” Garber said. “They just need a reason to believe, and every now and again, something happens where they have that reason.”

That’s the greatest misfortune of Sunday’s loss to Brazil. A victory would have been that reason.

U.S. finds solace in defeat
By Martin Rogers, Yahoo! Sports Jun 28, 7:43 pm EDT

Flags and streamers and hymns of praise won’t greet the U.S. national team when it returns home from the Confederations Cup. That kind of welcoming reception will be reserved for champion Brazil, a nation whose citizens know how to throw a soccer-themed party better than anyone.

Yet for head coach Bob Bradley and his group of players, it will be more than a shiny silver medal, the tag of “gallant loser” and some pats on the back that they take from this tournament, staged in South Africa a year out from soccer’s Big One.

Given the muted expectations for Bradley’s group preceding the tournament, and the even-gloomier prognosis of its welfare a week into it, the eventual outcome of losing 3-2 to Brazil in Sunday’s final must be considered a relative triumph.

It may not have felt like it when the third and winning Brazilian goal flew into the net, sealing a storming comeback by the five-time world champion from a two-goal deficit, but this time in defeat there was hope, not merely another hard-luck story.

By riding on the back of a small collection of favorable coincidences and one stunning upset, the USA gained respect, belief and some well-deserved kudos. Most importantly, it answered a series of nagging questions that brewed over the past year and cast severe doubt on the team’s ability to make any sort of impact at the World Cup.

That tournament, soccer’s ultimate showcase, is where USA will have to prove itself all over again next summer. But there is certainly greater cause for optimism now, compared to the downbeat atmosphere of recent months.

Many of the questions surrounded head coach Bradley, whose position was under very real threat as he boarded the plane for South Africa.

The first, and most obvious concern, was whether he was the right man to lead them to the finals. Defeat in Costa Rica at the start of June set a somber tone and a somewhat negative mentality surrounded public perceptions of the team. Talk of possible replacements for Bradley was already under way, with former Germany head coach Juergen Klinsmann’s name popping up with monotonous regularity.

Indeed, as Bradley walked up the steps of Ellis Park to collect his runners-up medal on Sunday, it seemed scarcely possible that this was the same man whose job had been under such pressure. Juergen who?

A popular doubt expressed about Bradley was whether he could inspire his troops to fight for him. Two games into the Confederations Cup, with all hope seemingly extinguished, the answer figured to be no. A second-half capitulation against Italy and an embarrassingly timid effort against Brazil in group play left little room for solace.

Yet the 3-0 thumping of Egypt that secured an unlikely semifinal spot was a step in the right direction, and paved the way for a mighty display of tenacity and fortitude in the 2-0 defeat of European champion Spain. The final, too, against the most consistently dominant nation in the world, showed more backbone still.

Brazil was simply too good, but it did have to fight its heart out for the first time in the tournament. The South Americans swept aside the reigning world champion Italy and had cruised through the competition. But down 2-0, it had to finally move into top gear to pull out a win against USA.

A look at the Brazilian players’ reactions at the final whistle quashed once and for all suggestions that this was a tournament with no relevance. The tears streaming down the face of Lucio and the jubilant screaming of Kaka indicated a deeper level of caring than that.

Bradley’s tactical nous, or lack of it, was expected to be brutally exposed by Spain, and again by Brazil. Knocking off CONCACAF opponents at home was one thing, but did Bradley have any ideas on how to battle proper, established teams?

Past experience indicated that his Plan A, B and C against a high-profile side was to shut up shop and keep down the score. Yet the last two games indicated some imagination, courage and flexibility in his preparation. Perhaps the coach is drawing confidence from an upturn in fortunes in the same manner as his team.

It is not just about Bradley, though. The entire squad had come under fire, too, with the common perception that, individually and collectively, they were simply lacking in quality. Indications that the U.S. boasted performers who could lift their level when called upon were sporadic at best.

Yet the players stood tall here, too many to list all of them. Some of the standouts were familiar faces – Landon Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu and Tim Howard. Others, like Jay Demerit, Jonathan Spector and Charlie Davies, had rarely featured in the past but surely have a future at the heart of this lineup.

Few players have had more barbs thrown their way than Donovan, the best U.S. player of his generation but so often a target for vitriol. Yet it was nigh impossible to find fault with his Confederations Cup showing, and he produced again in the final. The man with the bristling personality kept his cool to finish a wonderful move to put the USA ahead 2-0.

The way the team went down the field from a Brazil mistake, just like the Brazilians had done against them in the group game, said everything about the confidence now coursing through this unit. Brazil’s fightback, in which Dunga’s side looked every inch a likely World Cup champion next year, will not change that.

No longer, for the USA, the constant inferiority complex. No more shaking and quaking when faced with top teams.

The Confederations Cup hasn’t taught us that USA will have a successful World Cup. But it has shown us that it can.

Loss to Brazil doesn't ruin U.S. accomplishments

by Jamie Trecker, Updated: June 28, 2009, 11:19 PM EDT

For 45 minutes, it looked like the U.S. might just pull off another miracle Sunday.

Up 2-0 against a confused-looking Brazil side, the Americans were displaying the acumen and grit they showed in their midweek upset of No. 1 ranked Spain. Fans were daring to believe that after all this time, and after so much heartbreak, this might finally be the U.S.'s moment to shine.

And so the final score was excruciating — 3-2 Brazil, with the golden boys showing how they got that nickname, and why they are among the best on the planet.

With intense pressure in the second half, they took the U.S. out of the game, and snatched away the Confederations Cup crown. For Brazil, it was its third crown and second straight.

For the U.S., it was its best-ever finish in a FIFA senior tournament.

It was harsh because the Americans seemed to be in control at halftime, disappointing because once again the Americans failed to protect a lead, and deeply troubling because the U.S. coaching staff will be called again into question for a series of substitutions that some fans will feel cost them the match.

As goalscorer Clint Dempsey says, champions don't make excuses. However, I am not Mr. Dempsey, and I will, for once, offer up an excuse for this American side which all too frequently has attempted to explain away otherwise inexplicable performances. This time, the Americans were valiant, and played a great game. But they were undone by the simple fact that Brazil is a better team.

The scoreboard may not lie, but it also overlooks the fact that this American team — in ruins just over a week ago — managed to come together in unexpected, spectacular fashion. This loss must not be allowed to undo that.

Let's also celebrate what the Americans did well. Landon Donovan has been the man of the tournament for the U.S., orchestrating the attack and rebounding on defense at a level few thought possible after his well-publicized flameouts abroad as a youngster. He is clearly the most intuitive player on the field for the Americans, and it is appearing more and more foolish that he is not getting an opportunity to hone his skills abroad.

Dempsey, who scored his third goal in three straight games, is also showing his class after being mired in a deep funk. Endlessly creative, he only lacks a partner up top he can parry with, and it is clear that when he gets service, he can make a huge difference.

Jay DeMerit, Jonathan Spector and Charlie Davies have also come away looking like winners. Davies has been a real force up top, and DeMerit has been so brave and composed that one wonders why he hasn't been a starter all along. Paired with Oguchi Onyewu, he forms the best tandem the U.S. has ever had in the middle of the defense. And Spector, finally healthy, displayed his class tonight with the thankless job of marking Kaka, and a series of defensive moves in emergency.

Still, what was a second-half collapse — and in any other American sport, giving up a two-goal lead would be called that — owed as much to world-level inexperience as to the real gulf in skill.

From the restart, Brazil decided it would do the things it had avoided strenuously in the first half — knocking the ball around, shifting the focus of attack, and playing the possession game which is so difficult to disrupt. Immediately, the U.S. was on the defensive, losing shape and finding no way to break the waves of pressure.

Luis Fabiano's goal in the 46th minute, built off a deadly turn past DeMerit's frantic late lunge, signaled that the Brazilians wanted to compete, but it was the relentless, vicious attacks that signaled that the U.S. would eventually fall.

What happened?

The U.S., which was playing an effective counter-and-shield, was unable to marshal the same force. In the first half, Donovan and Davies were able to collect the ball and spark attacks. That was because DeMerit and Onyewu were compact, and Spector was given room to roam.

That dissolved after the half, with the center-halves being pulled wide, allowing Luis Fabiano and Kaka to combine with Robinho to start piecing apart the gut, forcing Tim Howard to make save after save. Remarkably, Brazil was teeing off on the American goal at a rate of a shot on frame every two minutes. No team can withstand that.

Let's address the subs, which, in hindsight will be parsed and second-guessed ad nauseum. Sacha Kljestan has shown he is not the answer in midfield, as he gave the ball away repeatedly and of the 11, displayed a disconcerting lack of confidence. Who else was there for Bradley to choose?

Jose Francisco Torres and Freddy Adu, of course, but neither of these men had played a minute in the tournament so far, and it's hard to argue that a small, young man who remains on the bench at his club deserves a shot in the biggest game to date.

That said, Adu will be the man fans point to as a man unfairly excluded, and Sunday's display by Kljestan — on the heels of an awful red card against Brazil the first time around — offered no compelling reason for him to be out there. Of course, had Michael Bradley not been shown a questionable red card in the semifinal and been available Sunday, both Kljestan and Adu would have been spectators and none of this would be discussed.

Conor Casey, subbed in late for Ricardo Clark, also showed little this tournament. He was a popular choice given his performance in MLS this season, but he is not fit for this level. Given the chances Taylor Twellman got, he might be one day. But seeing as he didn't even get a sniff at the Gold Cup, one has to feel this was his chance to shine, and he failed to make the most of it.

Last but not least, it's hard to excuse Jonathan Bornstein, if not in this match, then overall. He is not an international back, and he was not a good swap for Benny Feilhaber, who once again displayed a grit and desire at the international level that seems to elude him at his club(s).

Nonetheless, a performance with heart against a great team is no shame. And, for a few precious moments, it looked like the Americans had finally arrived.

To get to the next level, the U.S. is going to have to figure out how to beat these teams. That's going to require lessons in strategy and composure that the current coaching staff might not be able to provide. True, no one would have thought the U.S. would have been here in the first place. Yet, it would be nice to have a team that didn't need columnists to make their excuses for them.

It all comes down to the score, and Sunday, the U.S. fell short. But the Americans fell short with honor and with every reason to believe that — for whatever reason — an 11 may have been found in the ashes of two bitter defeats that began this tournament so poorly.

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