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Run to final bodes well for U.S. World Cup hopes

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Ann Killion
June 30, 2009

No, the Earth did not stop spinning. The universe did not flip inside out. Amazing did not happen.


The United States men’s soccer team lost to Brazil on Sunday in the final of the Confederations Cup in South Africa. That simple description, however, doesn’t quite do the result justice. The Americans lost in stupendously heartbreaking fashion, blowing a 2-0 halftime lead to lose 3-2 against the kings of soccer.


And that’s just fine. Really it is.


Because despite days’ worth of hyperbole about what it would all mean, about whether this was the biggest game in U.S. soccer history, it was nothing even close.


This Confederations Cup was simply a dress rehearsal, a practice run for next summer’s World Cup, when it will really mean something. When it would truly be historic.


Keeping that in mind, the U.S. team had a very nice rehearsal. The Americans acquitted themselves well, rebounding from a horrible start to show heart and ignite optimism about how they will fare next summer in South Africa.


When it actually counts.


“We’re at the point where we don’t want respect, we want to win,” Landon Donovan said.


Well sure, but gaining a little respect isn’t bad heading into the world’s biggest sporting event. The United States didn’t advance out of the first round in the 2006 World Cup, and hasn’t done much to convince anyone it would compete with the world’s elite teams. But in this tournament the American team opened some eyes.


Not that wins don’t matter. The victory over top-ranked Spain was a tremendous milestone for the U.S. program. And in a stunning first half on Sunday, the Americans outplayed Brazil.


But Brazil is still Brazil—about to ascend back to the top spot in the world rankings—and the United States was outclassed in the second half. Worn down from the effort of the first half, the Americans showed they still have a ways to go before defeating Brazil.


The United States isn’t Brazil. It isn’t Spain or Italy. It is a team is finding its way, and the past two weeks have been an enormous learning experience.


So what did we learn?


n That the U.S. team has capable veteran leaders to guide it into the World Cup. Tim Howard was fantastic and won the award as the top goalkeeper of the tournament. But one expects that out of a starter in the English Premier League.


The more encouraging revelation was the play of Clint Dempsey and Donovan, who exhibited heart and artistry. Dempsey finished tied for second in goals scored in the tournament and Donovan showed brilliant speed, great touch and on-field savvy. The golden child of the 2002 run to the World Cup quarterfinals, Donovan was a disappointment four years later in Germany. But now he looks like a true American star.


n That the U.S. team has promising youngsters that will only get improve in the coming year. Forwards Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies exhibited strength and speed that have been missing from the American attack. Altidore, in particular, seemed to visibly improve over the course of the tournament. If the 19-year-old can get more professional playing time, he could develop into a dangerous threat.


n That Coach Bob Bradley has to improve his game. Bradley faced a lot of deserved heat after the early losses to Italy and Brazil, when his team looked timid and ill-equipped. But by Sunday, Bradley had clearly done enough to earn the right to coach the team in the World Cup.


Still, Bradley remains open to criticism. His decision to start DaMarcus Beasley in the first two games was a disaster; Beasley had done little to earn the nod, and he played abysmally. His decision to play Altidore as a lone striker against world powers also was dubious. And Bradley’s second-half substitutions Sunday were questionable, though with his son Michael benched because of a red card Bradley didn’t have a lot of options to spell his tired team.


n That soccer doesn’t need to “arrive” in this country. It already has.


That was another annoying thing about the past week — the constant questions by the old-school media about whether anyone cares about soccer in this country. Wow, so 1994.


ESPN televised all the games of the Confederations Cup. They’re committed to the sport, thanks in part to fabulous ratings for the 2006 World Cup. A quick glance at Twitter (Tim Howard a trending topic, right up there with Michael Jackson and the Iran election) tells you everything you need to know. Yes, Americans care.


And after the run of the past week, Americans now care even more.



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