Confederations Cup Gives US Hope
By Paul Oberjuerge
Maybe South Africa 2010 could include some good times for the United States national soccer team, after all.
Anyone who is a fan of American soccer has to be feeling far better about the team and its chances after a whirlwind eight days that included a 3-0 rout of African champion Egypt, a 2-0 upset of European champion (and world No. 1-ranked) Spain and a tough, 3-2 loss to South American champion (and five-time World Cup titlist) Brazil in which the U.S. led 2-0 at halftime in the championship match of the Confederations Cup.
Suddenly, the malaise that the national team seemed to be mired in has dissipated, and broad, sunlit uplands of potential success beckon in the near distance.
The U.S. can score, behind Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davis.
The U.S. can defend, with Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit in the middle and Carlos Bocanegra and Jonathan Spector on the wings.
The U.S. can hold the ball, at least a little, even against elite teams, in the middle of the field, with Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark.
The sense of doom and gloom that seemed to be weighing down the national team, that began with a 3-1 World Cup qualifing drubbing at Costa Rica early in June, persisted through a lucky (if ugly) 2-1 qualifier victory over Honduras in Chicago, and seemed ready to choke all life out of the squad after a 3-1 loss to Italy and a 3-0 beating at the hands of Brazil in Confederations Cup group play ... is gone.
There is hope again for U.S. soccer, perhaps for the first time since the 2002 World Cup.
There was plenty of optimism on Sunday, when an exquisite goal by Dempsey and an athletic goal by Donovan gave the U.S. a 2-0 lead over Brazil in the final at Johannesburg. It was a score nearly as shocking as the 2-0 final over Spain.
However, Brazil is mentally tougher than Spain, and more confident (and for good reason), and its collection of international club stars came forward again and again until they broke up, from sheer exhaustion, the eight-man U.S. defense-in-depth, scoring twice in the final 20 minutes to take away a victory.
U.S. players were devastated. Dempsey wept openly, even after scoring his third goal in three matches. The players glumly accepted their second-place medals from Sepp Blatter, behind Bocanegra, their grim-faced captain.
But the Americans ultimately benefitted greatly from their nearly three weeks in South Africa.
They had a nice long stay and now know what the World Cup will feel like. The rhythms of South Africa, and the accommodations and the stadiums. Experience they couldn't buy.
They got four matches against elite opposition -- Brazil twice, Italy and Spain. It doesn't get tougher than that, and competition against the best can only make a team stronger -- if it doesn't collapse, and this one didn't.
They seemed beaten down after two defeats, but they collectively rediscovered the spirit that enabled them to defeat Egypt and Spain, tapping into the reservoir of grit and work-rate that American soccer is known for internationally.
And they scared Brazil to the point that its players celebrated their Cup victory like men who had escaped the gallows.
Next up is the Gold Cup, a monthlong event, the championship tournament of the region. The top dozen Americans (Altidore, Bocanegra, Bornstein, Bradley, DeMerit, Dempsey, Donovan, Feilhaber, Guzan, Howard, Onyewu, Spector) won't play on that team, but it could prove beneficial for developing the sort of depth the Confederations Cup team didn't have.
Look for lots of Gold Cup minutes for guys who never got off the bench in South Africa -- Freddy Adu, Luis Robles, Heath Pearce -- as well as players who didn't make the Confederations Cup trip -- Michael Parkhurst, Ching, Cherundolo, Jimmy Conrad, Chad Marshall.
Despite three defeats in five matches, the U.S. is in a much better place now than it was two weeks ago. Even if the occasional stumble is still coming up in World Cup qualifying (Mexico, in Mexico City on Aug. 12, for instance), the Americans have proven they can hang with some powerful sides. And they might even begin moving their ranking far enough north to avoid being only the "third best" team in their World Cup group, when the draw is done in December.
At the 2010 World Cup, the U.S. will not, rest assured, be in a group as tough as Brazil, Italy and Egypt. If the Americans can continue to play well, they could be in one much easier, one that gives them -- and their fans -- realistic hope that the team could survive group play. The idea of that possibility seems positively delicious, considering where U.S. soccer just a few weeks ago.
Paul Oberjuerge writes about soccer for the NY Times soccer blog Goal. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org