Gulf in class still evident between U.S. and Brazil
When the U.S. defeated Brazil 1-0 during the 1998 Gold Cup in Los Angeles, it required spectacular goalkeeping from Kasey Keller and a Preki spark coming off the bench. The Brazilians were greatly impressed with Keller, who made spectacular stops on Romario, and they were sufficiently surprised by Preki's cutback move which produced the only goal of the game. After the match, the Brazilian players were gracious losers but implied it would be a long time before they would lose again to the U.S.
They were right.
In many ways, the U.S. has advanced at the international level since the '90s. There are more dynamic young U.S. players emerging than ever before. But there is still too much reliance on athleticism and running. The overall impression the U.S. leaves is that players do not trust their tactical sense and technical abilities enough, so they compensate by pressuring opponents and playing direct balls, hoping to overpower defenses or catch them by surprise.
This is not a formula for success against top-level competition.
There are a couple of proven ways of having success against Brazil. There is what could be called the European approach, which is not much different than the Argentinian approach, a combination of physicality and tactical defending, with a counterattacking arm. France used this method to perfection in the World Cup last year, though it was especially effective because Brazil was on the verge of self-destruction, anyway. There is also the Mexican approach, in which a team tries to match Brazil's skill. Ghana tried this in the World Cup and, though the Black Stars lost (3-0), they exposed Brazil's weaknesses.
The U.S. confronted Brazil with European-style attitude and tactics in a 4-2 loss in Chicago Sunday. The U.S. seemed primarily concerned with spoiling the Brazilians' fun, to the point where this was almost more important than winning the game. But the Brazilians have enough Europe in them now to adjust. Nearly all the top Brazilian players are performing in Europe and, more importantly, for the first time in Brazil's history, the coach, Dunga, has been truly ingrained with European ways after having played in Germany and Italy.
Dunga seems to be the ultimate pragmatist, favoring substance over style. But Brazil has had coaches like that before. Carlos Alberto Parreira and Luiz Felipe Scolari were able to pull it off because they were flexible; they found room for Romario and Rivaldo. Dunga had Brazil slug it out, successfully, in Copa America, but now that he has Kaká and Ronaldinho, he is allowing room for flights of fantasy.
Though the Brazilians might be becoming more European in their style, Dunga must realize that European clubs import South Americans for their creativity, not for their European-ness. Every country has strong and physical players; Brazil is among the few to combine this with imagination.
The Brazil-Mexico game in Foxborough, Mass., Wednesday will have a much different dynamic than the U.S.-Brazil match. The Mexicans will also try to spoil the Brazilians' fun, but they will have fun trying to do it. Mexican players will try all their tricks, they will dance, they will move the ball with lightning speed, they will knife through Brazil's oversized defenders.
Mexico might not win against this Brazilian team. But the Mexicans do have a 4-1-2 record against Brazil since 1999. It could be a long time before the U.S. can match that.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.