U.S. team rides newfound confidence into Sunday's final
SANDTON, South Africa -- The Confederations Cup already provides proof that the U.S. team can deal with catcalls. Now, the team will test its ability to handle curtain calls.
After a historic 2-0 semifinal victory over No. 1-ranked Spain, a win as convincing as it was surprising, the Americans face yet another heavyweight, Brazil, in Sunday's final. The Confederations Cup is the United States' first opportunity in history to win a major international championship.
"This is what the players and everyone dreams about: getting to play Brazil in a final," said U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. "It's a dream come true." While the Americans, who just a week ago inspired angry rants on Internet message boards following losses to Italy and Brazil, are definitely happy to be here, they don't sound satisfied.
"We've showed we can play with the big boys, and we can beat them," said U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra, a defensive linchpin in the win over Spain. "Now we have to show that we can do it on a consistent basis."
One thing is almost certain: The U.S. won't play as timidly as it did in its first meeting with Brazil in the tournament, when the Selecao administered a 3-0 thrashing in group play on June 18.
The team and its coach sound confident and loose. Sitting before assembled reporters at a news conference in suburban Johannesburg on Friday, head coach Bob Bradley demanded to switch seats with Bocanegra. "Put Carlos on the left," Bradley said. It was a reference to Bocanegra's move from center back to left back in the Spain match, a lineup change that helped the U.S. to a clean sheet against the prolific Spanish offense.
When mistakenly asked by a reporter whether the U.S. was capable of a miracle Saturday, Bradley paused, then responded, "I've gotta have my days straight, but a miracle that's useful has gotta be on Sunday." He said he'd seen miracles in training before. "I've learned it doesn't mean shiznit," he said.
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That's right. The clinical, analytical, keep-things-on-the-inside Bradley said "shiznit." Fo' shizzle. "I had no idea he even knew that word," Bocanegra said.
So the Americans sound ready to play as if they have nothing to lose. That would be a far cry from the first meeting, when the U.S., bruised by a questionable red card that led to a 3-1 loss to Italy, was bloodied by the relentless Brazilian attack. Brazil put the Yanks on the defensive immediately, drawing two early fouls, one of which, by Michael Bradley on Ramires, led to a seventh-minute Felipe Melo goal that set the tone.
Bradley noted that both those fouls were, at best, questionable, including the second one that led to the goal. "If you look, Ramires' feet got caught, and he fell over his own feet," Bradley said. "But as a team, we still felt we started that game tentatively. What it allowed was them to be in our end." And that in turn allowed the Brazilians to be in position to draw foul calls.
Expect the U.S. to attack more Sunday, much as it did against Egypt in a 3-0 victory that earned the semifinal berth, and three days later against Spain. The U.S. used its speed to short-circuit the elegant Spanish wiring.
Picking their moments, Charlie Davies, Jozy Altidore and Landon Donovan ran right at Spain, putting the Spaniards on their heels and throwing their midfield off rhythm. Whether the U.S. will be able to do the same to Brazil and its big, talented lineup remains to be seen. But in a surprisingly close 1-0 semifinal loss to the Brazilians, South Africa launched several swift runs and created scoring chances.
"The first time we played Brazil, we almost gave them too much respect," Bocanegra said. "We have to come out with a lot of energy, which is one of the strengths of our team -- our work rate. We can't just sit back." Of course, no strategy can guarantee a victory against the talented Brazilians, who have dominated the tournament. While this group, led by Kaka and Robinho, displays the vaunted offensive flair of teams past, it also is brutally efficient on set pieces. Brazil advanced to the final on the strength of a perfect free kick from Daniel Alves in the 87th minute against South Africa.
The U.S. faces another obstacle. A red card issued late in the Spain match will keep midfielder Michael Bradley out of the final. Bob Bradley is likely to replace his son with Benny Feilhaber, who came on in the final 20 minutes against Spain and set up Clint Dempsey's 74th-minute goal with a scintillating run through the middle of the Spanish defense. Feilhaber played alongside Ricardo Clark in the U.S. World Cup qualifier victory over Honduras. "We have a few candidates," Bradley said. "The lead candidate is Benny."
The Yanks are once again a decided underdog, but they've made it this far, which nobody expected, especially not the fans calling for Bradley's firing just one short week ago. And they're acting like this is all part of a plan.
After the Spain victory, the coach was asked what the U.S. could take from it. "There are so many countries in soccer that want to get to the top, but there's no way to skip steps," he said. "You learn at each step." Sunday against Brazil, the Yanks will try to take another step, and learn the next lesson: how to perform an encore.
Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Mag.