Sunday, June 28, 2009

Confederations Cup Final

The heartbreaking Confederations Cup final, in which the tenacious but ultimately over-matched USA team went down 3-2 in the 84th minute to a fantastic Brazil side, made me realize that America has actually become a footballing nation. The collective anguish of hardcore football fans and bandwagoneers alike put us in an elite group of disappointed bridesmaid nations who get close but fail to lift silverware: the Portuguese of Figo's golden generation; the Spaniards who, prior to Euro 2008, were legendary big-game choke artists; and, frankly, the English, who've consistently underachieved on the big stage since 1966. Great.

We also join that short list of "teams who lost to Brazil in a final": Argentina (4-1) and Australia (6-0) in the Confederations Cup; Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Germany and Italy (twice) in the World Cup.

What a match -- and what a great advertisement for international football and next year's World Cup. The USA came to play, and after absorbing a few minutes of pressure, found some space on the right wing for Specter to launch a Beckham-worthy cross into the box, which Dempsey nudged into the net at the far post. It was a perfect start for the USA, up 1-0 after ten minutes. Fifteen minutes later, again under a lot of Brazilian pressure, Ricardo Clark pounced on a lazy pass around the American eighteen yard box and played an incredible through ball to a breaking Donovan, who played an equally perfect ball to Davies on the left, got it back and calmly beat the last defender and then the keeper for 2-0. And that was the halftime score.

The USA succeeded with a high-energy attack and aggressive defending. Again, they completely conceded the right wing to Maicon, as they did with Sergio Ramos in the Spain match, but that spacing hurt them much worse in this match. Fabiano's first goal was a great turn from a combination on the wide-open right side just 46 seconds into the second half. That Brazil goal, scored so quickly after a halftime where Bradley surely told his team to hang on for as long as possible, pulled the thread that unravelled the USA's dream start.

Specter actually did a decent job in the first half controlling Robinho, but in the second half Dunga made some tactical changes on the left, where Kaka abused Specter to create the second goal. By the 75th minute, the USA looked completely wiped and Kaka was rampant. Lucio won it with his late header, but Brazil had a half-dozen other opportunities turned away, and Kaka probably scored a goal that was not allowed, as well.

Brazil's comeback was both predictable and excruciating. It wasn't total dominance -- the USA had some good chances in the second half, including two nice strikes by Donovan and Dempsey around the 65th minute, two good but fruitless runs by Davies, and a couple of decent set pieces. But Bradley's second half plan was lame. He was slow to react to Dunga's changes, he made poor substitutions that were poorly timed, and he relied too much on deep defending and goalkeeping. His luck ran out.

The top USA players -- Howard, Dempsey, Donovan, Onyewu -- proved that they are legitimate international talents. The FIFA technical team named Dempsey the 3rd best player in the tournament, and Howard won the best keeper honors. On the other hand, DeMeritt, Bocanegra and Specter looked ordinary in the final. Altidore was utterly missing in action. Davies showed his inexperience. There was no depth in the squad, particularly with Bradley junior out of the final on a red card.

It's pathetic to point to the USA's brave and skillful performance in the final and say they won the first half, and won honor by improving from the previous 3-0 humiliation at Brazil's hands in the group stage. As Donovan aptly put it post-match, the USA doesn't need respect, they need to win big games when they get the chance.

It's equally pathetic to chalk a collapse in a winnable final up to experience, but I can't help but think that this was great learning for the team and coach. Four out of five matches against teams ranked in the FIFA top 5 (Italy, Spain, and Brazil twice), the fifth against the African champions in Africa. Including World Cup qualifiers, they had to play 7 matches in 25 days. If they can go to the nightmare of Azteca Stadium in August and get a draw or win against Mexico on the road, we'll see if this was truly transformative.

The good news is that the USA has a lot to build on. They were the youngest team in the Confederations Cup, with an average age of just 25.

The other good news is that we are certainly in for some great entertainment in next year's World Cup. The European powerhouses will be vulnerable, because they always struggle outside Europe (as we saw with Spain and Italy in this tournament). The Egypt and Spain wins, and the positive performance in the final against Brazil, will put the USA in good standing with FIFA for the all-important World Cup draw in December. Our crap seeding in 2006 got us drawn into a death group with Italy, the Czech Republic and an excellent Ghana. In 1998 we got Germany, Yugoslavia and Iran. We need a seeding where we are not the 3rd or 4th best team in the group.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

USA in Confederations Cup Final

There's absolutely no way to make rational sense of it. The US men's national football team, who looked so pathetic and shambolic in their first two matches of the FIFA Confederations Cup, will play the final Sunday against either Brazil or South Africa after handily defeating Spain in the semi, 2-0. Spain, as in the Euro 2008 champions, FIFA's #1 ranked team in the world.

For those unfamiliar, the Confederations Cup brings together the national teams that win each of the six FIFA regional championships (Spain for Europe, USA for N. America, Brazil for S. America, Egypt for Africa, Iraq for Asia and New Zealand for Oceana) plus the defending World Cup champion (Italy) and the host of the next World Cup (South Africa). With the exception of Iraq and New Zealand, those are all good teams.
The Confederations Cup is clearly not the World Cup; it's more like a super-charged friendly tournament, and primarily functions as a tune up for next year's World Cup. Teams get to play in the same stadiums, stay in the same hotels, deal with the travel. So all the participating countries bring their best players, to get them accustomed to the conditions they will experience next June in the big show.
The USA was drawn into the group of death, with Italy, Brazil, and a very good Egypt team. Meanwhile, Spain got an easy draw, with an lucky-to-be-there Iraq, a New Zealand team that probably won't make the World Cup, and the mediocre host South Africans. Spain predictably cruised through the group stage, winning all three matches by a combined 8-0.
The group of death lived up to its name. The USA played Italy pretty close for 45 minutes, but struggling for 65 minutes with 10 men after a harsh red card ultimately wore them down and they gave up 3 late goals, losing 3-1. Meanwhile, Brazil only barely edged Egypt 4-3 on a questionable late call. In the next round, Brazil obliterated the USA 3-0. As my friend Ben Jones wrote me, "They look like boys amongst men." But in the other match, a tough Egypt scratched out a clutch 1-0 win over Italy, which set the stage for the insane third round in the groups.
The USA started the day dead last in the group, with zero points, a single goal for, and a -5 goal difference. They needed a 7 goal difference reversal vis-a-vis Italy and a win over Egypt, or a 6 goal reversal and more goals scored than Italy. I don't know what the betting odds were in London for that result, but it had to be 1,000-1. Yet that's precisely what happened.
The USA looked inspired against a fatigued Egypt, winning 3-0. And Brazil improbably defeated Italy by the same score. It was a nail-biter through injury time in both matches, as a consolation goal by either Italy or Egypt would have sent the USA packing. But the results held and the USA went through to the semi's. To face Spain. By any argument, the best team in the world at the moment.
And so, when the USA took the field today for the national anthems, you could have excused them for feeling more than a little lucky to be on the field, and looking only for a little experience against a great opponent before settling for certain defeat and the consolation game against South Africa. After all, a Brazil-Spain final seemed inevitable given the USA's earlier run of form.
Much to everyone's surprise, it turned out to be a fabulous game. The USA came out with confidence and really pressured the Spaniards in the first ten minutes. Davies had a bicycle kick off a Dempsey cross go wide left, and then Dempsey himself went just wide a few minutes later. The USA gave Spanish defender Sergio Ramos a ton of space to run up the Spanish right wing, and when he did so, the American's used their pace to counter-attack, often catching Spain with only three defenders.
Spain had chances, but the USA back four of Specter, DeMerit, Onyewu and Bocanegra, where huge. In the 27th minute, and not really against the run of play, Dempsey chipped a clever ball from the left wing to Altidore at the top of the box, who muscled an over-committed Capdevila, turned, and fired a rocket off the hand of Casillas, which deflected in off the post for 1-0.
The last 15 minutes of the first half and the first 15 minutes of the second were all Spain. The USA back four did what they could, but it came down to a heroic effort by Tim Howard, the USA keeper, who had, by my count, 6 great saves during that spell. Then, with about 20 minutes to go, the USA got a few good minutes of possession, and put a nice little sequence together when Feilhaber made a skillful run at the Spanish defense, played a nice ball out to Donovan on the right wing, who sent a dangerous cross square across the box. Sergio Ramos thought he had time for a touch before clearing the ball, but Dempsey pounced on his error and curled a low shot past Casillas for 2-0. Bradley got sent off on an idiotic straight red card a few minutes from time, but the 10-man USA held on for a famous win.
Why did Spain lose? For one, they simply had a bad day. They just didn't play up to their Euro 2008 potential, and were particularly weak passing in the attacking half of midfield, where they are generally so dominant. Part of it was the lack of quality of their group stage opponents, too. While the USA had a trial by fire against the likes of Brazil and Italy, Spain had no world-class teams to deal with during their group stage, so they were a bit rusty.
But credit the USA -- they really gutted it out and, as I said, had a great tactical plan. Old-fashioned American hustle. Played tenacious defense, got big-game goalkeeping (always an American characteristic), and took their chances despite being out-shot 29-9. The USA had only two shots on goal, and finished them both.
It was a thrilling match for fans of USA football. Can the USA win the whole enchilada? After this game, who can say?