Yesterday’s heartbreaker and, for Clint Dempsey, tearjerker of a loss may wind up being the best thing that could have happened for the US’ hopes in the World Cup next summer. Of course, it would have been wonderful and vastly preferable if they had held on for the upset and not collapsed in the second half. But such a result may have left them a little bit on the cocky side for next summer. The second-half massacre after going in to halftime with a 2-0 lead ought to leave the squad with the confidence that they can play with, and beat, any team in the world, and proved that the victory over Spain was not a fluke, but also will leave them with the knowledge that they still have work to do if they want to be a major force next summer. The simple act of walking into the stands to receive their silver medals will leave them with a taste of glory, at least on a small scale, combined with the hunger that comes from watching in person as a team you thought you had beaten gets to collect the true glory you thought was yours.
The first half of that game was, without a doubt, the best soccer I’ve ever seen by a US team – better, even, than their play a few days before in upsetting Spain. While Brazil certainly had their opportunities in that half, requiring Tim Howard to make a host of truly brilliant saves, the fact is that the US defense in that half was giving Brazil very little room to maneuver – every man was tightly marked, and not an inch of ground was given without a fight. That Howard nonetheless had to make several outstanding saves is more a testament to Brazil’s caliber than it is a knock on the play of the US defense. Meanwhile, I can’t say enough about the offensive performance by the US in that half. Landon Donovan, who I ordinarily think is overrated, was just superb in every way – taking good, hard shots whenever he had the opportunity rather than unselfishly but foolishly trying to find a teammate for the easy finish. The goal he scored was a thing of beauty, probably the best goal I’ve ever seen by the US against a top-flight opponent. It showed vision on the part of both Davies and Donovan, plus passing precision, and terrific patience on Donovan’s part in making sure he was onside to receive the penultimate pass. The finish was calm, clinical, and unstoppable. On top of that, he seemed to be at the center of a number of key defensive plays in that half.
Meanwhile, Dempsey’s goal was no fluke either. At the end of the half, the 2-0 score was well-deserved by the US – they had simply outplayed, outhustled, and outsmarted a more talented team. Obviously, the second half was a different story. The astonishingly quick goal by Fabiano at the start of the half seemed to take the defense by surprise, almost as if they were already thinking about walking into the stands to take their trophy.
At that moment, the entire team appeared to completely lose the composure that had allowed it to collectively beat Spain and Brazil 4-0 through the previous 135 minutes. The interviews afterwards only confirmed that the quick goal by Fabiano may as well have counted for 3 – that seemed to be the only goal the interviewees referenced when they spoke about “what happened.” From that point on, the US defense was so disorganized and the clearance passes so consistently off the mark that Brazil looked to be playing in the vaunted 0-0-11 formation.*
Once the game was tied up a 2, it’s difficult to see how the US was going to stop Brazil’s momentum, but the utter lack of composure guaranteed that there was no chance of regaining the lead. When Coach Bradley took Altidore off, he probably would have been better advised to go a man down rather than replace him with Sacha Kljestan, who seemed to give the ball away everytime he touched it. Somehow, the sub managed to have even less composure than the panicked and tired starters.
This isn’t to take away from the Brazilians, who are obviously the far more talented team. But to come back from a 2-0 deficit at halftime and win in regulation against a good (though not great) opponent is always going to require that the other team play below its capabilities.
I suspect that this is the type of loss that can send favorites into tailspins, but can also turn underdogs into favorites. Here’s hoping.
Finally, for what it’s worth, Donovan absolutely deserved some sort of recognition as one of the top players in the tournament. As well as Dempsey played the last three games, Donovan was nothing short of superb. Hopefully, Donovan’s widely-expected return to the European leagues this fall will succeed in a way that his previous adventures in Germany did not.
*I’m shamelessly stealing this reference from Bill Simmons, who used it when writing about Poland’s dismantling of the US in the 2002 World Cup.