On soccer

US men seek to stay relevant

By John Powers
Globe Staff / June 30, 2009
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They were the guys at the dinner party who couldn’t take a hint. They wore the wrong attire, they used the wrong fork, they spilled the Chateau Margaux all over the damask tablecloth, they tripped over the Duncan Phyfe chair. Their cab had been honking at the curb for an hour. Why were they still here?

And yet the United States men’s soccer team stuck around and around and around all the way to Sunday’s Confederations Cup final in Johannesburg before Brazil finally sent them home. But by then, the Americans already had proven something to themselves, their fans, and the rest of a skeptical world. “We showed we belong,’’ said captain Carlos Bocanegra, after the US forced the Brazilians to come from two goals down to win, 3-2. “We’re not just going to be a pushover in the World Cup when we come down here.’’

The Confederations Cup was a dress rehearsal for next summer’s global dance in South Africa. The top team from every continent was there and each brought its varsity. Merely surviving their preliminary group, which included world champion Italy and Brazil, would have been an extraordinary achievement for the Yanks. Few gave them a chance of beating Spain in the semis, much less of posting a shutout. And nobody figured they’d be up, 2-0, on the Brazilians midway through the final.

Which is why the loss stung so badly. No US team (as in 47-0-1) had lost a match when it had led by two or more goals at halftime. “It still feels pretty lousy to let this one get away,’’ said coach Bob Bradley. The Americans have won enough big ones that they’re no longer comforted by an honorable loss. “We are in the position where we don’t want respect,’’ said Landon Donovan. “We want to win.’’

What now is clear is that The Bradley Bunch can win against the planet’s best if they play up to their abilities. What’s also clear is that they can be three-and-out next summer if they don’t play all 90 minutes with all 11 players. They can’t give up goals in the first seven minutes. They can’t leave rivals unmarked on set pieces. They can’t put shots off the woodwork. They can’t let their defenders get spun like tops. And they can’t have men red-carded in the 33d and 57th minutes, as the Yanks did in their two prelim losses.

That’s how they put themselves at death’s doorstep with a minus-5 goal differential, needing a double miracle to advance. Not only did the US have to beat Egypt by three goals, Brazil had to beat Italy by the same margin. The Italians didn’t give up a goal from the run of play in the entire World Cup three years ago. What were the odds of Donovan & Co. hitting the daily double - 1,000 to 1?

Once they did, they became a most dangerous opponent. Once the Americans get on a roll in a global tournament, as they did in 1994 and 2002, they tend to do some damage. Spain, by contrast, tends to fizzle like a cheap skyrocket, as it did the last two World Cups. The Spanish were undefeated in 35 matches and the US never had mastered them, but Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey rocked them with shots to the jaw and keeper Tim Howard kept Xavi and his amigos off the board.

Who can say what might have happened if the Americans had been able to keep Brazil at bay for another half an hour? A two-goal margin with 15 minutes to play might well have been enough for an astounding triumph.

But once Luis Fabiano got one back as soon as the second half began, the Selecao got into rhythm and turned things its way.

“They have the best team in the world for the last 50 years, because they do the things they did to us today,’’ said Howard, after Lucio headed in the winner off a corner kick in the 84th minute.

Yet the Americans, whose character and heart were questioned after their first two losses, had much to be proud of with their unlikeliest of runs. Much of that was because of Bradley’s calm and resolute demeanor and because their key men, like Donovan, Dempsey, and Howard, answered the challenge.

This US team could make some noise in South Africa next summer. There is, of course, the unfinished chore of qualifying for the Cup. Though the Yanks are all but certain to make it for the sixth straight time, it’s not a gimme. Midway through the final regional round, the US is second behind Costa Rica (the top three earn tickets) and plays three of its next four matches on the road, including Mexico at sky-high Estadio Azteca, where the Americans never have won.

The Bradley Bunch disposed of a few “nevers’’ during the past week or so, enough that none of next year’s favorites crave a meetup with them next summer. There’s something unsettling about a guest who simply doesn’t understand that it’s time to leave.

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