The comeback kids fall victim to a comeback

The U.S. National soccer team came back from the verge of elimination in the Confederations Cup tournament last week with a 3-0 victory over Egypt. Today, though, the Americans were on the receiving end of a comeback in the finals of the tournament when Brazil overcame a 2-0 half-time deficit to win 3-2.

Brazil played into our hands in the first half by deploying Robinho, their world class striker, as essentially a left-winger. That left Luis Fabiano as bascially a lone forward, enabling our two center backs, Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit, to contain him.

By contrast, the U.S. used two forwards, Charlie Davies and Jozy Altidore. In addition, our nominal wingers, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, also took turns in front of the goal, running into the spaces created by the work of Davis and Altidore. In fact, it was Dempsey and Donovan who scored our two goals.

In the second half, Brazil’s manager, Dunga, moved Kaka to the left and paired Fabiano and Robinho in front of the goal. That seemed to make the difference. Fabiano scored Brazil’s first when he got DeMerit in a one-on-one matchup. Fabiano also scored the second by slotting home after Robinho’s strike, from a Kaka cross from the left, came back off the post.

It would have been worse but for the brilliant saves of Everton’s Tim Howard, including one he seemed to make after the ball crossed the goal line, but which the referee thought was a clean save. For his efforts Howard was named best goalkeeper in the tournament, quite an honor when you realize that Spain’s Iker Casillas and Brazil’s Julio Cesar are generally considered the two top keepers in the world.

In addition to realigning his team, Dunga made a key pair of substitutions midway through the second half. A “grinder” himself when he helped lead Brazil to victory in the 1994 World Cup, Dunga favors grinders as a manager, to the frustration of Brazil’s fans who always want their team to play “the beautiful game.” But in the 65th minute, Dunga brought on the flashy Daniel Alves and the skillful Elano. Alves, perhaps the second best right back in the world behind his Brazilian teammate Maicon, was used to bolster the attack on the left-hand side. Elano gave Brazil a second playmaker, along with Kaka.

It was an Elano corner kick that led to the winning goal in the 84th minute. Clint Dempsey was no match for the powerful centerback Lucio, who headed in Elano’s delivery.

Despite the disappointing ending, the U.S. team appeared to make real strides during this tournament, as its final three results (3-0 over Egypt, 2-0 over Spain, and 2-3 against Brazil) attest. And two more players (DeMerit and Davies) have established themselves as reliable performers at the international level. DeMerit impressed me when he played in the Premier League for Watford in 2006-07. Davies, who plays in Sweden, was completely unknown to me until very recently. Both should, at a minimum, add depth to the World Cup squad (assuming we qualify, as looks likely), and Davies could be a star before long.

Let’s not forget too that the American fan base at last got to witness the U.S. team play in the finals of a quality international tournament. For me, it was a case of doubling the pleasure, after seeing Everton in the finals of this year’s FA Cup. Second place isn’t wonderful, but sometimes it can be pretty darn good.

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