A solid punch to the gut. That’s what Brazil’s thrilling come from behind win was to the US Men’s National team on Sunday. The US had the opportunity to win its first FIFA tournament ever, jumping out to a stunning 2-0 lead by the 27th minute, and then finally succumbing to a second half onslaught by the talented Brazilians, who demonstrated why they are one of the best international clubs in the world. The US played a terrific game, but as the first half came to a close it became clear that it was going to be difficult for the US to hold their unlikely lead over the Brazilians. The US began to allow the Brazilians more and more possession, gathering fewer and fewer counter attacks for themselves, while bunkering down in the defensive third hoping to withstand a Brazilian rally.

Ultimately there were two turning points in the match. The first was conceding an early goal in the 46th minute. Brazilian striker Luis Fabiano shot was terrific, and a bit lucky, barely sneaking under the outstretched leg of US defender Jay DeMerit. DeMerit’s defense was adequate, but Fabiano’s turn and release was lightening quick and GK Tim Howard stood no chance of making the save. Had the US been able to hold off the Brazilians until the 70th minute or so, the Brazilians would have likely started to press, increasing the chances that it would be the US holding the golden trophy at the end of the day. As it was, the goal ignited Brazil’s rally, shook the US’ confidence, and effectively ended any hopes of a US victory.

The second turning point came before the match even began. The suspension of Michael Bradley for a dubious ejection by referee Jorge Larriondo (name sound familiar? Yep, he’s the same referee who sent off Pablo Maestroeni and Eddie Pope in the 2006 World Cup match against Italy) revealed the frightening lack of depth on the US bench. Bradley’s absence meant that Coach Bob Bradley had to start Benny Feilhaber, who had proven to be an effective substitute off the bench in the tournament. Since Coach Bradley has shown no confidence in either Freddy Adu or Jose Francisco Torres (why were they even on the roster if you refuse to use them), Bradley’s only options off the bench in the midfield were the unreliable Sasha Kleijstan, who was ejected against Brazil previously, DaMarcus Beasley (thank you, Coach Bradley, for keeping him on the bench), and Jonathan Bornstein. Brazilian Coach Dunga’s substitutions were effective and immediately made Brazil better, while Coach Bradley’s substitions actually weakened the struggling US side.  One of the main reasons Brazil won this match is not only that they were tactically a better team, but is because the talent on their roster is superior to the US side. The US had no one on their bench to counter Brazil’s super-subs.

In spite of the loss there are a lot of positives for the US to build on from this tournament:

  • The striker tandem of Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies was effective. Both need to improve, but both are young and good pieces to build around. Throw Clint Dempsey in the mix up top late in matches and you have a developing, but potentially lethal attack in the future.
  • The emergence of Charlie Davies means the US can effectively run a 4-4-2 rather than their typical 4-5-1. This should make the US more of a threat offensively.
  • Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber and Ricardo Clark all performed well, Clark’s reckless challenge against Italy notwithstanding. Throw Jermaine Jones into the mix this October and the US has the makings of a formidable, young central midfield.
  • Jonathan Spector solidified the RB position. Overall his play this tournament was very good, and the two balls he fed to Dempsey were nothing less than world-class.
  • Landon Donovan finally stepped up and played big when it counted. All that Donovan contributed to this team won’t show up in the state sheet, but Donovan played aggressively throughout this tournament on both the attacking and defensive halves of the field. If this is the Donovan we will continue to see in World Cup qualifying I look for the US to run the table from here on out as long as we field a full squad.
  • Jay DeMerit’s play gives us flexibility on the back line. He can either allow Bocanegra to play LB, or he can effectively relieve either Bocanegra or Onyewu as a central defender. Steve Cherundolo’s return could make things interesting, but better, on the back line.
  • Tim Howard showed himself to be a world-classs keeper against both Spain and Brazil. And Brad Guzan did very well against Egypt. No worries in goal for the US.

This tournament also revealed that there are several players who should have either played themselves off the team for the foreseeable future, or who should be replaced in the future even though they didn’t play in South Africa.

  • Hopefully we have seen the last of Damarcus Beasley until he fully recovers from his injuries, gets fit, and regains the elusive speed that made him so effective as a lef winger. He is a very pedestrian player right now.
  • Conor Casey shouldn’t get called up again ever. Period. I have no idea why he played in every match. I really can’t figure out why Bradley didn’t substitute anyone up top other than Casey against Brazil. He puts no pressure on the ball and is slow. When trying to counter-attack one of the best football teams in the world, you don’t put someone with very little ability to beat anyone off the dribble up top.
  • Where Jose Francisco Torres and Freddy Adu stand with the Senior National Team is anybody’s guess. Neither saw any action in this tournament, and only Adu will be playing in the Gold Cup (Torres has obligations with his club in Mexico). I suspect that the Gold Cup team will be Adu’s last chance to show he deserves a roster spot. I think Torres is probably safe because he can provide depth in the midfield, but I remain baffled as to why were never saw him, especially when choosing between Torres and Kleijstan. Maybe there is an unpublished injury, but this is one personnel move that I think hurt the US in this tournament. We need holding midfielders with touch and vision. When both Kleijstan and Clark are on the field, we have neither.
  • Danny Califf can probably kiss his spot on the World Cup roster good-bye. The play of Spector and Jonathan Bornstein, plus DeMerit, Onyewu, Bocanegra, and the return of both Steve Cherundolo and Frankie Hejduk probably mean that Califf won’t get another shot until qualifying begins for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

While it isn’t a certainty yet that the US will advance to South Africa, it appears likely they will qualify. Their next match is in August at Azteca Stadium in Mexico. The US’ play against Egypt, Spain and Brazil has given this team confidence it was sorely lacking in qualifying in recent matches versus El Salvador, Costa Rica and Honduras. But if the US goes into Mexico with the same swagger it brought to their last three matches they will walk out of Azteca Stadium with their first win their ever, and will effectively put their bitter rivals on the brink of  elimination from qualifying for the 2010 Cup.

Heading into the World Cup I think the following players have earned roster spots for South Africa:

GK: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan

DEFENDERS: Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit, Jonathan Spector, Jonathan Bornstein, Steve Cherundolo

MIDFIELDERS: Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan, Ricardo Clark, Benny Feilhaber, Jose Francisco Torres, Jermaine Jones

FOWARDS: Jozy Altidore, Brian Ching, Charlie Davies, Clint Dempsey

There are a lot of players who have appeared for the US team recently on the fence including: Freddy Adu, Frankie Hejduk, Pablo Maestroeni, Heath Pearce, Sasha Kleijstan, Danny Califf, Conor Casey, Kenny Cooper, Eddie Johnson, Damarcus Beasley

It is my hope that this tournament serves as the turning point for US soccer. A tournament that started as a disaster for the US has the potential to become a defining moment in US soccer history. It will be interesting to see how the experience in South Africa matures this young US squad. Though today’s loss was bitter, there is a lot to build on. And it is good that the US team has finally gotten past the point of wanting to earn respect. As Landon Donovan said after the loss, “We are past the point of just wanting respect, we want to win.” If the US can hold onto that hunger, this team will be okay heading into South Africa in less than a year.