Thursday, July 2, 2009

U.S. soccer gain respect

The U.S. soccer team made a big splash last week when it snuck into the semifinals of the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa.

After losing 3-1 to Italy and 3-0 to Brazil, the U.S. looked dead in the water, and calls began coming in for the job of coach Bob Bradley. Going into its last game on June 21, the Americans would need a miracle to advance in that they had to beat Egypt by at least three goals and hope Brazil beat Italy by the same margin.

That miracle did, with the U.S.A. and Brazil both winning 3-0, and the Americans found their way into a semifinal match-up on June 25 with top-rated Spain, who were riding a 15-game winning streak and a 35-game unbeaten streak that dated back to the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

The miracle happens again, as the U.S. stunned the Spaniards 2-0 on goals by Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey, prompting headlines in the Spanish media such as "The United States destroys the legend of Spain" in El Mundo.

The difference-maker, however, was goalkeeper Tim Howard. A star with Everton in the English Premier League, Howard stopped 29 shots and what seemed to be a constant possession of the ball by the Spanish to help lead the U.S. into its first ever final in a FIFA tournament against Brazil on Sunday.

Lightning almost struck again as Altidore and Landon Donovan struck during the first half, giving the Americans an unlikely 2-0 lead at halftime. Could it happen? Could the U.S. actually beat the world's best, even if it was a tournament that is somewhat lightly regarded because it was seen more as a warm-up for next year's World cup and a test to see whether South Africa could actually pull off a world-caliber tournament?

Alas, as one reader mentioned in an e-mail to ESPN's Bill Simmons, the barrage of bullets finally struck Tim Howard. Brazil scored its first goal of the game barely two minutes into the second half, deflating any momentum the Americans had. Another Brazilian goal by Luis Fabiano came at the 73rd minute, and the game-winner followers 11 minutes later, sealing the victory and Brazil's third Confederations Cup title.

What does this mean for U.S. soccer? Does this mean the Americans can finally compete on the world stage, like was thought after the 2002 World Cup when the U.S. advanced to the final eight? That elusive tournament title remains out of reach, but if anything, the Americans gained respect.

However, to keep that respect, Bob Bradley and company are going to have to figure out a way to keep possession of the ball a little longer. Brazil kept the ball for most of the game, launching 35 shots at the goal. Eventually, Howard is going to crack, and he finally did in the final. Most winning teams, no matter the sport, tend to hang on to the ball. F.C. Barcelona, for example, tends to have possession of the ball for anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of the time, and that had to have helped them win the UEFA Champions League, Spanish League and Spanish Copa del Rey titles this past year.

Simply put, you can't score without the ball, and you can't win unless you score. It doesn't get much simpler than that, and Bradley and company will have to figure out how to solve that problems if they expect to first qualify for next summer's World Cup back in South Africa, and advance far, even possibly, miracle of miracles, winning that elusive trophy and stunning the world once again.

Copyright 2009 - Wait Til Next Century.

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