USA shows it can compete

Published 11:27 pm Monday, June 29, 2009


AP Sports Writer

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The United States should remember the 2009 Confederations Cup as the first time it truly showed it was capable of competing with football’s elite teams.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

After stunning European champion Spain 2-0 in the semifinals, the Americans’ were in a position to do the same to five-time World Cup champion Brazil in the final, only to throw away a two-goal lead to lose 3-2.

“We’ve shown we can play with these teams. Sometimes that shows for a lot, like in the semifinals, and sometimes that counts for little, like tonight,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said after the loss to Brazil on Sunday in the first FIFA final at any level for the American men.

“We can compete, we fight, we can score goals, we defend really well. We just need to start getting the small, little things right. If you look at Brazil, Italy, Spain, they got 11 guys who do a lot of the little things right for 90 minutes, and that creates a heck of a problem. We need to get better at that.”

Fortunately for the Americans, time is on their side. The U.S. was the youngest team at this tournament, with an average age of just under 25.

The United States is second in its World Cup qualifying group, with the top three teams qualifying directly for next year’s tournament back here in South Africa. It would be the sixth consecutive time the Americans have qualified for the World Cup finals — highlighted by their quarterfinal appearance in 2002.

“I hope we do well for the next five or 10 years. We have a young team,” said Howard, at 30 one of the squad’s veterans.

The team’s growth was evident even within this tournament. After opening with losses to World Cup holder Italy and Brazil — both times ending with 10 men — the U.S. squeaked through to the semifinals with a 3-0 win over Egypt in its final group game.

The semifinal win over top-ranked Spain will go down as one of the Americans’ greatest victories. Jozy Altidore, a 19-year-old forward with enormous potential, used his immense physical strength to score the opening goal and Clint Dempsey sealed the victory.

Combined with the emerging Charlie Davies and the talented Landon Donovan — at 27 still with many solid years ahead of him — the Americans showed a poise in attack that it has lacked for years.

The absence in the final of midfielder Michael Bradley, the coach’s son who picked up a red card in the final minutes against Spain, was felt heavily in the second half against Brazil.

Perhaps the strongest area for the Americans was in defense. When captain Carlos Bocanegra missed the entire group stage with a minor injury, Jay DeMerit filled in alongside the team’s top stopper Oguchi Onyewu, and Bocanegra showed his versatility by moving to left back for the final two games.

“We opened a lot of eyes, and the fact that we just came to the finals, I think we gained a lot of respect in the world with our performance,” Onyewu said.

Howard outplayed Spain counterpart Iker Casillas for 90 minutes and Brazil’s Julio Cesar for a half in the final, earning him the tournament’s best goalkeeper award.

“It’s been a great experience for our team. In the same tournament, to play the teams that we played and move on to the final,” coach Bob Bradley said. “I think people around the world see that we have a good team, we have good players. Hopefully we can continue to step forward.”

While most of the squad will be different, the U.S. can continue its march when it aims for a third consecutive Gold Cup title beginning July 4 against Grenada in Seattle.